Armistice Day: Remembering Birkbeck’s war poet

A self-portrait of Isaac Rosenberg, who as painted as well as writing poetry

A self-portrait of Isaac Rosenberg, who painted as well as writing poetry

An evening celebrating the life and work of Isaac Rosenberg is taking place on Sunday, 27th November between 6pm and 8pm in Senate House, Bloomsbury.

Featuring actress Miriam Margolyes, Alexander Knox, Simon Haynes, Philip Bell, Elaine Feinstein and Vivi Lachs and her band, this evening of words, music and images has been written and devised by Rosenberg’s biographer, Jean Moorcroft Wilson.

The event is being hosted by the Jewish East End Celebration Society to raise funds for a statue of Rosenberg in Torrington Square, outside Birkbeck’s main Malet Street building.

The First World War inspired a huge amount of poetry, by both soldiers and civilians. One of the most well-known poets, Isaac Rosenberg, studied in the evenings at the Art School at Birkbeck from 1907-1908, while spending his day as an apprentice graver. Rosenberg won several prizes during his time at the College and exhibited his work in the Art School’s annual exhibition after leaving. Rosenberg was killed while fighting in the Battle of the Somme in the spring of 1918. Today, we publish one of his most famous poems to mark Armistice Day.

In 2000, Professor Steven Connor  gave a lecture at Birkbeck about Rosenberg’s life and works. Read the lecture.

Break of Day in the Trenches

The darkness crumbles away.
It is the same old druid Time as ever,
Only a live thing leaps my hand,
A queer sardonic rat,
As I pull the parapet’s poppy
To stick behind my ear.
Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew
Your cosmopolitan sympathies.
Now you have touched this English hand
You will do the same to a German
Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure
To cross the sleeping green between.
It seems you inwardly grin as you pass
Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,
Less chanced than you for life,
Bonds to the whims of murder,
Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,
The torn fields of France.
What do you see in our eyes
At the shrieking iron and flame
Hurled through still heavens ?
What quaver – what heart aghast?
Poppies whose roots are in man’s veins
Drop, and are ever dropping;
But mine in my ear is safe –
Just a little white with the dust.

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World Poetry Day 2013

Today is World Poetry Day and to celebrate we are sharing a selection of poems by Birkbeck’s BA Creative Writing second year students and their teacher, lecturer Liane Strauss.

Airborne
by Samuel Langworth

The bone of those high vaults
could not contain them.
They bled from the dark ink
of their deliveries, bigger
than whiteness. They outgrew
the walls of their birth-rooms.
They could not be housed.

They were too big for their communities.
They stretched across boundaries,
monolithic capitals, more
than all cities combined.
They outgrew their horizons –

and they burned through borders,
illuminating tongues.

And Greece could not contain them,
and Taiwan could not contain them,
and Mexico could not contain them,
and Antarctica could not contain them,
and Sierra Leone could not contain them,
and the Solomon Islands could not contain them,
and Trinidad and Tobago could not contain them,
and the earth could not contain them,
and the sea could not contain them,
and they rose, they rose,
converging over the world,
and the sky could not contain them,
and they burst
in one
golden cry of light.

And the world listened.

§

A New Chapter
by Yvonne Stone

I hesitate,
then turn the handle,
opening a new chapter.
I enter the room.
I deflate my rubber legs
and collapse into the nearest seat.
The seat protests violently.
It avenges itself
and announces my arrival.
I smile politely,
Not even sure I’m in the right place.
My confidence drains
before I can plug the holes with “hellos”.
I need a witty remark
but my brain is ice,
frozen by the glare of the bright room.
A refrigerator full of talent,
freshly filled with youthful optimism.
I must be in the wrong place.

§

Swallows
by Walter Jones

In spring on a mock piazza you built
A nest inside my heart and I built one
In yours and together we flew
On the ascent of summer, crossing continents
Where nests are built under the pokey-outey
Bits of castle walls, built for war,
So we do battle
Against the rain inside this other world,
Soft and persistent, like love,
With keen eyes fixed on the future:
Our journey home, reflected on lakes and rivers
And every grain of dazzling beach sand.

Descending to rest on neglected garden furniture
Washed up in the quiet tide of winter.

§

Blow in
by Kirsten McLaughlin

What do they really think?
They are friendly enough,
will buy you a drink, laugh,
and welcome you in.
You, who carry the sins of the father,
or rather, a Mother Country, in your blood.

What do they really think,
when, God knows why, you try
to justify your presence with a genetic link
to O’Neils on your mother’s side,
and spend hours talking about mackerel
and mullet, and earnestly discuss tides
with men who know exactly who you are,
and where you live, and what you drive;
even the colour of your swim suit this year
and the rock you sometimes dive off.

What do they think when you keep coming back;
prepared to open and shut an extra gate
someone put across the track; that you stack turf;
riddle the stony earth and plant potatoes.
When you push into the bar and heads turn,
or not, in your direction, what makes you sense
you are merely a tolerable interruption?

And what do they really think,
when you sink your fourth pint of Guinness?
Does it impress? Does it make you less
of a blow in? Does learning how to build
a dry stone wall that doesn’t fall within the year
endear you to those around? Or does the sound
of your English accent grate, and agitate old wounds?

You will never know, you will blow in, and out,
harbouring doubt, which could be unfounded,
hounded, by your own ghosts.

§

Transcend
by c c bowden

He combs the shore,
strokes gold and silver particles
that glimmer from his gaze,
christened by waves
too long ago to remember.
Travelling light forever
daily dawn embraces.
Yawning je t’adore

§

Schizophrenic
by Guillaume Vandame

Sometimes it snows and seconds later the sky will shine.
The world becomes a pale blue moonstone
And you can see the thick silhouettes of the branches.

Then the snow melts and runs down the panels of glass in thin streams.
The sun reflects in low glass cells and glows for a minute.
The water dries and the sky settles into the bed of evening.

§

Shrug
by Catherine Speight

These shoulders that you liked to kiss
Are raised towards my ears
To tell you that I heard you
But I’m going to hide my tears.

You’ve felt the falter in my voice
As the countdown scratches on.
It says Dubai’s too far away
And six months is far too long.

This little fleshy crease
In the corner of my mouth
Is there to stop the caustic words
From firing straight out.

Now, awkwardly my head tilts
As it tries to say I’m strong,
But you just said “we’ll be ok”
And we both know that you’re wrong.

Maybe I can shrug you off
And let this all fall down.
Your posting starts tomorrow
And you need to pack now.

§

Paranoid
by Bruce Coker

Some days I feel like
everybody’s looking at me;
other days, nobody.
I can’t make up my mind
which is worse.

§

Glass Bottom Car
by Liane Strauss

Windows are overrated.
I never liked fairs.  Landscapes
like a ground bass, scene after scene.
Auger bit developments. Mortis and beam.
Oak elm pine white green bare trees.

The high streets, the highways
go felly round spokes. Celluloid living,
a wooden-maned horse. Film frames on sprockets
cranked by telephone poles,
trick magic old-world lantern shows.

My windscreen was snow-blacked,
bug-juice grimed. I didn’t want windows.
I covered them up. The metronome wipers
couldn’t clean or keep time.
When you’ve seen this world once it’s enough.

I like to go fast
in my glass bottom car, the macadam moonscape
is never the same, the cracks in the craters,
they break my heart,
on the coal-colored lard milky way,

and never look up,
watch the road rush black, rich river oil
torrents in hard rain, streamers riding the wind
snapped and no way back
in my glass bottom beauty machine.

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