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This review is taken from PN Review 175, Volume 33 Number 5, May - June 2007.

DYING ON THE LINE TIM KENDALL, Modern English War Poetry (Oxford)

Walt Whitman famously wrote of the American Civil War that 'the real war will never get in the books'. In his emphasis on the 'real', Whitman gives war an exceptional status as the one human activity that cannot become a true artistic subject. Yet Whitman, without any trace of irony, wrote about the war, both directly and obliquely, in poetry and prose, from 1861 until his death. Instead of closing things off, Whitman's phrase opens up the many questions that surround war poetry to this day, questions that cross-examine the war poet's legitimacy in a way that does not occur with other subjects: Does war deserve special status as a poetic subject? Or to turn things around, are critics and readers right to use a higher standard for judging the authenticity of war poetry then they would for, say, a love poem? Is war such an extraordinary crucible, so outside of human experience, that its art must be qualitatively better than art produced in 'normal' time? Conversely, can only someone who has been to war, write war poetry? And, finally, does war poetry have to rise above the norm because to do otherwise is to demean the sacrifice of the dead? No one would ever write, 'real love will never get in the books', nor do we expect a testimony of the love poet's credentials as a lover, but both these issues run through the history of war poetry.

It's the exceptionalism of war as a poetic ...


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