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Satanic Verse

From The Scrapbook

May 21, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 34 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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The Scrapbook would not say that politics and poetry are mutually exclusive, but it’s an awkward relationship at best. Browning’s condemnation of Wordsworth for abandoning liberal idealism (Just for a handful of silver he left us / Just for a ribbon to stick in his coat) is hardly Browning’s finest hour as a poet. And the contemptuous verse written by John Berryman and, especially, Robert Lowell about Dwight D. Eisenhower ([T]he Republic summons Ike / The mausoleum in her heart) is now more embarrassing than rewarding to read. When Robert Frost stood up to celebrate the inauguration of John F. Kennedy’s Camelot, God arranged for the glare of the noonday sun to obscure his text—or so The Scrapbook likes to think. Bill Clinton’s first inauguration was commemorated by Maya (Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas) Angelou. Enough said.

Photo of the book cover "Poetry of the Taliban"

So we greet the publication this week, in London, of Poetry of the Taliban (Hurst) with a certain wonder and reserve. Reserve because The Scrapbook, like any good citizen, does not wish to be perceived as a philistine; wonder because it is difficult to imagine a more startling literary venture. The editors and translators are the usual assortment of left-wing apologists and parlor radicals, but their rationale for this extraordinary endeavor—“a way of understanding who the Taliban are”—seems perverse. If there is one segment of humanity about whom we know altogether too much—their homicidal instincts, their hatred of women, their distorted vision of Islam, their rabid anti-Semitism—it is the Taliban.

The irony, of course, is that celebrating the Taliban in art must be weighed against their history of repression of thought, their violent opposition to education for women, their deliberate destruction of Afghanistan’s historical and architectural heritage. Unsurprisingly, they are just as bad at poetry as at everything else, except killing: The Times Literary Supplement, which is not an especially political publication, complains that the “dominant theme of Taliban poetry is the desire to expel the occupying forces,” which this anthology repeats ad infinitum.

No doubt it is unwelcome for the occupants of jeeps bumping past shady bystanders to know that We are happy when we are martyred for our extreme zeal and honour; / That is the reason we strap bombs around our waists, but it is beyond the scope of the imagination to conceive of any profit from reading it as verse.

Then again, since Poetry of the Taliban comes recommended by a host of literary fellow travelers, The Scrapbook can imagine other reasons as well. One of Britain’s more repellent apologists for terror, William Dalrymple, hails “this extraordinary collection .  .  . as a literary project—uncovering a seam of war poetry few will know ever existed, and presenting to us for the first time the black-turbaned Wilfred Owens of Wardak.” 

Of course, Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) was hardly one to celebrate the glory of murder and suicide as the Taliban routinely do (Gun in my hand and dagger under my arm, I am going into battle; / I am an Afghan mujahed). Indeed, quite the opposite: My subject is War, he wrote, and the Pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. 

So The Scrapbook can hardly object to the right of editors and publishers to present the Taliban to the English-speaking public in heroic verse. But just as poetry illuminates in unexpected ways, its publication is sometimes equally revealing.

The Scourge of Kristof

It’s probably not too much of an overstatement to say that American politics went off the rails in the early part of the 20th century. We’re still living with the legacy of the many foolish things the first generation of progressives inflicted on us then and that today’s progressives are intent on relitigating.

And so New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently found himself arguing against the scourge of legal beer sales. Pine Ridge, a large Oglala Sioux Indian reservation in South Dakota, bans alcohol because of its role in a host of social ills. And yet Sioux who wish to drink often leave the reservation and head for the next town. According to Kristof, this is happening because of “Anheuser-Busch’s devastating exploitation of American Indians.”

You might assume that some of these exploited Indians drink Miller, but Kristof is only calling for a boycott of Bud. Kristof notes another “nifty solution” to the Pine Ridge problem would be to have the state of South Dakota extend the boundaries of the reservation, so that the tribe’s alcohol ban covers places where it’s currently legally sold. 

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