A Week in Books

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
FOR SHEER venom and tail-biting treachery, a gaggle of thwarted poets will always make a nest of vipers look like an Ecstasy-fuelled love- in at the Samaritans. But the torrent of bile that has greeted Andrew Motion's appointment to the Laureateship must set some sort of record for misdirected bitchery. For the past couple of days, I've been humming that line from the saturnine Bard of Trafford - Steven Morrissey, in his Smiths heyday. "We hate it when our friends become successful...". Precisely. The prize for best pre-pubescent hissy-fit goes to a spectacularly horrid little piece in the Guardian, which gleefully quoted scatalogical libels against Motion from anonymous sources in a "news" story .

Don't pay this bunch of sulky losers any heed. Instead, seek out the handy recent volume of Motion's Selected Poems 1976-1997 (Faber, pounds 9.99) and make up your own mind. Motion has indicated that he wishes to broaden the Laureate's remit and embrace more topical material. A Kosovo lament may even be in the offing. Should the heart sink or soar? It depends.

The wars and massacres of this blood-boltered century have left in their wake a richly disturbing hoard of zealous or elegiac verse. The trouble is that much of the finest fails to show the liberal angst most British readers, schooled in Owen and Sassoon, expect from the military muse.

Our century begins with Kipling lending his superb technical virtuosity to Imperialist brags or anti-Semitic rants. On balance, the First World War bred many more gory paeans to the flag than cries of anguish from the trenches. Then Yeats celebrates the "terrible beauty" of a few dozen IRA chancers at Easter 1916 while many thousands of Irish volunteers died unsung in Flanders for the Crown.

And so it goes. Brecht and Mayakovsky write invigorating lyrics in praise of Leninist dictatorship; in the other camp, Pound and Eliot fall in love with the aesthetic ideal, if not the street-brawling actuality, of early European Fascism. The strongest English poem from the Spanish Civil War remains Auden's "Spain", with its chilling defence of "the necessary murder". Auden later disowned it, but its logic seems quite unassailable. Now our taxes pay for the "necessary murder" of make-up girls at Serb TV.

Anthology-compilers like to sell the notion that poets at war voice impeccably pacific sentiments. Not at all. The finest poems of combat often gloat or spur as much as they mourn. Prospective bards of battle should bear that in mind before they tiptoe into this artistic minefield. And this fierce native tradition of belligerence in verse goes back quite a way. When John Milton heard about the massacre of Italian Protestants in 1655, he responded with a sonnet that has far more to do with rage than reconciliation. "Avenge, O Lord, thy slaughtered saints, whose bones/ Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold...". The operative word here is "avenge". Somehow, you feel that Milton would not have been content with air strikes from 15,000 feet.