‘War Photographer’ – analysis of Carol Ann Duffy’s poem
Carol Ann Duffy has something poignant to say when she deals with anything. The British poet laureate, I think, is a rare writer who has brought the language of poetry to the commoner’s door. When you think of the Classicists in British poetry from the times of William Shakespeare to perhaps the last scion of the Victorian age Mathew Arnold you always feel that they pandered more to the growing and diverse tastes of the emerging middle class in England.
People may say that Shakespeare was not one of them because his plays had some of the native dialect spoken in Elizabethan England and his plays were staged to please audiences of all distinctions, including the countyfolk. I would still insist that refined tastes of the Elizabethan Age still were peculiar to the emerging trading class and the nobility than the commoner.
The same logic may possibly apply to poets of the Victorian era. Most of them dabbled in a romantic medium even though Industrial Revolution had introduced machinery into social life and a growing workforce which was not enfranchised then. From Shelley to Byron their themes and world view rarely, if ever, reflected the ethos of the industrial society that was emerging. Except Arnold who alone brought a glimpse of the social life in his poetry and was an unsparing critic of the pitfalls of Industrial Revolution. His Scholar Gypsy was a testimony to it.
When the world gravitated towards war in the 20th century poetry took on a serious,inquisitive role. Owen’s war poetry (he himself was commissioned and had personal experience of it) was known for its overwhelming pathos but it was a vehement protest. And his poetic language was close to anyone’s heart if he cared to read it. This is where Carol comes in.
Her poem “War Photographer” is a mixed baggage of emotions – pain at suffering, self-reproach at the passive observer role a war photographer plays ultimately, the peaceful haven that rural England is and the callous indifference of the Editor who chooses one of the six snaps for publication. It is an everyday occurrence and a sensitive photographer is alive to the potency of such a situation when he/she has to cover war.
There are many spots that are conflict-prone – Beirut, Belfast, Phnom Penh and war photographers are always called upon to witness the mayhem going on there. “All flesh is grass” Carol’s expression here is almost like hammering it in to you …..that wherever it happens to whatever community the dying and dead flesh is part of grass. You get the feeling that a commoner who has felt the suffering is unveiling himself to you. You get the same feeling of helplessness when you read these lines.
Solutions slop in trays
beneath his hands which did not tremble then
though seem to now. Rural England.
It is a common truth that war is apathetic though the nations which fought wars had clear political agenda. But Carol has brought that apathy out so well in these lines that will make every reader tremble a bit.
“He remembers the cries
of this man's wife, how he sought approval
without words to do what someone must
and how the blood stained foreign dust”.
These lines bring out a simple truth – whoever is called upon to bear the cross of commitment spills his blood on the dust , native or foreign. The dust takes it all without a murmur of protest.