"During his lifetime, John Allan Wyeth (1894-1981) won a minor reputation as a painter: his obituary in the Trenton Times was perfunctory in praising a ‘noted area artist’. The newspaper should be forgiven for making no mention of Wyeth's verse. Even his close family had no idea that he had published a book of poems, This Man's Army, in 1928.
This Man’s Army is a sequence of 55 sonnets mapping, often in documentary detail, Wyeth’s experiences as a second lieutenant in France during the second half of 1918. Although it received several positive notices, the book soon disappeared from view, only to be rediscovered and reprinted eighty years later by the military historian B. J. Omanson. Its significance is gradually becoming recognised: Dana Gioia calls it ‘probably the only volume [by an American] that stands comparison with the work of the best British soldier poets’.
I will explore the radical strangeness of Wyeth's best sonnets as they string snatches of vernacular dialogue across lines. He has been associated with Modernism, for which there is a biographical prompt: based in Rapallo during 1926, Wyeth seems to have counted Ezra Pound as a friend. Yet Wyeth’s knack of catching speech rhythms and bringing them into complex relation with formal and metrical traditions shows a greater debt to Robert Frost. Wyeth, like Frost, seeks to ‘drag and break the intonation across the meter’, creating a sequence both garrulous and precise as it picks its way through troop trains, hospitals, trenches and brothels towards an understated and ambivalent victory."
The aim of the conference as a whole is to "... bring together some of the world’s leading experts and emerging scholars to reassess [the Great War's] literary and cultural impact and explore its vexed relationship to modernity..." A more complete description of the conference, with a list of the presenters and a copy of the conference programme, can be found here.
Tim Kendall is Professor of English at Exeter. He edited the anthology Poetry of the First World War for Oxford University Press, and presented Ivor Gurney: The Poet Who Loved the War for BBC TV. He is President of The War Poets Association, and owner of the blog War Poetry. Links to several of his other essays on John Allan Wyeth can be found in the "Wyeth Links" section of this site.