12 August 2014
Owen Lowery is the author of a volume of poetry, Otherwise Unchanged (Carcanet 2012), and is the recipient of an Unlimited award. John O’Donoghue interviewed the poet by email about the inspiration, form and development of his work providing an insight into his creative identity. What follows is an edited version of this correspondence.
Lowery was a British judo champion at under 18, under 21 and senior levels. Following a spinal injury at a tournament Lowery was left paralysed from the shoulders down and needing a ventilator to breathe. Using an adaptive computer he decided to resume his studies and completed a BA Hons in Humanities with the Open University, and was awarded a First.
Two masters degrees followed, including an MA in Creative Writing, and he is currently completing his PhD on the extrospective poetry of Keith Douglas at the University of Bolton. His second collection, Rego Retold, will be published by Carcanet in 2015.
Currently Lowery is using the Unlimited award to embark on a reading tour and take his work to venues and audiences that would otherwise have been beyond his reach. Unlimited will also provide the logistical support required to develop his writing and performance, and stretch the impact of his work, whilst meeting his access requirements.
Could you say something about your process as a poet? Why poetry and why is it important to you?
It seems a little clichéd to suggest that poetry has always been an important part of my life, but I can certainly remember having access to poetry from an early age at home, and loving the dark magic of poems such as Wilfred Wilson Gibson’s ‘Flannan Isle’, with its ominous and ethereal birds where the light-house keepers should have been:
We saw three queer, black, ugly birds--
Too big, by far, in my belief,
For guillemot or shag--
Like seamen sitting bold upright
Upon a half-tide reef
The combination of unnerving syntax, economy of expression, and musical register, gave the first poems, by which I can remember being fascinated, an aura that exceeded the arrangement of the words on the page, but was somehow dependent upon that structure at the same time. I still get the same thrill reading my favourite poets, or making new discoveries, finding new poets, new poems, and so on.
My early interest in poetry continued through school and has done ever since. I remember travelling to and from judo tournaments with a poetry book or two. A journey from Reading to Oxenholme was made considerably easier by the copy of Tennyson I had with me at that time. Thomas Hardy was one of my favourites too, particularly his ‘Satires of Circumstance’ with their ironic interest in mortality and the human condition, and their simple but effective rhyme schemes. Again, a certain dark magic seemed to be at work within these poems, a condensed and more immediate expression of the themes that under-pin Hardy’s novels, of which I have also been fond since school.
This may explain, at least in part, my interest in war poetry, particularly that of Edward Thomas, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Ivor Gurney, Isaac Rosenberg, Keith Douglas, Alan Ross, and Alun Lewis. Poetry, with its ability to encapsulate heightened moments of human understanding, experience, suffering, and even tedium, provided a glimpse into another world, bringing it closer than any other media.
My interest in military history stretches beyond poetry, but is concentrated within the poetry that has been written in direct and indirect response to conflict and suffering. Edward Thomas’s ‘As the Team’s Head Brass’ is among my favourite poems of this type, because of its remarkable ability to reflect cataclysmic change in the most undemonstrative fashion, to tell the story of the First World War on the Western Front by telling the story of what, at the most superficial level, appears to be an insignificant encounter between the poem’s speaker and a plough-man.
It would be easy to claim that war poetry appeals to me because of my own experience of extremis, but my interest in war poetry, and poetry in general, is decades older than my experience of disability, so the equation is not as simple as that. It is possible, however, that war poetry has become more important to me in the wake of receiving a spinal injury in 1987.
Writing, as opposed to reading poetry, school-boy stuff aside, began in earnest as an exercise, a challenge, and as a means of expressing some of the things that felt significant, or that affected me, when I began my Masters Degree in Creative Writing.
The more I wrote, the more I found myself wanting to write, and that compulsion has increased ever since, to the point at which I now find it difficult to settle unless I have written something. I need the satisfaction that comes from completing a poem, creating something concrete.
