Revisiting authenticity with Wilfred Owen

This week I’ve been reading the poetry of Wilfred Owen, and caught myself re-thinking what I’ve said about authenticity in poetry on this site. Owen was an englishman remembered as one of the greatest war poets of the first world war. The main body of his work was produced between 1917, when he was first sent to the western front, and 1918, when he was killed in action. According to the forward, Owen develops so suddenly from an amateur to a respectable poet that it seems almost miraculous.

I’ve barely read past his amateur phase, and while reading these poems I was reminded of my readings of Kaur and Henson. There is a definite distinction between poetry about war and war poetry — one can only be written by an acting soldier. The authenticity of the writer’s experiences is here absolutely paramount. If a man living in peace had written these poems, they would lose almost all of their power. Compare these two:

Legs rotting into black pudding underneath
the slushing river of frozen mud,
tired of the constant drumming of the shells,
he pounced luminescent into the sky
and his perfect musculature was punctured
by seven bullets in pre-arranged array
lit up the sections of his soul, and raised
from the hiding-place of corpses
transformed. Even God seems to crack a smile
in the void, suffocated by the industry of war.

whether his deeper sleep lie shaded by the shaking
of great wings, and the thoughts that hung the stars,
high pillowed on calm pillows of God’s making
above these clouds, these rains, these sleets of lead,
and these winds’ scimitars;
— or whether yet his thin and sodden head
confuses more and more with the low mould,
his hair being one with the grey grass
and finished fields of autumns that are old…
who knows? who hopes? who troubles? Let it pass!
he sleeps. He sleeps less tremulous, less cold
than we who must awake, and waking say: alas!

The experiences of war are so brutal, so extreme, that no description is entirely believable. But I would say anyone reading this can probably tell which of these sections of poems was written by a soldier and which was not. My poem tries to describe how the horrors of a soldier’s life allow him to be transformed into the story of a soldier, one of the modern age’s most lasting and beautiful stories. I tried to write this to make the point that we no longer have such opportunities, that life in modern america is so comfortable we are incapable of living lives that accord to some grand meaning.

Owens’ poem is more questioning and yet more immediate. Seeing in death a return to nature, and in some sense a rest, he turns his grieving outwards towards those who are still alive. He doesn’t pity the soldier who died, he sees the entire structure of fate around the soldier and finds the entire enterprise pitiful. The stars are hung, weather is described as weaponry, and God sits above it all, inscrutable. For him posterity is not a question; he has in a sense accepted that what will remain of him is what remains of the dead man he describes, and so his poem is a question about what it means to survive.

I think trying to write about war from my position is at best patronizing and at worst insulting, but rather than accept it as an impossibility I think it is a worthwhile challenge to tackle. There’s a good chance that I’ll write twenty pages worth of poetry about being a soldier, it will all be terrible, and I’ll throw it all out. It would be a huge waste of time except that, afterwards, I will be a much better poet.

But does fighting in the great war automatically give value to Owen’s poems? I want to say that it does but I can tell at the same time that he has a mind for poetry and a love of poetry, and I can see his technique develop in great strides poem by poem. He isn’t just trying to express himself and pass on what is happening, he’s simultaneously trying to improve and to grow as a writer, so much so that in poems such as A Terre his descriptions of soldiers seem to dip almost into cliche, into inauthenticity.

There’s a pervasive assumption in our society that to understand a point of view you must hold it yourself. Only women can truly understand women’s issues, and only a racial minority can understand what it’s like to be a racial minority, and only a soldier can know what it’s like to be a soldier. I find that this is true only of the most extraordinary circumstances. What Owen went through was certainly extraordinary — but Kaur and Henson, what did they go through that’s so difficult to understand?

I’d like to use myself as an example. As far as I can tell, even the most intelligent people I know can’t comprehend what it’s like to have depression. Unlike being a man, or being overweight, or losing your father, there is a barrier in this experience that rational thought can’t quite break through.

Most people can understand that you’re unhappy, that you have no energy, basic descriptions of symptoms. What nobody can understand is what it feels like when you are trying to be mad at someone who hurt you when you haven’t felt anything in the last year, or how different rest and relaxation feels when you are forced to fill empty hours, when there is literally nothing in the world that brings you any amount of pleasure. Nobody knows what it feels like when numbness and despondancy has festered in you without reprieve for 500 days in a row just because they felt it for two weeks or so once.

So I think authenticity only really becomes important when we’re talking about the extremes of our experiences. If what you’re writing isn’t very interesting to begin with, whether it’s authentic or not won’t matter to anybody, but the opposite isn’t true. If what you’re writing about is important and interesting, a problem of authenticity makes any fault in the writing easier to see.

The problem comes in when the reason to read someone’s work boils down to only the authenticity of their experience. These fill the best-seller lists, they represent some of our most popular television shows, movies, books, podcasts, etc etc etc — but this selling point is direct proof that these products aren’t worth consuming. If the best you can say about a work is that it’s authentic, then that work can almost always be dismissed as middling.

Authentic is one of a thousand descriptors advertisers are forced to give products that don’t actually stand out. It’s like when a container says “better” or “more” all over it, but no indication of what it’s better than or what there’s more of. People who aren’t very critical see it on the label, recognize that it’s true, and if they’re asked what they like about a product they’ll probably just parrot what the label said. My point of view is just that you shouldn’t take recommendations from uncritical people.

I don’t want to harp on about this, really, but it’s important for as long as book reviews laud sub-par authors for reasons that, as a reader, are completely alien to me. I’m also a chef, right? So as an analogue, let me ask you this: If you asked a friend about a restaurant and, of all the ways they could describe the food, they decided to call it “authentic,” would you want to eat there? When you hear that a restaurant’s food is authentic, how does that affect your opinion of it?

The word authentic doesn’t change the way the food tastes. If something is delicious, nobody is going to care whether it’s authentic or not. On the other hand, if you have a really bad meal, maybe you’ll be more forgiving or less willing to judge it if it’s truly authentic. But it’s useful to the industry because it’s a word any critic can use, even if they have no sense of taste.

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