Tag Archives: war

Poem: “Never Believe”

Never believe the lies of war, and the orders
that seem to make sense –
whether Hitler or Bush, no one storms over borders
“in self defence”.

“Leading the Free World” by having the biggest gun
has always chilled
those on whom the guns are turned, on everyone
free to be killed.

This is another of my anti-imperialist or anti-war poems, first published in Ambit’s 200th quarterly issue in the UK. Despite the tone of the poem, I should clarify that I don’t dislike guns in themselves. One way or another they were in my life for decades: capguns as a kid, then BB gun and speargun, four years of .303s at school in England (and a submachine gun on school exercises in Denmark), earning my Marksman badge in training in Canada, letting my own kids try skeet shooting, Nerf guns and super-soakers… 

But I don’t see any reason for anyone to own any firearm other than a single-shot hunting rifle.

And as for military forces, given that invaders need several times the firepower of defenders to be successful, I don’t see the need for any military force to be more than a third the size of its biggest competitor. Anything more than that would be best channeled into (a reformed, effective, efficient) United Nations. And never believe anyone who says they need to strike first, in self-defence. They are the bad guys, by definition.

Technically the poem is a little loose. The rhymes are OK, but the scansion is erratic, relying on the reader to find five beats in the longer and two beats in the shorter lines for a rhythmic read. Iambic pentameters it ain’t. But the short lines are the cleanest and the punchiest: that’s where the action is. My hope is always that a strong last line absolves a lot of earlier sins.

Sonnet: “From Gombe’s Chimps”

From Gombe’s chimps to interstellar space
We will have war. Sanctioned by the Divine,
Moses first led the Jews to Palestine
Telling his tribesmen not just to displace
But to kill all, and wipe out without trace
Each adult, child, animal, tree, vine.
Genocide’s justified, cleansed ethics fine,
To get resources for your tribe and race.

Believers justify war’s bloody courses:
We’re right, they’re wrong, so therefore they’re to blame.
Conquer through war to grab and keep resources,
Aztecs or Spaniards, everyone’s the same –
Victory to the best guns, swords or horses,
And put defeated scriptures in the flame.

I’m pessimistic about the chances of humans being able to stop warfare. It seems built into the nature of social creatures – when you define your group, you are defining everyone else as not in your group. Then, when it’s a question of who gets limited resources, groups compete and the most ruthless groups tend to do the best.

This sonnet was originally accepted for publication by Quarterday in Scotland, but that excellent glossy magazine seems to have folded after a few issues and this poem was left hanging. Fortunately the Better Than Starbucks group is still competing successfully, thanks to the ruthless Anthony Watkins and Vera Ignatowitsch, and published it.

The sonnet is one of my favourites for several reasons: technically it is purer than most, rhyming ABBAABBA CDCDCD, though the volta between the two sections is weak (or possibly nonexistent). It deals with human nature, and the problems facing us as we move into the ever more complex future. And it highlights one of my personal religious irritations, that people can walk into a neighbouring territory, wipe out the inhabitants, and create a justifying fairytale of how the destroyers are the persecuted victims. Think of the Pilgrims and other British immigrants in America… think of the Jewish tribes coming into the Promised Land: when they captured a city outside the core area,

“when the Lord thy God hath delivered it into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword:
But the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take unto thyself; and thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies, which the Lord thy God hath given thee.” (Deuteronomy 20:13-14)

But when they captured a city in the heart of the Promised Land,

“of the cities of these people, which the Lord thy God doth give thee for an inheritance, thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth:
But thou shalt utterly destroy them; namely, the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; as the Lord thy God hath commanded thee:
That they teach you not to do after all their abominations.” (Deuteronomy 20:16-18)

It is hard to see a future without warfare, when even the most revered “holy books” teach genocide and justify it as doing God’s will.

Sonnet: “When Konrad Lorenz”

Konrad Lorenz

Konrad Lorenz and tribe

When Konrad Lorenz studied how small fish
overcame lethal greedy tendency
by activating new dependency –
called love – to build a larger fulfilled wish,
he clarified the dynamic sweep and swish
of conquest across Earth’s wide land and sea
that gave to humans such ascendancy,
watched warfare grow as in a petri dish.

War against Other creates Family.
The nut of war that no hard mind can crack
if opened would show God Life Blaze Attack,
drying white hot deaths else left clammily.
So life says Outcompete! Outnumber! Breed!
Build Love of Tribe and State! Expand! Succeed!

