Why polemics are killing poetry

Anti-war cod-poems 'silently beg you to SCREAM'.

Shirley Dent

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If you have ever worked as a copy editor or proofreader you will know that sinking feeling when a real stinker of a mistake gets through. Pity the poor sod then who was responsible for editing the anonymous poem, ‘The Leader’, in an English textbook for 16-year-olds published by Pakistan’s National Book Foundation. The poem turned out to be an acrostic, with the first letter of each line spelling out a name: ‘President George W Bush.’ This has caused some embarrassment to President Musharraf’s government and the poem has subsequently been removed (1).

This comes as some relief – not because the teenagers of Pakistan were in danger of being swayed or enraged by the poem, but because it is frightening to think that such a truly terrible ditty was being used as a model example of English poetry. I will spare you the agony of the whole poem but let’s just take ‘Bush’ to get the flavour of the thing:

Bracing for war, but praying for peace
Using his power so evil will cease:
So much a leader and worthy of trust,
Here stands a man who will do what he must

It’s really no laughing matter. Not because, as Philip Hensher in the Independent playfully suggests, the hidden hand of the CIA can be detected at work, but because it is an extreme form of something else Hensher picks up on (2).

Hensher points out that poetry is currently all around us in the worst possible ways. ‘Strange’, he writes, ‘how poetry, of all things, has turned into an austerely functional pursuit, one designed to get results’. He then goes on to list the ‘drably functional’ uses of poetry popping up all over, from TV producer Daisy Goodwin prescribing poetry as a catharsis pill for everyday dilemmas, to the outbreak of poetry reading punctuating everyday occurrences, from funerals to saying goodbye to friends at the airport.

There is something we should remember about poetry and I can put it no better than the literary critic George Steiner, referencing WH Auden at his lecture for the Poetry Society in London last week, and that is the fact that poetry ‘makes nothing happen’: it exhibits ‘the mystery of pure uselessness’. This does not mean that Steiner argued for the insignificance of poetry in engaging with and reflecting the contemporary world – anything but. Steiner made a plea for a poetry that ‘has access to what is most exciting to the current state of mind’, a poetry that ‘might get it right’ – and which, in getting it right might, unlike the Daisy Goodwin school of poetry as therapy, make ‘living with it worse’, not better. Steiner also called for a moratorium on poetry ‘that deliberately and explicitly shrinks our perception’.

There is no poetry that is as guilty of deliberately shrinking our perception of the world and providing a snug elastoplast that makes living with it easier than the poetry of polemics. And here the antiwar left are as guilty as the next CIA hack. The poems that come under the ‘best poems of the week’ section at the ‘Poets Against War’ (3) website are perfect examples of Renaissance man Raymond Tallis’ description of ‘political poetry’ as ‘lousy journalism – journalism hamstrung by the poetic form’. As Tallis says, ‘Poems of protest may make poets, and their audiences, if they have one, feel good about themselves but do they really do any good?’ (4) The answer is a resounding ‘no’ for both poetry and politics.

Let’s look at the evidence from the Poets Against War website’s best poems from the week starting 20 November 2005. It is a rich seam of self-indulgence and trite insights masquerading as profound poetry and, what’s worse, profound politics. Prepare yourself for the worse.

There’s John Iceknife:

When I was a child
The children who haunted me
Were Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian
Now I am a man, and the tiny wraiths
That silently beg me to SCREAM for them
Are Iraqi and Afghani and Sudanese,
And my mouth will not close
And my throat will not still and
I am tired, and have given in
I will not turn away
I will not let YOU turn away
I will not let your children turn away

Then there’s Doris Gabel Welch’s ‘A Natural Disaster Becomes… A National Disgrace’ on Hurricane Katrina:

After days and days,
toilets broke, people defecated in boxes.
A crying mayor told of ‘babies raped’.
The very old and young began to die.
A tall man holding a tiny baby
took his only blanket
to gently cover a dead body
slumped in a wheel chair.
Some flee this Hell to sit outside on a searing overpass.
An elderly woman shows the cameraman
her deceased husband lying beside her.
She points
to another man who has jumped to his death
on the highway below.
The Media can get to the disaster,
but food and water and FEMA cannot.

And we could also take a look at ‘Another Pushbutton War on Terrorism (or propaganda poem) [Statement of Conscience]’ by Anthony Zedan:

We, the people, are our biggest enemy and obstacle. We have created and perpetuated a culture of unwarranted and unrelenting fear, racial discrimination, selfishness and rage that has no equal anywhere on this planet.

Huddled Haitians and Cubans treading water, boxcar-coffins coming around the bend filled to the brim with Hispanics yearning to breathe free; all these people are desperate for a real democracy.

I hawk words not death and destruction, not in anti-American rhetoric like some twisted textbooks or inflammatory pamphlets, but with a teaspoon of uncooked honey.

’Make Love’, as my parents’ draft-dodging, inhaling newly mown grass and pungent incense while adoring vegetarian Buddhas, long-haired Jesus Christ superstars, skyblue Vishnus and Shivas and orange blossom Hare Shrishnas – ‘Not War’.

These poems are bad in every way it is possible to be bad. But in a sense these works are also products of their time. They all share the parboiled polemics, and this is a polemic peculiarly suited to cod-poetry. I have nothing against polemic per se – if you have something to say that matters, you should say it with force. But when John Iceknife decides that he is going to be the mouthpiece for all those black babies over there, and SCREAM for them, make no mistake: this is not a voice arguing for politics that could change the world. Nor is it a voice that is trying to get it right, a voice attempting to escape its own personality, as TS Eliot would say, and write a poem that makes us ache for answers that the poem itself cannot give.

Doris Gabel Welch is slightly less self-righteous but seems somewhere to have gotten hold of the strange idea that poetry is about putting line breaks in the middle of sentences. As for Anthony Zedan – yuk! Not only bloated with self-righteousness and a desire to diss every other human on the planet, but brimful with pretentiousness and with the cheek to end with a homage to middle-class hippie dropouts. Utter nonsense.

If you want to read a poem that tells you about the pity of war, try Wilfred Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’. Here is one line from that poem:

I am the enemy you killed, my friend

Could anything be more simple or direct? But every time I read this I find it unnerving to the point of being almost unbearable. That is because Owen was a great poet. It is also because there is more than Owen at stake in this poem and it is still a poem that changes nothing.

(1) ‘Veiled Ode to George Bush deleted from Pakistani textbooks’, Guardian, 5 December 2005

(2) Philip Hensher, ‘Poetry as a weapon in the war on terror’, Independent, 7 December 2005

(3) Poets Against War website

(4) From Raymond Tallis’ presentation on ‘What is poetry for?’ at the Battle of Ideas 2005

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