Monday, 10 August 2009

The 'Real' War Poets

Responding to Carol Ann Duffy's call for a 'new war poetry', Erica Wagner has set about finding 'the poets whose experience of conflict is direct, intimate, everyday'. She collects their work here --- poems from Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, Sri Lanka, Gaza. Her article is provocatively titled 'The real war poets'. Although she describes Duffy's commissioning of 'a slew of modern war poetry' as 'wholly admirable', the challenge to those British and American poets who have the comfortable benefit of writing 'at a distance' is loud enough. Old arguments about witness and entitlement are still alive, and still divide.

The Times website has not treated line-breaks and stanza-breaks in Wagner's selection kindly. That makes judgements about the poems treacherous. The only anglophone poem, Brian Turner's 'Ashbah', is not his strongest: it reads like Keith Douglas by numbers, with its lost and wandering revenants, desert wind, 'trash', and narrow alleys. As for the others, poetry in translation may be better than no poetry at all, but it is impossible to gauge how these poets sound. 'During my long, boring hours of spare time I sit to play with the earth's sphere', one poem begins. Shouldn't it be 'sit and play'? Is 'boring' not implied and therefore redundant? Shouldn't the 'earth's sphere' be replaced by 'a globe'? Who's at fault: the poet or the translator? It may not be a coincidence that what seems like the most impressive poem, Dunya Mikhail's 'Pronouns', is also the one which lends itself most readily to translation.

This selection is a valuable start, and I hope that Erica Wagner will expand it over time. So far, plenty of countries are represented, but by very few poems and poets. A much fuller offering from any given war or country would make it easier to understand the poetic traditions at work.


  1. You see, I think that a lot Brian Turner isn't very good, but every time I say so people attack because 'he was there'...
    everyone is so 'admirable' with their poems and their selections (which , when we call them 'admirable', we really mean not very good), but where are the good poems?

  2. I'm interested that they chose this piece over 'Here Bullet' or some of his others from the collection. I read 'Here Bullet' before I began my work with the infantry and have done so again midway through my project, and find it even more compelling.

    As for good and/or admirable, it's way too early to evaluate. We need time, perspective. Some of us are just bashing stuff out, knowing full well that our words are not going to last.

    All I can say is that as a war poet, while one is in the midst of war/war work, one is over-full with images, words, etc. I know I have a lifetime of work ahead of me. My only hope is that I'll sooner or later find the voice, the technique, the courage, I need to fully witness Afghanistan.