Tired but precise, a voice. “We are at war
With Germany.” I’d seen him the year before
Bringing home “Peace with Honour.”
Chamberlain. “It is the evil things
That we shall be fighting against.”
Thus spake a disheartened Victorian.
Warm summer and bright sunshine brought them out.
This was a Junkers, circling the school
Low down. “To shelters?” No.
We had no instructions. Besides,
The All Clear had sounded; and so, officially,
He wasn’t there. It seems he abided by that,
Drifting away from us, taking his time.
Bomber in a hurry shed its cargo
Over the woods. We were below it,
Hunting for walnuts. You fling up a stick and
Down they come. Old Tom was eighty,
But outran most of us. “What’s the use?”
You ask. Why, none. We might have become
So easily part of the harvest.
Air Commodore, once retired;
Demothballed. He was old; to us, on parade,
Incredibly. “I wish you
A good war,” he said. “Resent him?”
No, not now. For what he meant was
“I hope you survive it.” In such times
This is not the way you should say it.
An outsize motorbike belting along behind trees
But raised as if to skim them. Suddenly there’s
Our first Vee-One, yammering over the fields
Towards us – you can imagine them
Looking for you (which is bad for morale) –
Till high in plain view over
The huge dead elm behind the house it
Cut, dipped as it lost momentum, and
Blew up somewhere else.
“Missed by a mile?” Or so;
Unless you were in the houses it demolished.
Before long they were common as wasps and
Rather a trouble at night: each dragon of darkness
Bringing you to the window
The better to watch that
Flaring rumble charting its
Ruinous way. “I take a dim view of this,”
So the cliché ran; but you’d heard
They sometimes swung round before dropping,
And you always had to be sure
That this next one kept right on going.
Yes, a long time ago, and just
Marginal. Of the mute and inglorious
Multitude only a memory
By another long-time survivor.
But, when nobody’s left to remember
The strange particular drumbeat
Of a Junkers, or Vee-Ones, or summer
So fine that it brought all the wasps out
And thus gave a tinge rather special
To youthful ambitions in those years,
Let’s hope there won’t be such a mustering
Of heavy battalions of nightmares
Lining up on parade at the recall
To arms for the next Peace with Honour
That, by the time that one’s been swatted,
There’ll be nobody left to remember."
Wednesday, 11 April 2018
Johannes Bobrowski's tribute to Gertud Kolmar ( Gertrud Kathe Chodziesner )
I have previously posted about Johannes Bobrowski ( 1917- 1965) - and recently went back to 'Shadowlands', the 1966 translation of his work from German by Ruth and Mathew Meads, which was republished in 1984 . After being accepted in his native DDR as a rehabilitated Soviet Prisoner of War and a respected poet, Bobrowski was gradually getting noticed in the West from around 1960 onward. And the East German regime were prepared to grant him some permission to travel.
'Shadowlands' included a poem titled 'Gerturd Kolmar' : Certainly strange to have Bobrowski, a former German soldier writing a tribute to a Jewish woman poet who didn't survive the holocaust. The poem was first published in a collected titled 'Shadowland Rivers' from 1962, which also contains two poems ' Else Lasker-Schuler ' ( 1869-1945) and 'To Nelly Sachs' (1891- 1970) , who were both German women of Jewish descent.
An ode Bobrowski wrote about Thomas Chatterton ( 1752- 1770), the forerunner of the English Romantic poets, is a surprising choice .Though Bobrowski shared a huge reverence for Nature with the Romantics, his poetry was largely quite clipped and sparse in its use of words, perhaps having more in common with early 20th century Imagism.
Beech, bloody in leaf,
in smoking depth bitter
the shadows, the door above
of shouting magpies.
There a girl walked,
a girl with smooth hair,
the plain under her lids
glanced up, her step
was lost in the marches.
But the dark time
is not dead, my speech
wanders and is
rusty with blood.
Were I to remember you;
I stepped in front of the beech,
I have commanded the magpie:
Be silent, they come, who were
here-if I remembered:
We shall not die, we shall
be girded about with towers."
Johannes Bobrowski ( from 'Shadowlands)
Gertrud Kathe Chodziesner/Gertrud Kolmar ( 10th December 1894- deported March 1943)
Gertrud Kolmar's legacy of 450 poems, two short stories, and three plays. Personal papers and other works were destroyed at the time of her arrest. Her literary career had a promising start with her first collection published in 1917, and was frequent published throughout the 1920's, and a second collection appeared in 1934. But a third volume of poetry was suppressed by the Nazi regime in 1938, and in 1941 Gertud Kolmar became a forced labourer in the armaments industry. On 27th February 1943, Gertud was arrested by the SS and deported to Auschwitz on 2nd March 1943, her exact date of death is not known. Interest has steadily grown in her work.
