Rather than the Victorian cliche about good poems being 'timeless', some texts resonate across intersecting historical co-ordinates. I was forcibly struck by this when I came across 'Libyan Front' in the excellent Bloodaxe Complete Poems, Translations and Selected Prose of Bernard Spencer. Its uneven, metrically-inconsistent lines intercut with the brutal refrain '"Libyan Front" (like an awkward phrase reverberating in the brain) forge a jagged shape across the page, rather like that of Rimbaud's 'Marine' (whose 'braiding design' Christopher Middleton describes as 'reinventing the (...) pedestrian world where inertia is king and metaphor the fool' ).
'Libyan Front' was apparently the first poem that Bernard Spencer wrote upon arriving in North Africa in 1941 and the sketchy, disrupted form it assumes speaks of his sense of disorientation and unease at finding himself in this displaced theatre of WW2 conflict. Yet how more displaced is our awareness of current fighting in Libya, caught between an unequal civil war (Gadaffi, of course, acquired most of his weaponry from the West) and hypocritical NATO interventions.To us it seems another 'virtual' desert war in which we've little idea what's going on other than what we receive through media-channels clogged with daily reports about other dubious Middle-Eastern war-scenes, other sombre lists of fatalities and casualties.
What's consistent between the two conflicts, however, is their underpinning contexts of colonial and neo-colonialist agendas. In the 1940s, when Libya was an Italian/Axis outpost and therefore a strategic area to be overcome in enabling the advance of Allied forces towards southern Europe, indigenous cultures were brushed aside in wide-angled tank-battles like Tobruk. Spencer sums up this marginalisation by describing the embattled Libyan landscape as "cratered...unploughed, unsown" and later in the line "Very distant the feet that dance, the lifted silver and the strings." Furthermore, the nasty business of war - the "routine and dirt and story-telling"- are linked to political machinations in London or Berlin rather than having any immediate human motive - in a typically nuanced wording, Spencer descibes them as "triggered to something far". "Triggered by" might have been the more expected construction here and might have created a more direct, condemnatory meaning - but "triggered to" forces a double-take on the line, and infers a complex trail of dark interrelations, like the internal mechanism of a gun.
The poem's clinching line - "Poets and lovers and men of power are troops and no such things" - can be read in several ways. The ironic reference to Midsummer Night's Dream twists Shakespeare's lines "The lunatic, the lover and the poet /Are of imagination all compact", slyly suggesting that "men of power" in this trio are comparable to "lunatics" (no change there then cf. Jon Ronson's new book about pychopaths occupying society's positions of power). But then the paradox: all three types of men have been forced to become troops in the context of war (and conscription) but are hardly suited to the task, actually "no such things". Is in fact any man suited to it? Spencer seems to be extending both his own imaginative sympathy and a graded offsetting irony here: some of the soldiers fighting and dying are poets and lovers who should never have been caught up in the conflict; other poets, like Spencer himself (a non-combatant observer) are literally no such thing as troops; but what about the men of power who control the fighting and bloodshed from afar - field marshalls and generals are uniformed troops, for example, but in another sense "no such things" (the phrase has the added childish sense of something made up or untrue)?
These are examples of the understated brilliance you find everywhere in Spencer's poems, always foregoing the obvious or showy or rhetorical phrase in favour of a worked-through, layered, compacted semantic field that is nevertheless implicit in their phonetic structure (the "sounds and echoes" of another poem) and their insisted-upon condition as made objects arising from a nexus of specifics in terms of time, place and social dynamics. Although his style has the 30's Audenesque as its starting-point, it progressively transfigured into what I would see as a more interesting, historically-porous poetry than much of what Auden wrote after he left England. Borrowing the terms of Stevens' The Comedian as the Letter C, you could say that Auden never quite got beyond the stage of thinking "Man is the intelligence of his soil", whereas Spencer - the constant traveller and translator, fascinated by other cultures and their artefacts - always worked from "His soil is man's intelligence".
This new edition (expertly edited by Peter Robinson) does nothing less than re-shuffle our whole awareness of mid-Century English poetry (always something of a grey area in literary histories) by elevating a figure whom Edward Lucie-Smith described as "the type of the excellent minor poet" to definite major status.