The hawks have the best epic poetry

Any day now a new poet laureate will be appointed, so naturally the air is buzzing with contrasting views on the extent to which poets should be up with the news. On the whole, contemporary poetry is a private concern, tending to reflect on and celebrate an individual sensibility, and this does seem something of a narcissistic decline since the days when poets saw fit to narrate The Charge of the Light Brigade, say, or the blood-stained trenches of the Great War. But the finest modern poets - Derek Walcott and Tony Harrison, for instance - remain loyal to the classical position of the poet as bard: the narrator of dire events in memorable verse. Ever since Homer sung the wrath of Achilles, the human love of war has inspired literary masterpieces - the Old Testament and Malory, Tennyson and Tolstoy. Poets thrive when they ride, as it were, into the valley of death. It is, after all, the lair of the tragic muse.

Verse is usually a symptom of war, not its cause. But the present calamitous conflict in the Balkans has had poetry in its blood from the start. The papers have been full of references to the epic poems inspired by the original 14th-century Battle of Kosovo, usually to show that the present turmoil is the continuation of an ancient feud. It is never very convincing: it would stretch the credulity of most West European readers to imagine that Serbian soldiers in Kosovo recite bolts of medieval verse en route to the villages they are cleansing. But the epic narratives inspired by that first battle do tell a remarkable story.

The battle took place on June 15, 1389. The Serbian Prince Lazar was routed and beheaded by the Turkish Sultan Murad, leader of the "infidel horde" that would, half a century later, sack Constantinople. It was a battle of great symbolic importance, a religious showdown fought by an army with Christian crosses on its banners. The Serbian church honoured Lazar as a saint and holy martyr; and Serbia's poets turned him into a national legend. But the rest of Europe - the rest of Christendom - forgot all about him.

In the poems, everything is destined. Prince Lazar receives a message from Murad calling him to meet his doom in terms which have an ugly resonance now: "Oh Lazar, thou head of the Serbians. There was and never can be one land in the hands of two masters - Come straight to meet me at Kosovo! The sword will decide." As the battle approaches, Lazar consults a holy oracle, which gives him a choice between victory or eternal life. He chooses the latter. "The earthly kingdom is short-lived," he declares. "But the heavenly one is forever." His army is crushed, but after the battle a young woman in white robes - the Angel of Kosovo - moves among the fallen, offering sacramental wine and bread to the dying heroes.

The poems form a national epic that is more or less Shakespeare, Milton, Hastings, Trafalgar and Dunkirk rolled into one. We recall our dead with red poppies from Flanders fields; the Serbs remember theirs with the peonies that grow at Kosovo. On June 15 1989, over a million people went to a requiem for the Kosovo dead in Belgrade.

It is in the nature of epic poetry that it sings in generalities. The incredible detail of armour, lineage and bloodshed in the Iliad is not matched by an equivalent attention to military strategy: it was not even clear, until German archaelogists went to work, exactly where Troy was. Similarly, the sagas of Kosovo are rhapsodic and idealised versions of the event itself. Poetic licence, while it fanned the flames of grievance and revenge, obscured the precise nature of the event in question.

It says something about western culture that it regards epic poetry as one of the highest expressions of civilisation. Epic considerations are Olympian. They seem, in the way they picture men and women as playthings of the gods, to present a lofty and superior vision of life, more penetrating than pedestrian accounts of everyday affairs. Yet in the process they thoroughly ennoble cruelty and sanctify bloodshed.

If we wanted fresh evidence that great literature is not necessarily morally improving, we need look no further than at the Balkan epics. Serbia's sacred texts and holy days (mere holidays, in modern times) celebrate ancestors who marched, in silken hats and splendid sashes, but with Christ- like humility in their hearts, to their death. What this says about our military strategy is another question - one for all the acronym-loving "defence analysts" currently filling our television screens. But it is at least the kind of thing worth knowing about the people we are bombing. Their ancient literature is showing signs of dangerous new life. Perhaps our new poet laureate should resist all calls to arms and stick to routine romantic dejections or royal births.