I am not sure of the date that 'The Female Poet' was written. I think that appeared from 1936 -1938 .
The incredible sense of being helpless against the course of history -'My heart beats like a frightened little bird's' and ' whispering to the wind' /'This shall not be' is so brilliantly . Or perhaps the poet is simply referring to being overwhelmed by a love affair. And the closing line " You hear me speak/But do you hear me feel ? " is spoken thinly to a party that is just not interested.
The Female Poet ( 'Die Dichterin ' )
You hold me now completely in your hands.
My heart beats like a frightened little bird's
Against your palm. Take heed! You do not think
A person lives within the page you thumb.
To you this book is paper, cloth, and ink,
Some binding thread and glue, and thus is dumb,
And cannot touch you (though the gaze be great
That seeks you from the printed marks inside),
And is an object with an object's fate.
And yet it has been veiled like a bride,
Adorned with gems, made ready to be loved,
Who asks you bashfully to change your mind,
To wake yourself, and feel, and to be moved.
But still she trembles, whispering to the wind:
"This shall not be." And smiles as if she knew.
Yet she must hope. A woman always tries,
Her very life is but a single "You . . ."
With her black flowers and her painted eyes,
With silver chains and silks of spangled blue.
She knew more beauty when a child and free,
But now forgets the better words she knew.
A man is so much cleverer than we,
Conversing with himself of truth and lie,
Of death and spring and iron-work and time.
But I say "you" and always "you and I."
This book is but a girl's dress in rhyme,
Which can be rich and red, or poor and pale,
Which may be wrinkled, but with gentle hands,
And only may be torn by loving nails.
So then, to tell my story, here I stand.
The dress's tint, though bleached in bitter lye,
Has not all washed away. It still is real.
I call then with a thin, ethereal cry.
You hear me speak. But do you hear me feel?
-Gertrud Kolmar ( translated by Translated by Henry A Smith )
Taken from the All Poetry entry for Gertrud Kolmar
Most Indebted to the Jewish Women's Archive feature on Gertrud Kolmar .
And also to Lucy London 's feature on Gertrud Kolmar Female Poets of the First World War blog
Finally, must just mention the Stuart era companion blog to this one A burnt ship
Tuesday, 27 March 2018
Poetry from the Darkest Hour
Picture of '1940' carved into the walls of the pillbox courtesy of 'Wikipedia'
Apologies for the lack of new posts, but pleased to see that people are still visiting this blog. A lot of spare time has been spent on my latest blog aBurntShip featuring 17th century related war poetry and prose. I started a blog concerning my views on the 1685 Monmouth Rebellion-which is yet unpublished. On my way back to World War 2 poetry.
With the rise of the movie 'Darkest Hour' -thought that it was time to select some poetry relating to that crucial phase of the War.
One of my favourite pieces of poetry about this year is the opening part of Bertolt Brecht 's '1940' .
"Spring is coming.The gentle winds
Are freeing the cliffs of their winter ice.
Trembling, the peoples of the north await
The battle fleets of the house-painter.
Out of the libraries
Emerge the butchers.
Pressing their children closer
Mothers stand and humbly search
The skies for the inventions of learned men.
The designers sit
Hunched in the drawing offices:
One wrong figure, and the enemy's cities
Will remain Undestroyed. "
Brecht was living in exile from Germany since 1933. After several years in Denmark, Brecht moved to Sweden in April 1939, but moved to Finland in May 1940. I rate these three verses highly; opening with the idea that the start of Spring, rather than being a cause for celebration, heralds the beginning of the fighting season. In fact knowledge itself is used against rather than for ,the interests of humanity. Butchers go to libraries, learned men are devising new inventions of war, designers are planning to destroy enemy cities.
British poetry from 1940
I have selected three poems, all written by women, not for any deliberate reason. I don't think that any of them are of astonishing literary importance. But they convey an eerie fatalism, not necessarily of a defeatist nature, more of a sense of living in a country which has lost control of its destiny. Also reminds one that the events of 1940 were shared by those out of uniform as well as those who were serving.
"The Atlantic clangs, a hammer against the headland.
