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This article is taken from PN Review 153, Volume 30 Number 1, September - October 2003.

'The Pity of War'? Tim Kendall

A few weeks before the outbreak of war in Iraq, a current affairs programme on television took the unusual step of interviewing a poet. The poet in question, Andrew Motion, held forth on the subject of poetry and war, and offered the opinion that all poets since Passchendaele had been staunchly anti-war. To be a pro-war poet was a contradiction in terms. But what about Yeats, asked the interviewer. Didn't he, for example, advocate the bombing of London? Oh, but Yeats was off the wall in so many ways, came the reply. Yeats was silly, we were invited to conclude, and certainly not like us.

Motion's dismissal of the exception rather than the argument, even though that exception happens to be Yeats, is a huge if unstated compliment to one particular poet: Wilfred Owen. In his afterword to the recent Faber anthology 101 Poems Against War, Motion maintains that 'Towards the end of the First World War, amidst the squalor and tragedy of the Western Front, something fundamental changed.' What changed, according to Motion, was the way poets write about war, and he goes on to assert that in the poetry of subsequent wars 'Pity' and 'Truthfulness' remain the 'crucial ingredients'. That word 'pity' gives away Motion's source: 'My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.' The legacy of Owen's emphasis on pity has been an acceptance or rejection of war poetry according to the extent to which it embodies ...


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