Poems Against War
Most war poems are essentially peace poems. It's one of those strange fascinations. When we write poems about love, it's usually because we don't have it. When we write poems about war, it's usually because we have it, and don't want it. Or, as Bowery poet Sage puts it, 'Strange somehow that nobody ever prays when things are okay'.
Two books have arrived on Poetry Slut's sunny desk this month which (for better or worse) fall into the 'poems against the war' category. One of them is published in the U.K. only; the other in the U.S. only, but I hope you'll indulge me in the name of transatlantic even-handedness. The first of these, predictably entitled 101 Poems Against War, is interesting for two reasons. Firstly, the scaredy-cat lack of a definite article in the title ('What war? Oh, you mean the war? No, no, we weren't writing against that… just war in general, the idea of the thing, you know…'); and secondly, the presence of a brief afterword by Andrew Motion, the UK's Poet Laureate. This sounds good, and is impressively advertised on the front cover, but runs to only a couple of pages, and represents more a contented, sales-raising blurb by a famous name than any sort of useful contextualizing information.
Obviously, it's an anthology, not of new poems, but of a range of 'anti-war' poetry, stretching from Sappho to Seamus Heaney, and stretching beyond the canon to a list of not-so-famous, but equally worthy names: Saadi Youssef, Goran Simic, Marina Tsvetaeva. These names illustrate the reasonable number of non-English-language poets appearing here in translation, though this number is still far from being representative.
The problem with the selection is that it comes across as slightly stale; the sort of thing an ageing aunt might buy as a birthday present for the troublesome, anti-war protesting niece. But we've all heard Wilfred Owen's 'Dulce et Decorum Est'. In the U.K., at least, it has been beaten like a martial drum into the consciousness of two or three generations of school children. Does it really need to be collected here? That said, it is hard not to sympathize with anthologists Matthew Hollis and Paul Keegan , who have had the thankless task of walking the line between the staid and the unexpected. Two poems by E. E. Cummings are a welcome addition, stretching the definitions of 'war poetry', and the selection of Paul Durcan's couplet, 'Ireland 1972', is a relevant challenge to received notions of what might, in fact, be considered as a legitimate invocation of the word 'war'.
All in all, the collection is an inoffensive and mildly interesting one, if only for the reason that it's rather like a vibrant country of striking, challenging and vibrant poems, under occupation by the slightly stuffy-but well known, and mostly harmless-old guard.
Our other contender for Poetry Slut's 'War Book of the Week' Award is not stuffy. It's slick. Very slick. It's called Sex Drugs and Sunday School, and it emerges from another tradition entirely. This is the protest poetry of the Vietnam era, on speed. Then illustrated like a Dave McKean book, and put together by the creative director of a Brooklyn design firm, which lists Mercedes-Benz among its former clients. Sounds like a pretty good combination on paper. The trouble is, it's almost too slick, on paper. Even the paper it's printed on, if forced, would have to describe itself as 'slick'.
Various reviewers have been scrambling to proclaim Sage-the guy who actually writes the words in this stylishly slim volume-as 'satirist', 'prophet' and, without a hint of irony, 'genius'. Now, I have a problem with 'genius'. 'Genius', as a word, is flung around too lightly. Sage is not a genius. He is a good poet, in places. He is very angry about the shortsightedness of political America. He is trying hard to open the eyes and mouths of Middle America.
He does a good job in direct prose, with direct and undisguised reference to political events: 'Wake up America. Israel is a terrorist nation by your official Army definition'. The poetry is less consistent, but certainly works best when Sage directly channels his influences-in 'Write My Son' ('Inspired by Bob Dylan's "Something for Woody Guthrie"')-and in the cynical, savvy 'Cardboard Jesus' ('and I will pray to Him / thrice daily and twice nightly / with bonus prayer rounds on Sunday'). Only here, it seems, and in the Villanelle 'Death is Now Your Dearest Friend' does Sage really find poetic bases and structures strong enough to reign in his wandering pen.
Still, to review this simply as a poetry book is to miss half the point. This is a smartly designed volume. The graphics, for the most part, support the poetry, although this support is still closer to discrete illustration than integrated use of text and picture. Occasionally, the beautiful density of Ruben Watson's sharp, anime-influenced illustrations shows up a certain degree of sparseness in the poetic vision, but only occasionally.
One section of Sex Drugs and Sunday School begins with an introductory statement promising to show the hero 'chasing the American fantasy of pasteurized plenty & random recognition'. A fantasy it may be (and this book is an unapologetic call for the rejection of some 'American fantasies'), but it might be best to treat Sage's first book as an experiment in focused design, to be flipped through and examined for these flickers of 'random recognition'. You won't agree with all of what the man says, but you might enjoy some of the visions he shows you along the way.
Poems Against War edited by Matthew Hollis
Drugs and Sunday School by Sage Merchant Dice