Lungs of my generation wait for the stroke,
The wave's long tension tattering into smoke
Breathe turmoil, with this headland that is England
Surf in the cove has woven a scantier garland,
Scalding the ribs of a trawler mined in May.
Roll on my soul: reveal the spindrift boy.
The men like matchwood, broken against the foreland."
( from 'Lilian Bowes Lyon Collected Poems, Introduced by C.Day Lewis' , Jonathan Cape, 1948)
Lilian Bower-Lyon sees 'England' not as Shakespeare's 'sceptered isle' but as a headland being pounded by the Atlantic. There is an almost Byron type view of Nature being indifferent to man, The sea wears down the wreck of a mined fishing boat, the men 'broken like matchwood....' There is something a little obtuse about the 'spindrift boy'....'spindrift' being the spray of the waves blown by waves. Perhaps a play on the words 'boy and 'buoy' .
"Last spring carried love's garlands -this season's wreath;
broken branches of blossom to decorate death,
cloaking new graves, hardly-though unsought for,
stainless and free as the causes they fought for.
Yes, beggoten of sunlight and suckled by rain,
flowers declare that as surely shall peace follow pain."
( Published in 'Chaos of the Night -Women's Poetry and Verse of the Second World War' selected by Catherine Reilly, Virago ,1984)
Whilst Prudence Madonald contrasts Spring of 1939 with that of 1940- where flowers were once associated with romance, are now used for wreaths and to 'decorate graves'. There is quite a bitter-sweet feeling about Spring time and war. But am drawn to the poem's simplicity, and the tiny note of optimism ' as surely shall peace follow pain'.
"But in June
When the honey honeysuckle is thickest on the
The wind blows off the sea
And no one comes,
In any year
No season has begun then.
Only this year we know it will never begin,
None will come but those
Like us, to say goodbye, sisters to brothers,
Lovers to lovers.
This quiet deserted year
We saw Newgale sands as men
Shipwrecked see the waiting island,
Two miles of bay still wet
At midday from the morning tide
Under the thick English summer sky
Which only lets the warmth through not the sun;
There was a noon tide bearing on the land
The unremitting roar
Of endless breakers racing
With furious hair after the fretted surf
Scattered like whitened bones on the flat sand......"
(Published in 'Shadows of War- British Women's Poetry of the Second World War, edited and introduced by Anne Powell, Sutton Publishing, 1999).
Joan Barton evokes the deserted holiday resort of Newgale Sands. also looking at the notion of the Sea being hostile , or at the very best, indifferent to the affairs of men. Interesting that there is no sense of the sea being a defence against invasion .....but the poet is describing a West facing port. If this was a South coast port, the beach would be cluttered with defences and travel restriction imposed. 'The unremitting roar/ Of endless breakers' reads like a strange allusion to the waves of bombers who are to come. The image of the 'fretted surf/Scattered like whitened bones '.....is haunting.
Notes on the Poets.
I can't find a full online version of the poem '1940' . I have used 'Poetry of the Second World War-An International Anthology' edited by Desmond Graham, 'Chatto & Windus', 1995.
Verse VI of 1940 is much quoted generally, but a bit too clever for my liking.
Lilian Bowes-Lyon (1895- 1949)
Cousin to Elizabeth the late Queen Mother. served as a VAD nurse in World War 1. Had some five collections of poetry published along with a 'Collected Works' in 1948. Worked with the people of Stepney during World War 2.
Excellent article The Queen Mother's Rebel Cousin by East End historian Roger Mills
Little information found - a collection of her work 'No Wasted Hour & Other Poems' was published in 1945.
Joan Barton ( 1908- 1986)
Involved with the Women's Land Army during World War 2, Set up a bookshop in 1947 in Marlborough, and continued to write poetry , sometimes read her work on radio. Seems to have had several collections of poetry published, most notably 'A House under Old Sarum- New and Selected Poems', Harry Chambers/Peterloo Poets, 1981.
Saturday, 11 November 2017
Thought that it was time to update this blog. Have mainly be focused on a new blog dedicated to seventeenth century war related poetry and literature titled A Burnt Ship
Have also been reading up on the life of Lynette Roberts (1909- 1995) . A longer version of this post will be available soon. Lynette Roberts played a significant role in the Anglo-Welsh poetry scene of the mid-20th century .
