The One Hundred Years’ War – Modern War Poems, Edited by Neil Astley
Review by David Roberts
This is a hugely impressive volume of modern war poetry. For a long time to come this will be the key anthology of 20th-century war poetry, but its scope is wider than the 20th century. Poems range from before the First World War to the war in Syria in 2013. Poems are mainly by participants, victims and witnesses.
Is not a book you can read from cover to cover. A few pages at a time will give the reader occasion for thought. The violence, the horror is often stomach-churning. Neil Astley has made an effort to avoid including “anti-war poems” on the grounds that “their effectiveness tends to be confined to the time when they were written in response to a particular conflict.” He has consciously avoided poems by “observers, protesters or proselytisers.” No one can argue with the power of his selection. However, when 30 million people around the world in February 2003 protested against the impending war against Iraq the protesters were surely part of the war story, and it could be that they had something on their mind which may still be worth listening to.
The range of the selection is very extensive with poems from the two world wars, the Korean War, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, Israel-Palestine-Lebanon, the “Troubles” in Ireland, the Iraq wars, the Afghanistan wars, and other wars from 1980 up to 2013. No other anthology can equal it for range. Even so, Africa is a notable omission. To take its most significant war, the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo alone (and previous incarnations of this country) was the most deadly in the world since the Second World War, with 5 million victims. And what of Burma? And the horrendous coups with their mass killings in Indonesia and South America in the 1960s.
I’m not very happy with poems written by professional poets based on interviews with soldiers. They are poeticised journalism. These poems are interesting but one step away from authenticity. Surely, the keynote of any good poem is the writer’s personal response to things experienced, seen, heard, known or imagined.
Neil Astley has added very helpful biographical and other notes to the poems, including brief histories of conflicts. I suspect that here, in one or two places, there will be historians and others wanting to challenge some of the “facts.” For example, the Kosovo war lacks a Serbian perspective. No one should go to this volume to understand the history of these wars.
So what is the use of such a volume of unpleasant poetry? Have we, the readers of these poems, become just voyeurs enjoying the pornography of war? Or may the poems serve a valuable purpose in deepening our understanding of conflicts or raising important questions? Some may say that the poems point too easily to the “bad guys” in the conflicts. Are the conflicts as morally simple as perhaps many of the poems imply? Who is responsible in all these acts of violence? There are far more wars than identified war criminals. It seems that, in war, violence is always the fault of someone else. Why do the frenzies of violence and consequent suffering, described in these poems, break out in small patches of the inhabited world when most of the world is locked into peaceful cooperation? The book makes a convincing, if accidental, case for increased attention to Peace Studies.
It shows, too, that Wilfred Owen did not write the last word in war poetry. There are still poets – soldiers, victims, perpetrators and witnesses – crying their cry. This disturbing and challenging volume deserves the wide readership it will undoubtedly achieve.
With nearly 600 pages and at a price of £12.99 it is extraordinary value, too. Bloodaxe has put its Arts Council grant to good use in subsidising this book.
David Roberts, Editor the War Poetry Website. 20 October 2014.