The process of writing begins with that drive, and then latches on to something of particular interest: other poems, pieces of music, a fragment of conversation, or simply an afternoon in the sun. Whether or not I have a definite idea in mind before beginning to write can vary. There are plenty of occasions on which I have had to actively search for ideas before beginning, but there are plenty of other occasions when I have carried the idea around in note form, or as a memory, for months, or even years, before I have begun to work on it.
From a practical point of view, all of my work is carried out on an adapted iMac computer that has been provided by the Regain Charity for tetraplegics who have suffered sporting injuries. My current iMac is the third computer that Regain have provided for me, which is enormously generous because they are expensive machines, and ones that my bank account would definitely not be able to cope with otherwise.
The computer is fitted with a receiver box, which picks up signals from my headset. This means that whenever I move my head, the mouse cursor follows on the screen. The headset also has a sip and puff straw, which allows me to perform clicks, double clicks, and drags with the mouse. Using this system with a predictive on-line keyboard means that I am able to type fairly rapidly.
I have been using the system so long now that it feels like second nature. It is infinitely preferable to having to rely on anybody else to type my work for me, because it gives me the independence and the peace and quiet that I need.
I wanted to ask you about your 'participle rhymes', eg clumsy/mumsying - I thought I was quite widely read in poetry but I've never see these before, Owen. Is this your own invention?
I would certainly say that what you call ‘participle rhymes’ are characteristic of my poetry, and that this isn't something that I have consciously lifted from another poet, although I'm not at all sure whether it is entirely my invention.
I love Wilfred Owen's para-rhymes, so for my scheme to be mentioned almost in the same breath, is massively encouraging. Having thought about it a little bit longer, I should mention the Irish poet, Austin Clarke. In 'The Blackbird of Derrycairn', he uses a cross-rhyme, linking 'bough top' and 'cup now', which is close to what I do, and is a pattern I've used before, but isn't identical to my participle rhymes. It could be an influence though, because I love his work.
Are you interested in the intricacies of Welsh prosody, eg cynghanned?
I do read a lot of Welsh poetry and have an interest in the work of Dylan Thomas, R.S. Thomas, Alun Lewis, Lynette Roberts, to name but four. I am delighted that you picked up on the use of Welsh patterns in my poems, because it is definitely a very important influence in my writing.
I do not use Welsh verse forms in all of my poems, but I certainly do use them, partly because I love the effects that can be generated by using such intricate forms, and partly because it forces me to think my way round the poem in a different way and leads to unexpected effects and changes the direction of the poem. The more I use these forms, the more comfortable I feel with them.
You have a Master’s degree in Military Studies from Chester University. Could you say something about your interests here? Did you make a study of soldier poets as part of your degree?
My interest in military history stems, in part at least, from having grown up aware of the impact of the Second World War, in cultural, historical, and domestic terms. War films were common currency once a telly appeared in the house, and, horrific though some of the images were, I was allowed free rein to flick through books such as The World at War, which fuelled my interest further.
Knowing that my maternal grand-father served in Burma during the Second World War carried a certain amount of mystique, to which my childish imagination readily responded, despite the fact that it was something he avoided discussing, above and beyond a respect bordering on love for the Gurkhas, and a dislike of anything Japanese.
There were also medals and memorabilia in the house, though they were one of my paternal great grandfather’s, rather than my grandfather’s, and they dated back to the First World War. I was able to hold his Military Medal and his ‘dead man’s penny’, and repeat the story of his having died while holding up a dug-out so that a higher-ranking officer could escape.
As well as military history, I have long been interested in history on a more general basis, and that interest played an important part in my studies with the Open University prior to my MA with Chester. I ended up with a First class Honours degree in Humanities with the Open University, which covered plenty of bases, but included modules on the Renaissance, Ancient Athens, Theories, Practices and Debates in Modern Art, and War, Peace and Social Change, the latter of which concentrated on the Second World War in particular.
The Open University’s approach at the time was multi-disciplinary, and allowed for literature, history, and art to be studied simultaneously. This has proved invaluable, and helped me to think of these disciplines and discourses as inter-connected, rather than distinct. The module on War, Peace and Social Change did involve some study of war poetry, and reactions to war in music and art, which was an interest that I revisited at Chester, during my MA.
