Views of Remembrance: Veterans’ poetry and the biology and cultural power of the poppy

Thursday, 07 November 2019

Poppies in a field

Oxford Brookes University Poetry Centre has been working this year with UK and US war veterans. They have written poems in workshops run at Oxford Brookes, which has allowed them to think through and express their experiences. The poems will be published in a fully-accessible and free e-book.

Leading the Veterans’ Poetry Workshops is Dr Niall Munro, Senior Lecturer in American Literature and Director of Oxford Brookes Poetry Centre. It also involves poet and Oxford Brookes PhD Researcher Susie Campbell, and Dr Jane Potter who is an expert on the works of Wilfred Owen and expanding the parameters of what is considered war poetry. The Veterans’ Poetry page on the University website also includes audio interviews with a number of US veterans who took part in the project, and further interviews and poems will be added in the coming months.

Dr Munro commented on working with the veterans: “The two workshops we have run so far have been very moving experiences. Thinking about how we remember and commemorate experiences related to military service - and how writing might help that commemoration happen - has highlighted the need to keep those experiences in mind not just on 11 November, but throughout the year.

“Our participants have had quite different previous experiences of writing: some are just at the beginning of developing their work, whilst others have been writing for years; some wrote whilst they were serving in the military, and others began writing when they returned home. All, however, produced powerful, resonant poetry that helps to crystallise certain aspects of the experience of ex-service personnel and sometimes demonstrates the deep commitment that some veteran poets feel - as one participant put it - 'to speak on behalf of the legion'.”

In keeping with the theme of Remembrance, Dr Andrew Lack has written a book called Poppy (Botanical), which looks at the biology and cultural impact of the flower.

He was recently interviewed for Natural Histories on BBC Radio 4, broadcast on Friday 8 November 2019. 

Dr Lack reflected on the importance of the iconic flower: “The poppy is in many ways, ideal as the symbol of fallen soldiers: coming up all over the battlefields of the First World War, showy, well-known and with a blood-like colour almost unique in northern Europe. It became the symbol of Remembrance in 1920-21 after the devastating loss of life in the Great War, although there had been earlier associations with battlefields. 

“The very simplicity of the poppy symbol, easy to make and instantly recognisable, allowed it to endure and to include the fallen soldiers in all subsequent European wars too. It has evoked controversy, as the symbol has been associated with jingoistic military displays and, in Northern Ireland, with Protestants, but it has endured, including restyling in different colours, such as white for the Peace Pledge and purple for Animal Aid. 

“Memory of war in Europe is fading for many in Britain, but the symbol continues to reappear - one example being the especially huge, though brief, display of 888, 246 ceramic poppies in the dry moat around the Tower of London in 2014. Few weeds have been more successful throughout history than the poppy.”

A two-minute silence will be observed at 11am on 11 November 2019, in the Forum at Oxford Brookes University’s JHBB Building on the Headington Campus.

Find out more about the Oxford Brookes Poetry Centre and the Department of Biological and Medical Sciences online.