St' />
Strange Meetings: The Poets of the Great War by Harry Ricketts
Chatto & Windus $59.99

Harry Ricketts, who teaches English at Victoria University, takes his title from what is probably the best English poem of World War I, Wilfred Owen's Strange Meeting, written shortly before he was killed in France in 1918. The poem describes an hallucinatory meeting in hell between the speaker and the man he had bayoneted the day before: "I am the enemy you killed, my friend."

There is a vast literature of World War I and, within it, an extensive literature devoted to the poetry of that ghastly conflict, a conflict which killed many of the best English poets of Owen's generation: Rupert Brooke, Edward Thomas, Charles Sorley, Isaac Rosenberg. Ricketts deals not just with the dead poets but also with the survivors: Siegfried Sassoon, Vera Brittain, Robert Graves, Ivor Gurney, Robert Nichols, David Jones, Edmund Blunden. The book is a kind of collective biography of these war poets, tracing not just their lives and deaths, but also their poetry, careers and reputations.

The most novel and interesting feature of the book is that Ricketts conceives it as a series of "strange meetings" between the writers, some of which are based on well-documented encounters, as when the shell-shocked Owen and Sassoon, who had suffered a nervous breakdown, spent several weeks at the Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, where they became friends.

Other "meetings" took place only in the mind of the author, as when one chapter begins: "Isaac Rosenberg and Robert Nichols never met in person, yet in September 1917 they had an unlikely meeting of a kind." This turns out to be within the pages of a book. Both were included in Georgian Poetry 1916-1917, edited by Eddie Marsh, who acted as a patron to them both.

If this sounds a little cute, it works in practice, as the chapter explores the striking contrasts between the working class Jew, Rosenberg, who died unknown but was later recognised with Owen and Thomas as the best of the war poets, and the socially privileged Nichols who was feted as the successor to Rupert Brooke, the celebrity author of the famous sonnet, The Soldier, who sealed his fame by indeed dying, not in battle but of illness, early in the war. After the war, Nichols' star progressively faded.

This offers plenty of interest for the general reader as well as the literary specialist. In the words of Ricketts' epilogue: "They showed us war as adventure, as horror, as suffering, as squalor. Their poems did not prevent future wars but they changed forever the way in which war could be thought about and written about."

- Peter Simpson is an Auckland reviewer.