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.

Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
  • 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.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence