Oh, what a civil war!
THE FABER BOOK OF WAR POETRY ed Kenneth Baker, Faber pounds 20
Sunday 13 October 1996
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.
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