101 Poems Against War

Submitted by on 21 March, 2003 - 12:00

edited by Matthew Hollis and Paul Keegan, with an afterword by Andrew Motion (Faber)

There is a lot of poetry about war and against unjust war. Often highlighting the human suffering involved, much of it provokes a revulsion against all war. I'm not a pacifist but I reserve my right to feel this horror too. Certainly, even if the most powerful nation on earth were not about to bomb the Iraqis (in order to save the Iraqis), then these poems would stir up the hardest heart.

Sometimes war poetry is some of the most forceful of all political poetry. The poet tries to distil the exact quality of the human forces that cause, continue and wage war, whether it be the gigantic power of the US army or the petty power of a staff sergeant. The personal and political corruption of the "leaders". The inequality between rich and poor, peoples and nations. By sometimes showing scenes from a war, or summoning up the smells and images of war, the poet can not only encapsulate the horror of war but also communicate a powerful message. "Do not forget the human waste". "History is repeating itself". "War means carnage".

In some notes at the back of the book Andrew Motion talks about the historic function of war poetry. Once it was designed and commissioned to laud the conquerors and the (equally mythical) courage of soldiers. Leaders and politicians still use myth to justify their actions but today the poet, even one in the service of the Queen, is more likely to prick at myth.

Some of these poems are very well known: Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est", Martin Niemoller's "First they came for the Jews", W H Auden's "September 1 1939", and several of Siegfried Sassoon's. Others are less well known, many from the time of the Vietnam war and including poems from Arabic, Serbo-Croat and other eastern European poets.

Rarely, though, do any of these poems step outside the emotional language to confront big political ideas head on. There are a few exceptions and it is evident in some attitudes to the USA and what its big power status represents. Harold Pinter's "American Football" is one example:

"Hallelullah!
It works.
We blew the shit out of them.
We blew the shit right back up their own ass
And out their fucking ears.…"

Of course, Pinter means to be crude, to show the brutality of the American war (on Vietnam? El Salvador? Colombia? I'm not sure which). And it is an effective poem. But it reflects the viewpoint of some on the left, who cannot see beyond the actions of the American ruling class to appreciate the other America, its ordinary people.

Far more subtle a view comes from Saadi Youssef:

"I too love jeans and jazz and Treasure Island
and John Silver's parrot and the balconies of New Orleans.
I love Mark Twain and the Mississippi steamboats and Abraham Lincoln's dogs.
I love the fields of wheat and corn and the smell of Virginia tobacco.
But I am not American.
Is that enough for the Phantom pilot to turn me back to the stone age?"

I found the lack of organisation in this little anthology of poems irritating. There is nothing chronological, no apparent rhyme or reason at all, to the ordering. There are no notes about the authors or the contexts in which the poems were written. I would have liked to know more about these things.

Score: 6/10
Reviewer: Cathy Nugent

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