Sunday 8 November 2020

Remembrance 2020

                                              The Role of World War 2 Poetry 


     Men of the 22nd Independent Parachute Company 6th Airbourne Division receive briefing just before D Day 1944, courtesy of 'Wikipedia' 

As remembrance week begins in 2020, and find that the commemorations that usually attend will not be happening due to the Covid 19 emergency, felt it was time to share a few thoughts. For this post I am focusing on Britain. 

Issues arise from admitting to having a keen interest in World War 2 poetry. Some times people think that they have misheard you, or that you have made a typo, and ask 'Don't you mean World War 1'?  Another factor is the danger of starting a competition with World War 1 poetry. Certainly there is little evidence that World War 2 poets thought that they were improving on or usurping World War 1 poetry. And neither does this blog, which serves the same purpose as Siegfried Sassoon's poignant lines in his 1919 poem Aftermath:Have you forgotten yet?...Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you'll never forget.  In fact many World War 2 poets felt inspired by the World War 1 poets -with exception of Alan Ross who preferred W H Auden to Owen and Sassoon, whose poetry he found 'dull' . To read more ....

Certainly British World War 1 poets are granted more status than those from World War 2. Considered to be reliable witnesses or even daring truth tellers concerning the true nature of modern warfare. Their poetry and recollections are held to be more trustworthy than those of the  authorities who declared war in the first place. The work of the  World War 1 poets, some of it already written and published, along with their emerging war memoirs, grew in influence from the late 1920's onward. Particularly shaping the 'Disenchantment' view of World War 1 which arguably still holds sway. Even historians from this century who have tried to argue that World War 1 was a just war don't seem to have succeeded, against those who felt that Britain should have stayed neutral or that the price of victory was simply too high in loss of men and resources. 

Vernon Scannell born 1922, who served in the North Africa campaign, deserted, was soon  caught and jailed , then released to serve in the  Normandy campaign of 1944 ,  wrote in this poem The Great War.


"Whenever the November sky

Quivers with a bugle's hoarse, sweet cry,

The reason darkens; in its evening gleam

Crosses and flares, tormented with, grey earth

Splattered with crimson flowers,

And I remember

Not the war I fought in

But the one called Great

Which ended in a sepia November

Four years before my birth. "

Vernon Scannell is a favourite poet of mine, exploring the themes of both  love and war.  Could write the most wonderful observations about  English provincial life in the second half of the 20th century. He was prone to binge drinking and violence towards his partners. At the time of VE Day, Scannell was back in an army base in Britain, still recuperating from his Normandy wounds. He immediately absconded without waiting for the official demobilisation process to start,  went on the run for years but finally caught. 

In one later biographical work 'Argument of Kings', Scannell describes  his service with the  51st Highland Division during the Normandy campaign in most harrowing terms. His regiment were fighting near the village of Touffreville on 10th June 1944. 

John looked down and saw that the front of Hughie's battle dress had disappeared. It had been driven inwards into his chest so that there was a great dark cave of blood and slivers of bone.....though he did direct one quick glance at Hughie's face ....The face looked like the face of all the dead. There eyelids were not shut but the pupils had swivelled up beneath them so that the eyes looked like those of a blind man.

Scannell's regiment arrived in Normandy on 10th June 1944. At this time a young soldier serving with Scannell who had boasted earlier about killing Germans, broke down when faced with the reality of warfare. 

He was making wordless, bleating sounds from which every now and then an identifiable phrase would surface and when this happened the words were recognised as a frightened infant's cry for its mother.

There seem many reasons why Scannell's writing on serving in  Normandy campaign are not highlighted. The fact that the campaign was fast moving rather then ending up static trench warfare, the view that World War 2 is largely held to be a just war, that the horrors of a Third Reich victory are just too much to stomach. In other words the Normandy campaign to dislodge the Germans was considered to have more meaning and purpose than say the first day of The Somme. 

That is why the work of Vernon Scannell, who could report back with the eye of a poet, is so vital. Because the Normandy campaign was a victory by so many different terms of reference, it is easier to forget what it cost. 

