Saturday, January 03, 2009

How do you write about the war?

Well, I have to wholeheartedly agree with Ms Baroque that Sean O'Brien's effort in yesterday's Guardian is most certainly not the way to write a poem about the current conflict in Gaza/Israel. My honest opinion is that the poem is trite; maybe in a few days, or months, the Guardian editors will cringe as much as I did when they read it again.

And yet ... and yet ...

I can understand Mr O'Brien's motivations for writing the piece. When something staggeringly, horrifically awe-full appears on our TV screens and in our newspapers headlines we want to react to it, we want to comment on it, condemn it, sympathise with those directly affected by it - we are all non-rational and essentially empathic creatures, after all; for those of us on the right side of the broadcast cameras (out of harm's way) the only way we can cope with such unbelievable news is to somehow take action to internalise it, make it real for us.

Maybe Mr O'Brien managed that for himself with his poem, but his decision to get it published in the Guardian placed an additional burden on the poem itself - it now has to work in the same way for other people, help readers in their journey to comprehend and internalise the bloody stupidity raining down on both sides of that concrete border. And there the poem fails, because it is too trite to tackle the necessary work demanded of it.

Which is a pity.

I too get the urge to respond in verse to disasters I can only witness at second, or third, sight. I wrote a 9/11 poem; I wrote a poem about Sarajevo; I've put pen-to-paper after the tsunami. And yes, I have written a poem about the Arab/Israeli conflict. I cannot judge their wider worth as poems, except to say that they worked for me, helped me make a little sense out of chaotic stupidity.

Where my efforts differ from Mr O'Brien's current commentary is that I choose to display my poems in little places, in places where people are likely to have a prior knowledge of me and my poetry. But publishing a poem in the Guardian is a much vaster statement, it is a grand assertion - it is a bookmark for posterity (for what that is worth). It requires a much finer poetry than I'm prepared to attempt. And, almost always, such poetry fails.

I'll post my Levant poem in a minute. It was inspired by a different war in a different place, but maybe it will help a few, very few people imagine the current conflict in terms that go beyond the headlines and the five-second broadcast images - which is all I wanted it to do for me when I wrote it.

The poem is a lie, of course - I have never witnessed conflict beyond the occasional pub brawl. All poems are lies. Sometimes I wish people would remember that fact more often ...

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