War poetry was part of the syllabus at Chester, or war literature, at any rate, which definitely made a change from studying Clausewitz, though that too was fascinating in its way. The juxtaposition between destruction and creativity in war struck me then, and continues to strike me, as being extremely poignant.
You write on a number of different themes, including your time in hospital after your injury, the soldier poets, football, and responses to various other poets, writers, and artists. Could speak about your themes and say why these?
Many of the themes in the work are important to me simply because they happened, or because they are part of my life. That my sound a bit simplistic, but is probably true of a great deal of the work that imitates what Keith Douglas referred to as ‘extrospective’ poetry, by which he meant poetry that involved looking outwards to external conditions, the war, life in Cairo, the appearance of a lover, before writing more introspectively.
I have already explained about my interest in the soldier poets, but their creativity contributes an extremely important external stimulus, as well as providing me with inspiration of a more literary nature, namely use of form, structure, rhyme, and so on.
The soldier poets have become important as individuals, with their own histories and lives, their own reactions to the conditions in which they found themselves. In the cases of Keith Douglas and Alun Lewis, for example, a great deal can be gleaned from a study of their letters, as well as their poetry. It becomes possible to understand some of the background to their poems, the difficulties, the dangers, and the boredom, of their effectively being exiled from Britain by the war, to North Africa and the Middle East in Douglas’s case, and to India and Burma in Lewis’s.
This upheaval is something with which I can empathise, having suffered a spinal injury, and having found myself in the Regional Spinal Injuries Unit at Southport Promenade Hospital for two years, but I am tempted to think that their lives and their writing would have remained important to me whether the accident had happened or not.
The poetry that I have written about persecution and the Holocaust, inspired by the writing of Primo Levi, Piotr Rawicz, Tadeus Borowski, Otto Dov Kulka, and Anthony Rudolf, also builds on reactions to conflict, but, to an even greater extent than the rest of my poetry, deliberately sets out to explore individual situations and scenarios, and to celebrate the individuality of the victims.
The specific reasoning behind this is that one of the main ambitions of the Holocaust, along with mass murder, was to reduce the humanity of victims to the point that they would only be remembered as numbers, digits among the millions of others. If my poems can remember those who suffered as distinct personalities, the attempt to remove them from history fails in some small but significant way.
My experiences of hospital form another important strand of Otherwise Unchanged and of my writing before and since, because the world into which I was plunged was such an unusual one. Effectively, the Promenade Hospital constituted a world of its own, an island cut off from life beyond it, certainly while I was in traction, though this effect was diluted when I was able to get into a wheelchair and start to experience the town.
My situation seemed real and surreal at the same time, a polarity that had an important part to play in poems such as ‘Early Morning on the Ward’, ‘A Frieze Depicting Four Centaurs’, and ‘Woman who looks like Sophia Loren’. Conversations about football, or my ward-mates’ love of films such as Death Wish or Dirty Harry, would be punctuated by terrifying hallucinations featuring dismemberment and abductions, or demonic presences armed with fish-hooks, who took up residence between ceiling tiles and in ventilation ducts.
The contrast is encapsulated in ‘Early Morning on the Ward’, when the concrete and routine detail of a nurse giving a patient a shave proceeds a more unsettling final quatrain:
Trish says he needs a shave
and flat-foots her way to the sink.
Her head crosses the glass
with the weightless ease of a ghost.
[…] A fakir melts from rope
he’s suspended from the ceiling,
stretches a lean finger
and snakes a peach from my fruitbowl.
While my hospital poems aim to set down these experiences, they are neither entirely cathartic, nor simply records of experience, but creative reactions to that experience, and this is very much the case with the vast majority of my writing, or at least that is the ambition, whether it is successfully achieved or otherwise. The important thing is that the poems work, because if that is not achieved, the reportage and catharsis seem to be become less meaningful. It is the poem that is paramount.
