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Sunday, 20 April 2014

War Poetry. I Mean Today


Let’s talk war poetry. Not Wilfred Owen, not Giuseppe Ungaretti, not any of the poets who wrote of that old war (it is a hundred years ago now, so I guess it counts as old). Let’s talk of war poetry today, and how it differs and resembles the efforts that defined the category, set a standard, and laid out the rules.

Among the various books that I’ve been (very kindly) sent to review, I count two that belong to the genre. One is Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting by Kevin Powers, which David Clarke reviewed not too favourably last week. The other is War Reporter by Dan O’Brien, which I didn’t send out to my critics because I wanted to review in person. I’ll have to base my article on these two sources because, I liberally admit, I don’t know any other contemporary war poetry – if you have suggestions, my e-mail’s at the end of this page.

I’m less than halfway through reading O’Brien’s book and my inclination to review it is already dwindling. It’s not that the verse isn’t good. Not at all: O’Brien has a real talent for imagery and his poems are subtle and rich, evoking the poet’s own life as well as his strange relationship with war photographer Paul Watson. Perhaps it’s just the fact that I was looking for something else. I was looking for war poetry, and neither of the two books delivered (yes, I read Powers as well before sending it to David, though not with the same levels of concentration I’d dedicate to something I’m reviewing).

Hold on a second – how are these books not war poetry? Isn’t Powers a genuine veteran of the war in Iraq, speaking / writing from lived experience? Aren’t O’Brien’s poems stark and real and full of the unchanging horror of war? Take these lines by the latter poet:

On a bed we discover the body
of a child at the bottom of a pile
of dead children. Quartered like chickens. Outside
another’s buried alive. The hand is
like a tuber. At the refugee camp
a girl stumbles barefoot into a ditch
of corpses. Some wrapped in reed mats. Looking
for help, crying. But nobody’s coming.
I say to myself, This will make a great
picture. This is a beautiful picture
somehow. Raising my camera to my face
I step on a dead old woman’s arm: it
snaps like a stick. In Nyarubuye
we open a gate on a courtyard
of Hell. Tangles of limbs junked. They’d come to
this church hoping God would protect them but
it only made things that much easier
to be hacked to pieces. […]
(‘The War Reporter Paul Watson on Suicide’).

Isn’t this just the gruesome reality of war? Aren’t these the words of someone who jumped down the black shaft of war and came back to tell us what it’s really like? Isn’t this enough? What more do you want? How horrifying does it have to get before you recognise it as genuine war poetry?

No more words.
It’s probably a good idea at this point to state my respect for Powers, O’Brien, the photographer Paul Watson and anyone else who lived through this unspeakable inferno. As David noted in his review, there is only silence that makes for an appropriate response to this suffering. I don’t know what they know, and in this particular case I am grateful for not knowing.

That being said, there is a problem here and our inability – our unentitlement – to respond to this kind of imagery is part of it. Contemporary war poetry is not unlike World War I poetry in its occasional tendency to make a catalogue of horrors. But one of the crucial differences between the two canons is context. WWI poetry was written at a time when war was highly romanticised and patriotism was seen as a basic moral standard. Indeed, war poetry of the times includes the writings of young romantics like Rupert Brooke who extol the beauty and the nobility of war (before they saw it, anyway).

The merit of the war poets was that of reinventing the imaginary of war (or, should I say, erasing the ‘imaginary’ bit). It said that war was hell at a time when people were saying that war was god. Reproducing the crude horror of war was part of that task of reconfiguration.

Off to war with a smile. Yeah, it doesn't fool anyone any longer, does it?
Contemporary war poetry appears at a time when society speaks in a very different voice: the lines on limbs flying and children torn to pieces are horrifying, yes, but also kind of a given. They feed the reader of war poetry what s/he wants to read from war poetry, which is what s/he thinks people don’t want to read. Not only are they customary, they also risk falling somewhat short of their peers in other media: no matter how good your language is, it’s a damn challenge to reproduce the visceral impact of seeing the effects of steel and fire on flesh as we get them in every war movie since Saving Private Ryan (so much so that it’s hard to even shock us anymore – carnage may leave us dumb, but sometimes it leaves us dumb with boredom, because we’ve seen so much of the ‘mutilated arm’ and the ‘hand holding his own guts’ and the ‘neck torn open so I only have a line of breath to say write to my family dear brother’ and so on).