'Cross and Uncrossed '
Norma Bull ' Effigies of Crusaders in Round Temple Church London ' ( Courtesy of Imperial War Museum, IWM ART LD4889 )
Lynette Roberts was born in Argentina in 1909, and relocated to Britain in the 1930's, marrying Welsh magazine editor and poet Keidrych Rhys in 1939.The couple settled in the village of Llanybri . Rhys was conscripted on 12th July 1940, and was later to go AWOL for a short time after several years service. . Lynette Roberts immersed herself in Welsh village life, studying the mythology and language of the country, proud of her own distant Welsh ancestry. And wrote poetry of her own.
Backed by T.S. Elliott’s influence at ‘Faber’ two collections subsequently appeared ' Poems' in 1944 and 'Gods With Stainless Ears' in 1951,and the latter featured a long poem about her life in Wales in World War II, taking in the 19th -21st February 1941 Air Raid on Swansea. The people of Llanybri could see the flames...230 died, 397 injured , 7,000 homes were destroyed.
From ‘Gods With Stainless Ears’
“... Night falling catches the flares and bangs
On gorselit rock. Yellow birds shot from
Iridium creeks,-Let the whaleback of the sea
All back from a writ of ripples, slit.
Snip up the moon sniggering on its back,
For on them sail the hulls of ninety wild birds
Defledged by this evening’s raid; jigging up
Like a tapemachine the cold figures February
19th, 20th, 21st. A memorial of Swansea’s tragic loss….”
The marriage between Lynette Roberts and Keidrych Rhys broke down in 1948 : Lynette Roberts took their two young children to England in 1949, and in 1955 she opened an art centre at Chislehurst Caves in Kent. In 1956 part of the cave roofs collapsed seriously injuring a sculptor called Peter Danziger. The centre closed and Lynette Roberts had the first of a series of breakdowns and suffered from recurring mental health conditions from the rest of her life until her death in 1995.
The already published works of Lynette Roberts were left to lapse-seemingly out of fashion as new trends began to flourish in the late 50's such as 'The Movement' and 'The Angry Young Men'. Her previous friendships with such luminaries as Dylan Thomas, Edith Sitwell, Alun Lewis,and T.S. Elliott earned her the occasional mention and the odd footnote. In fact Lynette Roberts shared her research into Welsh culture and mythology with Robert Graves for his work ‘The Roebuck in the Thicket’ , which later became ‘The White Goddess’.
Even in the late 1970’s /early 1980’s wave of feminism which explored women’s relationship to war, there was little focus on her work. Lynette Roberts was conspicuously absent from Catherine Reilly’s influential ‘Chaos of the Night -Women’s Poetry and Verse ‘ from 1984. One exception was ‘Poetry Wales ‘ magazine that devoted an issue to Lynette Roberts in 1983.
Anne Powell’s 1996, ‘Shadows of War-British Women’s Poetry of the Second World War’ featured of three of Lynette Roberts’ poem. And in 21st century a new wave of interest appeared in her work with the appearance of 'Lynette Roberts-collected poems' edited by Patrick McGuiness in 2005 and a companion volume of 'Diaries, Letters, and Recollection ' in 2008, also edited by Patrick McGuiness.
A particularly intriguing entry reads:
“And my stay at the Inner Temple when I turned up while the library buildings were still smouldering and continued to burn for another five days. The Round Church wet and empty like a grotesque seashell. Out of this experience I wrote my poem ‘Crossed and Uncrossed.’ “
‘Diaries, Letters and Recollections’ 12th June 1942 - Looking back at 10th May 1941 Raid. Here are some verses from said poem to consider :
‘ Crossed and Uncrossed ‘
Heard the steam rising from the chill blue bricks
Heard the books sob and the buildings huge groan
As the hard crackle of flames leapt on firemen
and paled the red walls……….
Round Church built in a Round Age, cold with grief,
Coloured Saints of glass lie buried at your feet;
Crusaders uncross limbs by the green light of flares,
burn into Tang shapes
From paper window we gaze at the catacomb of books,
You,unflinching stern of spirit, ready to
Gather charred sticks to fight no gas where gas was
Through thin library walls where ‘Valley’ still grows,
From Pump Court to dry bank of rubble, titanic monsters,
Roll up from the Thames, to drown the ‘storm’ should it
dare come again.
Still water silences death : fills night with curious light,
Brings green peace and birds to top of Plane tree
Fills Magnolia with grail thoughts; while you of King’s Bench
Walk, cherish those you most love.”
