Oh, what a civil war!

THE FABER BOOK OF WAR POETRY ed Kenneth Baker, Faber pounds 20

"Passive suffering is not the theme for poetry. If war is necessary in our time, best to forget its suffering as we forget the discomfort of fever." So W B Yeats, whose own poems resonate with war, in his 1936 Oxford Book of Modern Verse which left out Wilfred Owen. He said: "I have a distaste for certain poems written in the Great War. The writers were officers. They felt bound to plead the suffering of their men. In poems written in the first person, they made that suffering their own."

Such reflections are foreign to The Faber Book of War Poetry, perhaps one of the weirdest books of the decade. Here's a politician, an ex-member of Thatcher's cabinet, who helped run two wars, saying "Wars are caused by the failure of politicians"; "politicians who start wars, opportunists who do well out of them, provide poets with targets". Falklands? Gulf? Never heard of them. Ireland? No war there, except in the tenth century. Owen is avenged: poems Yeats saw in every anthology appear again here, but Yeats himself has only one: "On Being Asked For a War Poem".

A collection of English-language war poems with no "Easter 1916" or "The Second Coming"? Welcome to the The Faber Cosy View of Upper-Middle-Class British Masculinity. God is an Englishman, probably Rudyard Kipling. The angle is patronising ("The British soldier goes to work with one word on his lips"), the agenda "Britishness". Everything, even the Holocaust, is co-opted into that. Nothing, please, on what bastards Brits themselves can be.

The editor loves poems, has collected good, boring and great ones written under pressure. Shouldn't we be pleased? To start with practicalities: there are no dates for some poems or wars, and no logic to non-British material. Yehuda Amichai is included, but not Mandelstam or Lorca. Schools seem to be the book's target, but nobody in one would guess that the most heartgiven war poems of the editor's lifetime come from Eastern Europe or Ireland.

The categorisation is very strange: 66 sections (some contain only two poems, many overlapping) make the excuse for 66 separate Introductions and an corpulent book. He could have divided by poetic genre, or by war: it's spooky to watch a 19th-century sensibility handling 20th-century poetry, whose gift is the ironic and oblique. Baker is not hot on obliquity. Nothing like the Imperial War Museum's side-glimpses of war with Nicola Lane's "Sunbathing Sergeants": topless female soldiers off-duty in Desert Storm.

"Civil War" is a bizarre section. Intro 56 says civil war is cruel, England's had two, America one. Er - Spain? Where British and Spanish poets wrote and died? Or Ireland? The section has one poem. "I could," Baker hints, "have chosen several." He could have chosen three-quarters of the Oxford Book of Irish Verse (say, Yeats's "Meditations in Time of Civil War"), or some 17th-century British work. A chunk from Henry VI is fine, but nothing from Cromwell's time?

"Poets sang," says Baker, "victory and defeat." Most British poets I know don't sing much, even when drunk, certainly not while writing. Baker has music hall but not core folksong, ballads, war song. If we're really dealing with Britain "singing" war, we might wonder why the 17th- century composers Tomkins and Weelkes suddenly, in the 1620s, set so poignantly David's "Lament" for his rebel son? "When David heard that Absalon was slain, he went up to his chamber over the gate and wept and thus he said: O my son, Absalon. Would God I had died for thee, O Absalon my son." Here's the real thing. Not (sorry) Kipling. As for wars of independence, for example those against Britain, or any that Wordsworth and Byron cared about, you can forget those as far as Baker is concerned.

Things have moved on: in war, in poetry. "Britishness" is no longer stably self-congratulatory, especially not in retrospect. This editor was part of something that de-stabilised notions of war and its poems. Postmodernist techniques in the Gulf provoked new techniques among poets, who had to catch up with new assaults on feeling. Jo Shapcott's "Phrase Book" is the poem for public response to war in our time. In a book of war poetry for the millennium, that might have been a rewarding place to start. As it is, this book makes war and the pity of it cosy to the point of incandescence.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone