A quiet Sunday afternoon. Lots of work to do; the house is a mess. I have just looked down at my hands and see the results of a morning in the garden – broken and dirty fingernails and a splinter in my ring finger that requires a pin and some antiseptic. So many things should take priority over sitting browsing the Poetry Archive website, but which of them can’t wait? (Don’t answer that one – I appreciate my finger may turn septic rendering work and cleaning impossible but I will take a chance.)
So I have been looking up some poets I have never read before and came across Edwin Brock. Born in South London in 1927 he was a serving police officer, advertising copywriter and professional poet. The following poem is one I had to share. ‘Five Ways to Kill A Man’ is one of the most important anti-war poems of the 20th century and I was struck by how effective it is in highlighting the true horror of what man does to man. Simple and direct, it doesn’t need any complicated images to drive the point home.
Brock died in 1997 having left this poem and another ‘The Song of the Battery Hen’ to be regularly anthologised. I have never come across either, but that was my loss. It seems he has a body of work that many contemporary poets feel has been neglected.
Apparently, Brock wrote Five Ways to Kill A Man in response to his first hearing of the wonderful War Requiem by Benjamin Britten. It took him thirty minutes and he never changed a line……
Five Ways to Kill a Man, by Edwin Brock
There are many cumbersome ways to kill a man.
You can make him carry a plank of wood
to the top of a hill and nail him to it. To do this
properly you require a crowd of people
wearing sandals, a cock that crows, a cloak
to dissect, a sponge, some vinegar and one
man to hammer the nails home.
Or you can take a length of steel,
shaped and chased in a traditional way,
and attempt to pierce the metal cage he wears.
But for this you need white horses,
English trees, men with bows and arrows,
at least two flags, a prince and a
castle to hold your banquet in.
Dispensing with nobility, you may, if the wind
allows, blow gas at him. But then you need
a mile of mud sliced through with ditches,
not to mention black boots, bomb craters,
more mud, a plague of rats, a dozen songs
and some round hats made of steel.
In an age of aeroplanes, you may fly
Miles above your victim and dispose of him by
pressing one small switch. All you then
require is an ocean to separate you, two
systems of government, a nation’s scientists,
several factories, a psychopath and
land that no one needs for several years.
These are, as I began, cumbersome ways
to kill a man. Simpler, direct, and much more neat
is to see that he lives somewhere in the middle
of the twentieth century, and leave him there.
I find this chilling. As The Poetry Archive suggests, it seems to be written as a manual of killing. Over the years man has become more adept and ever more efficient at exterminating fellow human beings and Brock’s words highlight this ‘progress’ brilliantly.
There are many ways to physically kill a man. But at the risk of striking a sombre note, isn’t it also possible to remain ‘alive’ in terms of taking a breath, walking, talking and feeling a beating heart whilst being utterly numb where it really matters?
The last lines of this poem seem even more relevent in the 21st century, as the struggle to find meaning and purpose in a world driven at speed and threatened by technology seems to overwhelm so many…..