Two poets, one very famous, the other little known. An evening reading and discussing their correspondence. In the reading there is equality between the two; in the discussion there is only poet. Inevitable given their coverage in the English world.
War is not declared any more,
but simply continued. The terrible
is an everyday thing. The hero
stays far from battles. The weakling
is moved into the firing lines.
The uniform of the day is patience,
its decoration the shabby star
of hope above the heart.
It is conferred
when nothing more happens,
when the drumfire stops,
when the enemy has become invisible,
and the shadow of eternal armament
darkens the sky.
It is conferred
for the deserting of flags,
for courage in the face of friends,
for the betrayal of despicable secrets
of all commands.
A citizens war; the first and most brutal of the 20th century. When I first read the poem I thought the hero referred to the politicians and leaders, turned into warriors by radio and newsprint; the weaklings the drafted civilians. Of course I was wrong, though reflecting the actuality of our wars now, and their presentation – Bush against Saddam, Obama against the Taliban. Before the invasion of Iraq Saddam proposed a duel with Bush. Scoffed at, of course, a throwback to older medieval battles where the kings did actually fight. However, was it so wrong? Reducing the killing to a single man it was a humanitarian gesture…
The poem plays on the image of the soldier, with turns of phrase reversing the usual associations – the fighter is the weakling; the citizen the fighter; the hero the one who maintains hope (in a warm human life), and acts upon it. Though the last two stanzas suggests the language of the drill yard: the same word is repeated at the start of three lines, suggesting an order, a peremptory shove (go on, act! act! act!). In a war all is corrupted, even the best in us, is this what these two words say?