The greatest war poet of all time in the mind of my second grade English teacher Mr. Stott who insisted on teaching us nothing but First World War poetry for the entirety of the school year. Our classes would consist of him pointing to a pupil, making them come to the front of class and read aloud from a the classic First World War poetry anthology book, “Men Who March Away.” In our six year-old voices, we would tremulously recite poems of mass slaughter, the experience of being mustard gassed, or the trauma of shellshock. Stott would sit with his feet on the desk and hands behind his head, as tears rolled down his cheeks, weeping openly wept before us.
Wilfred Owen’s poetry dominated that year. An English soldier bard who fought and died in the First World War trenches of France as an infantryman, writing a trove of poems that were published posthumously including “Anthem for a Doomed Youth,” “Futility, “Mental,” and “Disabled Cases.” I can still recite one of the poems by memory. "Dulce et Decorum est," a poem about watching a fellow soldier suffocate during a gas attack. The line “In all my dreams, before my helpless sight, He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning” gave me nightmares, and occasional bedwetting episodes until my early teens.
Mr. Stott did not care, and in 1980s England, none of the parents complained. On occasion Stott would become so overwhelmed by the thoughts the poetry conjured in his imagination, he would sadly roll himself a cigarette, blowing his nose theatrically before lifting it to his lips, and mumbling a Wilfred Owen quote which, in his mind, was the reason why we were studying this devastating body of work at such a tender age: “"All a poet can do today is warn” lads,” he would intone. “All the poem can do is warn. That is why the true poet must be truthful."