Today's Guardian carries a number of poems commissioned by Carol Ann Duffy about war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The cynical attitude to this exercise would read as follows: some of these poets had not thought to address the issue before, but a request from the Poet Laureate, together with a cheque and publication in the Guardian, are enough to provoke the obligatory hand-wringing. The usual suspects and the usual politics are out in force. (Ian Duhig's poem risks seeming to call the RAF 'Jihadists', but see the comments below.) Duffy says in her introduction that 'British poets in our early 21st century do not go to war'; no, they sit at home writing about it. (There are, contra Duffy, poets who have served in the warzones, but they are silently excluded.) Not one of these poems is news that will stay news; they are soon-to-be-forgotten froth. But the poems aren't really about the poetry; they aren't even about the wars.
All of the above is, I think, true, but it isn't quite the whole truth. Poets are damned if they do and damned if they don't. Rejecting Sean O'Casey's The Silver Tassie in 1928, Yeats told the playwright, 'you are not interested in the great war; you never stood on its battlefields or walked its hospitals, and so write out of your own opinions.' None of the poets commissioned by Duffy is interested enough in the wars to visit the warzones in any capacity. (Compare John Balaban, a conscientious objector who spent decades teaching in Vietnam during and after the war there.) But then, few of us are 'interested' enough to do that. Carol Ann Duffy deserves praise for broaching the subject, and her own poem 'Big Ask', while not belonging among her best work, is at least better than Andrew Motion's astonishingly dreadful 'Causa Belli'.
The poetry of the concerned civilian who, nevertheless, leads a normal life in which awareness of the wars plays only a small part is perfectly valid, and is needed. But most poets overplay their hand, insisting that we appreciate their heightened sensitivity to the news bulletins, or that we recognise their special disgust at war. They want to tell us what we already know, but they want to tell us that they know it more than we do. They feel it. Several of Duffy's poets fall spectacularly into that trap. The better poems claim no more than they are entitled to, like Matthew Hollis's Edward-Thomas-inflected 'Landlock', with its cunning reference to 'the uncommissioned sea'. To be commissioned, Hollis hints, is to be tamed. He knows exactly what is expected of him, and resists in the act of accepting.
Two or three of these poets have written about contemporary wars before. Paul Muldoon's Horse Latitudes, for example, gives considerable attention to war in Iraq. Muldoon is an old hand at writing about violence. His two-line poem here ('It's getting dark, but not dark enough to see / An exit wound as an exit strategy') is a frivolous thing, held together only by the heavy play on 'exit', but it does bring to mind a passage from his great poem of the Troubles, 'The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants':
You could, if you like, put your fist
in the exit wound
in his chest.
in the spume of his own arterial blood
like an overturned paraffin lamp.
The voyeurism, the wildly inappropriate language, the artistic delight in figurative possibilities --- this knows the cost of translating atrocity into art, and gives us the full horror unmediated by pity. With the exception of David Harsent, apparently uncommissioned by Carol Ann Duffy despite the success of Legion, no anglophone poet of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has yet come close to that achievement.
Postscript, June 2011: if you are looking for analysis of Jane Weir's 'Poppies', you will find it here.