Broadcaster: BBC Radio 4
Year: 2008
URL: http://bobnational.net/record/301356

Review by: Hanna Geissler

In Poetry from the Front Line, BBC War correspondent Jonathan Charles looks at present-day poetry written by soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Charles interviews Brian Turner, one of the most successful modern war poets who served in the US Army. Turner explains that poetry plays an important role in recording the horrors of war as he believes that the news does not always accurately and fully convey the truth. He argues that the emotional content of poetry can powerfully capture the intensity of life in a warzone, allowing a reader to try to understand the experiences of soldiers who are living in an environment that is worlds away from their own.

Charles then speaks to another poet, B.J. Lewis, who explains that poetry provides him with an outlet for emotions that he has to repress when on duty, as ‘emotion is not part of the job’. He demonstrates this with a reading of one of his own poems:

The Mask

Get a grip! I’m expected to succeed,
face fear, be strong, and take the lead,
not hesitate in thought or deed.
My mask must never slip.

Man up! and keep my thoughts inside
No one can know how much I cried
when the rockets came and the fear arrived.
My mask must never slip.

Crack on! there’s no time to reflect
or admit that I did genuflect
and prayed to God, me to protect.
My mask must never slip.

Chin up! Worry not ‘bout how I feel
never let them know just how surreal
it was. Dark thoughts I can’t reveal.
My mask must never slip.

It is interesting to note that Lewis states that while poetry is therapeutic and helps him deal with the emotional strain of his job, his writing is very much a private part of his life. He explains that he keeps it a secret to maintain his bravado and doesn’t tell his wife about it as he doesn’t want her to worry about his state of mind.

The programme then further examines this idea that writing poetry can help soldiers process and deal with the things they’ve seen, and Charles visits the charity Combat Stress who have created a poetry wall in one of their centres.

Throughout the programme there are several moving readings of modern war poems set to music that show how poetry can be used to express the intense emotions of soldiers fighting in Iraq or Afghanistan. Jonathan Charles’s exploration of modern war poetry provides a fascinating insight into the reasons why soldiers may choose to write poetry.