And  Scannell's Walking Wounded published in a collection of the same name from 1965, is a classic. Written  in 1962 Scannell recalled leaving Touffreville in 1944, so battle weary that he briefly fell asleep whilst marching, Shortly afterwards Scannell saw a convoy of ambulances, being followed by a column of casualties who were to have their wounds dressed and sent back into battle. 

In another autobiography The Tiger and the Rose, Scannell depicted these men as seemingly possessing

  A symbolic power; they were the representatives, not only of the military victims of war but of suffering and innocent people everywhere and at all times, trapped in the skeins of historical necessity. 

Walking Wounded  


"A humble brotherhood,

No one was suffering from a lethal hurt,

They were not magnified by noble wounds,

There was no splendour in the company.

And yet, remembering after eighteen years,

In the heart's throat a sour sadness stirs;

Imagination pauses and returns

To see them walking still, but multiplied

In thousands now. And when heroic corpses 

Turn slowly in their decorated sleep

And every ambulance has disappeared.

The walking wounded still trudge down that lane,

And when recalled they must bear arms again. "


Works consulted 

'The Tiger and the Rose- An Autobiography ', Vernon Scannell, Hamish Hamilton, 1971,

'Argument of Kings-An Autobiography' Vernon Scannell, Robson Books, 1986

'Walking Wounded-The Life & Poetry of Vernon Scannell', James Andrew Taylor, Oxford University Press, 2013

The War Poets Association webpage on Vernon Scannell

Other blogs by Michael Bully 

A Burnt Ship  17th century related war and literature.

Bleak Chesney Wold New blog inspired by Charles Dickens & 'dark' Victoriana started 2023

Monmouth Rebellion  Not particularly active at present

13th century history  Not particularly active at present 

Sunday 26 July 2020

Remembering Paul Celan 1920-1970

                        All those names burnt with the rest  - 'Alchemical' 

   Photo of the grave by Paul Celan by Martin Ottman shared by  Wikipedia creative licence 

Have to admit that I am not a great one for anniversary commemorations, but with Paul Celan, will make an exception. The year 2020 sees both  the centenary of his birth and the half centenary  year of his death

Some background

Paul Celan's upbringing and young adulthood were crucial to his work.

Celan was born  on 23rd November 1920 as  Paul Antschel ,into a German speaking Jewish family  in Czernowitz   Bukovina , Romania. Bokovina was part of the Autstro-Hungarian empire and ceded to Romania after the Treaty of Versailles. Around 4% of the population of the new Romania were Jewish. By the late 1930's their position within Romania deteriorated. Viewed with suspicion by the authorities, Jews were despised by the right wing social revolutionaries, the Iron Guard who had quite a sizeable following. In 1940, Romania was forced to cede Bukovina to the Soviet Union on 28th June 1940. In September 1940 a right wing coalition  took power,-which included the Iron Guard- and weeks later a German military mission came to Romania. On 20th  November 1940, Romania formerly joined the Axis powers. On 21st  January 1941, the Iron Guard staged a successful rebellion and a gruesome pogrom against Jews began in Bucharest.

Romania took back control of Bukovina following the launch of Operation Barborosa in June 1941. More pogroms took places in Romania, most notably at Iasi in July 1941, instigated by the Iron Guard.
On the 27th June and 28th June 1942 the Jews of Bukovina were rounded up -Celan's parents among them- and interned by the Romanian regime, who by now had taken control of  the region of the Ukraine between the rivers Dniester and Bug to establish the province of Transnistria. Many Jews were deported to the area, or died on the way or were simply murdered where they lived. Celan initially avoided arrest by hiding in a friend's house. Jews imprisoned in Transnistria were sometimes sent into German custody on the other side of the River Bug.  His mother was later shot after becoming too  ill to work, whilst Celan's father died as a prisoner, possibly from typhus.

The grief of his parents death  and what would now be called  'survivors guilt', along with his Celan's own experiences, haunts his work.'Aspen Tree' is stark and moving. The reference to the Ukraine indicates that Celan seemed to have established that his mother was killed somewhere in Transnistria.

