The TLS (missing the poems, if not the prose) recently [January 5, 2007] asked, in its oft-brilliant NB column (edited and written by J.C.) -"Where are the poets of war?" - before suggesting that one oughtn't to look for them in the anti-war camp, despite what Francis Scarfe wrote in 1941: "a good war poem must also be a good peace poem."
As the TLS writes, "We exclude, for the moment, poems gathered together in collections such as 100 Poets against the War, edited by Todd Swift, and 101 Poets .... [the ellipsis is J.C.'s] edited by Paul Keegan and Matthew Hollis, the very titles of which amount to to a political agenda (the former contained new work; the latter poems from all ages). The kind of war poetry you want, as a reader, challenges your assumptions with doubt, pity, glory, even gore." There's a lot here to unpack. So much so, it's almost like that picnic basket from The Wind In The Willows.
Firstly, no sane reader wants any war poetry at all - surely, it's only a necessary evil of combative times. What they expect, if there is a war, is that the poetry written during wartime will, at the very least, "handle" the pressure of experience placed on language and the living (and dying) at that time;
Secondly, the requirement to "challenge your assumptions" rather begs the question of what those are, in the first place. Poetry is not a debating chamber, only. If one's assumptions are that Christ died for our sins, that one shouldn't kill, that war is a last resort - well, one hardly wants or needs Satanic verses espousing a holocaust simply for the sake of throwing off dusty old ways for shiny new ones. T.S. Eliot's sublime Quartets are blessed with very much establishing convictions, not simply shaking an apple tree to see if any Vicars fall;
Thirdly, the rather simplistic idea that only poetry anthologies with self-evident titles contain a "political agenda" is a little old-fashioned. Every poetry anthology constitutes a micro-canon, and therefore establishes and defends its own set of values, hierarchies and traditions;
Fourthly, Tom Paulin's superb anthology of Political Verse (Faber) should lay to rest the cliche that "politcal poetry" cannot, first and foremost, sing as well-crafted verse. "War" or "politics by other means" is no less a legitimate theme for poetry than love - and besides which, the best WWI poetry from the trenches expresses a strong anti-war bias without ruining the quality of the writing, or the pity;
Fifthly, there is a long-standing (and mistaken) belief, among critics who have not read my famous anthology, especially, that nth position (and later Salt's) 100 Poets against the War collection, contains "merely" propaganda, rather than excellent new writing. Look again. The anthology of mine that the TLS so airily dismisses contains poems written in the 21st century, in a variety of forms and styles, by some of the finest (often major) poets of our age, including: Charles Bernstein, Mahmoud Darwish, Michael Donaghy, Marilyn Hacker, David Harsent, Ranjit Hoskote, John Hartley Williams, Mimi Khalvati, John Kinsella, Robert Minhinnick, Sean O'Brien, Grace Schulman, and George Szirtes. Hardly a list of beatnik also-rans.
No, I'm afraid if the TLS is looking for "war poets" they better start reading the Internet, particularly nth position, more closely - our e-books have, since 2003, continually supplied readers who want "gore" as well as "pity" excellent verse dealing with all sides of the issues relating to the wars against terror, in Afghanistan and in Iraq - most recently in Babylon Burning, a collection J.C. mocked, gently, in the same pages in 2006, for raising funds for the Red Cross. Is J.C. a little bloody-minded?