Like poetry, football is a passion, and not to write about it would seem essentially dishonest, which is something I want to avoid in my poetry. I was brought up as a Liverpool fan before I even knew it was happening. This had a lot to do with my dad coming from Liverpool, and his dad having played for Liverpool reserves.
The indoctrination worked extremely well, as I am now living in the north-west, and have been a Liverpool season ticket holder for twenty years. The history and the drama with which the club has been associated for so long are an intoxicating mix, as is the energy around the city on match days. That some of this intensity should find its way into my poetry seems only natural. It would be nice to think that at some point in the future I will have a collection of football poems, as well as a collection of war poems, to go with Otherwise Unchanged and Rego Retold.
As you mentioned, art is another subject to which I am often attracted, and this is largely a result of the contrast between art’s immediacy and poetry’s concentrated consideration. The two forms compliment each other perfectly and are mutually beneficial. This is the theory behind my Rego Retold collection, and behind the ‘ekphrastic’ poetry included in Otherwise Unchanged.
Siegfried Sassoon described himself as a visual poet, and this can also be applied to my poems about art. Their genesis arises from the physical source, but they have the advantage of being able to move in other directions, to introduce movement to a sculpture or a painted scene, or to build on a pictorial narrative, as is the case so far as my poems in response to Dame Paula Rego’s work are concerned.
I also write a lot of what might best be termed ‘love poems’, some of which feature in Otherwise Unchanged. In fact, the book’s title is taken from ‘Now I’m thinking about it’, which is a sixteen-line sonnet anticipating my wife’s return from a holiday in Kenya. My love poems are very important to me because they help me to explore and communicate aspects of the relationship that I have with my wife, and are a way of giving something back to her. Pablo Neruda’s Cien Sonetos de Amor are a major influence on these poems. They teach honesty of expression, which is paramount in this type of writing.
Your poetry ‘explores the relationship between natural expression and formal arrangement’. Could say why this tension appeals to you?
The relationship between form and expression is central to my poetry, largely because I regard it as essential to poetry in general, in a similar manner to that in which it is vital to music. I find it very hard not to be aware of the formal aspects of what I am doing when I write.
The type of metre, the stanzaic arrangement, the length of the lines, and the rhyme-scheme, if there is one, play a significant part in the development of the poem and serve the same purpose as a musical stave. In providing a skeleton, these elements also force me to think round the structure, to find ways to maintain the syntax and expression of the poem at the same time as preserving the integrity of the structure, and often with unexpected results. In this way, the formal arrangement of the poem serves a creative purpose, as well as acting as a frame, and it is this complexity that particularly appeals.
In Otherwise Unchanged you write in a wide variety of forms, eg terza rima, a sestina, Sapphics, a backward-rhyming poem like Dylan Thomas’s Prologue (Salvator Mundi), and elegant stanzas of your own devising. What is it about these forms that attract you as a poet?
The attraction of individual forms is an extension of my interest in the relationship between structure and expression in poetry. The intricate patterns of forms such as Sapphic stanza, terza rima, and so on, each have individual merits, and are suited to different tones and subjects, but they all involve some degree of negotiation between the idea of the poem, and the chosen pattern, as a result of which the poem often evolves into something unimagined at the outset.
The effect is one of structured musicality, or cadence, which can be used to either challenge or support other aspects of the poem. Used in combination, as in Otherwise Unchanged, the individual forms produce a varied and challenging phonetic and structural landscape, while retaining their individuality.
Working with the more intricate arrangements until they become second nature is a reward in its own right. The complex stanzaic structures of Welsh poetry, for example, can almost begin to fall into place of their own accord as the patterns grow more familiar. There is a point at which it is possible to actually think in a particular form, and it is at this stage that the structure and expression are at their most harmonious, which is a wonderful feeling.
Are there forms you would like to take on, that perhaps you see as a challenge or that attract you?
I often use Welsh stanzaic arrangements in my writing, and I will continue to develop my understanding of those forms. Dylan Thomas, R. S. Thomas, Alun Lewis, and Lynette Roberts are all favourites of mine, and it is largely in deference to them that I began to pay such close attention to the forms of Welsh poetry.
