Chapter and verse

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Putting aside fears of seeming frivolous in dark times, the StAnza audience was hungry for work debating war and the feeling of dislocation, discovers SUSAN MANSFIELD.

FIVE years ago, on the same day that British and American troops marched into Iraq, poets convened in St Andrews for the first day of the StAnza Poetry Festival. The invasion formed an uncomfortable backdrop to the festival that year – sitting listening to poetry felt like fiddling while Rome burned.

This year, on the first day of StAnza, an explosion claimed 11 more lives in Baghdad, a reminder that the occupation continues. When, two days later, Chinese security forces cracked down on a protest in Tibet with more loss of life, the same questions reared in the audiences' minds: in the face of these events, is attending a poetry festival the utmost in irrelevance?

This year, StAnza engaged with these issues head-on by choosing Poetry and Conflict as one of its themes. Key in addressing this theme was Brian Turner, a former sergeant with the US army who served for a year in Iraq. His first collection of poems, Here Bullet, which had its UK launch at StAnza, has already made waves in the US where Turner has been described as the heir to Wilfred Owen.

The title poem was written while in Iraq, a blistering challenge to the bullet every soldier fears might come his way. It takes us straight into the visceral reality of war, at the level of blood and bone. He folded the page it was written on and carried it in his breast pocket for the rest of his tour of duty.

Turner is passionate about the potential of poetry to bring humanity to war. Do we know the names of the 11 people killed in Baghdad this week, he asks us. Do we care? He describes his poetry as "part of a larger conversation".

He adds: "I worry that what the journalist does is not augmented by other things. Numbers are reported but humanity subtracted."

As copies of Here, Bullet flew off the StAnza book stall, it was clear there was a tangible hunger for the writing of a modern-day soldier-poet, imbued with the authenticity that comes from first-hand experience. However, Turner was keen to point out that experience is not a prerequisite for writing about war.

Adrian Mitchell, one of the headline names at this year's festival, served for a brief period in the forces despite his pacifist tendencies. He has been writing anti-war poetry since his teens, and demonstrated at a lively discussion on Poetry and Conflict how easily his famous poem To Whom It May Concern, which is about British complacency during the Vietnam war, could be updated: "Tell me lies, Mr Bush, tell me lies about Iraq, Afghanistan, Darfur…"

But American poet August Kleinzahler, cutting a striking figure in his fleece hat and dark glasses, asked a more difficult question: "What can a conversation like this, among middle-class people who in general feel the same way, do to affect a change?" Reading Wilfred Owen to a Sudanese war lord or an American Special Forces field commander, is unlikely to do the trick.

"Prose is better suited than poetry for polemics. Song is better than prose for moving the spirit towards resistance and restraint. Economic redevelopment and education are perhaps more efficacious than any of the above," he said.

Tom Jones, poet, translator and academic at St Andrews University, argued that poetry is particularly good at describing the sense of being "at variance with the world" which we all experience. A poem can recognise the strangeness of that disjunction, such as Jones's own experience of being in St Andrews surrounded by golfers as the bombs started to fall on Fallujah.

American poet Tess Gallagher described a similar disjunction in her poem Sugar Cane, about being flown to Hawaii for a brief reunion with her first husband, a pilot in Vietnam, for a short beach holiday before he returned to the world of napalm and sniper fire. Penelope Shuttle did similarly, talking of how she discovered a hostel in Andalucia named The Repose of Baghdad, a throwback to a time of religious and racial tolerance in Islamic Spain.

Sarah Maguire, giving this year's StAnza Lecture, chose to address the WH Auden line often misused in the case against poetry: "Poetry makes nothing happen." Maguire said: "In the face of (the Iraq war] how can we sit here and talk about poetry? Surely both poetry which addresses conflict and that which is personal seem equally irrelevant."

Maguire has the advantage of understanding the role of poetry in cultures beyond our own. She was the first poet to be sent by the British Council to Palestine, is the only living British poet with a book in print in Arabic, and is also the founder of the Poetry Translation Centre.

If poetry "makes nothing happen", she said, why are poets imprisoned by oppressive regimes? Why did poetry become a weapon in the Cold War, the CIA funding the publication in the West of poets from behind the Iron Curtain? In the majority of non-western countries, poetry is the most important and relevant art form, nowhere more so than Somalia: when Maguire helped bring Somali poet Maxamed Xaashi Dhamac "Gaarriye" to Britain, he received the reception of a rock star on tour.

During the coup which brought the current hardline Islamist regime to power in Sudan, a young poet, Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi, mounted guerrilla poetry readings attracting audiences of thousands until he was eventually captured. Yet the works recited were not political protests, they were lyric poem.

"Because British poets are not risking torture or imprisonment, we lose our sense of how political it is to experience joy," Maguire said. The imagination is the tool by which we envisage a better world. Picking up the pen is a political act.

So the personal is political. No-one does this better than Glasgow's Tom Leonard, in fine fettle, reading poems from last week and from 40 years ago with equal freshness. His poem Bein' a Human Being, written for the installation (in absentia) of Israeli whistle-blower Mordecai Vanunu as rector of Glasgow University in December 2005, is a powerful invocation of what it is to be "a citizen of the world".

In a different way, Kenneth White is also an international citizen. The poet, academic and philosopher, who divides his time between Scotland and France, sees himself as continuing the line of intellectual nomads from Scotland. In his field of "geopoetics" he has found a meeting place for poetry and thought which is rooted in place and moves out into a platform in the wider world.

Moving between cultures means moving between languages, and this year's StAnza – in keeping with its other main theme, Sea of Tongues – hosted a record number of poets from countries outside the UK. Also, new this year is a series of Poetry Breakfasts, informal events which showcase poetry in translation, in a typically warm, friendly context.

Sarah Maguire argued that translation is the opposite of war, because the very attitudes and practices involved – negotiating, understanding, valuing another person's work and the wider culture which has produced it – directly oppose the notions which send us to war.

Unburdened by oppression or censorship, in St Andrews we can freely enjoy poetry for breakfast; for lunch (with beer and butteries); in performance; in translation or in readings by poets as accomplished and diverse as Annie Freud, John Burnside, Matthew Hollis, August Kleinzahler and Alexander Hutchison. And we can enjoy the company of writers such as Janice Galloway, whose prose is so fluid and carefully honed it pushes towards being poetry.

Sarah Maguire ended her lecture with a quote from Brecht, who himself struggled with the idea of writing poetry in difficult political times. That conflict, which he explored in his work, is what many writers today experience.

But they concur, as Maguire's audience did, with his sentiment: "In the dark times, will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing about the dark times."