6 — Ironic voices and visions
In this learning sequence the students will explore and examine how irony is used to represent the complexities of conflict in war poetry. They will explore how poets use language to criticise popular beliefs and interrogate established values associated with war, thereby appreciating how the larger concerns of human experience can be explored in poetry. The students will also publish their own poetry anthology.
Activity 1: Reviewing irony as a literary concept
Present the class with a brief explanation of the concept of irony. The Macquarie Dictionary defines it as ‘a figure of speech or literary device in which the literal meaning is the opposite of that intended’. Show the students a visual image that represents the concept of irony, such as Paul Nash’s image above, which represents the desolation of trench warfare in World War I. Explore the disjunct between the image and the title.
Ask the students to write their own definitions of irony. They can then find other images that are ironic and create a visual representation entitled ‘Theatres of War’. Explore with the students the nuances of the phrase theatre of war and its inherent ironies. The sites below, from different theatres of war, offer starting points for image selection:
- the Australian Department of Veterans’ Affairs website section on Australia’s war 1939–1945
- the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum website
- the photo ‘Lebanon protests car bombing’ on the ABC news website
- Images of War and Peace on the A Peace of Art website
- the gallery of photos of Men of War on the Time magazine website
- ‘Photo essay: One Year On in Cairo’ on the NewMatilda website
- the photo essay ‘Battleland Diary, April 7–15’ on the Time magazine website.
Activity 2: Irony in World War I poetry
Irony usually has a target. For example, irony in war poetry might be directed at:
- the author or persona (personal glory)
- society, the military or the government (arguments for a better life)
- the situation at hand.
Dramatic irony is also a feature of these poems, where the poet is all-knowing, in contrast to the ordinary soldier who is ignorant of the fate awaiting him (adapted from Susan Puissant’s Irony and the Poetry of the First World War, page 150).
Read some war poems (see the list in Activity 3) together as a class and invite the students to respond in class discussion. Discussion prompts on first reading might include:
- Do you have any questions about the poem(s)? Write them down.
- Were there any words or phrases that you found confusing?
- Discuss any words or phrases that you found to be significant.
The students should then re-read and annotate the poem, based on the class discussion.
In pairs, the students identify aspects of the poems that are ironic (for example, a contradiction between what we know and what the text says, use of exaggeration, extensive use of superlatives, juxtaposition and understatement). In a class discussion, determine the type of irony at work in each of the poems.
Activity 3: Creating an anthology
In this activity, groups of four students create an anthology of war poetry. The anthology will include the following elements:
- a cover with a visual image and title (the image could be drawn from the visual representations they have looked at so far)
- a preface, stating the theme of the anthology, explaining the poetry selection and establishing how the poems relate to the concept of irony
- eight poems sequenced in an order, and for a particular purpose, to be determined by the students
- a short contextual statement for each poem, indicating biographical and historical background to the poet and poem.
The students will collaborate throughout the activity, consulting on selections as they develop an overarching theme. The preface will be co-constructed and each student will provide two poems with their contextual statements. The links below provide a starting point for research:
- the Australian Poetry Library website
- the poem ‘Lamplight’ by May Wedderburn Cannan on the PoemHunter.com website
- the poem ‘The Dancers’ by Edith Sitwell on the PoemHunter.com website
- the poem ‘Smile, Smile, Smile’ by Wilfred Owen on the Classic Literature website
- the poem ‘The Yellow Palm’ by Robert Minhinnick on The Poetry Archive website
- the poem ‘The Veteran’ by Margaret Postgate on the Bartleby.com website
- the poem ‘The Hero’ by Siegfried Sassoon on the AllPoetry website
- Siegfried Sassoon’s protest ‘A Soldier’s Declaration’ on the University of Oxford’s First World War Poetry Digital Archive website
- Peter Fischl reading his poem, ‘To the Little Polish Boy Standing with His Arms Up’ on YouTube
- the Poetry Archive website
- the Academy of American Poets’ Poets.org website.