Spending a lot of time in Pembrokeshire and around the Gower Peninsula has been another inspiration in this respect, as I wanted to try to capture details of my experiences of Wales in a way that incorporated the musicality and richness of Welsh poetry.
I enjoy working with Greek and Latin forms too, and would like to get closer to the work of classical writers by working with these forms, not least because the demands made by their patterns are so different from those with which I associate Welsh poetry.
Classical metres are to the fore-front, presenting the challenge of writing in a way that does not allow metrical concerns to render the poems obsolete and anachronistic for modern readers. Something similar is achieved in the poetry of Cavafy and Seferis, as the weighty themes of classical drama and mythology are given a more demotic expression, especially in poems such as Cavafy’s ‘One of their gods’, in which one of the residents of Olympus descends and mingles with shoppers and vendors at an everyday market-place:
When one of them passed through Seleucia’s
marketplace, about the hour of dusk,
like a tall and perfectly handsome ephebe –
with the joy of immortality in his eyes,
with his perfumed dark hair –
the passers-by kept looking at him
and asked each other if anyone knew him.
The poly-syllabic rhymes of Irish poetry are something else that I would like to explore further than I have so far. Again, the challenge will be to use the forms without them becoming too obvious, or so obvious that they dominate the poem completely. Having depended heavily on what might be termed ‘participle rhymes’ throughout my poetry, it will be fascinating to try to adapt my writing to a slightly different approach to poly-syllabic rhymes. It is a study that could lead me deeper into the work of W.B. Yeats, Austin Clarke, and company, and that seems a good enough reason in itself to engage with Irish poetry to a far greater extent than I have done so already.
In ‘Canto waiting for soup’ who is The Teller and who is The Listener? Are they specific references to Levi’s 'If This Is A Man'?
Yes, the Teller and the Listener in my ‘Canto waiting for soup’ are direct references to Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man. The poem is based on the scene in which the author is at great pains to explain the vital lessons of the ‘Canto of Ulysses’, from Dante’s Inferno, to his fellow prisoner, Piccolo, or Jean Samuel.
The urgency of the scene is amplified by the fact that the exchange between the two men occurs while they are queuing for the soup ration in Auschwitz, Monowitz. Primo Levi has to make his fellow inmate understand the value of being human, despite the brutal and horrifying context.
My whole poem is based on this incident and on Levi’s mission. The form for this poem mirrors that of Dante’s ‘Canto of Ulysses’. The lines are hendecasyllabic and, like Canto of Ulysses, there are forty-seven terrza rima stanzas with a final detached line, So, again, this is a poem in which form, expression, and syntax merge in the name of a single effect.
You’re going to be touring giving readings as part of your Unlimited Award. Is there anywhere you’re particularly looking forward to going? Anywhere you’d like to go?
The easy answer to this question is that I am looking forward to all of the readings, because they will all present me with a chance to take my poetry to different live audiences. The tour begins with a talk and then a reading at the Southbank Centre, in London, on 6 and 7 September respectively. The Southbank Centre is such an iconic venue that it would be impossible not to be excited at the prospect of reading there. It is not something I could have imagined doing even a year ago.
Visiting the venue for the first time, in June, I was immediately impressed by the scale and atmosphere, and the views across London from the suites in which I will be reading. Knowing that so many important cultural events have taken place there gives the prospect of my reading a very special magic.
The next event on my schedule is the Lancaster Literature Festival, on 19 October 2014, which will be a fantastic experience, because the city has such a rich and deep history. It also has a thriving poetry community, with Paul Farley being based at Lancaster University and leading the Creative Writing programme there.
The Festival organizers are particularly interested in my poems in response to Paula Rego’s art, and the work that myself and tour producer, Nathan Jones, are putting together in order to involve video and music in my performances. This should broaden the appeal of the poems and allow me to connect with people who might not otherwise be interested in poetry. Collaborating with a producer, along with visual artists and musicians, is a new experience for me, but one that is already proving extremely fruitful and has allowed me to think of my poems in a new way.
