Saturday, 25 July 2009

Poems about Iraq and Afghanistan

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.
He slumps
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.


  1. I was going to send you a link to this article and to my amazement when I put the details into Google, instead of coming up with the Guardian article, your blog came up. How do you manage it? Congratulations!

  2. I can only assume that my blog gets more hits than the Guardian article!

  3. Hi Tim

    Can I point out that my poem doesn't in fact call the RAF Jihadists? It says that Jihadists also train in the Dale, where you will know the 7/7/ bombers did, amongst others.

    All the best

    Ian Duhig

  4. Thank you, Ian. At the very least, the punctuation allows my reading. Of course, I am happy to accept that your intention was different, and I will revise the original post to draw attention to your comment.

    This is the stanza:

    The RAF train overhead -
    Jihadists also, up the Dale;
    a homeless monk with steady hands:
    another serpent bites its tail.

  5. Perhaps poets should be warned by some of the celebrity authors who offered us their mind-numbing banalities about 9/11 in The Guardian and elsewhere. Even if we agree that the writer can be a valuable moral witness (many do not but I still insist in principle on doing so) it's advisable to speak only when you have something to say. Was it Heaney who quoted the old Ulster saying: "Whatever you say, say nothing." Not quite good enough as a rule for writers but it's still worth pausing before opening one's mouth.

  6. As well as Matthew Hollis's fine poem I think Jane Weir's 'Poppies' is worthy of mention, for she captures perfectly the mixed emotions of a mother ('All my words / flattened, rolled, turned into felt')sending her son off to fight; the mundane details of 'Sellotape bandaged around my hand, / I rounded up as many white cat hairs / as I could', the vivid image of his hair like 'gelled / blackthorns' and the mother's nostalgia for the son's childhood 'your playground voice' all contribute to the powerful effect. This is a poem that repays careful reading.

  7. Yeats didn't know much about war, so I don't know who he was to lecture O'Casey. But he wrote good poems about it. You can write magnificent war poems from bias and ignorance and even cynicism, and crap ones from deep knowledge, experience and purity of motive.
    I find the suggestion on this blog – however much I concur with many the literary opinions it emits - that there's some kind of moral and intellectual position from which a poet is allowed and not allowed to write war poetry rather prescriptive.
    Your point about the Duhig poem - that it's ambiguous - seems self-defeating: the serpents biting their tails refers to the UK places where Jihadists and the RAF trained. It's very different from saying the Jihadists are , or are like , the RAF. It seems rather a neat way of pointing up the double standards and generally involuted politics behind the Iraq war. I don't see that as a failing in the poem, or indeed an egregious or indulgent thing to say. It isn't making any self-promotional claim on its author's behalf and it can't be construed as a poem parading unique sensitivity or insight. Unlike some of the others. Likewise the Muldoon poem doesn't seem especially 'frivolous'. That's just a value judgment on your part, and I'm not sure how the poem of his you quote and say is 'great' is in a different league or comes from a different place.
    As I said I agree with your judgments on most of this stuff, but I take them as judgments by a knowledgeable person. Not gospel. And certainly not prescription.

  8. Of course my opinions are my opinions and not gospel. I'm blogging, not bringing down a tablet from Mount Sinai.

    I'll try to answer each of your points, though in no particular order:

    Which of Yeats's poems about war are you thinking of? He knew a great deal about the Easter Rising and the Irish Civil War, and he wrote some of his best poems about those wars. He approached the First World War far more rarely and far more obliquely --- certainly more obliquely than O'Casey.

    As for Ian Duhig's poem, the problem is the dash, which seems to imply that the RAF are Jihadists. That is not what the author wanted, but I can point you to any number of punctuation rulebooks and websites if you're interested. I make no other negative claims specifically about the Duhig poem.

    I'd be surprised if you found anyone willing to agree that Muldoon's two-line 'Afghanistan' bears comparison with 'The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants' --- but as you point out, that's offered as a judgement not a prescription.

    You claim that I suggest that 'there's some kind of moral and intellectual position from which a poet is allowed and not allowed to write war poetry'. Poets can do what they like. That doesn't mean that readers have to approve their decisions. I don't think that there's any one acceptable 'position', but at the risk of sounding like a critic of the Kama Sutra, I believe that some positions are better than others. Who doesn't? If you're interested, you might like to look up James Campbell's essay and my discussion on this very topic, here:

  9. Hi Tim

    Sorry for the delay in getting back. The reason I don't think your reading of those lines makes sense is that it would require the RAF to be both "overhead" and "up the Dale". Surely they mean that the RAF are overhead and the Jihadists, a separate entity, are located separately, i.e. up the Dale?

    Best wishes


  10. Ian --- I can see that we're going to be forensically debating commas and dashes long after everyone else has given up and gone home!

