A (very) short poem published in January, 2002 by the U.K.'s current (1999 to date) Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion. Also, a node rescue and my first attempt at literary criticism. Of course, as this poem's main (perhaps only!) significance is political, rather than literary, politics must of necessity enter into the critique. So, if you must reflexively down-vote anything that questions your anti-war stance, consider down-voting my work on The United States is already at war with Iraq or on Oil and Gulf War II, I'd really prefer you to judge this write-up based on its merits, if any. Thanks!

They read good books, and quote, but never learn
a language other than the scream of rocket-burn.
Our straighter talk is drowned but ironclad:
elections, money, empire, oil and Dad.

Good word play might be that which inducts the reader into thoughts they otherwise might not have. Great word play is more seduction than induction. It should teeter deliciously between intended and unintended meanings, and leave the reader pining to know, does the author intend that or is it serendipity? One expects more from a nation's premier poet than mere "gotcha" cleverness, and one expects to be led to something more insightful than what has become Saddam's party line.

Both the BBC, quite properly in the Entertainment section, and the Guardian, who apparently think this is news, helpfully but incorrectly point out, the title is "a Latin phrase translated as 'causes, motives or pretexts of war.'" The actual Latin phrase is of course "casus belli", and I went a little nuts trying to find out what bizarre Latin declension would cause the noun "casus" to become "causa" -- a gender change plus the letter U advanced to stand right next to the A -- then I realized it was simply a ham-handed stab at the good ole' US of A.

Of course, a cheap shot in the title is completely understandable, if it engages (or outrages) the reader enough to participate in the rest of the poem...and if the rest of the poem has substance. I read "They read good books" with anticipation of a juxtaposition of Bush and Saddam, an echo of the "two old men" rhetoric that was so popular at the outset of the latest Intifada. This would at least have been an interesting and subtle tack, even if one disagrees with the sentiment. But it quickly becomes clear, no such juxtaposition is intended, or even imagined; indeed Motion appears blissfully immune to the irony. For example, Saddam's recently acquired preoccupation with his "good book" (see note below), not to mention his "rockets", "elections" and "empire", are at least equally deserving of "straighter talk". No, for Motion, "They" admits to only one meaning: the Hegelian Other, without opposition to which "we" have no identity; and The Other of course is the USA and Bush. Even the rhyme I most enjoyed, "... never learn / ...the scream of rocket-burn" only rises momentarily above the banal. Bush appears to have learned what his Dad and others never did: the futility of "rocket-burn". He appears ready to end twelve long years of war by finally committing ground troops. Taken as a whole, the poem seems little more than a scud: crude, imprecise, and meteoric.

Apparently the Queen had something to say about the poem and the poor timing of its publication. I can't find a quote, but I have to doubt whether the Queen would mind terribly if an artist, even one with patronage, spoke tastefully and eloquently about the horrors of war. I suspect her comments had more to do with the quaint idea that neither the Monarchy nor the Poet Laureate get to conduct foreign policy. Perhaps in response, the Guardian defends Motion's notion in terms of some of England's true greats:

"Motion's most famous precedent for doing this as poet laureate is Alfred Lord Tennyson. Tennyson included in his poem The Charge of the Light Brigade the controversial and popular lines '... the soldier knew/someone had blundered'.

"However, he was writing after the Crimean War. During the second world war John Masefield as laureate published two patriotic volumes, A Generation Risen and Some Verses to Some Germans."

Motion apparently made his name with a poem about the death of Lady Di, and was drawn to a career as a poet while nursing his mother. Fair enough, but as far as I can tell from Motion's biography, he's had little experience outside of academia. One wonders if a person who "enthuses" to the Guardian about his calling as a poet "...to write poems about various events that seem suitable to me" will write much that will stand the test of time.

To his credit, Motion says if (?!?) weapons of mass destruction are discovered in Iraq, "I may well write a poem supporting going." Let's hope so. Set next to Tennyson's seven stanzas of brilliant imagery honoring the soldiers' elan in the fog of war, and Masefield's first hand knowledge as a medical orderly in World War I France, Motion's paltry paragraph of sophomoric drivel hardly stands up.

Sources and a Note:


About the appointment of the Poet Laureate: http://www.britishcouncil.org/arts/literature/literature_matters_26/laureate.htm

For more Saddam's recent preoccupation with the Koran, read http://www.guardian.co.uk/Iraq/Story/0,2763,717172,00.html. Apparently, over the years he's had his own blood drawn, mixed with ink, and used to inscribe a copy of the Koran. My Muslim contacts tell me writing the Koran in blood is probably blasphemy; the emphasis on cleanliness in Islam would prohibit a Koran written in blood. As best I can recall, I read this at a user forum on http://www.beliefnet.com/boards/boards_main.AllCategories.asp?Category=46, but their search function is broken. If anyone has a more authoritative source for or refutation of this point, /msg me. Also, even bin Laden questions Saddam's religious authenticity, remarking that he would support Saddam against the West even though Saddam is "socialist".