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Poetry, Protest and Propaganda — a Journey of Art Through Centuries of War

Supporting troops of the 1st Australian Division, walking on a duckboard track near Hooge in Ypres. Photograph: Frank Hurley

We have come a long way from where we began. Time has shifted, so have the tectonic plates. What remains terrifyingly constant is, people in power thinking that their needs and wants are more important than others’. And history still shamelessly repeating itself. War is the worst evil that people have inflicted upon one another, at costs to themselves, since some hominid discovered the lethal efficacy of rocks.

But when there is nothing left besides mud, wire, and slaughter, there is art.

Front-line participants in war have carved art from the flotsam of battle — bullets, shell casings and bones — often producing unsettling accounts of the calamity that had overwhelmed them. Tools of cruelty have been turned into testaments of compassion, and civilians have created art out of rubble.

Warriors expressed their inner lives on the walls of underground trenches, when the world, on the surface, was turning to hell.

War poems capture the darkest moments in human history, and also the most luminous. From ancient texts to modern free verse, war poetry explores a range of experiences, celebrating victories, honouring the fallen, mourning losses, reporting atrocities, and rebelling against those who turn a blind eye.

There is a reason Wilfred Owen wrote that even Shakespeare seems ‘vapid’ after Siegfried Sassoon: ‘not of course because Sassoon is a greater artist, but because of the subjects’.

The earliest recorded war poetry is thought to be by Enheduanna, a priestess from Sumer, the ancient land that is now Iraq. In about 2300 BCE, she riled against war, writing:

“You are blood rushing down a mountain,

Spirit of hate, greed and anger,

dominator of heaven and earth!”

Gassed, by John Singer Sargent

Some World War I soldier poets romanticised their lives on the battlefield, writing poems so touching they were set to music. While others rejected romanticism. The early 20th century brought the Modernism movement when many writers broke from traditional forms. Poets experimented with plain-spoken language, gritty realism, and imagism.

British poet Wilfred Owen, who died in battle at age 25, did not spare the shocking details. In his poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est”, soldiers trudge through sludge after a gas attack. A body is flung onto a cart, “white eyes writhing in his face”.

“My subject is War, and the pity of War,” Owen wrote in the preface to his collection.

Prisoners in Nazi concentration camps documented their experiences on scraps that were later found and published in journals and anthologies.

In “First They Came”, Pastor Martin Niemöller inked —

“Then they came for the Jews

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me

And there was no one left

To speak out for me.”

Brian Turner’s poem “The Hurt Locker” chronicled chilling lessons from the horrifying military action in Iraq:

“Nothing but hurt left here.

Nothing but bullets and pain...

Believe it when you see it.

Believe it when a twelve-year-old

rolls a grenade into the room.”

The Dancing Girls, by Arabella Dorman

Landays began among the nomads and farmers of Afghanistan. They were shared around a fire, sung after a day in the fields or at a wedding. More than three decades of wars have diluted a culture, as well as displaced millions of people who can’t return safely to their villages. But Landays are still sung, and singing is linked to licentiousness in the Afghan consciousness. Much of an Afghan woman’s life involves a cloak-and-dagger dance around honour — a gap between who she seems to be and who she is.

“I’m tired of praising exotic flowers.

I miss Sangin’s gardens; they were poor but ours.

Separation brought this kind of grief:

it made itself a mullah and me the village thief.”

— hums Basbibi.

During the 19th century Ottoman and Russian domination, Armenians experienced a cultural revival and increasing nationalistic leanings, stirred by their intellectual community and increased literacy. In 1915, on the eve of the First World War, Turkish nationalist reformers responded by rounding up 250 writers and intellectuals in the Western community, and began what is now known as the Armenian Genocide.

Amidst the pull of multiple diasporic identities, an Armenian student writes —

“In what language do I remember things?

In what language do I tell jokes?

In what language do I think?”

A pro-Ukrainian military poster hangs on a building in downtown Lviv, Ukraine

“we stopped digging deep long ago

in this uncertain field of ours-yours

because all kinds of junk can turn up:

human bones, horses’ heads, unexploded mines”

Halyna Kruk’s poems of war are gut-wrenching. She picks apart Ukrainian soil, unearthing the detritus of history. Ukraine’s fertile earth, known as “chernozem” or “black soil”, has been cultivated and coveted. The land that has been sown with crops has also been sown with the casualties of history. As Timothy Snyder puts it in his 2012 Bloodlands, “Even human ash fertilises.”

The past is full of lessons for those who want to learn, and the lessons are neither hard, nor bitter. We get what we seek. If we are looking for hope, it is full of it. If we are pessimistic about human history, then the past offers an abundance of excuses for that, too. It is all up to us to wisely choose lessons that suit us, and learn from them. Use the wisdom to sail through the present, while building a sober heritage for future generations, for whom we will soon be boring pages of history.

“I don’t know who sold our homeland

But I saw who paid the price.”

— Mahmoud Darwish

The victors and the defeated, the landscapes in which they moved, and imagined pasts, presents and futures are refracted through the creative energies of art. The dead live on in the hand of the artist, and the eye of the witness.

Loss is there for all to see. All we need to do is look closely for hope, rather than looking away.


Written by Aishwarya Roy

Aishwarya is an Engineering student, from Kolkata. She spends her days reading classics and war-fictions, and the nights scribbling art on forbidden walls.

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