If war poetry from one hundred years ago was radical, contemporary war poetry is conformist. Certainly, it has more levels of reading (O’Brien is especially subtle, but from what I’ve read so far his subtlety doesn’t invalidate any of my criticisms), and it is more delicate in its approach than Spielberg’s bombast, but it’s still treading much of the same ground, where you know that nobody hid any mines.

You may ask, what more can be said of war? What more should be said of horror but to say that this is the horror? Again, I must qualify my arguments by saying that this is not about the experience of the war poets in and of itself. I’m not discounting that – how could I? The problem in this case is not the poet, it’s the reader.


War poetry changes because war changes. The classical war poets were responding to a new form of war – a mechanical type of warfare that brutalised the mind to the point that even a body all in one piece could be made useless, that blasted the land and made the skies permanently grey, that corroded your insides with chlorine gas. It was a new type of war – of course it called for a new type of poetry.

War, in the last hundred years, has changed again. It has changed more radically than poetry has. Not in the way that people die – that’s the crucial thing. It’s not that Powers’ statement, that ‘war is just us / making little pieces of metal / pass through each other’ is substantially dated. It was as true a hundred years ago as it is true today. It may well be true a hundred years from now, if nobody’s taken war seriously enough that (you know the rest, & God forbid).

But here’s the thing: it’s not the experience of soldiers that has changed, it’s the way that society metabolises that experience that is different. Calls to patriotic fervour no longer take the shape of softness – they seduce with hardness, with violence, with the same language that supposedly should deter you from war – the same language, of course, invented by the classical war poets. Old war propaganda was a lap-dance: it seduced by suggestion. Contemporary war propaganda fucks you hard and tells you that you like it. It tells you that you know you like it. It doesn’t sugar-coat its product: it makes it as hard to swallow as possible and then challenges you to down it. It borrows the manly contest from bars, where it really works because everyone loves it.


From this point of view contemporary war poetry is just another form of war propaganda. You’re not going to convince young people not to go to war by describing piles of dead bodies because that’s exactly what young people are setting out to see. The spectacle of war has replaced war: it is the idea of going to hell and back, of being able to say ‘I’ve been to hell and back’, that defines the beauty of war (and yes, it’s beauty – for in the words of Alessandro Baricco, ‘no pacifism today should forget or deny that beauty or pretend that it never existed; only when we will be capable of a different beauty shall we be able to dispose of the beauty of war’.)

The reality of contemporary warfare may still involve blood on the bricks, but the experience of war that really matters, the experience that sells and motivates us and keeps us interested, the experience that lets war happen, belongs to those who live at home. In the West, where we write and read our poetry, war no longer invades our land. It no longer burns down our cities or rapes our women. When the ‘enemy’ does make an appearance in our cities we call it terrorism, which is something else. War today happens far away and to a restricted number of people. It happens on a TV screen, which is kind of like saying that it doesn’t happen. In the sense of human loss one may be justified in saying that war is a business of negligible import to the Western countries: compare the 5000 American soldiers that died in Iraq since 2003, with the 383,000 that died in car accidents in that same country starting from the same year. One almost wonders whether the war really worth fighting is not in our roads, rather than in the desert. And let’s not get started on workplace deaths. Let’s not get started on drugs.

These numbers do not include the real victims of war, that is to say, the people who did not do the invading – the civilians, who die by the hundreds of thousands. I’m not forgetting about them, at least no more than the war poets themselves are – both Powers and O’Brien seem more interested in their own experiences and what war says to them or their friends like Watson. The victims only matter to the extent that they inform the experience of the poets: like war itself, they’re just images.

But the material reality of these civilians is another expression of how war has changed. It used to be a conflict between two sides subject to equal conditions, it is now a conflict with no mutuality in which only one part does the invading, the killing, the filming, the TV reporting, and – on the long run – the war poetry.

In my opinion, which is as humble as it can be without being tacitly conformist for that, the mistake of contemporary war poetry is that of being about war. If it is true that the Gulf War did not take place, then it is reasonable to assume that all the other wars since then have not happened either: that they took place in the media, and not in the battlefield; that they exist not for the lands that they invade but for the share of audience that they annex; that the role of the modern war is not to conquer: it’s to convince.