Aspen Tree

Aspen tree, your leaves glance white into the dark.
My mother's hair never turned white.

Dandelion, so green is the Ukraine.
My fair-haired mother did not come home.

Rain cloud, do you linger at the well?
My soft-voiced mother weeps for all.

Rounded star, you coil the golden loop.
My mother's heart was hurt by lead.

Oaken door, who hove you off your hinge?
My gentle mother cannot return.

translated by John Felstiner from 'Second World War Poems', chosen by Hugh Haughton.

Another possibility was that his mother fell ill, was amongst a transport of Jews who were to be sent across the River Bug and was shot as she would not survive the journey. Another poem by Celan 'Nearness of Graves' open with the lines

'Still do the southerly Bug waters know,
Mother, the wave whose blows wounded you so ?'

The Life of Celan

Celan had some awareness of how severe the threat of Nazism was. He supported the Republican cause during the Spanish Civil War , and 1938 travelled to Paris to study medicine. His biography details on the Poemhunter  website states that he travelled through Berlin during Kristallnacht in1938. Celan was studying literature and languages back in Romania by 1939. Following his parents internment Celan  was arrested and worked as a forced labourer  When the Soviets took over the country, Celan worked in a  psychiatric hospital caring for Soviet airmen in Bucharest, and had some poetry published. It was at this point he took the name Paul Celan. In 1947 he left Romania, and headed for Vienna then settled in Paris in 1948. Here Celan became a translator, a lecturer and made contact with other poets, particularly Nelly Sachs . Celan attracted a following in Germany and in 1960 was awarded the Georg Buchner Prize, one of the most prestigious German literary awards.

Arguably Celan's most famous poem is 'Deathfuge' , about concentration camp inmates being serenaded with music before being led off to execution. Its so haunting because it has the rhythm of an upbeat song.

Deathfuge  /'Todesfuge '  (first verse) 

" Black milk of daybreak, we drink it at evening
we drink it midday and morning we drink it at night
we drink and drink
we shovel a grave in the air where you won't lie too cramped
a man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes
he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden
    hair Margareta
he write it and steps out of doors and the stars are all
   sparkling he whistles his hounds to stay close
he whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the
he commands we play up for the dance ...."

translated by John Felstiner  from 'Second World War Poems', chosen by Hugh Haughton.


On 20th April 1970, Paul Celan took his own life by drowning in the Seine. Though Celan's work is so rooted in the poetry of the Holocaust, there has to be enough space given to look at his other writing. To me, it would be too tragic if his whole life and work was completely defined by the Holocaust. Found a poem -'This Evening Also'-  via Poemhunter , the translator is not credited.

This Evening Also 

more fully,
since snow fell even on this
sun-drifted, sun drenched sea,
blossoms the ice in those baskets
you carry into town.

you demand in return
for the last
rose back home
this evening also wants to be fed
out of the trickling hour.


Poemhunter entry for the poetry of Paul Celan

The Holocaust Encyclopedia  Entry for Romania

Spring Magazine on English Literature,  Trauma and its Traces in the Poetry of Paul Celan by Semanti Nandi

'Poetry of the Second World War- An International Anthology' edited by Desmond Graham ,Chato & Windus, London 1995

'Second World War  Poetry ', Chosen by Hugh Haughton, ,Faber & Faber, London 2004

Other Blogs by Michael Bully

Bleak Chesney Wold  Charles Dickens/ 'dark' Victoriana   launched February 2023

A Burnt Ship    17th century War and Literature blog

Friday 12 June 2020

'That Devil and His Claws'- The War Poems of Gavin Ewart

                                                      A Reluctant War Poet ?

                The British Army in Sicily 1943  NA4561  Courtesy of Wikipedia ( Image in Public Domain)

                                                     Its' hard for an old man,
                                                    who's seen wars
                                                    to welcome that devil
                                                     and his claws 

                                                  'Three weeks to Argentina'

The above lines were written by a World War 2 veteran  as the 1982 Falklands War began : Gavin Ewart ( 1916- 1995) was educated at Wellington College then at Cambridge Univeristy. At the age of seventeen he had a poem published in the highly esteemed literary magazine 'New Verse' . Ewart's success at writing poetry continued, at the age of twenty three his first poetry collection was published in 1939.

