written and posted by members of Lancashire Dead Good Poets' Society

Sunday, 20 November 2011

A Time for War

13:09:00 Posted by Damp incendiary device 8 comments
by John Siddique

In the White Goddess Robert Graves speaks about the poet's role in ancient wars. He tells how the poet belonging to each faction would go above the battlefield to observe together, and how they would write the deeds, losses, blood and truth of the day. How it could be only the eye of the poet which could be trusted with these 'truths' and the poets' conclusions would be accepted and the lands divided thusly. Poets have often found themselves in places where great changes are taking place, my own poetic hero Pablo Neruda was seriously considered as contender for president of Chile, before he stepped aside for Allende… And it also worth the other way round as people in power often turn to poetry, for why? I'd love to know your thoughts on this.

I am of the school that believes poetry is a natural part of life. In this part of the West there is a tendency to think of the arts as some kind of an add on to life. A nice thing if we had the time, 'Oh but we haven't got the time as we have to be serious about so many things and then there's the economy.' The arts are seen as pretty entertainments for the bourgeoisie, and unfortunately some poets haven't helped poetry by going along with this way of doing things. Current reviewing and 'tastemaking' practice has seen poetry become more driven by ego and strange ideas of self-gain than ever. Since when I wonder was there anything to be gained by being a poet except for the love of contributing to literature. Art is not just part of life - it is life. Poetry takes you right into the moment, or the scene, where life is not trapped like an insect in amber, but where it is a living spark kept just for the individual reader to encounter and live with for the rest of their lives.

Consider what is perhaps the greatest war poem Dulce et Decorum Est. We are right in the trenches with the soldiers. Owen's capacity to include us in the marching, the noise, the mud and the death, but more importantly the nature of that moment is the key. Not that all poetry should be death and war, but each moment does have its spark, and our lives and stories are important. It is far too easy to be the lesser poet like Sassoon, so able yet always somehow looking at his own reflection in the bayonet when describing a scene. Our feelings and thoughts are important, but remember how mind and feelings are often liars; they are conditional responses. Poetry when practiced as literature goes beyond the conditional into the human condition. Poetry must climb that hill, take us in to the deeds and the blood, the sex, the life, the death, the fragility of the moment, the questions, the taste, and brightness of the day, the darkness of the night and all the other things it can do, but no more add on to life. Look at the time. Look where we are, have we not had enough diversions? It is time for war poetry.

John Siddique is the author of Full Blood (Salt)



Damp incendiary device said...

A thought provoking post. I've never contemplated the poet's position as an authority on realism before.

Personally, I have a lot of time for poets who imbue their observations with self-reflective elements. But I feel the same way about art. I'd rather look at a painting which is heavily subjective and personal to the artist than a realistic portrayal of a scene.

I realise that inevitably some of the poet will escape into even a careful and intricate description of a moment but, for me, if they want to open up some dark recesses inside themselves and colour the world with those, that's no bad thing. Scenes created from a combination of memory and imagination can be just as compelling as those recorded from real life. Liz Lochhead's 'Almost Miss Scotland' is a prime example of a scene from memory which has been manipulated by the poet to create a more vivid depiction of the original. This works for me. Perhaps the political aspects would have come across in a poem with less of Lochhead's self-reflection but personally I enjoy meeting those strong, and humorous, aspects of her personality via the poem.

I think this post will be the instigator of a lively debate :)

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

I wrote this piece because I love poetry and poets and literature so much, but sometimes find that we buy into mediocrity because of the fear of taking an honest risk. Not saying all poets do that, but we seem to be deluged with stuff with very little life at the moment in many of the magazines and so on.

I love biographical poems, but I want to meet the poet and/or the subject in them, I don't want easy abstraction and domesticity for the sake of it to get in the way.. the poet is always in the poem through their craft and choices anyway.

I know my Sassoon comment may rattle some.. but all i can say to that is 'Made you look!'. That's all I was trying to do... Actually really like a lot of Sassoon, but Owen really hits the spot for me much more

Anyway With love to anyone reading, may it make us think about our own practice a bit.

Ashley Lister said...


Thanks for joining us today here at the Dead Good Blog. As Vicky says - you've probably given us the seeds here for a lively debate.

Your comment that had me clicking on the comment box was this one:
"The arts are seen as pretty entertainments for the bourgeoisie, and unfortunately some poets haven't helped poetry by going along with this way of doing things."

I know this is true. But I also know that many poets have to eat and pretty entertainment usually pays a sight better than the truth.

Thanks for reminding us that it's never just as cut and dried as black ink on a white page.


Anonymous said...

An oblique post. If there was a post for poet in residence with the MOD in Afghanistannt do you think poet's would apply for it?

Unknown said...

RE AFGHANISTAN POET IN RESIDENCE - It's been done. American soldier poet by the name of Brian Turner, wrote a marvellous book called Here Bullet.

At beginning of the Iraq thing I actually wrote to MOD suggesting becoming an embedded poet. Never heard back..

Anonymous said...

Turner's rather different of course. Like Owen et al, "just" a soldier who wrote poems; not an officially sanctioned writer.

You answered my point about would a poet apply for an MOD post in an interesting way.

Unknown said...

Apologies Brian Turner was Iraq, not Afghanistan.. interestingly I think he studied poetry with Charles Simic before his time in Iraq.

I'm not sure an appointed poet would go down well as, and I'm only assuming this, there would be pressure to write from a certain point of view. I know with my work I insist on the freedom to write what needs writing, to respond openly to the calls of my muse, in whichever situation I'm writing. This is with commissioned work too.. after all if someone employs a particular poet, it is for their work they are wanted, not for them to be someone other than they are. I think poetry pushes for truth, and that may not work in a war setting for a poet in residence, unless that poet was happy to be a propagandist.