Battle cries and emergencies

18th October 1996 at 01:00
THE FABER BOOK OF WAR POETRY Edited by Kenneth Baker Faber Pounds 20. EMERGENCY KIT: Poems for Strange Times Edited by Jo Shapcott and Matthew Sweeney Faber Pounds 9.99

What do you do, poor librarian, as another 600-page anthology bears down on you? Nod it through, on Faber's reputation? Flinch at the price? Or you might think: we've already got Jon Stallworthy's Oxford Book of War Poetry,respected and popular and still only 12 years old. That's one reason to buy the Faber book: let students compare and contrast. The difference between 1984 and 1996 might give its own clue to our strange times.

Does the Faber book update the Oxford? At a first glance, quite the opposite. Half of Stallworthy's book was drawn from this century; Baker's reaches back into the Classics, with lashings of Shakespeare. The arrangement - 66 entries under headings such as "Armour", "Artillery and Big Bombs" and "Donkeys" - breaks up the argument implicit in Stallworthy's book: that attitudes to war have changed through history, in the 20th century irreversibly, so that war poetry now can't but be anti-war.

For Baker, "war and the business of fighting" is enduring and universal, a major and, yes, inspiring human activity. We have (one) Tony Harrison on Bosnia; we have Adrian Mitchell's almost-obligatory "Tell Me Lies About Vietnam". And pacifism gets its say with a 10-poem chapter sandwiched between "Arguments for War" and "The Religious Blessing". Some Owen and Sassoon is there, but only one Rosenberg, one Edward Thomas; the set-book poets of the First World War are eased out of their last-word status.

So is this back-to-basics, goodbye to Sixties protest and all that? Not quite: Baker is aware of the damage of war. There is a section on the Holocaust, there is a poem translated from the Vietnamese. But the heart of the book is with "the fighting man". The Faber Book of Soldiering, maybe? Baker goes a step further than Kipling by printing real barrack-room ballads, the genuine Anon.

"Oh! Fucking Halkirk" is the folk tradition that John Cooper Clarke borrowed for his punk litany "Chickentown". The scope of Baker's book means that he comes up with unexpected finds, like the poems of nurses from the Vietnam war. Dana Shuster's poem begins: "Mellow on morphine, he smiles and floatsabove the stretcher over which I hover.I snip an annular ligamentand his foot plops unnoticed into the pail, superfluous as a placenta after labour has ended. "

I have qualms about this book, the way it centre-stages "the fighting man" in an age of mass destruction and inter-ethnic butchery, when the bulk of people affected by war are neither fighting, nor men; the way the Gulf War scarcely figures, or Africa, or Northern Ireland. But if Baker's concern with fighting leads to a find like "Mellow on Morphine" I say: buy it. It contains a lot of evidence.

The "strange times" of Shapcott and Sweeney's anthology are the late-20th century, and strangeness is the guiding principle of their selection, the quirky and wry, the mildly surreal, the ambiguous play around the edges of reality. Emergency Kit is a smart move on Faber's part,and a healthy one, to avoid direct engagement with Bloodaxe's The New Poetry, for the high ground of the Zeitgeist, the right to define what matters in contemporary poetry.

The poems are widespread and worldwide, and though certain names like Charles Simic are central enough to be guiding spirits, we don't hear too loud a rumbling of a new canon being manoeuvred into place. Poem links to poem, sometimes by the kind of knight's move that the house style favours, sometimes by a single image. You can see how the collection grew from a series of classes on modern poetry, with the reading and tastes of two lively and intelligent writers glancing off one another.

One side-effect is that poet after poet whom I like and admire is represented by work no one, least of all themselves, would call their best or most typical; William Carlos Williams is here with a little jeu d'esprit about a turtle for his grandson. And then again suddenly you come across one of the big ones everyone should know, like Derek Mahon's "A Disused She in County Wexford".

This anthology is a Trickster, light on its feet, more fond of questions than answers. Buy it, delight in it; don't make an orthodoxy of it. The critical bent of this book is not very different from that in The New Poetry; there's a risk, in strange times, that quirkiness could become obligatory. If that happens then something in poetry, maybe quirkiness itself, gets lost.

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