When war broke out, Ewart  became an officer in what he later described as a "Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment engaged on the air defence of factories and airfields in the UK " - an experience he called the most boring period of his life. Ewart  saw active service as an officer in the Royal Artillery during the North Africa Campaign in 1942, then in Italy, being posted to a mobile operations room, travelling the west coast of Italy by motorbike. Ewart returned home to England in May 1946.

Then followed a period from 1946- 1964 when Ewart had no poetry published and was not particularly active on the literary scene. The poet Peter Porter has been credited with encouraging Ewart to return to poetry, and a new collection of his work appeared in 1966. It is striking how the War seemed to have quelled his enthusiasm for writing poetry. However , four of Ewart's  poems appeared in  'I Burn for England- An anthology of the poetry of  World War II' from 1966 . In 1972  Ewart stated that
" I don't think that any 'great' poetry came out of the Second World War ( except for The Unquiet Grave which .....seems to me to fill the bill for anyone who is looking 'for the great war poem') "

To give this work  its full title -The Unquiet Grave; a Word Cycle by 'Palinurus' - was a book written  by the critic and editor  Cyril Connolly. George Orwell reviewed it in January 1945, and noted the book's "dominant tone ,a refined rather pessimistic hedonism ." Hard to conceive of The Unquiet Grave being a poem.

Several years ago I wrote an article 'No More War Poets Anymore ', which the Siegfried Sassoon Fellowship rejected for publication in their magazine 'Siegfried's Journal'. One question raised therein was who meets the definition of a 'war poet' ? Gavin Ewart wrote poetry whilst in uniform, but as we have seen , he was a young published poet before World War 2, and the subject of war only inspired a small amount of his work. Yet what is most intriguing is the range of aspects of war covered : 

Looking at the Ewart's published war poems  there looms a lighthearted feel that readers of War Poetry tend not to appreciate; 'Officers Mess' makes catty comments about the officers and their wives present, with one party guest collapsing after his beer is spiked with gin. Another 'Oxford Leave' , first published in  the anthology ' More Poems from the Forces ' (1943) , concerns  a drunken night out ending with

It takes the loves and the parties but nostalgically in the brain
And even in the Army, their memories remain
And these are real people, not the distortion of dream,
And though one might not believe it, they' re all of them 
           what they seem

Gavin Ewart would later become famous for writing love poems , some quite erotic. His collection 'Pleasures of the Flesh' 1966 was banned by W H Smiths' shops when it first appeared, and this sonnet is particularly touching.

We make mistakes, my darling, all the time,
Love, where we are not wanted, sigh alone,
Simply because our passions are not tame.
No fairy story dragons to be slain,
Our living difficulties are not so simple.
Huge effort cannot bring a love to birth,
The future offers no instructive sample
Of what's to come up a warlike earth ......

First appearing in 'Poems from the Forces -A Collection of Verse-edited with an introduction by Keidrych Rhys ,' from 1941, the poem hints that Ewart realised that being stationed in Britain would not last. And that how ever powerful love is, it can not shield one from the uncertainties generated by a world at war.

And  Ewart could write some quite striking and harrowing  lines about the actual nature of War ..such as these lines written in April 1945 whilst serving in Italy

War Dead 

With grey arm twisted over a green face
The dust of passing trucks swirls over him,
Lying by the roadside in his proper place,
For he crossed the ultimate far rim
That hides from us the valley of the dead.
He lies like used equipment thrown aside,
Of which our swift advance can take no heed.
Roses, triumphal cars- but this one died.

Once war memorials, pitiful attempt
In some vague way regretfully to atone
For some lost futures that the dead had dreamt,
Covered the land with their lamenting stone-
But in our hearts we bear a heavier load;
The bodies of the dead beside the road.

Sources Consulted 

Have consulted the ''  entry for Gavin Ewart   for biographical details.

