POETIC INSIGHT (ISSUE 4)
POETRY IN WAR by Oladele Babajamu
There is ink in my Gun.
Corked and ready to fire …
I am not Napoleon Bonaparte
the artillery wizard that fires trajectory
So hide thyself not from my fire
I am the Bard on the field
with Ink in my Gun
Ready to fire my thought flow.1
The Chinese proverb says that, ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’. Poetry is an artistic work representing the poet’s mind concisely. Image formation known as imagination takes place in the mind. This is what is depicted by authors of most poetry on war and related subjects. Among the most used poetic devices in war poems are symbols and imagery. When David in the Bible said: “Teach my hand for war” since only nations fight war, this of course is metaphorical. In immortal images by June Mash he said ‘I thought about the price and waste of war’. The issue of opportunity cost of war readily comes to mind as war does not only destroy lives and properties but also waste resources.
War is a contest between nations or parties carried out by the use of force of arms. Another authority refers to war as “collective killing for collective purpose”.
Carl Von Clausewitz (1750-1831) asserts that war is the continuation of politics by other means. He went further that “the character of battle is slaughter and its price is blood”.2
In his famous work titled The Art War Zun Tsu, he said that, “The art of war is of vital importance to the state.3 It is a matter of life and death is road to either safety or ruin. Hence, it is a subject of inquiry which on no account should be neglected.
Creative writers all over the world have used the various genres of literature, drama, prose, fiction and poetry to express the issues of culture, love, history and war to the people.
Poetry is the expression of one’s own heartbeat: just as its rhythmic presence fluctuates or subsides at different intervals of our lives, depending on the excitement or serenity of the moment revealed.4 Poetry depicts these interludes of insightful observations of our intellect and emotions. Any reader could relate a poem to a unique sound conveyed and heard distinctively as the human heartbeat. There is no doubt that poetry is one of the ways by which people use to externalize their thoughts.
The purpose of this article is to examine the effect of some poetic devices in war poetry. This is with the aim of highlighting the creative ideas of some military bards who took part in war and other literary writers. It would commence from King David of Biblical Era, to the Crimean war, World War I and the Nigeria Civil War. It will also look into the works of some military poets from their level of participation.
The Book of psalms in the Bible written by King David Jesse in poetic from reflects the entire range of human emotion; from the joy of God’s wisdom, to deep contrition for his sin and shortcomings. David knew that spiritual anointing is different from physical strength. From Ecclesiastes 10;11 the race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong. So David thanked and acknowledged God in Psalm 144.1
“Blessed be the Lord my strength, which teacheth my hands to war and my fingers to fight”.5
In the Pre- colonial era in Africa, a period described as pioneer phase by Osadebey and others, many of the writers presented their literary works from exile. This is because of fear of being identified by the colonial masters.6Many of their works were basically inform of protest against exploitation and racial discrimination, of agitation for political independents. Such works like Albert Lithuli “Let my people go” and others.
Poetry is a unique form of writing in memorable language set out in lines with designated rhythms. The other attributes that could be identified in a good poem include originality onomatopoeia sounds, rhymes, assonance, caesura and enjambment. Among the most important qualities in war poem is imagery and symbols.
In immortal Images by June Mash.7
I wondered whose bodies had been buried.
Whose lay scattered through infested jungles.
or rivers where fish feasted on their flesh
I thought about the price and waste of war
Which robbed young lives before they learned to live.
And left loved ones with broken hearts and dreams.
The wastes of war when viewed from opportunity cost of war are many. The men and women that died in war all have unfulfilled dreams that were buried with them. Infrastructures that were bombed and damaged would also need to be repaired with money that could be used for further development. World leaders have a lot of explanation to the people for sacrificing many young men and women in the name of peace.
The lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem (1865) described the effect of destruction mission. “The charge of the light brigade,8
Cannon to the right of them
Cannon to the left of them
Cannon in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d
Storm’d at with shot and shell
Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of death
Into the mouth of hell
Rode the six hundred
Then they rode back, but not
Not the six hundred
This poem eloquently described an action from the Crimean War 1854-1856; that was infarct counter Battery. The light Brigade was ordered to attack frontally and capture a Russian Artillery position. The attack was conducted without any artillery support and the result was disastrous as less than a third of the force survived. The massacres of this valiant force serve as limiting lesson on the critical importance of employing field artillery in the counter battery role.
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.9
Now men will go content with what we spoiled,
Or discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled ..
I am the enemy you killed, my friend
Yesterday through me as you Jabbed and killed.
I parried: but my hands were loath and cold
Let us sleep now:
These were the words of Wilfred Owen in “Strange Meeting”: Owen fought in World War I and died in it. This has conferred on his war poems a special emotive touch, the touch of one who knew what he was talking about and could be easily believed.
The Nigeria Civil War Poetry
There is no article on any war and related subjects by any Nigerian that would be complete without reference to the Nigeria Civil War. The Nigeria Civil war took place between July 1967 and January 1970. The remote causes of the war arose from the series of events from the coup of 1966. However, the immediate cause was the unwarranted killing of people of Eastern Origin that resided in Northern Nigeria then. This led to the call for secession by the people after declaring the Eastern Region of Nigeria as Biafra Republic in 1967.
Following the concatenation of political upheavals of the early 1960s, Nigeria literatures became prophetic in temper and the writers created with a sagacious temperament. Wole Soyinka in his “Trial of Brother Jethro” (1964) , Jero the artful prophet declares: Numerous voices spoke of the tragedy and cruelty of the war. Commissioned and non-commissioned officers of the military, Nigerian nationals, scholars, students and politicians of all sides produced a plethora of print, ranging from autobiographies and memoirs to pamphlets, plays, poetry collections and poems, scattered across the pages of journals and anthologies.