    I take your point. But to me, 'The RAF, who are also Jihadists, are training overhead, up the dale' makes more sense than 'The RAF are training overhead, as are Jihadists, up the dale'.

    As an anonymous comment above points out, the last line can also be understood as bringing together RAF and Jihadists: in the end, they're the same serpent.

  11. I am thinking of those two Yeats poems you mention, yes.
    My point about Muldoon's poem , and your and my judgment o f it, is that the judgments, yours and mine, come without any explanatory reasoning. As you say you're blogging, so there are economies of scale, but you do have this tendency to write poems off as good, bad or less bad or appalling etc., without really saying why.
    As in the 'astnoshingly dreadful' Motion poem you mention.
    Then I'm not clear what the relationship is between your comment that most of the poems in the Guardian are bad and the fact that they were commissioned (I don;t think the Hollis pun on 'uncommissioned sea' is at all clever, but you do) and , you imply, accompanied by a fat cheque from Guardian. What's the problem - or rather which is the worse problem: that were paid for or that they're bad. Or are the two connected? etc.
    At the bottom of the comments you make is a view, never wholly expressed, that certain people have a 'right' to write about war and others don't. Sometimes that right is aesthetic, other times it's to do with personal experience, yet others it's to do with acquired knowledge.
    Take the Motion poem Casus Belli you describe as 'astonishingly dreadful'. It's not very good, no, but on the other hand it isn't really 'about war', it's about reasons for going to war. Some of the poems in that supplement - the Duhig and the Duffy - were also about reasons for going to war. (Others were silly exoticised sympathy-and-self-aggrandizement exercises with a few Iraqi place names for specificity and an atrocity to condemn for moral compass).
    My point, rather laboursomely stated, is that it's perfectly legitimate for a writer to write a poem about the politics behind the Iraq war (and to another extent the Afghan 'mission'), because the reasons for which that war was prosecuted and the information which the public was given are essentially public property. It's not like WW1 or WW2. One doesn;t need to be there, or suffer its direct consequences, or even know about the conditions on the ground, to have an informed opinion on the reasons for going to war. Whether one writes a good poem or a bad poem out of it is another question.
    But what I'm not sure about is whether you're making moral judgments or literary ones, or indeed whether your objection to the Duhig poem is literary or moral.
    and so on.
    I'm not talking here about obviously crass and opportunistic ventures like Todd Swift's 100 Poets against the war anthology or the Faber version of the same, which I imagine we agree on.

  12. Dear Anonymous,

    Whoever you are, you have better Latin than Andrew Motion, who wrote 'Causa Belli', not 'Casus Belli'.

    I said this in my post: '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.' I think you're ascribing views to me about whether 'one needs to be there' which I haven't expressed.

    Yes, I suspect we do agree about Todd Swift's anthology!

  13. "I think you're ascribing views to me about whether 'one needs to be there' which I haven't expressed."

    apologies if I am - I don't mean to imply anything that crude, and I wholly agree about the 'concerned civilian' point you make. What I am genuinely puzzled about is the conflation of moral opportunism and literary poor quality that is often made - that you make , I think, in your piece about the Guardian's feature. You move from literary judgment of the poems to the imputation of cynicism to the poets in ways that I don't follow and that I don't think follow themselves.
    I also think the distinction between poems that claim to write about on the ground suffering (and do it badly and clichés) and poems that take on the ambient issues of why and how we went to war, and the politics behind it, needs to be drawn. The distinction needs to be drawn because the two kinds of poem make different claims. Doesn't mean the one is better than the other of course.
    Anyway - enough. I like this blog and I like the topic, and it's refreshing to find a poetry site that doesn't add to the boosterist glut that passes for poetry discussion these days.

  14. Hi Tim

    I'm sorry if you think I've gon on about the poem, but it wasn't me who started bandying about strange interpretations of it.

    However, on the issue of cynicism and commissions, I feel I must add that it wasn't a paid commission; I wasn't offered money and haven't received any.

    Best wishes


  15. Thank you, Ian. I'm happy to be told about the money. I didn't call any poets cynical. The cynicism was ascribed to a critic taking 'the cynical view'. That said, I am surprised and impressed if no one ends up being offered a cheque for their efforts.

    As for my interpretation being 'strange', readers of your poem can judge for themselves. The alternative is that we can quote rules of punctuation at each other, which may yet happen, but which seems to me too grisly even to contemplate.

  16. Tim, as always, this spot feeds me as a war artist. As I am currently out camping in the middle of the great Canadian Prairies (for once not with the infantry, for once with a shower and clean clothes, for once eating fresh food instead of rations!), I can't get a copy of the Guardian article. Having said that, I prefer to save reading others' take on Afghanistan until I return from there myself. Speaking of which, I just found out my dates for 'deployment' to Afghanistan... exciting but daunting at the same time.