In the absence of either a PhD supervisor, or a head of department breathing down my neck for a REF contribution, my research tends to be somewhat intermittent, and, whenever I do slip on my velvet-lined critical gloves, rather scattershot in approach. Hence, at the moment I’m taking a butterfly approach to the whole war literature biz, and am currently working my way through The Drowned and the Saved, The Last Enemy, The Aerodrome, and if anyone has a decent copy of Enid Bagnold’s Diary Without Dates that isn’t a plasticky print-on-demand number and wants to sell it for a couple of bob, I’d be most appreciative. Most of my attention, though, has been drawn to the matter of civilian war poetry , an attention most closely focussed at the moment upon Harold Pinter’s War, Tony Harrison’s Gulf War poems, and, the work I’m going to be briefly looking at now, Simon Armitage’s The Not Dead. The Not Dead is the most interesting of the triumvirate, for a number of reasons: first, it’s been written about far less, if at all, so I’ve a reduced chance of going over the same old ground; secondly, the collaborative nature of the project (more on this in a moment) asks interesting questions about authority and witness and the role of the poet; finally, Armitage, in a preface to the poems, theorises (albeit fleetingly) the aesthetics and ethics of war poetry from a civilian perspective in a way which neither Harrison or Pinter have / did. As a result, it’s the preface, and not the poems, that I’m going to focus on here.
The Not Dead is, after a fashion, the ‘book of the film’, though obviously of a different cast to those cheap cash-ins that cluster round the latest summer blockbuster like crows round a desiccated sheep. The documentary from which the poems are drawn was a collaboration between Armitage and the film-maker Brian Hill, originally broadcast in 2007 as part of Channel 4’s coverage of Remembrance Day. Armitage’s contribution was to compose poems based on interviews with a number of ex-soldiers involved in various conflicts – including Kosovo and Iraq – which were then read by the interviewees direct to camera. Already some interesting questions are raised here: one of the problems that beset so many ‘war poems’ written by civilians is a sense of moral entitlement – that simply through the good luck of being poets, they have the right to any topic under the sun, regardless of the extent of their authority (or lack of it) on the subject. The role of witness is vital to war poetry, underpinning not only its compositional processes, but the critical framework in which it is read. The civilian poet as much as the non-versifying civilian is constrained by this fact, is in truth 'witness' only to the mediations of conflict within print journalism, television news, and first-hand accounts from those serving on the front line in whatever capacity, in whatever form. Vitally, the role of witness is denied the civilian poet, so other strategies of engagement with the raw and difficult material of conflict are required of them. Armitage’s strategy is collaboration: to re-contextualise the words of the war-traumatised subjects of Hill’s documentary as poetry. The poems themselves are not Armitage’s finest, but that is to miss the point: they are a mediation of private memory in a public space, and as such they are functional objects, dependent for their full resonance and meaning upon the moment of performance in a broadcast setting.
What’s of greater moment is the fact that Armitage felt compelled to this act of collaboration in the first place, rather than falling back on the tired, clichéd anger of a Pinter or an Adrian Mitchell. The clue, I think, is to be found in the preface to the Pomona booklet which appeared a short while after the original broadcast. Here, Armitage makes a number of tentative but fascinating comments on contemporary war literature which are of genuine value, not only as a means of reading Armitage’s own responses to conflict, but also when reading more generally in the civilian literature of war. Armitage begins by noting the importance we’ve collectively assigned to war poetry (and by war poetry, what’s really meant is First World War poetry, but that’s by the by). ‘Put crudely,’ writes Armitage, ‘poetry at its best says something about the human condition, often in relation to death, and the poets of WWI were serious writers operating at the very limit of human experience, sending back first-hand literary reports.’ There’s a hell of a lot going on in this sentence, so I’m going to – God help me – unpack it a little. First, there’s the word ‘serious’ which conflates a moral with an aesthetic judgement: we can’t be so vulgar as to suggest that some war poets are more talented than others, so their seriousness is emphasised over and above any questions of competence or technique. Fair enough, I guess. Second, take note of the word ‘literary’, as that’s going to recur. Finally, reading war poetry purely as a species of documentary record is one way of going about things, but it’s not especially helpful, and it feels like another way of evading or postponing a more engaged critical judgment with the work itself.
Armitage goes on to discuss the quantitative decline in war poetry in contemporary culture, noting Brian Turner (‘the American soldier with a creative writing MA’) as an exception to the rule. Bizarrely, Armitage manages to praise and damn Turner’s work simultaneously: although Turner’s work is said ‘to go far beyond the hobbyist poetry that most people write at some time in their lives’, by the very act of invoking the poetry-as-therapy school, Armitage unwittingly brackets the poems in Here, Bullet within it, even as he’s trying to distinguish the two. The subtext here is that, without the benefit of a creative writing MA, war poetry from the front-line is impossible, and will only ever aspire to the unrestrained ‘cry from the heart’ that Plath was so wary of. It certainly won’t ever be ‘literary’, precisely because all the ‘literary poets’ are staying at home. They might well be writing war poems unintentionally, because, as poetry is at least a matter of context as well as of content, ‘the permanent backdrop of our current military situation makes almost every poem a war poem.’ Of course, there are different varieties of war poem, and even though Armitage avoids an overt critique, one suspects that he views the poems of Owen and Sassoon as far more valuable and vital than the ‘literary’ works of contemporary writers who smuggle combat into their work through allusion or quotation alone. Thus the binaries are erected: ‘literary’ / ‘therapeutic’ poetry; ‘context’ / ‘content’; ‘poet’ / ‘soldier’. Somehow, the hyphen that would bridge the last two of these terms has been severed, for whatever reasons (mostly as a result of the absence of mass conscription and a vastly altered geo-political context that renders the kind of global conflicts that produced so many Owens and Sassoons and Douglases and Jarrells a thing of the past). The act of collaboration between ‘literary’ poet and ‘non-literary’ veteran is a means, really, of reconstructing that historically erased hyphen between ‘soldier’ and ‘poet’. There are, of course, limitations to this process – one might read, for example, the borrowing of the authority of the witness by the poet, and the subsequent granting of literary authority by the poet upon the witness as troubling and potentially patronising exchange – but it does suggest that Armitage has thought for longer about the ethics and aesthetics of war poetry from a civilian perspective than many of his contemporaries. Moreover, the poems and preface of The Not Dead offer both practical and theoretical models for poets and critics to build upon. They’re imperfect models, certainly, but they offer far firmer ground than Pinter's ‘American Football’.
 Note, civilian as opposed to non-combatant. I’m going to more closely theorise this question as and when it arises, but in basis terms, I’m classifying a civilian writer as one who is absented from the frontline of the war zone. The non-combatant, meanwhile, is a non-military figure who has explicitly travelled to the warzone to engage in an act of witness and engagement distinct from actual fighting – good examples of poets in this category might include John Balaban, James Fenton, and W H Auden, whilst frontline journalism and memoirs by journalist fit the bill in relation to prose: Robert Capa, Michael Herr, Don McCullin, Tim Page, and, again, James Fenton, have all written excellent accounts of their war-time experiences, and there’s a very good article by Geoff Dyer, originally published the Grauniad and reprinted in a revised form in his recent essay collection Working the Room, which suggests something of a renaissance in the long journalistic form.)