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Sunday, 10 November, 2002, 01:37 GMT
How war inspires the world's poets
Military cemetery in Normandy
Poets often emerge from conscript armies

In the same way as war robs each nation of men and women, it also inspires poets to write. As Britain marks Remembrance Sunday, BBC News Online looks at war poetry from around the world.

The best known modern poetry in Britain must surely be that of the war poets, the angry, sad and bitter soldier-poets who fought in the First World War.

The poems have become a grid through which that war, and other wars too, are seen.

But we remember perhaps only a dozen out of more than 2,000 or so poets who wrote about the war, marching off with one of the hundreds of thousands of copies of the Oxford Book of English verse in their packs.

There will be poets writing, about whom we know nothing

Professor Sabry Hafez
Professor John Stallworthy, poet and biographer of Wilfred Owen points out one often overlooked fact which helps account for the extraordinary outpouring of poetry in 1914-1918.

"You had not only regular soldiers, but also conscripts, civilians, many of whom were poets.

"Where you have a war fought by regular soldiers, not many will be closet poets. It was the nation's greatest art form, a strong literary tradition which was continued even in those awful circumstances."

But early 20th Century Britain is hardly alone in combining a vast conscript army and a vital poetic tradition.

A glance at other cultures in similar situations casts interesting sidelights on war poetry.

Critical poets

Take the Iran-Iraq war.

Two cultures, intensely proud of a poetic tradition, threw vast armies of their young men against each other.

Just as so much First World War poetry is now ignored as hopelessly sentimental or jingoistic, much poetry was used as propaganda by both sides.

Vietnam war graves
A Vietnam war love poem became the nation's favourite verse
Clergymen accompanied Iranian units to the front to inspire them with religious verse.

The Iraqi government published books of poetry written by front line soldiers.

Meanwhile, dissenting voices on both sides had to be circumspect in attacking the war.

Tehran-based critic and translator Iraj Kaboli singles out the Iranian poet Simin Behbahani.

"The war was presented as a religious war, not one of national survival," he said.

"This alienated many intellectuals and poets, who avoided all propaganda poetry.

"A poem like The Necklace had little impact in changing wider society, but where it was circulated - a huge impact."

The Necklace
Click here to read the poem in full

But what poem can claim to change the world on the spot?

Behbahani describes a woman who has lost her soldier son and thinks she is wearing a pair of his boots around her neck - like a necklace.

Behbahani became a war poet by living in a militarised society and daring to comment critically - not all her poems have seen the light of day.

In Vietnam, another society proud of its poetry but traumatised by constant war, the favourite war poem is different again.

Round her neck she has a pair of teardrops, a curse: of a dead soldier boots with laces tied together

Extract from The Necklace
Huu Loan, now 86, was fighting the French in the late 1940s when his wife was killed on the home front.

His poem about her, The Lavender Colour of Blueberry Flowers was popular with soldiers, civilians and schoolchildren.

Huang Phan of the BBC's Vietnamese Service describes its impact.

"It was first published in the army's magazine and just spread by word of mouth.

"It was set as a popular song and I guess every generation of young Vietnamese learn about it growing up.

"Its very moving, its about the irony of war - there he is in the frontline and he survives, while his wife behind the lines, she's killed."

The Lavender Colour of Blueberry Flowers
Click here to read the poem in full

A love poem by a war poet became the nation's favourite verse.

Iraqis like to say they are the best poets in the Arab world, where the continuing oral tradition and historical esteem given to poetry puts verse on TV and on the front page of papers.

Many Arab poets write about the violence in the Middle East - there's a famous poem "Lament for the June sun" which described the Arab defeat in the Six Day War of 1967 where the poet Al-Bayyati berates the leaders of the Arab world.

Iraq-Iran war memorial in Baghdad
Iraqis like to say they are the best poets in the Arab world
But what would be the chances of writing critical or emotional anti-war verse in, say, Saddam Hussein's Iraq, where the leader has 100 poet Laureates?

According to Professor Sabry Hafez of London's School for Oriental and African Studies, the guile of the Arab poet goes a long way.

He said: "The history of oppression in the Arab world leads the poets to develop a very subtle delicate code with the reader to hide the subversion in their work with symbol and allegory."

Lament for the June sun
Click here to read an extract from the poem

The poets we now admire from the first world war were in fact not published or widely circulated for many years after 1918.

As the UN sets the clock ticking down on possible military action in Iraq, Professor Hafez sees the situation repeating itself.

"There will be poets writing, about whom we know nothing just as there are many Iraqi poets who are writing worthwhile oppositional work even now," he said.

We have to wait and see if in the coming months they will have another war to write about.

The Necklace by Simin Behbahani

Touched and deranged,

downcast and sad;

with veilless face,

and no chador;

heedless of arrest,

careless of the Guards.

For eyes she has

two red grapes

fallen off the bunch.

She's mad,

stark staring mad;

she's lost,

lost to herself,

lost to the world.

A straw in the wind,

she's drifting around.

A graveless body,

she's deadened to the world.

Round her neck she has

a pair of teardrops, a curse:

of a dead soldier boots

with laces tied together.

"What's that?", I said.

"My son", she said,

"sitting on my shoulders

with his boots on."

Translated by Iraj Kaboli

Return to the story

The Lavender Colour of Blueberry Flowers by Huu Loan

She had three older brothers

who joined the National Salvation Army

Among her younger brothers

one did not even know how to talk

she was young, her hair soft and shining bright.

I was the soldier of the National Salvation Army

Away from home

My Love for her was tender as my love for my sister.

On the wedding day

She did not ask for new dress

I wore military uniform

My boots were freshly covered with battle soil.

Standing by her unusually-looking soldiering groom,

She smiled beautifully.

I came home on leave from my unit

And returned immediately after the wedding day.

From the fighting zone far away,

I felt sorry for her

Having married a warrior.

How many of them would eventually return.

Should anything happen to me

How would she take it

Back home at night fall...

But I did not die

Despite the ravaging fire of war

Instead, death struck my young wife

Who stayed behind in the rear.

Return to the story

Extract from Lament for the June Sun by Al-Bayyati

We were ground in the coffee houses of the East by

War of words, wooden swords

Lies and empty heroes.

We did not kill a camel or a grouse

We did not try the game of death

Trivia preoccupied us

We killed each other and now we are crumbs.

In the coffee houses of the East we swat at flies

We are the generation of meaningless death the recipients of alms....

The sun of June left our genitals naked

Why did they leave us for the dogs, corpses without prayers

Carrying the crucified nation in one hand and dust in the other?

Still al-Bayyati ends his poem on an optimistic note, saying that the leaders, not the people, were defeated:

We were not defeated

The giant peacocks alone were defeated

Quicker than the flicker of a flame.

Return to the story

In remembrance



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