Lynette Roberts- Diaries, Letters and Recollections' , edited by Patrick McGuiness, Carcanet Press
Lynette Roberts - Collected Poems edited by Patrick McGuiness, Carcanet Press (2005)
Keidrych Rhys -The Van Pool: Collected Poems edited by Charles Mundye, Seren ( 2012).
Lynette Roberts Independent Obituary
Lynette Roberts feature Flashpoint Magazine
Saturday, 9 September 2017
Pleased to hear that the Second World War Experience Centre magazine 'Everyone's War' will include an article I wrote last year about poetry from the North Africa campaign.
Two poems about the outbreak of World War 2 from the point of view of teenagers in Britain, Elizabeth Jennings and Michael A. Mason
Public Air Raid Shelter in Trafalgar Square from 1941
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Deliberately decided to avoid posting about the anniversary of Britain entering into World War 2. Have to admit that anniversary fatigue is taking its toll .
But if I have posted on 3rd September 2017 would have included Elizabeth Jennings (1926- 2001), who later went on to become one of the 1950's 'Movement' poets. Her work is rarely included in World War 2 poetry anthologies - the exception being 'Poems From the Second World War'
( Macmillan's Children's books in partnership with the IWM. 2005 ).
'The Second World War' - Elizabeth Jennings
"The voice said 'We are at War'
And I was afraid
for I did not know what this
My sister and I ran to our friends next door
As if they could help. History was lessons learnt
With ancient dates, but here
Was something utterly news,
The radio, called the wireless then, had said
That the country would have to be brave. There
was much to do. ....."
Personally I am drawn to the simplicity of the poem, Elizabeth Jennings would have been 13 when war broke out and this poem captures the adolescent realising that they were experiencing ' something utterly news'. I am not in a position to reproduce the whole poem.
The same anthology contains Anthony Thwaite's poem 'Bournemouth 3rd September 1939' , about a school boy enjoying the seaside whilst waiting to start the Autumn Term. Born 1930, he was far younger than Elizabeth Jennings. The poem ends with the ominous lines
"...........Later, tucked in bed
I hear the safe sea roll and wipe away
The castles that had built in sand that day. "
Forty Years Backward March -Michael Arthur Mason
Canadian writer Paul Nicholas Mason has shared this poem his father Michael Mason wrote about serving in the RAF during World War 2, on WW2f.com, and has kindly given consent for the poem to be reproduced here.
This is a memory of an outbreak of war from the point of view of a boy just about to turn fifteen. Again I appreciate the simplicity of the poem, which conveys the aspect of the unreal with what Elizabeth Jennings above called 'something utterly news'. Also like characterisation of Chamberlain as 'disheartened Victorian ' ( who was, after all, born in 1869) and the commander who has been 'demothballed' who wishes the boys a 'good war'.
Paul has supplied the following biography.
Michael A. Mason was born September 29, 1924 in Oxfordshire, England, the son of the butler to the Earl of Jersey. He was educated in state schools, and joined the RAF in 1943. He was released early in 1946 to return to university in London. Michael eventually earned his B.A. (Hons), Dip Ed, M.A. and PHD in English Language and Literature, and taught at universities in East Africa, B.C. and Ontario, Canada. He finished his teaching career as Head of English and Philosophy at Royal Military College, Kingston, Ontario.
'40 Years Backward March ' - Michael A Mason.
Sunday, 20 August 2017
Johannes Bobrowski - 'My dark has already come '
Johannes Bobrowski ( 1917- 1965) served in the German army from 1940- 1945, and was a Soviet Prisoner of War from 1945- 1949, and then settled in the Russian zone which eventually became the DDR. A large amount of his work that is available in English seems strangely impersonal, centred around a bleak but strikingly beautiful natural world.
Place of Fire
We saw that sky, Blackness
moved on the water, the fires
beat, darkness with trembling
lights stepped forward in front
of the wood on the bank, in animal hide,
the mouths in the foilage.
That sky stood
unmoved. And was made
of storms and tore us forward,
screaming we saw the earth
ascending with fields and rivers,
forest, the flying fires
The poet is a hopeless and helpless presence in a tumultuous landscape.
References to his own experiences as a soldier and/prisoner of war intrude occasionally.
" I began to write near Lake Ilmen in 1941, about the Russian landscape, but as a foreigner, a German. This became a theme, something like this; the Germans and the European East-because I grew up around the river Memel, where Poles, Lithuanians, Russians and Germans, lived together, and among them all the Jews. ..."