This sonnet was originally published in Snakeskin. It’s pretty dense, but one of the things I love about sonnets is that they are just long enough to be able to cram in a full train of thought – here, that Konrad Lorenz‘ observations led him to propose that Love developed as a mechanism for allowing creatures to overcome their natural tendency to monopolise resources, so as to form a useful pair, family or larger community. Love then binds the community, and the selfishness and competition and dislike get focused further away on competing communities.

War would seem as inescapable as Love in this view, as there is always an inside group and an outside group. Developing feelings of universal Love has proved impossible for most humans despite thousands of years of morally uplifting sermons and commands. If your individuality is important, if you define yourself in contradistinction to some other or others (by age, sex, religion, ethnicity, language or whatever), if you are more comfortable with people you identify with than with people with whom you feel nothing in common – and all of these are natural and normal human attitudes – then both the desire to love and the desire to have your community grow at the expense of others seem inevitable.

Lorenz’ thinking led him to the Nazi Party in 1938. What he saw of the transportation of concentration camp inmates disillusioned him with Nazism by its inhumanity. At the end of his life he was active with the Austrian Green Party.

Poem: “Agenda for a Political Career”

Help the peaceniks
With their cut-backs
To the Army,
It’s fulfilling;

Once elected,
Buy cheap arms stocks,
Start a war and
Make a killing.

This poem was originally published in Lighten Up Online, edited by Jerome Betts. I dislike war, but even more I loathe “chicken hawks“, those who personally avoided combat when their country called them up but who later in their careers advocated war and made a fortune from it. That includes a lot of American politicians.

Good guys: Eisenhower and his military-industrial complex warning. Kennedy, assassinated when he was trying to pull US troops out of Vietnam. Jimmy Carter. All military men who understood war.

Total jerks: Johnson, ramping up the Vietnam war while everyone was distracted by the Kennedy funeral. Kissinger even more than Nixon. Cheney even more than George W. Bush. Trump. Chicken hawks.

The US doesn’t have a monopoly on avaricious politicians. The UK’s Tony Blair has been rewarded by the world of oil and wars to the extent of acquiring an estimated $90 million and a property portfolio worth $37.5 million in the first eight years since leaving office (i.e. 2007-2015).

Review: “A Joy Proposed” by T.H. White

‘A Joy Proposed’ is a nice, somewhat strange, assembly of 57 often derivative poems from across the life of T.H. White. Many of the pieces were written in Ireland where White lived as a Conscientious Objector throughout the Second World War. His love of the countryside and his previous experiences as a schoolmaster (including at Stowe, a boarding school in rural Buckinghamshire with 600 acres of grounds) shine through in the constant juxtaposition of poems about game birds, dogs and landscapes alongside anger and bitterness about innocent lives lost to war.

The style varies from extreme simplicity, as in ‘A Choirboy Singing’:

Know not, but sigh.
Think not, but die.
Hope not, but high
Ache against ill.

to outpourings evocative of Whitman or Hopkins, as in ‘A Dray Horse’:

Meek Hercules – passion of arched power bowed in titanic affection,
Docile though vanquishing, stout-limber in vastness, plunging and spurning thy road –
Tauten thy traces, triumph past me, take thy shattering direction
Through misty Glasgow, dragging in a tremendous beer-waggon thy cobble-thundering load.

His pessimism, or perhaps mere sadness, at the human condition comes through again and again in the sense of the young lives he has been educating that will now be thrown away:

When I look at your comely head
And the long fingers delicately live
And the bright life born to be dead
And the happy blood to be shed
(…)
I die within me. And I curse
The witless fate of man without all cure.
Music I curse, and verse,
And beauty worse,
And every thing that helps us to endure.

… but mitigated always by his love of Nature, both hunting (as in kestrels and dogs he owned) and hunted (as in game birds he shot).

White is primarily known for his ‘Once and Future King‘ retelling of the Arthurian legends, and those novels soon went to stage and screen as the musical ‘Camelot’ and the Disney animation ‘The Sword in the Stone’. If it wasn’t for those novels, his other novels would probably be forgotten today and his poetry would be unknown. It isn’t great poetry, and yet I have read it and reread it. He was a writer and with it he was lonely, alcoholic, bitter, witty, learned, compassionate, and alive to the natural world. All of that comes through in these verses, with his self-awareness of who he was and what he was achieving. As he wrote in ‘Lines Cut on the Cottage Window’:

A bitter heart lay here and yet
It was not bitter to the bone.
It made what Time does not unmake
All hopeful, and alone.