Quotes from the second and third paragraphs are  from Gavin Ewart's self written biographical notes at the end of the anthology 'The Poetry of War 1939-1945,  New English Library, 1972

George Orwell quote from  review of 'The Unquiet Grave' , 'The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell Volume 3 'As I Please' 1943-1945.


Would liked to have gone to The Poetry Library to consult more of Gavin Ewart's work, but alas not possible at the moment. 

'Three Weeks to Argentina ' appears in the collection 'The Young Pobble's Guide to His Toes' , Hutchinson , 1985

'Sonnet' originally appeared in  'Poems from the Forces -A Collection of Verses by serving members of the Navy, Army, and Air Force, edited with an introduction by Keidrych Rhys ,' Routledge , 1941

'Oxford Leave' originally appeared in  'More Poems from the Forces -A Collection of Verses by serving members of the Navy, Army, and Air Force, edited by Keidrych Rhys ,' from 1943

'Officers Mess' , 'Oxford Leave' and 'Sonnet '  from 'I Burn for England-An anthology of the poetry of World War II', Selected and Introduced by Charles Hamblett, First Publishing,  1966.

'War Dead' appears in 'The Voice of War-Poems of The Salamander Oasis Trust' , Michael Joseph Ltd, 1995

Other Blogs by Michael Bully

Bleak Chesney Wold  Charles Dickens/ 'dark' Victoriana   launched February 2023

A Burnt Ship  17th century war and literature.

Thursday 16 April 2020

The Life and Death Orchestra

                           Songs for the Betrayed World 
                 'When the Music Stops- What happens then'?


                                                      Photo of bodies at Buchenwald-Ohrdruf taken by Colonel Park O Yingst: 
                                                      United States Holocaust Museum # 60630 in Public Domain

                      The work of The Life and Death Orchestra in commemorating the Holocaust is both  impressive and innovative  Two projects worthy of note are firstly  the CD 'Songs for the  Betrayed World' (2000) .Composed by Bill Smith & Bim Sinclair and  credited to the 'The Life & Death Orchestra Featuring Angi Mariani & Herbie Flowers', the CD  interprets both Holocaust related poetry and prose . The poets featured include Yehuda Amichai, Tadeusz Borowski, Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Hilda Schiff, Elie Wiesel, and Adam Zych. The music is quite something else, strangely alluring. Elements of cabaret, early tango, brooding  Jazz, with the occasional uplifting track such as 'Us Two ' whilst ' Never' confronts the whole horror of the Death Camps and the loss of faith in the benevolence of humanity . After a few listens to the work of The Life and Death Orchestra, strange to find oneself singing along to some of their songs. But challenging, thoughtful , and it is great to have a focus on lesser known work.

And then there is the opera 'This Way for the Gas Ladies and Gentlemen' , partly  based on Tadeusz Borowski's recollections of being a prisoner in both Dachau and Auschwitz as published in 1947 : Borowski (born 1922)  had been writing poetry whilst living underground during the German occupation, associated with the Resistance, and  was arrested on 25th February 1943. His partner Maria  Rundo, a Resistance fighter was also taken , and she was sent to Birkanau. Both survived, were re-united and married in 1946, living in Warsaw then travelling to France and Germany and back to Poland.  Borowski turned to Communism, and to writing about his experiences as a prisoner. In 1951 he died in unexplained circumstances most likely by suicide,after learning that a friend has been arrested and tortured by the new Communist regime of Poland.Some of Borowski's most remarkable work concerns the love poetry he wrote whilst in the camps.

The Sun of Auschwitz (extract)  Tadeusz Borowski

"                 I remember
your smile as elusive
as a shade of the colour of the wind,
a leaf trembling on the edge
of sun and shadow, fleeting
yes always there. So you are
for me today,in the seagreen
sky, the greenery and
the leaf-rustling wind. I feel
you in every shadow, every movement
and you put the world around me
like your arms.  I feel the world
as your body, you look into my eyes
and call me with the whole world"

(Translation that appears in 'The Auschwitz Poems' 1999)

The CD ' Songs of the Betrayed World ' interpretation  can be listened to Here

A personal favourite is Paul Celan 's 'Deathfuge' . The bitter ironic lyrics lend themselves well to a song and can be heard here  Reminds one of Brecht and Weill. Paul Celan  (1920-1970) was from a German Jewish family who were living in Romania . Celan was had to serve 18 months forced labour before escaping,  his parents both died in the camps. A poet, translator and lecturer in Paris after the War ended, Celan took his own life in 1970 after a severe bout of depression.