Introduction to ' Shadowlands. (anthology from 1966) page 16
The Memel region was German territory before the Treaty of Versailles, where it was placed under international control,only to be taken by Lithuania, then annexed to Germany in 1939. Through his poetry, Bobrowski was to evoke the region of Europe as 'Sarmatia,' which he counted as being East Prussia, Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania, though sometimes stretched into western Russia. In a long poem from 1952 'Pruzzische Elegie', Bobrowski added a note stating that this work "calls to memory the people of Pruzze ( Old Prussia) exterminated by the Teutonic Order", the Germanic knights who began military campaigns against north European pagans as from the 13th century.
One poem where humans activity is a central theme is 'Kaunas 1941' commemorating the killing of Jews by pro-German Lithuanian nationalists, who murdered their victims with iron bars and shovels whilst their supporters cheered them on. The style even then seems understated compared with the horror of the event.
the murderers pass the gate.we walk
softly, in musty air, in the tracks of wolves.
At evening we looked out
over a stony valley. The hawk
swept round the broad dome
We saw the old town, house after house
running down to the river.
Will you walk over
the hill? The grey processions
-old men and sometimes boys-
die there. They walk up the slope ahead of the slavering wolves."
If Bobrowski is a serving soldier and observer, he reports the scene with a distinct detachment,at one point asking the question "Did my eyes avoid yours brother" The poem ends with the cryptic line 'My dark has already come' . Perhaps Bobrowski's work has been neglected in Britain as so many people wish to read war poetry as some sort of historical eye witness account. Bobrowski comes over as an invader and intruder in his mythical 'Sarmatia' . He wrote from the view of an enemy soldier, and later as a Christian viewing the crushing of a heathen culture.
Johannes Bobrowski's work was read in both the DDR and in West Germany. Bobrowski avoided politics, and did not clash with the DDR authorities like his contemporary Peter Huchel. Bobrowski also avoided social comment and political polemic, unlike his fellow DDR citizen, Brecht.
Perhaps a favourite Bobrowski poem of mine is Lake Ilmen 1941, with its hints that the landscape of 'Sarmatia' will triumph over the Teutonic invaders.
Lake Ilmen 1941
" -Days of the lake. Of light
A track in the grass
the white tower stands
like a gravestone.
deserted by the dead
The broken roof
in the caw of crows
Nights of the lake.The forest
falls into the marshes
The Old Wolf
far from the burnt out site
startled by a phantom,
Years of the lake.The armoured
flood. The climbing darkness
of the waters. One day
it will strike
the storming birds from the sky."
Further reading On Line
Cutbank Journal Montana University review of Bobrowski 's poetry , 1980
Writers No One Reads blog feature on Bobrowski
Literator South African literature blog Fascinating article about Bobrowski's poetry, Jewish Suffering, and how this issue was treated by the DDR.
'Shadowlands' -excellent anthology of Bobrowski's work introduced by poet Michael Hamburger, poems translated by Ruth and Mathew Mead , first appeared in 1966, but has been reprinted several times.
A volume of Bobrowski's poetry in English appeared in the Penguin Modern Poets series of 1971.
'Between Sarmatia and Socialism -The Life and Works of Johannes Bobrowski' by John Wiezerock
1999, ( A lot of the poetry quoted is not translated from the original German).
Michael Hamburger East German Poetry (1970)
Monday, 17 July 2017
Peter Huchel ( 1903- 1981)
Photo : Operation Barbarossa, March 1942, from German Federal
Archive, in public domain via Wiki-media Commons
World War 2 poetry from Germany has been requested, and as there seems to be a revival of interest in the former DDR ,I have been looking at the work of Peter Huchel and Johannes Bobrowski. Bertold Brecht is probably the most famous DDR poet, and could well be the subject of another blog post. (Brecht has the honour of writing one of my favourite ever poems How Fortunate the Man With None ),
British interest in the work of both poets developed in the 1960's and early 1970's, mainly through the dedication shown by poet-translators such as Michael Hamburger and Mathew and Ruth Meads, yet seems to have stalled.
Choked sunset glow
Of crashing time
Interesections of flight.
Chart tracks across the ploughed fields
That with the eyes of killed horses
Saw the sky in flames.
Nights with lungs full of smoke,
With the hard breath of the fleeing
Struck the dusk
Out of a broken gate
Ash and wind came without a sound,
That sullenly chewed the darkness.
