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2015 has been a year of outrages - terrorism - a word which may have its origins, as some rather crass pundits wryly observed, in the rampant and often cruel massacres of the French revolutionary period.  The West - no stranger to cruelty to the Other and others itself at least since its settlers and explorers raped, tortured, and pillaged across the Americas - and in two World Wars the perpetrators of the worst atrocities in human history (the Holocaust, the dropping of nuclear weapons) - has finally met its match.

Civilization was once used to contrast the good with the barbaric.  The endless random killing masterminded by half-insane fanatics and fantasists, motivated by a medieval theology of incompatible Jihad, has cast itself as the new normal of barbarism. IS, the current bogeyman, though having never put forth a 9/11 style spectacular, instead went all Digital Age on our asses, chopping off heads for our apps and iPhones, smashing ancient cities for the cameras, and then pulling off a Mumbai-style and curiously pathetic spree of slaughter in Paris, twice, in one year, like a sequel to its own crazed movie.

At time of writing, mourning has become eclectic, and divisive; in what can only be called post-rational society, we now accuse our grieving allies of not caring as much for the fallen of Beirut, Mali or Kenya - and Ukraine is half-ignored. Realpolitik's diktats now mean the UN has rallied its Security Council and the world, including odd-man-out Russia and standalone China, in a bid to obliterate IS, which is both a bastion and a bastardised idea. You cannot kill ideas, but one supposes, you can blow those who hold them to shit, as Trump, panto Nazi Yankee, now says.

Paris II was the threshold of violence across which IS took us - a ritualistic breaking of our taboo-protected soul-hymens. They have helped us to grow up, our liminality now shed.  We are adults at last - face to face with an evil enemy worthy of our own past sins, and our own demons. IS is the perfect foe, because it lacks any empathy or recognisably sane goals. If there is a clash of civilizations between the West and others, there is also a clash of barbarisms, and IS has seen our Nagasaki, and raised us a Bataclan.

Few sober soldiers and terrorists (even terrorists) shoot weeping teenagers at rock concerts, unless they hate the very idea of youth and rock music. As I have said elsewhere, killing people while they laugh, and drink and talk at a Paris café is the secular analogue of killing a person at prayer in a Mosque. But how to grieve the unspeakable and unsayable? The media, never exhausted by spectacle and carnage, has packaged nightly this last week of candles and banners, and wreaths, as if we had a thousand Lady Di's dying each day. Our ability to be moved by our own suffering is, in the Selfie Age, extraordinary. As one poet said recently, we turn from murder to kittens, in one click or swipe. We hold heaven and hell in our hands.

IS is the opposite of kittens, in every way. Hart Crane knew that a kitten cried in the wilderness - kittens are the Western image of helpless lovely cute decency and hope. So long as there is a kitten there is hope.  IS expends and desolates hope with every gay person thrown off a roof, every child shot in the head, every atrocity enacted with definitive aplomb. They like being themselves, just as we like loving kittens. They represent precisely what we are not. We know that so why have we not destroyed them yet?

Ah, we do not want boots on the ground, blowback, and so on. We blame ourselves for our incriminating actions in the Middle East and Latin America and Asia and Nuremberg. We suspect this is our Nemesis.  We hate ourselves like all good narcissists, really, deep down.  We have expected this punishment since Hobbes, Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud and Foucault told us we had monsters within - but of course we never really repented or stopped being who we were. We just made movies and pop songs and porn and colas and shoes and cars instead and bought them.

However, despite our evils, IS is not finally about us. Sorry, but even narcissism has limits. Just as metorites and storms and cancer cells are not about us, in the first instance, IS arises alien not from the West but from a perversely dogmatic (but human) misreading of a book that is not of Western origin.

Harold Bloom might appreciate the sinister irony that all the evil in the world seems to come from misprision and misreading, still.  IS wants to generate a divinely-sanctioned Caliphate, underwritten by murder and cleansing sacrifice, smack dab in the centre of the oil fields and temples of the world. Like Superman in one of those films, they want to fly around the planet backwards and return to a time before Americans and post-Christian decadence, and Western power, before Bush and Bach, before Pope and popes, before Swift and Taylor Swift, before Whitman and Chaucer. Before Rousseau, Lincoln, Austen, Sontag, Justin Bieber.

In their sandy severe and devout world, without sex accept on their curious terms, and without love except the love of killing and their God, and without reading except of their select texts, they will build a new order, not so different from Hitler's.  Just as we have learned not to judge or blame the victims in the death camps, we cannot blame the beheaded and callously shot victims of IS. We are blameless because this meteor of hate rides before us, and would do this to anyone, at any time, unless they spoke their endlessly limiting language of focused rage and transformation.

God help us all.  Help us to read properly. And to love more than kill.

Teach me how to mourn properly, without malice or sentimentality.


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With the death of the poetic genius John Ashbery, whose poems, translations, and criticism made him, to my mind, the most influential American poet since TS Eliot, 21st century poetry is moving into less certain territory.

Over the past few years, we have lost most of the truly great of our era: Edwin Morgan, Gunn, Hill, Heaney and Walcott, to name just five.  There are many more, of course. This is news too sad and deep to fathom this week.  I will write more perhaps later. 

I had a letter from Ashbery on my wall, and it inspired me daily.  He gave me advice for my PhD. He said kind things about a poetry book of mine.

He was a force for good serious play in poetry, and his appeal great. So many people I know and admire are at a loss this week because of his death. It is no consolation at present to think of the many thousands of living poets, just right now. But impressively, and even oddly, poetry itself seems to keep flowing.