Guillaume Apollinaire to Sarojini Naidu: the war poets you don’t study at school

The most prominent European war poet was Guillaume Apollinaire, a naturalised Frenchman of Polish descent who died of influenza at the end of the war. His collection Calligrammes stands as a landmark achievement in the development of literary modernism. The book’s title refers to Apollinaire’s visual poetry, which attempted to achieve with words what Picasso and others had been doing in fine art. His poem “Du coton dans les oreilles” (“Cotton in Your Ears”) begins by re-creating the explosion of artillery shells typographically, the words tumbling upwards on the page.

Apollinaire felt that the war represented a new era, one that would require an original language. As he writes in “Victoire”: “. . . the old languages are so close to death/It’s really from habit and cowardice/That we still use them for poetry”. His visual style was an attempt at a new language, and one could argue that this experimentation has had a more lasting literary influence than the conventional, ornate poetry of Siegfried Sassoon, Laurence Binyon or Robert Graves.

Owen Clayton

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Apollinaire in 1916 after being wounded by shrapnel on his temple.

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