“WHAT, THEN, WAS WAR?” wonders Robert Graves in his poem ‘Recalling War’. It is, he muses, “an infection of the common sky” and “the duty to run mad”. World War I, the experience he’s recalling, was well served by British poets. Soldiers like Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon turned to their pens to battle the pain they witnessed (and inflicted) daily. From Shakespeare to Blake to Tennyson to Graves to the poets in the recent anthology, Heroes: 100 Poems from the New Generation of War Poets (Ebury Press, 2011), war has been as eternal a theme in English poetry as nature or love.
This martial tradition in British poetry makes Colonel Richard Kemp’s response to the recent collection Poetry of the Taliban (Hurst Publishers/Hachette India, 2012) particularly ironic. The former commander of the British forces in Afghanistan denounced the collection, calling it “self-justifying” (which, he might not realise, is a compliment only extraordinary poems deserve) and claiming it gave the Taliban the “oxygen of publicity”. In arguing that The Poetry of the Taliban is propaganda, Colonel Kemp betrayed that he hadn’t read the book, for these poems convey several moods: caustic, melancholy, frightened, imploring, resolute. The only thing they’re not is unified. By the first law of propaganda—that it must have a message—these poems signally fail. All that unites them is the editorial conviction that the ‘enemy’ is also human, a courtesy that apparently infuriates Colonel Kemp. His worry is that future generations will lose their certainty that the Taliban are barbarians incapable of introspection or moral complexity.
The Poetry of the Taliban represents, according to the preface, a “prolific culture of versification”. The collection is dominated by ghazals, and to read these poems is to be transported to the origins of writing, to shared campsites and the chance meetings of allied strangers. Even translated, some of these poems retain their primal magic. As Elham says in ‘Burning Village’, “Words were like fire there.” These poems remind us that spoken verse is the foundation of literature and that generations of bards went into the building of the great epics of human history.