Flung over the rail tracks,
Their stifled cry
Like a stone on the palate.
Humming cloth of flies
Closed their wounds.
Translation of Peter Huchel poem by Michael Hamburger from 'East German ' by Michael Hamburger, (1970)
Peter Huchel was born in Berlin in 1903 and educated at Berlin Freiburg and Vienna universities. According to his entry in 'Poemhunter.com' , Huchel travelled in different European countries, and published poetry from 1931- 1936 that was inspired by the landscape of Brandenburg. Other on line sources maintain that his first poetry collection was published then quickly withdrawn in 1932. Huchel was conscripted into the German Army in 1940- 1945 and fought on the Eastern Front, being captured in 1945 and held as a Prisoner of War. It is difficult to find exact dates but by 1949 Huchel was in East Berlin, started broadcasting on radio, and also began editing a magazine 'Sinn und Form' ('Sense and Form' ) . With the establishment of the Berlin Wall in 1961, Huchel's career prospects went into reverse and he lost the editorship ; The magazine needed to give priority to the work of pro-Soviet poets. Living in Stasi enforced isolation, Huchel was finally allowed to leave the DDR in 1971. After spending time in Rome, he settled in West Germany, dying in 1981.
"The desert now will be history
Termites with their pincers
And no one will enquire
Into a species
On self-extinction ."
translated by Michael Hamburger from East German Poetry (1970)
Another poet from the DDR was Johannes Bobrowski (1903-1965), who also fought on the Eastern Front and spent several years as a Soviet prisoner of war. A few months before his, death Bobrowski was asked in an interview conducted in East Berlin, which poet has inspired him the most. He replied
" Peter Huchel of course. I first read (a) poem of his in Soviet prison camp in a newspaper, and it impressed me immensely." ( Quote taken from Rich Ives 1980 article)
I have not quite worked out whether Huchel was being published in a prison camp magazine as both men were Prisoners of War at roughly the same time. Peter Huchel was later to publish five Bobrowski poems in 'Sinn und Form' in 1957. Both poets work contained elements of 'Natursprache' - defined by the critic Nicolas Yuille as being the concept that "nature objects are part of language system that refers to a higher order."
One of my personal favourites Peter Huchel 's poems is 'The Pastor Reports on the Downfall of His Parish' , in which Christian eschatology undergoes a meltdown due to the ferocious impact of war. The whole notion of Christ is demolished and the verse ends ominously "Here was no Law. My day had been to brief to recognise God."
'The Pastor Reports on the Downfall of His Parish'
"It was not the fall of hell:
As if pelted by stones in a vast fury
That melted even dust, bones and skulls
And, at one with the startled light, Christ's head,
Broke from the wood.
The squadrons wheeled threateningly.
Through the red sky they flew off
As if they were slashing the arteries of the noon.
I saw it smouldering, devouring , burning-
And graves, even graves, were churned up.
Here was no Law. My day had been too brief.
To recognise God."
From 'The Pastor Reports on the Downfall of His Parish'
translated by Michael Hamburger from East German Poetry (1970)
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Rich Ives Johannes Bobrowski Poetry from East Germany CutBank journal Spring 1980
Michael Hamburger East German Poetry (1970)
Nicolas Yuille Visionary Poetry in the German Dictatorships (1978)
Wednesday, 31 May 2017
Cologne 30th May 1942 -Thousand Bomber Raid
Mary E. Harrison/Vera Brittain
The National Archives UK (Mass bomber raid on Cologne)-artist unknown
On the night of 30th May 1942/31st May 1942 the first of Bomber Command's Thousand Bomber Raids was directed against Cologne. Found two poems related to the attack, both by British women.
Mary E. Harrison
As a member of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force ( WAAF) and an artist, Mary E. Harrison made a model of Cologne that was used in the planning of the raid of 30th May/31st May 1942. She was horrified to see photographs of the results of the bombing, which inspired her poem 'My Hands'
The poem was published in two Oasis Salamander Trust anthologies, 'More Poems of the Second World War ;the Oasis Selection''. (1989), also in 'The Voice of War' Poems of the Second World War ' (1995) . Then again in 'Shadows of War- British Women's Poetry of the Second World War' edited by Anne Powell, ( 1999). Not clear when it was first written or published.
The biographical information on Mary in the 1995 'Oasis' anthology advised that she trained as a model maker at RAF Nuneham Courtney, Oxfordshire, and posted to Allied Central Interpretation Unit (Photographic Intelligence) RAF Medmenham , Bucks. 'My Hands' is the only poem that I have found by her in print, or referenced on line.