If that’s true, then what should war poetry do? I don’t know, of course, but one possible answer is: the opposite. Like in the old days: say the opposite of what is being said by everyone else. Don’t convince me that war is terrible, cause everyone is already doing that: convince me not to be convinced. Show me that war is there because of me, thanks to me, not me the soldier, but the one who stands on the side-lines looking at the soldier as though he were an athlete, or an actor. Show me that the story of war is best sold when it is most authentic and it is most authentic when it is most brutal and it is most brutal when it is most distant. Show me the war that takes place not worlds away but in my taxes and in my passport and in my internet. Show me not the experience of battle but this new and very silent type of war that makes do with experience and replaces it with media reports. Show me that the horror is not what is shown through their videos, it’s what is created by them. Show me war in the 21st Century. And I’ll believe you.



Sunday, 13 April 2014

Kevin Powers' "Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting"


A long and really quite interesting review by David Clarke this Sunday, who takes a look at Kevin Powers' Letter Composed During a Lull in the Fighting.

Powers' is a war poet who writes about his experience in the conflict in Iraq. It makes for interesting material, of course, but also, as David argues, rather problematic. Read the review to find out why.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Leopardi's Canti: The Most Difficult Book of Poems Ever Written?


I’ve been meaning to write about Giacomo Leopardi’s Canti for a good while. Actually I’ve been meaning to write a series on the most difficult books of poetry out there, which was going to include an article about Nikos Kazantzakis' Odyssey. Eventually that idea proved itself too difficult, so I wrote one piece on the latter epic and suspended Leopardi – who was most definitely going to be in there – for a later stage.

Naturally the question behind this article is rhetorical. I’m sure there are collections of experimental and/or ancient verse that are even more impermeable than the Canti. Pound’s homonymous text, for example, may be even harder than old Giacomo’s (though I certainly haven’t read the whole of that, and don’t intend to, unless I get locked in a space prison and the alternative is trying to escape with Christopher Lambert). And I’m sure there are French poets who must have produced especially long and difficult works, because of course that’s what French poets do.

The thing that makes the Canti difficult, however, and which accounts for their relative obscurity (at least by comparison with other poetic masterpieces of international fame), is that their difficulty is deceptive. There is little that is ‘experimental’ about them. They aren’t grammatically disconnected like some works by Eliot, Rimbaud or Mallarmé, where just making sense of a phrase can take away an hour of your reading time (or more, of course – though it’s worth noting that the difficulty of these particular poets I mentioned is allayed by the fact that their works are mercifully brief). The Canti, for all that may be said of them, are straightforward. Upon first touching them, they may look to be easy.

And that’s exactly why this article is worth writing.

For those who are unfamiliar with the text, the Canti represent the collected poetic output of Giacomo Leopardi (1798 – 1837), who can grossly be introduced as Italy’s third greatest poet (after Dante and Petrarch, and on an equal footing, perhaps, with Tasso and Ariosto – I’m leaving the Latins out of this). Leopardi’s work must be read under the lens of his life-story – even for a Romantic poet, the poor man’s health was exceptionally fragile, and his spinal problems turned him into a hunchback long before he could experience any ‘romantic’ (I mean amorous) relation. His outlook became profoundly, cosmically pessimistic, comparable to that of his contemporary Schopenhauer: he was convinced that life is essentially an experience of pain, and all of his poems treat or rotate around this topic.

What makes the Canti so difficult? Not the length of the book, which is considerable but not overwhelming (certainly not near as intimidating as the same guy’s two-thousand page strong collection of philosophical meditations, the Zibaldone). Not the grammar, as you can follow Leopardi’s sentences with relative ease. The subject matter? That certainly plays a part in it, as the idea that all life is shit gets burdensome after a while (not to mention that it seems a bit outdated, philosophically). And the format of the poems isn’t particularly welcoming: other than a few exceptions (especially the legendary The Infinite), they usually go on for several pages, making multiple, elaborated arguments that aren’t always easy to connect to each other. Leopardi sees the poem as more than a lyric; to him, it’s also a philosophical treatise with a complex rhetorical construction, embracing a variety of topics and interests. It takes a lot of effort to read more than one or two Canti at a time, and the book as a whole deters casual reading.

