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Former British poet laureate Andrew Motion presents 'The Folio Book Of War Poetry'


Veterans Day is next Thursday, November 11. The new "Folio Book Of War Poetry" is a collection of works by great poets that depict - as maybe only poetry can - the losses and valor that can be borne by veterans throughout history. As a first-century poem from China puts it, they fought south of the ramparts. They died north of the wall. They died in the moors and were not buried. Your service shall not be forgotten. For in the morning, you went out to battle. And at night, you did not return.

"The Folio Book Of War Poetry" is edited by Sir Andrew Motion, the former poet laureate of the United Kingdom. He joins us from Baltimore, where he's the Homewood Professor of Arts at Johns Hopkins University. Thanks so much for being with us.

ANDREW MOTION: It's my great pleasure. Thank you for inviting me.

SIMON: Across all these different civilizations and epochs and time and experiences in this book, what are some of the recurrent themes you see in war poetry?

MOTION: Well, I think mainly what you see is a significant change in attitude over the centuries, I must say, because the poems written are very largely celebrations of male valor. And very often, that celebration of individual male valor is intended to combine with some sort of national or nationalistic impulse to defend the homeland, in other words, in some way or other. And that remains more or less constant - I mean, with variations being played on that as a theme for centuries, honestly.

But as we come up to the beginning of the 20th century, the end of the 19th century, certain dissenting voices start to make themselves heard. You can even hear, I think, in one of the most famous war poems of all time, Tennyson's poem on "The Charge Of The Light Brigade," in its admission that someone had blundered, that there is some sort of fault line opening between the - how people are expected to respond on the homefront and what it's actually like up there on the front. And by the time that you get to Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Ivor Gurney and others writing in the second half of the First World War, that note of dissent is absolutely unignorable.

SIMON: Let me ask you to read a Siegfried Sassoon's poem, "The General."

MOTION: Well, Sassoon is one of the best two or three known poets of the First World War. It's perhaps worth saying as a way of introducing this. And I think - I mean, for my money, the most successful poems that he writes are very often these shortish, squiblike-seeming poems which are savagely satirical, very often, of the people who are in charge of the war at the same time as they are very tenderly remembering or shielding those who are actually fighting in it. This short poem is a good example of that - so "The General."

(Reading) Good morning, good morning, the general said, when we met him last week on our way to the line. Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of 'em dead. And we're cursing his staff for incompetent swine. He's a cheery old card, grunted Harry to Jack as they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack. But he did for them both with his plan of attack.

These satires are not like anything else that have been written about war before, so it's easy to imagine the kind of shock impact that they had on the early audiences and, to a certain extent, still on us today.

SIMON: I'm going to read another - really, a set of lyrics that you include here, Julia Ward Howe's "The Battle Hymn Of The Republic."


SIMON: And famously, that song that rallied Union troops in the U.S. Civil War winds up by saying, (reading) in the beauty of the lilies, Christ was born across the sea with a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me. As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.

And perhaps on Veterans Day, we should also note that there have been wars to defeat slavery or to destroy concentration camps, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, that have been seen as righteous.

MOTION: I absolutely don't disagree with that. I mean, I - essentially, I'm with Picasso, who very bluntly said I'm against war. And I guess most people with their head screwed on would say the same thing. But one, at the same time, wants to make a distinction between the kinds of war that have occurred over the centuries and to - perhaps to make some distinction between those that might be considered just, such as the ones that you mentioned and those that seem foolish or foolhardy or based on false premises or less noble intentions.

SIMON: Let me ask you to read a poem by Claude McKay, a Jamaican American writer.

MOTION: Indeed. Perhaps I can say as a lead into this poem that one of the things that I found rather agitating when I was putting this book together was my wish to make it as diverse as possible was very often frustrated by the kind of lack of texts to prove that point or to make that case. I - again, this is something I say a little bit about in the introduction to the book. But here is one that - an exception proving the rule - "If We Must Die."

(Reading) If we must die, let it not be like hogs hunted and penned in an inglorious spot while around us bark the mad and hungry dogs making their mock at our accursed lot. If we must die, oh, let us nobly die, so that our precious blood may not be shed in vain. Then even the monsters we defy shall be constrained to honor us though dead. Oh, kinsman, we must meet the common foe. Though far outnumbered, let us show how brave, and for their thousand blows, deal one deathblow. What, though, before us lies the open grave? Like men, we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack, pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back.

SIMON: It strikes me that's a poem that so many veterans might utter.

MOTION: Absolutely, absolutely. And it's a poem that touches on a great many linked themes, too - I mean, themes of racial injustice as well as themes that have strictly to do with military encounters of one kind or another.

SIMON: Sir Andrew Motion has edited the new "Folio Book Of War Poetry" in time for Veterans Day next week. Thank you so much for being with us.

MOTION: Thank you very much for inviting me. It's a pleasure to talk to you.