The poetry is in the pity

As a book of poems written by members of the British Armed forces is published, the soldier and poet James Jeffrey explains why he chose to record the horrors of war.

November marks both the release of the book Heroes: 100 Poems from the New Generation of War Poets and the two-year point since I returned from Helmand province, Afghanistan, where I was attached to the Welsh Guards Battle Group during 2009.

Four of my poems are featured in the book and I am supportive of its launch and grateful to be included. Yet when I discovered the choice of title, my heart sank. The notion of heroism is the last thing motivating war poetry, be it mine or that written by the First World War poets I studied as a schoolboy. Underpinning such poetry is the urgent petition to reveal the truth that war is anything but heroic. It is a mess, bereft of the heroes of popular imagination. Afghanistan preceded by two Iraq tours forced me to confront that. And from it comes my poetry.

Previous war poetry has been written so well that I find myself questioning the use of even trying. Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, among others, encapsulated the horrors of the First World War so viscerally: their poetry is insurmountable.

Owen's statement – "My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity" – is well known, but another line, in the same preface to his collection Poems (1920), is not: "This book is not about heroes. English Poetry is not yet fit to speak of them."

How, if that was the situation after the First World War, could it be any different with Iraq and Afghanistan? English poetry is still not fit to speak of heroes – rather, as Owen further stated: "All the poet can do today is to warn." My poem "Coward" attempts this by reflecting on the wounds of today's soldiers: "I see the surgeon's work/ The politician's choice/ The people's lot."

Sassoon, wounded twice, awarded the Military Cross and nominated for a Victoria Cross, had no time for poetic allusions to heroism. In 1917, despairing of what he had witnessed, he wrote a letter entitled "Finished with the War: A Soldier's Declaration". It was published in The Times on 31 July and read out in the House of Commons.

In it, he stated: "On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practised upon them; also I believe it may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not enough imagination to realise."

Any reference to the heroic in Iraq and Afghanistan is a similar deception that disregards the agonies endured by both soldiers and civilians, which my poem "They Don't Seem to Realise" addresses: "It is indeed hard to say much/ Thinking of dead children/ The bags of scooped up flesh."

It appears that Owen and Sassoon's warnings have been lost among the din of today's heroic references and presentations glamourising combat. Recent book titles have included Dressed to Kill, Real Heroes: Courage Under Fire and In Foreign Fields: Heroes of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The last example appears to draw on Rupert Brooke's oft-quote "The Soldier": "If I should die, think only this of me:/ That there's some corner of a foreign field/ that is for ever England." Brooke died before seeing action. It is likely his poetry would have shifted in tone if he had lived to witness the carnage of the First World War.

This what happened to Sassoon. At first, his poetry, like Brooke's, viewed war through a romantic lens. But the poetry for which he is remembered is not cited so widely as Brooke's more palatable words. Perhaps Sassoon's preoccupation with civilian complacency strikes too close to home:



"You love us when we're heroes,        home on leave...

You believe

That chivalry redeems the war's        disgrace."



Owen is quoted more regularly, but often his poetry is co-opted for spurious jingoistic effect. Rarely do you encounter the last section of "Dulce et Decorum Est":



"My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori."



That "old lie" being that it is sweet and proper to die for one's country. Though the First World War poets may never be bettered, I feel there is a need to write poetry based on the fact that people have forgotten what those poets tried to convey. Their message needs to be applied to Iraq and Afghanistan, lest we become too enamoured with such hazardous pursuits.

I've tried to achieve this in my poems, while suggesting nothing heroic. "Coward" recounts how it feels to be back among society afterwards; "They Don't Seem to Realise" focuses on your family's reaction to your behaviour; and "Stretcher Case" recalls the evacuation from our camp of a young boy who had had his foot blown off: "He just lays there, no tears/ Mouth closed, face set, awaiting/ The next step of his tragedy."

Admittedly, "The Last Supper" comes closest to the heroic, being an elegiac account of Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid, a bomb-disposal expert who worked for the Battle Group and was killed just before his tour ended. Ultimately, though, there is little I find heroic about his last moments, defusing a bomb: "All the way to where you could not turn back/ From the blinding hot blast demanding sacrifice/ Taking away the scruffy cheerful calm."

Despite the sorrows that persist, I believe that being in the military was about protecting what I loved. This is why I will always feel enormous pride at having served in the British Army even though, nowadays, I see children with their parents and suddenly feel like crying. This is both inconvenient and bewildering. I never saw a dead child in Iraq or Afghanistan.

I didn't see much, in fact, but things still stay with you – so I keep writing the poems.



James Jeffrey, a captain in The Queen's Royal Lancers, was attached to The Welsh Guards Battle Group in Afghanistan on Operation Herrick in 2009

Arts and Entertainment

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

radio
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?