Saturday, 28 September 2013

Where have all the war poets gone? Part 1

My friend and poetic sparring partner Tim Ellis sparked off yet another cracking Facebook debate a couple of weeks ago. In a discussion of his e-book On the Verge – an elaborate satire on the Western world's disregard for the consequences of environmental degradation – he asked the question: why were there so few poets writing about climate change? Are we afraid to tackle the subject? Or are we more comfortable disregarding the issue altogether, and writing about ‘safe’ subjects like love, daffodils and cats – thus proving the truism that most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people?

Tim has a point. Very few of the poets I know in Yorkshire are writing about climate change – or Syria, homelessness or benefit cuts. Those few that are overtly engaging with these issues seem to be writing rants, rather than poems – shouty tirades that fail to have any real impact. The bona fide poems are conspicuous by their absence.

I felt duty bound to play devil's advocate. It wasn't, I protested, that we didn't want to write about such things. The difficulty is that for most of us, war and homelessness and climate change are subjects too big to write about. Is it even worth the poet's effort trying to write about such things, when any given 30-second run of newsreel images makes our months of laboured word-craft pale into insignificance? Isn't it better to write about love, and daffodils, and cats, because these things at least give us a moment's escape from the ugly realities of the world?

I don't really believe this theory. Poetry is the stuff of human life. Poets, as a class, have a sort of responsibility to humanity, to reflect and recount all of human life. We need poets who write about climate change, and war, just as much as we need poets who write about love (or cats). Poets, collectively, are failing the world if we decide that any subject is not fitting subject matter to write poetry about.

So why do so many of us find it so hard to write poems about ‘big issues’ – or make such a bad job of it when we do try?

War and climate change are pretty unsubtle things. So there is a tendency, when addressing them head-on, to think that ‘subtle’ isn’t good enough. Why write a sonnet, when you can have a rant instead? But rants on their own are an artform more akin to Party Political Broadcasts than to poems. I'm not saying they don't have their place. Someone needs to get up on the barricades and say what the rest of us are feeling. But it doesn't require poetry to do that. Rhetoric, yes. Oratory, probably. But poetry? The subtlety of poetry is just going to be lost on an angry mob.

So what can poetry do to illuminate, inform and educate about the big issues?

In my opinion, poetry has two qualities that newsreel footage and mob rants don't have. Firstly, poetry is a way of looking slant-wise at the world – of finding meanings and connections that we never realised were there. By looking at something slant-wise, we end up looking at it more deeply – understanding its inner workings, its relationship to the wider environment. We find the new angle that the news reporters and the propagandists miss.

Pete Seeger's Where have All the Flowers Gone? is a prime example. One of the greatest anti-war songs ever written; but it never goes near a battlefield. Its starting-point is the cycle of life and love, as young girls pick flowers to be reminded of their sweethearts. It ends up in the graveyard where all their sweethearts are buried, without us quite noticing how we got there – and then the whole futile cycle starts again.

The second thing that poetry does is to use the microcosm to tell us about the macrocosm. A war poem doesn't tell us about ‘war’ – ‘war’ is too big, too abstract and too grotesque a concept to be pinned down in a 14-line sonnet. But a Wilfred Owen poem can tell us about a single, heart-stopping moment of terror in the life of a single soldier. And it's when we grasp the notion that this awful moment was replicated tens of thousands of times over, in the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, that we begin to feel the true horror of the war. When we see its discarded left-overs picked over by the ragmen in Patricia McCarthy’s Clothes that Escaped the Great War – the 2012 winner of the National Poetry Competition – those of us who have been fortunate never to have experienced such desolation can at least begin to grasp the awful emptiness, the futility of what was left behind.

There is an even subtler way that poets can be war poets, or climate change poets. A good poem has many layers. The subtext of a poem often carries a meaning that goes far beyond the subject matter in the written words. Love poets (and love-gone-wrong poets) use subtext all the time, to turn a physical description into an emotional map of the human heart. A whole generation of literature students are currently writing theses on the existential significance of William Carlos Williams' wheelbarrow. So what's to stop a poem about a love affair, a cat, or even a daffodil, also being an unwritten commentary on the folly of war, or the depredations of global warming? All it takes is for poets to be made aware of the possibilities.

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