Let me pass please: PETER FORBES introduces a group of poems on the Gulf War, and argues that war poetry in not an anachronism

ONE FEATURE of contemporary life is the need to exhume, to lick over the wounds of the past and find out definitively what happened. So perhaps the silence that fell over the Gulf once the allied troops had left was just a pause as the war passes from reality to re-interpretation.

It was obvious from the media coverage that, for many people, the horror of the war came second to the terrible beauty of it, the heightened sense of a life more fearsome and dramatic than the everyday. Oscar Wilde said that for the criminal classes crime was 'simply a means of procuring extraordinary sensations'. It may be that, in an unpoetic age, war is the only access people have to poetic exaltation. And when it ends, the media circus moves on.

One of the most dreadful ironies of the war is that, in the confrontation between two cultures, the West went into it with its fast- food verbiage while Saddam Hussein, gangster that he is, was employing in his speeches a flowery rhetoric distilled from the tradition of Arabic poetry. Dirty deeds were sanctioned by corrupt language on both sides, but the kinds of corruption were poles apart.

Words, images, polemic and the battle for the hearts and minds of world opinion were at the centre of the storm. But where does this leave poets? Poets understand the manipulation of rhetoric and images as practised in the Gulf war better than most - it's a trespass on their territory. But their ability to counter linguistic deception is restricted by their tenuous hold on the audience. Only a very few poets - Ted Hughes or Tony Harrison, say - have the clout to find a large readership. For the rest, the audience is limited to a few hundred readers. What's the point?

This is an old question. One version of the history of 20th-century war poetry sees a steady decline from the First World War on. Owen, Sassoon, Graves, and Rosenberg had a significant influence on an entire generation, that of the 1930s. In the First World War the nature of warfare changed utterly and the poets were the ones who alerted the world to the fact. Whereas the poetry of the Second World War is far more incidental. The poetic techniques forged in the trenches of the First World War seemed inappropriate to the Second, with its long periods of inaction, its more remote battles, often fought in the air. Now war has changed again.

In December 1991, during the phoney war before the allied offensive began, Paul Fussell wrote a provocative piece on these pages in which he suggested that none of the requirements for war poetry, even of the Second World War variety, would be met in the Gulf: no alcohol, no decadent Alexandria for sexual relief, no poignant crosses in the desert. And Peter Porter has said: 'Hi-tech wars drain all poetry from the world; they become video games leaving only charred bodies behind. Even Shakespeare could do nothing with Baghdad and smart bombs.'

Well, we hope that some of these poems prove Fussell and Porter wrong. But of course Fussell is clearly right on one level, in that these poems were not written from first-hand experience. Such poems do exist, and anthologies of Forces' poetry are likely to be published eventually. But so far this work seems to be heartfelt if conventional sentiments expressed with no technique at all. Paul Fussell blames the video age. Whatever the reason, no one expects to find a Keith Douglas in uniform now, in the professional forces.

Tony Harrison, for one, would take issue with this sort of argument. 'Poetry used to inhabit all the important public arenas,' he said. 'The theatre, politics, that was where poetry operated. Then it retreated and shut itself away in the poetry magazines. What defeatism] What a pathetic decline]' He is off target. It is the wider arena that shuts out poetry.

The initial reactions to the Gulf war were almost entirely Western. Everyone pronounced upon the fate of Arabs but Arabs were rarely consulted. Now there is for the first time at least a curiosity in the West about the cultures concerned. Arabic poetry, for instance, is little known in the West but in April a Camden Lock festival called 'Poetry Across the Gulf' featured mainly Iraqi and Kurdish poets, including Salah Niazi (see left) and Fawzi Karim, plus Michael Hulse and John Rety, along with a celebration of Iraqi art and much material on the plight of Iraqis now. Interestingly, the Arab poets at Camden said little about the war. Instead they highlighted the cultures that had been so grievously damaged by Saddam Hussein and the war.

The work printed here, which includes poems from Britain, Iraq and the United States, should speak for itself, but Jo Shapcott's poem calls for some comment because it seems to crystallise what many felt about the language of the war. War culture is acronym culture. The Harm referred to (apart from the literal harms invoked) is is an acronym for Homing Anti-Radar Missile. Why do the military so love acronyms?

