‘This convulsion’: cultural positioning and the poetry of the Second World War’

    Activity: External talk or presentationInvited talk


    ‘This convulsion’: cultural positioning and the poetry of the Second World War

    In 2002, a compilation of new recordings of over 100 poems written by servicemen and women during WW2 was published. The promotional blurb used Denis Healey’s description of this compilation as “history with a thousand eyes”. Cultural constructions of WW2 today are influenced by readings of the war as a shared, mass experience by ordinary people: the ‘people’s war’ in Angus Calder’s eponymous history. Narratives of the war have suffused our popular culture for decades, through comic strips, posters, film, popular literature, television drama and documentary. The relationship between WW2 poetry and popular culture has remained aloof and at odds, however.

    WW1 poetry is deeply woven into British curricula and memorial culture; poets and their work have formed the subject of feature films in their own right and certain WW1 poems and poets in particular are viewed as transcendent of their historical moment. Poets such as Owen now have a metonymic function, standing for a particular type of loss or discourse of mourning. Whilst the subject of considerable scholarly and specialist interest, poetry of WW2 has failed to register as either transcendent or ‘popular’ in the post-war period. Often presented as an alternative type of (or adjunct to) ‘history’, WW2 poetry has been positioned as a witness form, linked firmly to specific historical experience. Yet significant tendencies within the poetry world of 1939-1945 saw themselves as quite explicitly rejecting this approach in favour of engagement with the unconscious mind and efforts to make poetry socially radical, without being realist.

    This paper examines the problematics of WW2 poetry in relation to popular culture and cultural memory, taking into account key poetic contexts and some examples of SWW poetry anthologies and poems.
    Period13 Jul 2011
    Event titleSecond World War: Popular Culture and Cultural Memory
    Event typeConference
    LocationBrighton, United KingdomShow on map
    Degree of RecognitionInternational


    • War poetry
    • Second World War