I'm going to come right out and say it: I don't read an enormous amount of contemporary poetry. While you try to absorb that shocking statement, let me qualify: I mean, I do like a bit of Simon Armitage, the bard of Marsden.
At Christmas I enjoyed the American August Kleinzahler’s groovy Sleeping it off in Rapid City. And Clive James had a terrific thing in the New Yorker the other week, about getting old. But for the most part, I'm a stranger to poetry.
And when our paths do cross, my tastes are as sophisticated as a limerick. I like Larkin. And Eliot. Bit of Yeats, perhaps. When I was at school I could do the Metaphysicals. But the Romantics always seemed so wussy, the Classical epics too long. And the Beats were bores on bad drugs.
So when I sing of the Welsh poet Owen Sheers’ phenomenal new book, Pink Mist, about the war in Afghanistan, I don't do so as some airy-fairy versifier in a floaty scarf.
I do it because this is riveting, relevant British writing about the experience of young men going off to and coming back from fighting for their country.
Strictly speaking, it’s a verse-drama rather than a poem. It was commissioned by BBC Radio 4 and broadcast in five nightly episodes last year. But you can easily read it as I did, as a poem on the page (it helps if you can do a West Country accent in your head, and have the semblance of a sense of rhythm).
Pink Mist concerns, and is for the most part narrated by, three Bristolian teenagers – Arthur, Hads and Taff – who enlist in the British army, and three women in their lives, a mother, a wife and a girlfriend, who they leave behind and then return to.
It is contemporary in its points of reference – dubstep, IEDs, Navy SEALs – and timeless in its depiction of the pity of war. It is both utterly convincing – Sheers has clearly spent time with these people – and extremely moving, devastating even. (If you were cynical you’d use words adjectives like “explosive” and “incendiary” to describe Sheers work, but I’m classier than that).
Other good things about Pink Mist: It won’t take you much longer than an hour or so to get through. It comes in a handsome hardback edition from Faber, which will make you look hip, stylish and intellectual. It’s out now.