War poetry

Today, in The Guardian, Carol Ann Duffy introduced a collection of war poetry for today:

Poets, from ancient times, have written about war. It is the poet’s obligation, wrote Plato, to bear witness. In modern times, the young soldiers of the first world war turned the horrors they endured and witnessed in trench combat – which slaughtered them in their millions – into a vividly new kind of poetry, and most of us, when we think of “war poetry” will find the names of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon coming first to our lips, with Ivor Gurney, Isaac Rosenberg, Rupert Brooke … What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? … There’s some corner of a foreign field … Such lines are part of the English poetry reader’s DNA, injected during schooldays like a vaccine.

But other poems – not all by soldiers – also come to mind: Walt Whitman’s civil war poems; the poetry of Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam, written (or memorised) during the Stalinist terrors; Lorca’s poems from the Spanish civil war; the poems of the brilliant young Keith Douglas who was killed in the second world war; the poetry of Zbigniew Herbert from eastern Europe and Mahmoud Darwish from the Middle East, and of Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley from Northern Ireland.

British poets in our early 21st century do not go to war, as Keith Douglas did and Edward Thomas before him. They might be poet-journalists like James Fenton, the last foreign correspondent to leave Saigon after it fell to the Viet Cong in 1975, or electrifying anti-war performance poets, like the late Adrian Mitchell, or brilliant retellers of Homer’s Trojan wars, like Christopher Logue. War, it seems, makes poets of soldiers and not the other way round. Today, as most of us do, poets largely experience war – wherever it rages – through emails or texts from friends or colleagues in war zones, through radio or newsprint or television, through blogs or tweets or interviews. With the official inquiry into Iraq imminent and the war in Afghanistan returning dead teenagers to the streets of Wootton Bassett, I invited a range of my fellow poets to bear witness, each in their own way, to these matters of war.

The complete collection of poems can be found here.  I have to say that the only poem that made any impact for me was ‘Landlock’ by Matthew Hollis:

Rain came rarely to the white wood valley.
In between times, he did what he could,
cut rhubarb and gooseberries, brought flowers
from the hill: camel-thorn in winter, rest-harrow
in summer, rock-rose, barberry, mimosa.
He ground wormwood to settle her fever.
When the trouble was done he would take back the farm,
plant olive and cedar, build her a home.
But she thought mostly of the sea -
the uncommissioned sea -
wild at her, salt strong -
not the starving river, brackish and torn -
a river is never enough.
One of her wishes was to find her own path,
but the lowlands were locked down, the plains undone;
so they climbed, and climbed as one.
And when she could not walk he carried her
and when he could not carry her she walked.
Such as this the days went by, till his strength too was sapped.
He laid his back against the longer rock
and set her head that gently in his lap.
Sleep overtook them on the slope.
He woke to take the sunlight in his eyes
and could not see at first the greater distance,
the strange blue, stain blue light in the distance,
that seemed every bit to move, impossible, surely,
a thin drawn band of sea, somewhere meeting sky.
He raised her head that she might see it done.
But where she was she had already gone.

A few years ago, Matthew Hollis edited an altogether better selection, 101 Poems Against War.

There’s a War Poetry blog where Tim Kendall of Exeter University has a good go at the Carol Ann Duffy selection. He is currently working on a an overview of war poetry for OUP’s Very Short Introductions series.

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