Review published on December 29, 2012. Reviewed by Erin Britton
Nudge Reviewer Rating:
Strange Meetings is Harry Ricketts’ innovative collective biography of the War Poets of 1914 to 1918. Told through a series of encounters between the major (and several lamentably often overlooked) poetic figures of the period, Strange Meetings explores the relationships between the poets, their attitudes towards each other’s work and recollections of war, and how their individual experiences manifested in their poetry.
As Ricketts notes, a collective biography presents quite different opportunities and challenges from a single-life biography. Perhaps the most significant of such challenges would have been deciding who to include and who to exclude. Brooke, Owen, Sassoon, Graves, Thomas and Rosenberg were obvious choices but, by also including less celebrated poets like Ivor Gurney, Edmund Blunden, David Jones, Charles Sorley, Robert Nichols and Vera Britain, Ricketts has been able to analyse their poetry and experiences in even greater depth. Ricketts’ selection of poets works well; his inclusion of the famous names ensures of the major works and events associated with the War Poets are included while his choices of lesser known poets adds depth to his analysis and allows for some new conclusions/discussions of the interrelationships between the poets.
The second major challenge that Ricketts faced was deciding on the most appropriate structure for Strange Meetings. Developing from his desire to discuss the breakfast meeting that occurred between Rupert Brooke and Siegfried Sassoon in July 1914, Ricketts decided to structure his book around fifteen encounters that involved his chosen poets. In the majority of cases, these encounters serve well as introductions to the poets, their work and the greater world circumstances at the time. However, while eight of the included encounters actually took place as described, six are based on “near-encounters of various kinds” while the meeting between Edward Thomas and Wilfred Owen is fictional, albeit a fiction based on extensive research.
The use of entirely fictional events, or even those where certain liberties have been taken with the truth, is always going to be a controversial biographical tool. Ricketts does, however, recreate the various scenes well and does seem to have undertaken meticulous research. While his portrayal of the near-encounters does therefore ring true, it’s still difficult to entirely trust the material that is presented. It’s not a critical flaw in Strange Meetings but does need to be borne in mind when considering the overall accuracy of the collective biography as well as the individual portraits of the included poets. While the use of the near-encounters can be justified, the entirely fictional meeting between Thomas and Owen really should have been omitted. It’s no more useful to a serious study of the War Poets than the peculiar selection of included photographs.
Having said that, Strange Meetings certainly does shine a light of the poets, their family and intellectual backgrounds and their very different personalities. Ricketts also succeeds in adding a fresh perspective to the War poetry itself and of how people’s very definition of poetry was altered (for a time at least) but the events of the First World War. He demonstrates how the poems are as linked to each other as the poets themselves were to their contemporaries. While it’s certainly not a perfect biography, and is in fact rather infuriating in places, Strange Meetings is an interesting addition to the study of the War Poets and does add some interesting new points to the topic.
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