Showing posts with label Afghanistan. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Afghanistan. Show all posts

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Why Images of Warfare always need Words


Ben MacIntyre in today's Times argues for the 'immediacy' and 'revelatory' force of war photographs. His article is titled 'Pictures of war carry more moral meaning than thousands of words'. He is completely wrong. Images of warfare depend on words. Without words, they invite such an excess of meaning that they become, in effect, meaningless.

Take the photograph above, which is the cue for MacIntyre's claim. What are we looking at? There seem to be three soldiers, one of whom lies on the side of an earthen bank. Their faces are blurred or turned away. There is a tree in the background, which even the most expert arbiculturalist would be unable to identify. This may be a training exercise in the US, or it may be an image from Afghanistan or Iraq. The horizontal soldier may have slipped, or may have been shot. He may be rolling down the bank, or he may be still. Is he dead or alive? Is he fooling around?

Similar games can be played with Capa's Falling Soldier, which is why it matters whether we are seeing a soldier being killed or an actor acting. Without the verbal context to help us read the image, the image loses all force. Francisco de Goya, perhaps the greatest Western artist to depict the disasters of war, understood this well enough to turn it to his advantage. His images are accompanied by his own mysterious commentaries, which unsettle the viewer/reader in their oblique relationships.

I will happily admit that the photograph, reproduced on the Times website, may be clearer in the original, though no amount of visual clarity will provide enough context. That's another thing about photographs: unlike words, they lose detail as they are reproduced. And words can't be photoshopped.

So Ben MacIntyre claims that this picture is worth more than thousands of words. He might have said, more accurately, that it is worth nothing without words. He is immediately obliged to provide a commentary which gives the image its meaning:

Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard lies on his side in the Afghan earth, his gun still clutched in his hand. The air is speckled with the dust thrown up by the rocket-propelled grenade that has just been fired from a grove of pomegranate trees, blowing off one of Bernard’s legs.

As the camera shutter clicks, two other US Marines, blurred in their frantic efforts to save his life, are shouting: “Bernard, you’re doing fine. You’re gonna make it.”

The 21-year-old soldier did not make it.

Powerful stuff, which the photograph is hopelessly ill-equipped to do for itself.

Monday, 24 August 2009

The Idea of War Poetry as a Burst Blister

I was on BBC Radio Wales this morning, discussing the soldier-poets of Iraq and Afghanistan and comparing them, in two minutes flat, to their First World War predecessors. The BBC had taken its lead from this story in yesterday's Sunday Express: 'Like a blister burst by the unbearable chafing of the Afghanistan conflict, war poetry has come back into the public domain.' That's some image --- war poetry as a blister emptied of its, well, its contents. Or perhaps the image got out of control, and war poetry was meant to be the contents rather than the blister, which would explain why it grabbed the public's attention as it exploded everywhere.
Photograph courtesy of the excellent Photobucket.

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.

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.

Saturday, 21 March 2009

Send Andrew Motion to Afghanistan

In a valedictory essay as Poet Laureate summarised in today's Guardian, Andrew Motion strikes a familiarly self-pitying note. Writing Laureate poems has been hard. Worse still, editors of newspapers phone round to find someone willing to say how bad each of his official poems is: 'Then they have their story --- poet laureate writes another no-good poem.' On the bright side, Motion reveals that he has friends in high places: 'I've certainly never looked for thanks from the royal family, and have only been surprised and touched when it has come. (Which it has, from the Queen, Prince Charles and --- for the poem I wrote about her 100th birthday --- the late Queen Mother).' The parenthetical elaboration is priceless.

Some of Motion's own poetry I quite like, but when it comes to war poetry he is of the 'sad shires' school, uselessly wringing his hands over the pity and futility of it all. His afterword to 101 Poems Against War, with its bland anti-war rhetoric and its assumption of an easy consensus, infuriated me. Motion doesn't want war poems to challenge or dismay or unsettle him; he only wants poems which keep harmony with his melancholic mood music. As he has approvingly stated, 'We can guess what attitude poets will take to a conflict before we read a line they have written about it.' Predictability has become a poetic strength.

Motion acknowledges one regret during his tenure as Poet Laureate: 'I wish ... that someone had flown me to Iraq and Afghanistan and encouraged me to write about the wars in those places.' Andrew, with your connections you could have made it happen, and you didn't. You still can. Instead of sighing like a poor man's Edward Thomas about what might have been, why not take inspiration from a Canadian poet, Suzanne Steele, who will be going out to Afghanistan as a war artist later this year? I, for one, would be genuinely keen to read your poetry from the war zone. Rather that than an official poem about the Queen Mother's birthday.