The love of euphemism is legendary - surgical strikes, collateral damage, friendly fire. Acronyms take military evasion one step further because they are only words in a whimsical sense. They are often tedious circumlocutions, stripped down to their first letters and then cobbled together into something that looks like a real word. 'Harm' is a classic example because although Jo Shapcott is right to point to its terrible irony, the acronym is rather misleading. Harm isn't an anti-personnel weapon at all. It homes in on radar beams and travels up the path to destroy the equipment.

The military deploys euphemisms, people say, to hoodwink both the public and itself. I only believe the first part of this. But acronyms are different. Acronyms really do befuddle the user. You only have to pick up an aviation magazine to see the magnetic attraction they have: BMEWS (bemuse?), Sam, Slam.

The military loves quick fixes, and acronyms are linguistic quick fixes. They always sound as if they ought to work. Poets lack mega budgets and smart weapons, but they should at least know more about words than the warmongers. 'Phrase Book' targets the abuse of language during the war with devastating accuracy.

A larger selection of poems on the Gulf war, and a fuller version of Peter Forbes's essay, are in the summer issue of Poetry Review.

CAFE ON AL WAZEER STREET

I have seen the old men

In the cafes on Al Wazeer Street

With their sun leathered skin

And a fist of dead teeth.

Lost and uncomprehending

That the certainties of dawn

Have been thrown to the wind

Like an open hand of fine corn.

Their talk wrapped in rumours.

And what shall I say to my son?

That his life will be better

Once the Americans have gone?

I have met their strange eyes

Sand blasted and midnight black,

As they watched me suspiciously

From their tables at the back

Of the long, windowless room.

Like chairs covered from the sun

They wait for the future to remove them.

Powerless now, powerless when it begun

They are big men made small.

My youngest calls me a liar, said one

He says only fools still believe.

That's not right from a man's son.

I have listened to them talk

In voices part spit and part whisper,

In voices roughened by burnt coffee

And a lifetime of devotions.

Men whose dreams were simple

And whose disappointment is greater

Because they asked for so little.

Men looking for a traitor

Who took them from nowhere to here.

Mine is the worst, said another,

He says I should work in the factory

Earn good money like my brother.

I have heard their conversation

Fall silent, against the sound

Of the foreign aircraft filling the sky

With their pounding drone,

As if in respect to a new faith.

The sound comforts and scares.

It is the persuasive music of the new world order.

Look to the sky, poor fool] Replace your prayers,

With a religion that pays by results.

Have pity on them, said the fourth.

When the war is over and our sons are men,

Then we will see which course

It is that appeals to them.

David Ford

ON THE OBLITERATION OF 100,000 IRAQI SOLDIERS

They are hiding away in the desert,

hiding in sand which is growing warm

with the hot season,

they are hiding from bone-wagons

and troops in protective clothing

who will not look at them,

the crowds were appalled at seeing him,

so disfigured did he look

that be seemed no longer human.

That killed head straining through the windscreen

with its frill of bubbles in the eye-sockets

is not trying to tell you something -

it is telling you something.

Do not look away,

permit them, permit them -

they are telling their names to the Marines

in one hundred thousand variations,

but no one is counting,

do not turn away,

for God is counting

all of us who are silent

holding our newspapers up, hiding.

Helen Dunmore

1990

That was the year the future arrived,

or so we thought, the promise we never gave up on.

History, the tragic figure in black,

became confused and descended on us

in a shower of gold, and we were quick to believe

the change was real, was forever, and we

were a generation elected to witness

the abolition of darkness. That year

we lived in perpetual sunshine, light

as balloons skywriting paradise.

Wasn't it the mildest winter on record,

the most benign summer? Birds flew down from the north

with dispatches of joy in their beaks.

Was it all a dream? History is back

in its funeral clothes, the shining year

behind us, a collapsed miracle,

already a legend, like childhood,

an irretrievable golden age.

Lisel Mueller

THE COALITION

If among earth's kings Lord Gilgamesh should remain unreasonable,

if civility refuses to assume citizenship between the rivers,

Sir Agamemnon will assemble a diligent Protestant coalition

to administer death as appropriate lesson and punishment.

We'll station right-thinking King Herod with his updated hoplites

backed by Xin the Emperor's deathless terracotta battalions

beside Mercury, Mars, and Athena from the province of Olympus

to institute, as a deterrent, termination with extreme prejudice.

Young Colonel Bonaparte, upgrading to Alexander, will distribute

slaughter by African blowguns, phalanxes, tortoises from Cipango,

hairy helicopters from Attila's stables, Cyclopean missiles,

and Greek fire to melt brute Saracens flourishing scimitars.

