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Analyse the Ways in Which the Work of Two Contemporary British Poets Respond to and Examine Historical Characters and Events That Took Place in the First Half of the Twentieth Century.

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Analyse the Ways in Which the Work of Two Contemporary British Poets Respond to and Examine Historical Characters and Events That Took Place in the First Half of the Twentieth Century.

Poetry generally projects emotionally and sensuously charged human experience in metrical language and the content of poetry reflects the variety of concerns of human beings in every period and in every region of the world. According to Michael Hulse “every age gets the literature it deserves” and “throughout the century, the hierarchies of values that once made stable poetics possible have been disappearing.”1 “Like everything else in contemporary poetry, form is the subject of fierce debate and widely divergent opinions.”2 “Contemporary poetry emphasises accessibility, democracy and responsiveness, humour and seriousness, and reaffirms the art’s significance as public utterance.”3 Within contemporary poetry “it is not the line that is the most important unit but the way a verse, paragraph or the whole of a poem works together.”4 “The individual poem is somehow indeterminate, an exploration or process of discovery in which we are asked to accompany the poet.”5

One such contemporary poem that takes the reader on such a journey is Fenton’s “A German Requiem”, a moving written tribute to the German Jews who were killed by the Nazi’s during World War II. Fenton’s poetry consistently prioritises content over form and suggests that what we can learn about the world is far more important than what we can discover about ourselves. “A German Requiem” is an elegy for both the victims and survivors of the Second World War and is based on Fenton’s observations on a trip he took to Berlin and Urbino. The poem is an oblique narrative describing a visit to a German cemetery aboard “the widow’s shuttle”, a special bus to attend a memorial service for the war dead and recalls the painful mediations this excursion brings forth. The poem progresses through a series of nine fragmentary sections and throughout the narrator seems to stand at a distance from the devastation he evokes. The narrator never speaks in the first person but describes the participants as “you”, “they”, “he” and “she”. Throughout the poem the narrator deliberately chooses to not to say certain things, and a recurring theme throughout “A German Requiem” is that of the narrator reminding the readers how much he chooses not to disclose, just as the poems characters deliberately chose not to speak about certain parts of their wartime experience.

The poem begins with the lines “Its not what they built. It is what they knocked down. It is not the houses. It is the space between the houses. It is not the streets that exist. It is the streets that no longer exist.” These opening sentences of the poem emphasise a great loss, they emphasise a space/vacancy that could be measurable in terms of social or diplomatic entities alternatively however they could also be looked at as representing spaces in terms of power geography and time. So much was lost throughout the course of the Second World War, a whole generation of people were lost, many historical buildings were ruined, people’s homes were destroyed, and innocent civilians were imprisoned and brutally killed. The spaces of which Fenton speaks and the things he talks of that no longer exist are all of the things destroyed and lost to the war. At the same time however the space also represents a chance for human behaviour to redevelop and hopefully regain some of its authenticity lost to the war.

“It is not your memories which haunt you. It is not what you have written down. It is what you have forgotten, what you must forget. What you must go on forgetting all your life.” These are the next set of lines in the opening stanza of the poem and carry the idea that in order to lead a normal life the unnamed person in the poem must try to forget and put to the back of his or her mind the awful events that have taken place and the violent atrocities that they have witnessed. No matter how much time elapses in their life however, they and anyone else connected with the war will never forget the horrific events that took place, the awful things that they witnessed, the comrades that they fought alongside but that didn’t make it, and those family members and friends that although played no part in the fighting were still brutally killed just for leading a different way of life. Therefore it is a viscous circle that they are embroiled in; they are involved in a continuous struggle. On the one hand Fenton is saying that the need to forget is important in order to stay sane and to continue to lead a relatively normal existence on the other hand however he is saying that the people lost to the war should never be forgotten and that forever the memories of the dead will live on. Towards the end of the first stanza Fenton goes on to imply that although it may feel that way the person in the poem is not alone in their grief. Although it may feel like no one could possibly understand the torment or gravity of his or

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