What Does a Poet Know About War?

Na Kim If you were living in England a little over a thousand years ago, you might have listened with great satisfaction as a poet recited lines like these: This cheerily savage testimony comes from the ancient Anglo-Saxon poem “The Battle of Brunanburh,” and it offers a vision of warfare that has nearly vanished from English-language poetry. As Jon Stallworthy observes in his introduction to “The New Oxford Book of War Poetry,” despite poetry’s martial heritage, “much — and most recent — war poetry has been implicitly, if not explicitly, antiwar.” This is to be expected. The nature and scale of human conflict has changed, Stallworthy notes, making poets vastly more likely to be appalled by war’s consequences than inspired by acts of individual bravery. It’s one thing, after all, to celebrate the courage of 50 men protecting your village from Viking invaders; quite another to be confronted with the smoldering trenches of World War I. But if war poetry has largely resolved into opposition, this doesn’t simplify it as an undertaking. War poems have a reportorial function: They give us the news about something that has happened. And despite recent suggestions to the contrary, readers generally don’t like […]

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