BOOK REVIEW / Death in the towns with funny names: 'Klaonica: Poems for Bosnia' - Ed. Ken Smith: Bloodaxe, 7.95 pounds

Click to follow
THE POET Ken Smith first appeared in the offices of this newspaper about a month ago. He was looking for poems to include in a fund-raising anthology of work provoked (inspired not being quite the right word) by the events in Bosnia. Bloodaxe had agreed to publish the book as soon as possible: all proceeds would go to Feed the Children and other charities.

He had come to the right place. The Independent had just spent a fortnight publishing a daily poem about the carnage in former Yugoslavia (including one by Smith himself). A few clever clogs sneered, on the grounds that poetry was a tasteless and whimsical response to such dire events, but many more were moved to take up their own pens. The newspaper received around 500 new poems, and published a further two- week sequence.

Ken Smith trawled through the shoal of poems with spectacular vigour, pausing only to check the nets he had hung elsewhere. The result, a few short weeks later, is Klaonica. It contains work from Britain, Ireland, Europe, America and Bosnia itself, and includes poems by Brian Patten, R S Thomas, Vernon Scannell, Alan Brownjohn, Czeslaw Milosz, Peter Porter, Andrew Motion, Adrian Mitchell, Ted Hughes and many (about 50) more.

It is a remarkable book: nothing quite like it has appeared in recent times. Wordsworth said poetry was emotion recollected in tranquillity and, well, there's been no time for any of that. This is poetry that speaks to the immediate wound: it is raw, open and direct.

Certain words echo through the collection like sirens: death, blood, night, pain, silence, why, why, why. There are not many jokes, and not many metaphors. This is not a poetry seeking to draw analogies between things, to make the universe seem suggestively linked. The world conjured up here has been fractured and disembowelled.

Many of the poems proceed by juxtaposition, which is not surprising, since most are hasty attempts to reconcile daily life in Britain - mowing the lawn, fixing the car, putting the kids to bed - with the intensity of suffering happening a thousand miles away to the east. These are, after all, mostly poems about the experience of watching terrible deeds unfold on television.

Are they any good? Who knows? Some of them seem marvellous, a few might strike stern readers as merely pious - poets boasting about their own superior sensitivity - and one or two are just embarrassing right-on bluster. But what do you expect? Palgrave's Golden Treasury? A Child's Garland of English Verse? One of the volume's most striking aspects is the way it exposes and taps the neglected hunger for poems that are, for once, not about the imprint of a lover's body on tearful sheets, while kettles boil in gloomy suicidal clouds and lorries roar past the window, indifferent to the artist's refined despair.

With a few notable exceptions - Tony Harrison's work, some Gulf war verse, the literature of Northern Ireland - recent poetry has not been much engaged by current affairs. This is partly because there have been few places to publish poems written in the heat of the moment. But tomorrow night the BBC will launch a new poetry slot, and several newspapers - the Independent, the Observer and now the Guardian - are publishing poems. As Marxist critics are quick to tell us, the means of production condition the nature of the, er, literary output. These new platforms might well breathe fresh life into the idea of public poetry.

The poems in Klaonica are, for the most part, formless. They are full of sombre repetitions, but with a few grand exceptions they will set on edge the teeth of those who believe (with reason) that in chucking aside rhyme and metre poets are sacrificing their most interesting weapons. What they offer instead is a series of sharp, heated gestures. 'The poems are baffled, helpless, heartfelt, heartbreaking, angry, tender, grieving,' the editor writes. 'Useless, too.'

Not that useless, perhaps. If pop stars and comedians can win the nation's approval by working for famine relief, why can't a few Nobel Prize-winning poets do something similar?

'Grief will have words,' writes Michael Hulse in one of the anthology's most impressive works. Or, as Donald Atkinson puts it: 'The unjust man unjustices, while poets poet.' If Joseph Brodksy were a doctor, perhaps he could pack his bandages and head for Sarajevo. As it is, he is simply a man in a position to write, in one of the volume's most concise expressions of the gap between our own preoccupations and the misery elsewhere:

----------------------------------------------------------------- As you sip your brand of ----------------------------------------------------------------- scotch, crush a roach or scratch your crotch, as your hand adjusts your tie, people die. In the towns with funny names, hit by bullets, caught in flames, by and large, not knowing why, people die. -----------------------------------------------------------------

At their best, the poems in Klaonica (Serbo-Croat for slaughterhouse) have this sort of mournful, chastened simplicity. And they are, however much they seem to veer in the direction of newspaper captions, authentic poetry. Prose is reasonable; poetry of this sort is a fist raised against unreason.

A paltry gesture? Maybe. There have been, to be sure, some witty critics of the whole enterprise. George Szirtes wrote a biting poem (to the Independent) satirising the fiddling-while- Rome-burns impulse behind what he saw as pathetic little conscience-salving lyrics. But if writing poems about Bosnia is sentimental and decadent, what is the right word for someone who writes poems saying you shouldn't write poems about such matters?

Besides, the alternative to writing a poem is not writing a poem, and where does that get us? Of all the agonies suffered during the last year, the most trivial are the aesthetic agonies of those unimpressed by contemporary poetry. Even if the revenue raised by Klaonica were lining the pockets of millionaire poets (ha ha) it would be good value. As it is, next time you're tossing up between the Booker winner and the Thatcher memoirs, why not toss a crust Bosnia's way, and try some poetry for a change?

'Klaonica' will be launched tomorrow, with readings by selected poets, at the Turret Bookshop, 36 Great Queen St, London WC2 (12.30pm).