'Deathfuge'  (extract)

"Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening
we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night
we drink and we drink
we shovel a grave in the air there you won't feel toocramped
A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes
he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden
                                                                 hair Margeurite
he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are all
                    sparkling he whistles his hounds to come close
he whistles his Jews in rows has them a shovel a grave
                                                               in the ground
he orders us strike up and play for the dance. ....."

(Translation as appears in 'The Auschwitz Poems' ,1999)

Finally Tadeusz Rozewicz poem 'Pigtail' , already covered by this blog for  Holocaust Memorial Day also adapts well to music and The Life and Death Orchestra's version is  available here

Interview with Bill Smith via email April 12th 2020

Have you had feedback from Holocaust survivors and/or from relatives of those who died in the Holocaust about the work of the Life and Death Orchestra?

When we first performed as the Life and Death Orchestra many survivors came in the audience. We have since met many survivors and their relatives and all were grateful for what we had produced.

It is noticeable that you have used the written word of some writers who were not directly caught up in the Holocaust, such as Adrian Mitchell ( 1932-2008) and Adam Zych ( born 1945) . What would you say in response to those who claim that it is impossible to write adequately about the Camps, or war in general, unless the writer has had first hand experience?

I don't agree with that. If you believed that you would have no art. Adrian Mitchell writes from the heart and understands what happened. Adam Zych was one of the principal curators of the Auschwitz Museum and we went there to meet him. He's a great composer too.

In the performance of the Opera in 2007, there is a section about Darfur , and also references to the Katyn forest massacre. The Opera shows Tadeusz Borowski's bitter disillusionment with Communism after surviving the German Death Camps. The CD has a track about the singer Victor Jara murdered by Chilean fascist in 1973. How far do you think that connections can be made with the Holocaust and other crimes against humanity?

The Holocaust was a unique occurrence in human history but I started to try to understand the evil that humans do so I think that there are links. Borowski and Daghani were not keen on Socialist realism !!!
To quote Arnold Daghani "If impressionism is painting what you see and expressionism painting what you feel, socialist realism is painting what you are told to see and feel."

If there is one poem about the Holocaust that you think that readers should read, what would it be ?

'Again ' by Kevin Carey and the book 'Night' by Elie Wiesel.

What are the future plans for the Life and Death Orchestra? Any chance of staging 'This Way to the Gas..' again ?

We're very hopeful that we can stage the Opera again in a significant way in 2021. We are publishing the full life cycle of song so any orchestra can play the songs. We hope to do a Life and Death Orchestra in late 2021 featuring other composers as well.

Do you think that the Allies could have intervened in some way by bombing some of the major death camps or the rail links to them?

Yes I do think that the Allies could have taken the genocide much more seriously and could have adopted measures to save millions......and the world looked on and the world looked away as we sing in our opera. Mainly our leaders !
( Bill directed me to the following article from 'The Independent' of  April 18th 2017 titled 'Allied forces knew about Holocaust Two Years Before The Discovery of the Concentration Camps Secret Documents Reveal ' )

I wish to thank Bill for his time. 

 Felt appropriate to end with some lines from 'Again ' by Kevin Carey

"Since then My Lai
Kampuchea, paralysis
in the face of ethnic cleansing. If
I have to say it. If I have to say it
I will say it again
for  there is no such thing as compassion fatigue
only compassion forgetting. If I
have to say it

( From the booklet that accompanies the CD 'Songs For the Betrayed World'. Originally from Kevin Carey's poetry collection 'Klaonica' -which is Serbo-Croat for 'slaughterhouse'. )


The Life and Death Orchestra  website

The Links page on The Life and Death Orchestra website provides a massive guide to Holocaust research and commemoration organisations.

