Back in school I remember spending hours reading over a war poem entitled Dulce Et Decorum Est, by a chap called Wilfred Owen. We’d analyse all the linguistic devices, debate the hidden meanings behind the words and then we’d act out some of the lines. My English teacher was really anal about it. I swore that if I had to read another bloody poem again, I’d go mad.
Conversely, i have now become a performance poet. This was because I started writing myself and saw the advantages of poetry. It’s the most simple, cheap and entertaining form of performance and self expression. It gives people a platform to tell a story. Personal, fictional, political or just damn right peculiar. It is also one branch of performance where the gender divide doesn’t really exist. There are an equal amount of contemporary poets in possession of both X and Y chromosomes.
Then I saw this headline in The Independent : ‘Real men don’t do poetry: Israeli army refuses to let IDF soldier read verses on the radio’
Alistair Dawber from The Indy wrote: “Real men don’t do poetry. That’s the message at least from one brigade in the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF), which has banned one of its soldiers from reading out his own verses on the radio for fear that it might cast aspersions on the army’s manliness.”
This just seemed nonsensical to me. Poems from the battlefield have a long and respected history. The idea that poetry would risk the enforcement of masculinity within an army of male soldiers, is a bit like thinking that a stick of celery is going to make a Ryvita lunch more exciting. It’s just not the case.
Poetry has been a form of self-expression for centuries, an outlet that enables the writer to construct lines about their deepest, darkest personal experiences or just about their pet cat Ralph. War poets like Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen encouraged other soldiers to write poetry, as a form of both self-help and to educate the public on the perils of the battlefield. Their masculinity never came into question. Marxist revolutionary and cultural icon, Che Guevara, was a prolific writer throughout his life, including a number of poems. Yet his masculinity has never been threatened by his ability to express himself through verse. This Israeli soldier was banned from sharing his poetry purely based on the belief that his reading would risk public opinion of what a combat soldier should be.
This seems to be another example of a regime that forces men to be the ‘strong, silent’ type, which ultimately results in an unhealthy attitude towards what masculinity really means. With Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and suicide amongst veterans rising to alarming levels, this seems even more ridiculous an attitude. Everyone has emotions, regardless to whether they are a sales assistant at Aldi or fighting for their country, and those emotions, particularly those accrued in the field of battle, will manifest themselves somehow. Is it not better to allow a soldier to express their feelings through poetry, than
to encourage them to bottle it all up in order for them to reappear years down the line in the form of a crippling and sometimes fatal mental health disorder? I don’t know enough about the Israeli Defence Force to make a huge comment on their practices, but I certainly condemn them for this harmful censorial attitude to gender stereotyping. Such an archaic attitude is almost laughable, if it wasn’t so disturbing and utterly misguided. We should encourage more soldiers to feel comfortable enough to utilise poetry, as well as any number of other artistic outlets, as both a form of creative expression and a tool for dealing with their day to day experiences, without the fear of being deemed less of a man, or indeed a soldier, for doing so.