Siegfried Sassoon

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Why do some writers choose poetry instead of fiction or autobiography when writing about their experiences? What can poetry offer an artist that other genres might not?

Some writers choose poetry rather than fiction or autobiography when writing about their experiences because poetry allows them to universalize their experience. It is a form that offers emotional intensity without the development of a complicated plot or characters. For example, in "Suicide in the Trenches," Siegfried Sassoon is able to universalize the horror of war in a few quick strokes by using an everyman figure who commits suicide.

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Some authors are drawn to the genre of poetry because it can express emotion more compactly and intensely than narrative fiction or autobiography. The kind of lyrical poetry popular in the last few hundred years is short. It doesn't depend on the slow unfolding of plot to make its point,...

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Some authors are drawn to the genre of poetry because it can express emotion more compactly and intensely than narrative fiction or autobiography. The kind of lyrical poetry popular in the last few hundred years is short. It doesn't depend on the slow unfolding of plot to make its point, and it doesn't require elaborate character development. It also doesn't require a reader to sit for hours reading to understand the point.

Siegfried Sassoon turned intensely against war when he fought it in World War I, and he critiqued the way leaders in England were, he believed, prolonging it at the cost of many young lives. Because of its short form, poetry allowed him to crystallize and express his emotions about war in a way that universalized the experience. For example, in "Suicide in the Trenches," he writes:

In winter trenches, cowed and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.

We learn almost nothing about the young man who killed himself except that he was a simple soul with an optimistic attitude until he was forced to endure trench warfare. By writing a short poem about him that has shock value, Sassoon uses this young man as an everyman to express the horror many soldiers felt about the war rather than personalizing the war as an autobiography would. This poem also allowed Sassoon, in quick strokes, to bitterly attack the public, which applauded and enabled warfare without any idea of its real cost:

You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you'll never know
The hell where youth and laughter go.

By writing poems, Sassoon was able to deliver an emotional punch and quickly appeal to a broad audience that shared his distress over the lives wasted in the war. His writing became not about him but about the horror of war.

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