The poem's strength is the way that forged connections between an artist's model and reality. There is no attempt to talk about war in oblique detached terms.
" Do you know what it is like to have death in your hands?
When you haven't a murderer's mind?
Do you know how it feels when you could be the cause
Of a child being blind?.
How many people have died through me
From the skill in my finger tips?
For I fashion the clay and portray the landscape
As the fliers are briefed for their trips."
I have reproduced the first verse, a longer extract can be found on the Oasis Trust Website
Vera Brittain was a pacifist during World War 2, and leading member of the Peace Pledge Union. Though more famous for her writing relating to World War 1, Vera wrote extensively about World War 2 as well.
Lament for Cologne
"You stood so proudly on the flowing Rhine,
Your history mankind's, your climbing spires
Crowned with the living light that man desires
To gild his path from bestial to divine
Today, consumed by war's unpitying fires,
You lie in ruins,weeping for your dead
Your shattered monuments the funeral pyres
Perhaps, when passions die and slaughters cease
The mothers on whose homes destruction fell,
Who waiting sought their children through the hell
Of London, Warsaw, Rotterdam, Belgrade,
Will seek Cologne's sad women, unafraid
And cry's God's cause is ours. Let there be peace.! "
Reproduced by kind permission of Mark Bostridge and T.J. Brittain-Catlin, Literary Executors for the Estate of Vera Brittain 1970.
The poem was re-published in Vera's 'Seed of Chaos' (1944) ,but originally published in 'The Friend' magazine on 19th June 1942. 'Seeds of Chaos' contained a survey of Allied attacks on German cities. Vera stated that Cologne had been subjected to repeated raids as from 30th May 1942 and by the time of writing the devastation of this city was the equivalent of 'seventeen Coventries ' ; a reference to the notorious Coventry air raid of the 14th November 1940. In her memoir of 1925- 1950, 'Testament of Experience' ( 1957),, Vera claimed that "news bulletins, boasted that 70,000 were killed or injured " during the 30th May 1942 night raid on Cologne : RAF figures mention 500 dead, with 5,000 injured.
I am fascinated, and sometimes exasperated, by the writing of Vera Brittain and other pacifists of World War 2. The hopeless naivete, , the endless call for 'negotiations' with Germany when Appeasement had clearly failed, and their lack of any coherent tactics to oppose Nazism. Moreover, I totally understand criticism that the deaths incurred during the raid on Cologne 30th May 1942 are not extensive compared with the millions of casualties incurred during the Eastern Front, the Holocaust. the Japanese invasion of China, the vast numbers of Polish slave labourers worked to death by the Germans, the hundreds of thousands of victims of the pro-Nazi Croatian Ustasha let loose in Yugoslavia, and more.
I can even see the objection that George Orwell and also some 'absolutist' pacifists had, albeit from opposing viewpoints, that Vera and the Bombing Restriction Committee were somehow trying to 'humanize' war via campaigning against the 'saturation' bombing of cities.
But it's hard to remain aloof when Vera connects Cologne with other bombed cities of Europe. Her poem was drawing on the notion that there is something essential about all human experience during a bombing raid. That there's still a human price to pay in fighting even a 'just' war. Poetry is an obvious vehicle to remind one of this fact. Most of all, a writer of Vera's standing, publishing a statement lamenting the German losses that resulted from RAF bombing, was a courageous act in 1942.
'Seed of Chaos' was reprinted along with 'Humiliation of Honour' under the title 'One Voice-Pacifist Writings from the Second World War' -Vera Brittain, with a foreword by Shirley Williams. ( Continuum, 2005)
An alternative view : George Orwell v, Vera Brittain
George Orwell was highly critical of 'Seed of Chaos' .
" Pacifism is a tenable position, provided that you are willing to take the consequences. But all talk of 'limiting' or 'humanizing' (sic) war is sheer humbug, based on the fact that the average human being never bother to examine catchwords. "
Tribune 19th May 1944.
The George Orwell v. Vera Brittain disagreement re-emerged in recent years, with an accusation that Vera falsely claimed that George Orwell changed his views on civilian bombing in her book 'Testament of Experience' , which was published well after Orwell's death in 1950. The Orwell Society website below links to a piece 'Vera Brittain v. George Orwell' by Richard Westwood , from February 12th 2012.