Numerous voices spoke of the tragedy and cruelty of the war. Commissioned and non-commissioned officers of the military, Nigerian nationals, scholars, students and politicians of all sides produced a plethora of print, ranging from autobiographies and memoirs to pamphlets, plays, poetry collections and poems, scattered across the pages of journals and anthologies.
Following the concatenation of political upheavals of the early 1960s, Nigeria literatures became prophetic in temper and the writers created with a sagacious temperament. Wole Soyinka in his “Trial of Brother Jethro” (1964) , Jero the artful prophet declares:
I saw this country plunged into strife
I saw the mustering of men, gathered
In the name of peace through strength………..
And on the door leading into your office,
I read the words.
Minister for war….. it is a position of pointer (p. 40)
By the end of the war, the poets not only painted pictures of the violent raw absurdity of death in war times, but had made a radical shift in the type of poetry produced. “The first shot” in Achebe’s words:
That lonely rifle-shot anonymous
In the dark striding chest-high
Through a nervous suburb at the break
Of our season of thunders will yet
Steep its flight and lodge
More firmly than the greater noises
ahead in the forehead of memory (Beware soul Brother).
These lines evince both the immediate evil of the war as well as its far-reaching and remote delicateness.
Gabriel Okara (1978) describes the turmoil of an air raid during the war with lyrical delicateness:
… a thick black smoke
rises sadly into the sky as the jets
fly away in gruesome glee…..
Again suddenly the air cracks
above rooftops cracking striking
rockets guffawing bofors stuttering LMGs
ack ack placks diving jets (Fisherman’s Invocation p. 37)
Catherina Acholon, a female poet in Nigeria published in 1985, is suffused with metaphors of loss, rape, personal and collective an gist. In other Forms of Slaughter “Acholonu recalls the women who suffer sexual abuse during wars.
There were other forms
When rods of aggression
Rip through the sealed valves
of flutes of reed
When innocent virgins
Basking in the sun
Suddenly wake up to
And devouring breath
The thrill of their
Unfolding a lustful era
of anarchy bestiality
These were other forms of slaughter (Nigeria p.33).
In Domkat Bali’s one of the participants in the civil war’s view, there is no complete victory in war. In “Assault across the Niger;” the bravado of the Federal Troops is portrayed yet they still faced death as they greedily went into town to loot”. Bali’s poetry descriptive in style, a kind of reportage giving a chronological account of events;
I was gripped with fear as the
H- Hour drew near,
And I begun to shiver and perspire,
‘You must control yourself, I though in despair,
As I issued orders that were unclear….
Rent the air as our guns released the booms
To herald H- hour and spell doom
To whoever dared to be in the path.
(Assault Across the Niger: in War Cries p.10)
The issue of shivering and perspiration is a sign of fear. However, the fundamental requirement to conquer fear is courage. This is the ability to get going despite the presence of fear. War is not children’s play. It involves the issue of life and death, Africans believed that life is sacred and everything must be done to avoid war.
War is full of horror and in the words of the German military theorists Carl Von Clausewitz, he warned that; the character of battle … is slaughter, and its price is blood. Acholonu also made us to realize that there were other forms of slaughter in war: whatever form the slaughter might be either in the open or secret , either with fixed bayonet or rod of aggression. War is full of horrors and should be avoided at all costs.
Human populations are mostly depleted during war. This is because the art of war involves the shedding of blood as depicted by Clausewitz when he described it as the price of war. Therefore, poets should use their creative ability to produce works that would help humanity to prevent and stop war.
- Babajamu Oladele;Timeless Verses
- Richard Holmes: Eyewitness Books Battle. Dorling Kidersley Ltd. London 1995 pg. 6
- Sun-Tsu, The Art of war: The Book of Lord Shenyang (Hertfordshire: Baraka press 1998).
- Howard Ely, Timeless Voices The International library of poetry USA, owing Mills, MD 21117 pg 176
- The Holy Bible
- KE Fenaren and T Vincent A selection of African poetry Longman Group Ltd 1999 pg. 9
- Howard Ely Ibid
- http.ll;en wiki source org/wiki:/ The. Charge-of –the-light-brigade accessed 25 July 2013
- Joj Nwachukwe Agbada , kazeem Adebiyi Exam focus-literature in-English 2011-2015 Ibadan: University Press 2011 p. 297
- Ogaga okuyade “ of the verification of pain: Nigerian Civil War poetry” in Ernest Emenyonu (ed) war in African literature today (Ibadan: HEBN publishers 2008) p. 128
Oladele Babajamu voluntarily retired from the Nigerian Army in 2011 as a Colonel after serving meritoriously for over 30 years. He is a fellow of the National Defence College, Abuja. His academic qualifications include Masters in Strategic Studies from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria among others. He has written several military books and literatures in prose and poetry genres. He was a recipient of the Chief Army Staff Commendation Award in 2005 for his consistent literary contributions to the Nigerian Army and ANA 2006 Abuja Chapter’s Merit Award for sustainable contributions to the development of Nigerian Literatures.
Among his recent publications are “The Widow’s Wail (short story) and Timeless Verses”. His poems have been published in various anthologies. Timeless verses, Five Hundred Nigerian poets, OGELE and ANA Review 2015. Oladele also writes for the Herald on Sunday. He is the current Chairman of the Kwara State Chapter of ANA.