But there is something much more essential than the mere length of the poems. I think the simplest way of putting it is to say that, in my opinion, Leopardi’s Canti are the most difficult text to translate ever written, even topping virtuoso works such as, say, those of Joyce or Mallarmé. It is not that the meaning is hard to render. It is the language itself that is so stylistically unique that I cannot think of how it could be transposed without losing the effect. Leopardi is virtually unreadable in the original language to anyone who does not have the most advanced command of Italian: the vocabulary and the syntax are so archaic that even mother-tongue Italians normally read the poems with a dictionary by their side. What’s tricky is that Leopardi’s archaisms do not belong to Romanticism – it is not language that is archaic because, y’know, it was written two centuries ago. Instead, Leopardi is (very deliberately) being archaic relative to his own time. He is embracing Classicism as a rejection of most of the values that typically define the other Romantics. It is the equivalent of a contemporary poet who uses ‘thou’ and ‘thee’, and not ironically, but as a serious stylistic choice. To a hypothetical reader of the distant future, this archaism may seem congenital to the age (as Leopardi’s archaisms do today), but in reality they grate with it. Such a contemporary poet would be hard to translate in his/her own right – but when it comes to a Romantic, you’d have to repeat (in the target language) the voice of someone from two-hundred years ago who assumes the voice of someone from three- or four-hundred years before him. How the hell do you do that?

The result is that all translations of Leopardi – and I’ve read them in English, in French and in Spanish – sound nothing like the original, however hard they try (and they do try, no argument, they really try). The Canti are exceptionally inaccessible to an international audience.

On top of that, the structure of the book is unwelcoming by necessity. The beauty and the merit of the Canti lies in the way that the book draws and encapsulates a universal lyric trajectory; closing the book after you’ve followed Leopardi from his teenage nationalist fervours to his profound, disillusioned reflections on the universe and the stars leaves one with a sense like you’ve just lived ninety years of life. But this does not change the fact that the best poems are (mostly) contained in the second half of the book, and much of the early content – when deprived of the counterpoint that comes later – seems uninspired, much like the later poems are impoverished if they are not approached as a conclusion to a narrative.

In spite of the fact that the Canti are really meant to be read front to back, the task would take so long that I’d advise new readers against that. My personal opinion is that the book only comes alive when you reach the ninth Canto, called The Last Song of Sappho, and I would recommend newcomers to start from there. The opening is much more accommodating as a Romantic poem:

Placid night, and unsullied ray
of the declining moon, and you who tip
midst the silent woods above the cliff,
messenger of the day…

Beyond that, Leopardi’s Canti require a lot of careful handling, and while the purpose of this article was, to a substantial extent, to throw away an evening cause I’m shit out of weed to promote this masterwork, I find myself closing with a warning rather than a recommendation. There are some poets who make it worth learning a language just to read their work; Leopardi is exactly one such poet, but he is distinct from others like Dante, Baudelaire or Rilke in that the translations are more likely to obscure than to illuminate your understanding of his ultimate book. In order to approach Leopardi, and to unlock the unparalleled lyric heights that he reaches in some of his poems, the investment required is enormous. Even if you can skip the hurdle of the language, there is a lot of wading through philosophy, bitterness, old-world ideas, rambling, and unusual formatting before you begin to sense the incredibly modern and powerful core of this book. You may think that I’m making up excuses but I’m not making up excuses: this is quite simply the most difficult core to access of any book I’ve read, and the reason this book will most likely remain (relatively) obscure in the bookshelves outside of the man’s own country. Still, what a core.


Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Kate White's "The Old Madness" (video review)


In case you missed it on the site - here's this Sunday's (video) review of the Pighog Pamphlet Competition winner. Enjoy!

Sunday, 23 March 2014

Matt Merritt's "The Elephant Tests"


Here's Matt Merritt, chillin' out with his best friend after yesterday's party.

Oh yeah, and he wrote a book too. Read the review of it here, courtesy of Ned Carter Miles.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Amy Key's "Luxe" and Camellia Stafford's "Letters to the Sky"


For your joy, 'tis not one but two reviews that you get this weekend! Well, one review, but about two books.

We're taking on Amy Key and Camellia Stafford, authors of Luxe and Letters to the Sky respectively. Our own Judi Sutherland happened to be at the event in which both of these books were launched, and she decided to treat them together. Found out what she thought in her review.

Have a great Sunday!