My third reading will be at Manchester’s John Rylands Library, on 20 November. The library is a very special place with superb collections and its combination of heavy wood furnishings and neo-Gothic stone. It will be a real privilege to read there.
Two more readings have already been scheduled for 2015, the first of which will be at the Arvon Centre at Hebden Bridge on 3 June. The Centre’s connection with Ted Hughes is well known, and since I am an admirer of Hughes’s poetry, the opportunity to read there resonates very strongly. The second reading scheduled for 2015 will be on 8 October, at the Morley Literature Festival, which should help me to raise awareness of my second collection, Rego Retold, at the same time as supporting Otherwise Unchanged.
I am hoping to be able to add more readings to the tour and would love to read in Liverpool and also Bolton, having studied there during my MA, and subsequent PhD.
You’ve written about Keith Douglas’s ‘extrospective’ approach to poetry, and I note you’re carrying out further research here as part of a PhD in Creative Writing. Could you expand a little on ‘extrospective poetry’, and does this mean that you’re working on another collection as part of your PhD?
Keith Douglas’s use of the term ‘extrospective poetry’ can be traced to the airgraphs that he exchanged with his friend, fellow poet, and occasional editor, J. C. Hall, in the summer of 1943. Initially, Douglas’s exchange of views with Hall defines ‘extrospective poetry’ in terms of what it does not represent.
Among other things, ‘extrospective poetry’ is not lyrical or musical purely for the sake of lyricism or musicality. Douglas also classified ‘extrospective poetry’ as “not dishonest”. The definition is then expanded to underline what extrospection is. The emphasis of Douglas’s definition is chiefly on practicality, writing from experience, brutal honesty, economical expression, and reportage.
It is an over-simplification to suggest that extrospection, as defined by Douglas, is the polar opposite of the neo-romantic writing associated with the New Apocalypse movement of the late 1930s, which took its lead from Surrealism, and favoured decentralisation, mythology, imagery, and expressionism, but there is certainly some merit to the idea of an essential contrast.
In fact, Douglas’s extrospection did not completely reject imagery and poetic effect, but it did lead to him writing poetry that could confront any situation in which he found himself. In ‘Cairo Jag’, and ‘Vergissmeinnicht’, for example, Douglas provides unflinching descriptions of death, and injury, but does so in a deliberately understated tone, reflecting a veteran soldier’s dissociative perspective, at the same time as his personal fascination with the truth and undeniability of death. In ‘How to Kill’, it is the act of killing that is described, the awareness that, in firing at the shape of a man, the speaker is killing someone every bit as human as he is, but killing him nonetheless:
Now in my dial of glass appears
the soldier who is going to die.
He smiles, and moves about in ways
his mother knows, habits of his.
Douglas’s extrospective poetry could just as easily turn its gaze on the appearance of a town, as in ‘Mersa’,
This blue halfcircle of sea
on sand as pale as salt
was Cleopatra’s hotel:
here is a guesthouse built
and broken utterly, since.
An amorous modern prince
Lived in this scoured shell,
or that of a lover, as is achieved so effectively in ‘The Knife’:
Can I explain this to you? Your eyes
are entrances the mouths of caves.
I issue from wonderful interiors
upon a blessed sea and a fine day,
from inside these caves I look and dream.
Employing an extrospective approach in my writing, has been particularly helpful where my hospital and war-related poems are concerned, in that it enables me to write dispassionately about traumatic subjects, which, in turn, allows drama of the situation to emerge on its own merits, without having to force itself on the reader. The effects can be all the more shocking as a result.
As part of my PhD, I have written a considerable amount of poetry that is either directly or indirectly related to conflict, and I would very much like to collate these poems in a single collection, once my second collection is in print, and I can concentrate on a third. The centenary of the First World War makes this an especially poignant time to bring out a collection of this nature, and I feel that it would be a very fitting tribute to all victims of war.
