Poets of War

Where are the war poets now? From Bosnia to Baghdad, they are still raising their voices. Current theatres of conflict call for new visions in verse of war – and peace…

The tremendous flowering of the First World War poets is often seen as the last time British poetry combined accessibility, beauty and big themes. By comparison, contemporary poetry can be dismissed as out of touch with both its readers and the urgent questions of the day. Commentators, in English at least, often ask where today’s war poems are.

But what if this is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how poetry works? Suppose that there are poets who engage with the contemporary facts of war, but in ways that demonstrate integrity appropriate to their own time and place? After all, we could say that writing about bombs and bullets without direct experience of either is a sort of fakery. It insults those for whom such experiences are all too real.

Philip Larkin’s elegy for the Great War generation, “MCMXIV”, written in 1960, famously implies that the unprecedented conflict itself broke up a social order: “Never such innocence…/ As changed itself to past/ Without a word.” This is only partly true. Edwardian Britain was already a society in transition. As Suffragettes struggled for votes for women, and Ireland for independence, a new class of white-collar workers were struggling, like EM Forster’s concert-going Leonard Bast in Howards End, to gain an education.

When war broke out, these young men would for the first time give the “other ranks” in the thick of battle a voice. Poets like Ivor Gurney, David Jones and Isaac Rosenberg were part not of an officer class, but of the rank-and-file sent “up the line to die” in conditions and on a scale more horrifying than any yet seen.

Small wonder that they needed a new kind of poetry. But the fury in Wilfred Owen’s ironic title “Dulce et Decorum Est”, or Sigfried Sassoon’s “Base Details” with its “scarlet Majors back at base” who “toddle safely home and die – in bed”, reminds us that the literary tradition of armchair valour their young officers had inherited was in need of renewal too.

Partly this was because it was a public poetry. Alfred Tennyson’s mid-19th-century classic ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’ evokes the grandeur of sacrifice. But as the nursery-rhyme gallop of those notorious dactyls “Half a league, half a league, / Half a league onward” suggests, it’s poetry italabout an idea about war.endital. It doesn’t engage with the chaos of actual experience.

The wry tone and use of traditional forms in Rudyard Kipling’s Barrack-Room Ballads, published in the 1890s, are similar distancing devices, a kind of “once upon a time” that makes them sound proverbial rather than lived. Even though the poem is fictionalised, a different music creeps in to “My Boy Jack”, written in 1915 after Kipling’s beloved son had disappeared on the Western Front:

“Have you news of my boy Jack?”

Not this tide.

“When d’you think that he’ll come back?”

Not with this wind blowing, and this tide.

This is a note we recognise from Edward Thomas’s poems, like “Lights Out” and “Out in the Dark”, written as he waited for his fatal call-up: a lyric softening that was to become the dominant, elegaic English tone.

Inevitably, for Second World War poets this tone would in turn seem worn-out, perhaps over-consolatory, and ripe to be broken apart by a new, modern poetics. It’s striking that so many of the Second World War poems we still read, apart from Henry Reed’s famous internal dialogue, “The Naming of Parts”, are air-raid poems: Edith Sitwell’s “Still Falls the Rain”, Dylan Thomas’s “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” and even Stephen Spender’s “Thoughts During an Air Raid”.

Complex and reflexive, these put the individual civilian’s feelings at their centre in a way that more closely resembles Louis MacNeice’s 1938 Autumn Journal, a record of existential, political and personal unease in the face of gathering threat, than Laurie Lee’s or Spender’s own rather romantic poems of the Spanish Civil War.

Yet both Tennyson and Kipling had spoken successfully to and for their own time and place. Perhaps this is because, in recent centuries, the collective British experience of conflict has been largely off-shore. There is a reason why tyro writers are encouraged to “write from what you know”. Being able to enter imaginatively into the experience of others may be the basis of morality but, since empathy is necessarily theoretical, cannot always produce great poetry.

However, recent conflicts have generated dispatches from the front line, even in English-language verse. The American soldier-poet Brian Turner’s second collection, Phantom Noise (Bloodaxe, £8.95), is a crammed, vivid account of soldiering. Turner doesn’t tell us that his experiences of serving in Iraq and former Yugoslavia were high-octane. The accumulated detail and speedy diction – long, comma’d sentences that can run for four decades, as well as the length of a poem – show us this. To read them is to read at speed; shocked and jostled by the repeated presence of corpses as by flashback’s slippage between times and places.

