By Jingo with Grace, Basho and other literary warriors: Books

Geoff Nuttall is pleasantly surprised by a new anthology of war poetry
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The Independent Culture
The Faber Book of War Poetry edited by Kenneth Baker, Faber, pounds 20

I must confess that this anthology won a small victory for itself as soon as I opened its pages. I had assumed that there would be a heavy emphasis on the First World War poets because "war poetry" as a term has become almost synonymous with their work. Then, I assumed, there would be Henry Reed, Keith Douglas, Sidney Keyes and so on from the Second World War. Modernist poets, I assumed, would be, as usual, excluded. I was quite wrong.

First I looked for Dylan Thomas's "Refusal To Mourn". It was there. Then I looked for something from David Jones and was delighted to find a short extract from "In Parenthesis" about rats. Thirdly I looked for Bunting and found a fine piece of sea music from Briggflats about a Gaelic battlefield on Stainmore. W.S.Graham had a long poem, "The Conscript Goes", and a short poem about a homecoming amputee. Pound was there with a translation from the ancient Chinese poet Basho. Jorge Luis Borges had a poem about a Briton and (I assume) an Argentinian, of similar loves and interests, killing one another. There was Carl Sandburg, Guilliaume Appollinaire and even a surrealist, Louis Aragon.

Humbled by the nice surprise, I read on to find oddities I would not have known about, never mind expected. Grace Paley, well-known for her terse, wry stories of post-Sixties New York, contributes a "found" poem consisting entirely of the loss-statistics of a Vietnamese village. I have long been an admirer of Robert Garioch but I didn't know his war poetry. It was good to find it here and interesting to note how, alongside Hamish Henderson, Sorley MacLean, W.S.Graham and the great McDiarmid, he demonstrates how well-suited the Scottish voice is when it comes to dealing with the ironies and dislocation of war. Emily Dickinson was not known to me as a war poet. Neither was Dorothy Parker, while Edgar Wallace was not known to me as a poet at all but here are three dynamic stanzas about a hospital tent adroitly juxtaposed with Walt Whitman on the same subject.

There are omissions. August Stramm's onomatopoeic squibs should be here. One short excerpt from "In Parenthesis" is not enough from the finest long poem about war to have appeared in this century of terrible wars. Louis MacNeice is represented only by "Streets Of Laredo". He penned stronger stuff in those perilous years. There are poems of war-mongering from Arabic, Oriental and Ancient Greek cultures so maybe a Hutu war chant might have been dug out. There is nothing from the American Indian warrior- culture. And, apart from the Borges piece, where the location is not specified, the Falklands debacle seems not to have been inspirational.

But for all that the net is wide. It makes it possible to see that war enables poets, and, indeed, artists in general, to avoid the tentative and the moderated, to realise that the best work is done at a stroke with total subjective certainty because there is no time for postponement. It is also possible to see that the verse collected here falls into four main categories - Folk, Bombast, Heroic and Undeceived. The folk material is well represented. There is the superb ballad, Arthur McBride, and a whole bunch of bawdy songs culled from those collected by Martin Page.

Bombast comes by the yard and there's never a shortage, least of all here. These are the recruiting songs, the patriotic pop-anthems and the victory-celebration pieces. The original "By Jingo" lyric is included. There's a lot of Kipling but I wouldn't put him in this category. His is the rattle of a different drum.

The heroic poetry here is predominantly ancient - long extracts from The Iliad, from Hebrew and Islamic texts. Christopher Logue's free "accounts" of the books of The Iliad achieve a fresh crispness that the close translations of George Chapman are denied. Something has gone from the human make-up since this work was written and probably a good thing too.

The real surgical knife of art goes into the rotten hulk of war in the undeceived work of the 20th century, starting with Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and all the hurt boys who suffered the helplessness of the Somme and saw the vile wastage. There is superb and uncompromising work from the Second World War and the Vietnam War.

Kenneth Baker doesn't order his book into the categories listed above. His anthology is divided according to subject matter, from Dulce Et Decorum Est through The Patriotic Imperative, Off To The Wars, Martial Music, Recruiting and Remembrance and Peace; 66 sections in all. While this makes for variety it also seems to imply a distanced attitude to the subject, a sort of literary Imperial War Museum whose curator assumes that war is here to stay and that these are its many remarkable faces, a display created by a man who neither rattles swords nor kisses doves; but then, perhaps an editor may bear some psychological disadvantages when you recall under whom he served.