If Lord Gilgamesh should remain unreasonable, we will coalesce

to incinerate retreating Uruki soldiers, furthering the project

of Pharoah Death, Imperator Death, Shogun Death, President Death.

Donald Hall

PHRASE BOOK

I'm standing here inside my skin,

which will do for a Human Remains Pouch

for the moment. Look down there (up here).

Quickly. Slowly. This is my own front room

where I'm lost in the action, live from a war,

on screen. I am an Englishwoman, I don't understand you.

What's the matter? You are right. You are wrong.

Things are going well (badly). Am I disturbing you?

TV is showing bliss as taught to pilots:

Blend, Low silhouette, Irregular shape, Small,

Secluded. (Please write it down. Please speak slowly.)

Bliss is how it was in this very room.

when I raised my body to his mouth,

when he even balanced me in the air,

or at least I thought so and yes the pilots say

yes they have caught it through the Side-Looking

Airborne Radar, and through the J-Stars.

I am expecting a gentleman (a young gentleman,

two gentlemen, some gentlemen). Please send him

(them) up at once. This is really beautiful.

Yes thev have seen us, the pilots, in the Kill Box

on their screens, and played the routine for

getting us Stealthed, that is, Cleansed, to you and me,

Taken Out. They know how to move into a single room

like that, to send in with Pinpoint Accuracy, a hundred Harms.

I have two cases and a cardboard box. There is another

bag there. I cannot open mv case - look out,

the lock is broken. Have I done enough?

Bliss the pilots say is for evasion

and escape. What's love in all this debris?

Just one person pounding another into dust,

into dust. I do not know the word for it yet.

Where is the British Consulate? Please explain.

What does it mean? What must I do? Where

can I find? What have I done? I have done

nothing. Let me pass please. I am an Englishwoman.

Jo Shapcott

THE ABODE

Did you say civilization?

My abode is the crossroads of the ages:

The Gardens of Babylon

Are hanging on the wall,

In which rivers nearly flow, and birds swim in the sky.

And there stands the sentinel of my gate:

A Sumerian lion.

Soothsayers are gazing

From the balconies of the miniatured Nineveh on my desk.

A fragment of a handle from an old jar -

I see in the blueness of its clay,

The thirst of men who are melted in the sands of time.

Don't you hear Sinbad in the drawing room?

Jinns in his saddlebag, he spins yarns,

How often he forgets what he was telling,

His handmaids are painted on bowls, painted on platters.

They have embroidered verses on their robes:

Implying virtue but insinuating fornication.

Their anklets tinkle with beauty,

And their feet are not unlike buds of cotton and henna,

A cascaded brook when they bend down,

And when they rise, a bird hovering over a twig.

They have embroidered verses on their robes,

Implying virtue but insinuating fornication.

Bit by bit they strip the bark from their twigs.

This is my abode,

The roots are shooting up with songs

But whence comes the mysterious wailing?

How a buzzing silence lurks in the instrument of music,

The waters flow, but I hear something of thirst in the waves.

The air blows, why is it hard to breathe?

Why do lungs shrink and breathing is sticky in the trachea?

Thus the hedges round the house are swollen with roaring.

Whence are anxieties engendered like dizziness,

The earth rocks and the bed is made to stagger.

Did you mention civilization?

Don't mention the night,

The city seems listening for a coming foray.

She falls down unconscious, how long is a single night]

As if destruction lies hidden beneath the stagnant highways,

Silence is so thundery in the crowded darkness.

The corridors of the habitation are hissing,

The ceiling rocks to and fro.

I hear bolts slide open

As if the wind with claws of hungry wolves,

Like a thunderous guffaw at a wake.

I sleep and I rise on a single thought.

When people of bridled cities sleep,

They sleep with swelling of their bodies,

As if ants crawl in their bones,

Migraine worms split their skull.

When they wake, they are diminished.

Why does the fearful man become even smaller and smaller?

When sleep enters me and my soul surrenders,

I listen to the foray of the swelling,

To the ants crawling in the bones,

To the migraine splitting the skull.

When thunder rumbles I say there it is, an assassination,

And if lightning flashes I say it is a coup.

I sleep and I wake with one single thought.

Salah Niazi

(Photograph omitted)

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood

'Whether he left is almost immaterial'TV
Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
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.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before