Any thoughts on Ivor Gurney? Do you see him as a soldier poet who wrote ultimately from inside his disability, unlike Wilfred Owen who was writing from outside disability.
Ivor Gurney is a writer for whom I have a great deal of respect, and one whose mental deterioration can almost be seen as symptomatic of the wider descent into madness that occurred prior to, and during, the First World War.
It is difficult to believe that his writing, and the musical composition for which he is equally celebrated, were not affected by his psychological state, but, in writing from within his condition, he exceeded it, and produced some of the most effective poetry of the First World War. Rather than dwelling on his condition, Gurney’s poetry looks outwards towards the war, camaraderie, and his native Gloucestershire, often with a longing that could be attributed to an unfulfilled need on the poet’s part, though a need that military life and discipline did alleviate temporarily.
Wilfred Owen’s experiences differed from Gurney’s, despite the fact that both men saw active service on the Western Front. Owen was an Officer, as opposed one of the rank and file, while Gurney began as a Private, and both had markedly different motivations for enlisting, a public motivation in Owen’s case, and a much more private one in that of Gurney.
What Gurney and Owen had in common was an empathic connection to the men around them. In Owen’s case, this humanitarianism is evident in poems that respond despairingly to the suffering of his fellow soldiers, as in ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, and ‘Strange Meeting’.
In ‘Disabled’, Owen’s empathy moves him to pity, and to cliché. The poem’s subject, a wheelchair-bound amputee injured in the war, is not given his own voice, but Owen’s instead, as the poet incorporates indirect thought and speech, and speculates on the subject’s state of mind. The effect is to render the disabled former soldier completely passive and inert. He becomes the object of derision, as well as pity. Young women epitomise a nostalgic longing for a past that he can no longer experience. They turn from him towards healthier young men and leave him alone:
Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits
Thanked him; and then inquired about his soul.
Now, he will spend a few sick years in institutes,
And do what things the rules consider wise,
And take whatever pity they may dole.
To-night he noticed how the women’s eyes
Passed from him to the strong men that were whole.
In the final two lines of ‘Disabled’ are imploring, desperate, and a clear indication of the vulnerability and helplessness with which Owen associates invalidity, an extremely negative impression, though well-meaning, and one that could, as you suggest, be a result of his having written the poem from an outsider’s perspective, despite his having been admitted to the Craiglockhart War Hospital:
How cold and late it is! Why don’t they come
And put him into bed? Why don’t they come?
While Gurney’s poetry is also capable of pity, he reaches out in a different way, without singling out his subjects on the basis of physical or psychological difference. Yet, Gurney’s ‘To His Love’ achieves a far more personal and intimate tone than Owen’s ‘Disabled’, as the poem moves from remembrance, to repulsion, and perhaps the shame of having to admit to the latter emotion:
He’s gone, and all our plans
Are useless indeed.
We’ll walk no more on Cotswolds
Where the sheep feed
Quietly and take no heed.
[…] Cover him, cover him soon!
And with thick-set
Masses of memoried flowers-
Hide that red wet
Thing I must somehow forget.
In this instance, Gurney is certainly writing from within his own feelings, and describing his state of mind, as well as his reactions to the death of a friend, but how far Gurney was writing from within a specific condition is difficult to judge, as he may have written the poem during a period of relatively good mental health, as opposed to one of delusion, depression, and hallucination.
That Gurney was aware of his mental deterioration is evident in his having enlisted in order to impose some discipline on his own mind, and, after the war, his having taken long walks in the country in the name of a similar ambition. The extent to which this might make Gurney’s ‘To His Love’ a more valid poem than Owen’s ‘Disabled’ is arguable, but what is indisputable is that Gurney achieved poetry that was often at least the equal of that of Owen.
The implications with respect to my own poetry, or that of any disabled poet, could be that it is better to write, than to let somebody else do the writing for you. That is the spirit of my hospital poetry, and of much of my poetry in general, and is an essential aspect of the emphasis that Keith Douglas placed on first-hand experience in his own, later, war poetry.