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Poetry in Motion

British poet Andrew Motion launches a modest anti-anti-Saddam salvo.

11:00 PM, Jan 15, 2003 • By J. BOTTUM
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YOU MAY WANT TO DROWN England's poet laureate in his butt of sack when you read his new quatrain "Causa Belli." Not that Andrew Motion is a particularly bad example of his species: Between Dryden in 1670 and Wordsworth in 1843, the laureateship went to Thomas Shadwell, Nahum Tate, Nicholas Rowe, Laurence Eusden, Colley Cibber, William Whitehead, Thomas Warton, Henry Pye, and Robert Southey. If you've actually read poems by more than two people on that list, you're spending far too much time in libraries. Go outside. Look at the beautiful trees. Think about how human beings once cut down trees like those to make paper on which to publish Shadwell and Cibber. Man hands on misery to man. It deepens like a library shelf.

Actually, there may be something comforting in the fact that Andrew Motion is jostling for his place among the Shadwellians--a sort of comforting continuity of mediocrity in our ever-tumbling world. Here is Motion's "Causa Belli" in its entirety:

They read good books, and quote, but never learn

a language other than the scream of rocket-burn.

Our straighter talk is drowned but ironclad:

elections, money, empire, oil and Dad.

All the proper elements are present in this anti-war screech--and in astonishingly short compass. You've got to be good at laureating to get this much in these few words. There's the self-congratulatory Latin title, to signal that the author could have given us a Horatian ode, if he had wanted. There's the fashionable position on a public issue. There's the unspecifying reference to the "good books" that "they" have read--and don't you wonder what books those may be (Shakespeare's plays? Milton's poems? Burke's speeches? Motion's "Salt Water"? Shadwell's "Squire of Alsatia"?); the point here is that we all know what good books are, even if we can't name them precisely, and anyway, we learned from those books, while "they" can merely quote them.

I can't say I know quite what "the scream of rocket-burn" is. The scream of people burned by a rocket landing or the screaming noise a rocket makes when it takes off? Motion being English, I suspect the "drowned but ironclad" is not actually a reference to the Merrimac and Monitor. But how does "straighter talk" get either drowned or ironclad? The metaphors seem to have gotten a little tangled.

Anyway, the point is clear. The cause of war is "elections, money, empire, oil and Dad." (Those seem more like multiple causes of war to me, but then the title would have to be "Causae Belli," and who wants to get all Latiny pedantic at this point?) What's remarkable here is Motion's ability to pack so much in so short a list. In one line you can tally up all the necessary elements. See the hatred of a politics decided by actual voters instead of the fashionable elites ("elections" as a cause of war)? See the superiority to bourgeois pursuits by we who are not they ("money")? "Oil" in this context is a little redundant, mostly metonymy for money, but there's enough of a touch of trendy environmentalism to let it pass.

The "empire" cause is a nice touch. Why it's so old-fashioned. Can we really march in opposition to the Empire again? O Lord, if only "they" would quote Kipling. Think what we could do if George Bush, returning Kipling's compliment to Theodore Roosevelt, were to send Tony Blair a copy of "The White Man's Burden."

Then there's the cause of "Dad." I took this at first to be a Larkinesque touch, reaching back through the tangle of parenting to find a psychological cause of things--and thus connecting to the "empire" cause, read now as the British rather than the American empire. But my wife convinced me I was giving Motion too much credit: The Dad here is only George Bush senior, whose experiences in the Gulf War the son is doomed to relive. We are exempt from psychologizing; they are not.

Now, if that's right, then "Causa Belli" reverses direction in a truly surprising way. It's one thing to say that "they" read and quote good books. Motion was willing--in that judicious tone of fairness with which all really vicious attacks begin--to admit that the hawks are well educated (with the caveat that they never learned anything from their reading except a psychotic desire to fire off big rockets). But with the "Dad" cause, George Bush is necessarily among the "they."

Ah, me: England's poet laureate says George Bush reads good books and quotes from them, too. I'm sure Motion didn't mean it. He's far too worthy a successor to Shadwell to mean much of anything.

J. Bottum is Books & Arts editor of The Weekly Standard.