First published on www.downrightfiction .com © Trevor Maynard 2012
Poetry and the War on Terror
Sometimes poetry’s function seems to be to illuminate the tragedy without putting that tragedy into political context, but do we need to do more than to simply “bear witness” as Plato put it? There is political ambiguity in all conflicts, even those seen as ’justified’ by the consensus. For example J.M. Denwood is not normally included in the canon of World War One poetry taught in schools.
“My countrymen, when Europe declares
Midst thousands of our noble soldier slain,
Who but the ruling class shall reap again
In all the lands?”
(from From Whom? 1914)
Political anti-war poetry perhaps did not fully come into the wider public arena until what Adrian Mitchell might have argued was the “televisual” war of Viet Nam, with Robert Lowell’s “Waking Early on Sunday Morning”, the work of Allen Ginsberg, Mitchell’s own work “To Whom it May Concern” as well as the protest work of Denise Levertov; “Revolution or Death”. This protest poetry, and the music it accompanied, meant the issues were high in the public consciousness.
Forward forty years and it could be said that war poetry has fallen out of that public awareness somewhat as these days we regularly see real dead bodies on the news from nebulous conflicts which are all being grouped under the War on Terror; reporting on it has become numbing, every day, even passé. Maybe one of the roles for the poet is to overcome this perceived ennui so as public begin to care again, and object more loudly to what the politicians are doing in their name.
John Siddique, in his poem about the London Bombing of 2005, is an excellent example pinpointing the happily mundane of normal life against the catastrophic taking of life only seconds away in the future
“9.47 lasts forever and ticks on for the rest of us.”
(from Inside # 2 “There is no more time” © John Siddique 2009)
While Chris McCabe’s reportage of real news is chilling
“Blasts Won’t Shake UK Economy”
(from Axis, © Chris McCabe 2005)
Tony Harrison’s “Shrapnel” linking the bombing of Leeds in 1941 by the Luftwaffe with the suicide bombers from the Leeds of 2005 who came down to London on 7th July 2005 is a good example of providing a historical and political context.
Attempts to raise awareness have been made with English Poet Laureate, Carole Ann Duffy, commissioning several new poems on war in 2009, one of particular note is from Clare Shaw’s use of official reports of actual deaths
“Unnamed baby son of Haider Tariq Sain.
Car bomb, Nawab Street, Baghdad 7.04.2009”
(from It could have been, © Clare Shaw 2009)
One week after the terrorist bombings on July 14th 2005, all work in London stopped and people came out onto the street to be silent, to say no to violence; this was not an organised plan, it was an idea, and everyone chose to take part.
“a taxi driver stood outside
his cab door open, squinting in the bright sun
eyes still beneath the glass of his spectacles
while ahead bus drivers turned off their rasping breathless engines
and people, emptied from offices and shops
stand statue still
(from July 14th, © Trevor Maynard 2005)
I would argue the purpose of poetry is not merely to bear witness and write, but to capture the spirit and force of human will, to influence and change society. Poetry is a powerful tool for to challenge the status quo.
“July 14th 2005” is from my the collection Love, Death and the War on Terror (2009)
ISBN 978-1445206622. http://itunes.apple.com/gb/book/love-death-war-on-terror/id445659000?mt=11