In “Al-A’imma Bridge”, for example, “They fall from the bridge into the Tigris – / they fall from railings or tumble down, shoved by panic,/ by those in the crushing weight behind them, / mothers with children, seventy-year-old men/ clawing at the blue and empty sky, which is too beautiful”.

Turner’s compatriot, Yusef Komunyakaa, well-known for such tough yet transformative accounts of experiences in the Vietnam war as Dien Cai Dau (1988), continues to call his country to account. Yet servicemen and -women don’t have a monopoly on personal experiences of war. Fellow-American Jorie Graham’s family connection to the Holocaust means there’s a hinterland of affect in her work which she can draw on in creating a voice that struggles to make sense of the senseless in “From the New World”: “they were all in there, the coiling and uncoiling/ billions, / the about-to-be-seized,/ the about to be held down”.

In Britain, David Harsent’s highly influential Legion is inflected by the fate of friends who lived through the siege of Sarajevo. They included Goran Simic, whose poems appeared in Harsent’s translations as Sprinting from the Graveyard.

Harsent’s own poems solve the problem of what we could call emotional entitlement – aren’t we voyeurs if we try to make other people’s suffering our own? – through a series of narrative persona poems. This employment of personae is echoed by the use other contemporary poets – perhaps most distinctively Michael Longley in Northern Ireland, and the ex-soldier Christopher Logue in London – have make of reworked classical verse. In Logue’s War Music sequence, Homer offers a voice through which to make new poetry about the oldest of experiences.

In Harsent’s poem “The Goodwife’s’ Tale”, a survivor insists that “I wasn’t touched”, and the inability to tell is a common legacy of war. But the unspeakable also has a special relationship to poetry: the literary form whose role is particularly, as TS Eliot said, to make “raids on the inarticulate”. When Theodor Adorno famously wrote that “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric”, he was talking about a culture of collusion, and how the lyric surface can close over and remake a story.

That difficulty remains. The Palestinian American Fady Joudah, author of The Earth in the Attic (2008), is an Accident and Emergency doctor who has worked with Médecins sans Frontières in Darfur and with refugees in Zambia. His second collection addresses the horrors he dealt with there. But, like Holocaust survivor Paul Celan’s own “poems after Auschwitz”, his is a language which refuses – as in “Schoolgirl” – to join up into a stable, unitary narrative:

Boys in prison cells

And outside the kids play stretcher

One of them was dying

Between my hands you think

Commands injections things

To make the time pass

As hope or action

Joudah is among the poets invited to this year’s Poetry International festival. Its theme is “Imagining Peace”, and the organisers point to the intentions of founders Patrick Garland and Ted Hughes. They saw poetry as a “universal language of understanding”. But “happiness writes white”, as Henri de Montherlant said, and perhaps a genuine poetry of peace is only possible within a poetry of war.

Also appearing is the Iraqi poet Nabeel Yasi. After being exiled for decades, he has become a national figure in the same way as the Greek Yannis Ritsos and the Palestinian Mahmoud Darwish. Several of the festival poets belong to that constituency of civilians on whom war is so often acted out, as perhaps it always has been. Among them, the Palestinians Mourid Barghouti, Suheir Hammad and Nathalie Handel, writing about daily life “in a time of war”, remind the British reader of how Northern Irish poetry has had to face the Troubles.

Among the poets to deal most explicitly with that conflict is Ciaran Carson, who came to prominence with The Irish for No and Belfast Confetti. His work continues to be haunted by images of violence, for example in the 2008 verse-novel For All We Know. Difficulty and danger enter his poetry in disguise; as they do that of the great Slovenian poet Tomaz Salamun, another Poetry International visitor. Salamun, a controversial figure in Tito’s Yugoslavia, uses a perverse surrealism to play with the familiar Central European symbolist tradition and the icons of Slovenian national identity.

From these poets who “tell it slant”, to the poetry of silence and omissions, real encounters with war are rarely simply reducible to tabloid terms, to be instantly recognised by those of us with less experience. War keeps entering verse in new ways. We can be sure it will continue to do so.

Poetry International 2010, “Imagining Peace”, takes place at the Southbank Centre, London SE1, from 30 October to 7 November: southbankcentre.co.uk. Fiona Sampson’s latest collection, ‘Rough Music’ (Carcanet), has been shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize.

The Independent

October 29, 2010

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