Never  as performed by The Life and Death Orchestra in 2007

Us Two  as performed by The Life and Death Orchestra in 2007

Tracks from Youtube selection of Life and Death Orchestra tracks -audio

Culture Poland website page on Tadeusz Borowski

'The Keep' archive page on Arnold Daghani  ( Artist referenced above by Bill Smith)

Recommended Reading 

'Holocaust Poetry', anthology edited by  Hilda Schiff  ,St Martin's Press, 1995

'The Auschwitz Poem' anthology edited by Adam A. Zych, Auschwitz- Birkenau State Museum 1999

Other blogs by Michael Bully 

New blog launched 3rd February 2023  BleakChesneyWold Charles Dickens/ 19th century history 

Saturday 11 April 2020

The poetry of George Macbeth and A War Quartet (1969)

                    Too young to fight, too old to forget.


                                        A  U boat shells a merchant ship which has remained afloat
                                        after being torpedoed at the Battle of the Atlantic.
                                        Public domain, courtesy of 'Wikipedia' 

George Macbeth was born in Shotts, Lanarkshire, Scotland 1932. His father was a miner. The family moved to Sheffield when George was three , where he remained until  attending New College, Oxford. Later to become a prolific poet , novelist, and poetry editor. ,Macbeth spent many years working for BBC, particularly wish such programmes as Poets Voice ( 1958- 1965) , Poetry Now  ( 1965-1976) and New Comment  (1959-1964). Associated with 'The Group', a loose alliance of poets based in London during the 1950's and 1960's whose work often tackled controversial subjects such as death, religion and war. In 1964, Macbeth was published in the 'Penguin Modern Poets' series along with Jack Clemo and Edward Lucie-Smith. He also read his work at the famous Poetry Olympics at the Albert Hall in 1965. Giving up broadcasting in 1976, Macbeth wanted to devote himself to writing. In 1992 he died from complications arising from motor-neuron disease.

I have  recently read Jeff Nuttall  ( 1933-2004 ) seminal work 'Bomb Culture'  (1968)  about the British Underground from 1956-1967. Nuttall's argument , borrowing heavily from Norman Mailer, was that the teenagers of the 1950 's were the first generation of young people who had to grow up with the knowledge that humanity could destroy itself into extinction via the use of the H-bomb. This led to a whole new sub-culture created by the young generation. Nuttall also felt that the use of nuclear weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki ensured that the older generation would be tarnished in the eyes of the young. The Bomb thus served as a complete break with the wars of the Past.

Interesting to see that George Macbeth, though only a year older than Nuttall, had a much more complex relationship with World War 2, George Macbeth's upbringing  had seen some harrowing moments. A land mine dropped in an air raid detonated and wrecked the family home whilst George and his family sheltered under the stairs. A few months later, George Macbeth's father, who was serving as an air raid warden, simply did not come home from working during an air raid, and was never seen or heard of again. Effectively joining the 'missing' of World War 2.

Macbeth's poem 'The Creed', written upon realising that had reached the age of 46 ,mentions how World War 2 would forever be a presence in his life.

"Child of that sluggish war,
As I am that will never die
There will always be bombers there
At the back of my burning head.
And my father in uniform."

In 1969, George Macbeth published his most ambitious World War 2 poetry collection 'A War Quartet' The books cites quite an extensive bibliography and Macbeth makes it clear that the four poems are the product of dedicated historical research. The four poems depicted four turning points in World War 2; the Battle of El-Alamein , the Battle of Britain, ,the Battle of the Atlantic, and the Battle of Stalingrad. (These four poems are arranged  out of historical sequence ).

On the cover of 'A War Quartet '  Macbeth advised that he wrote " For me, as for so many of my generation-too young to fight, too old to forget.The War was a formative event. and it remains an obsessive memory.To treat it as a dream-like trauma, rather than as lived experience may at worst provide a convenient filter, and at best a chance of insight."

The phrase 'a chance of insight' is intriguing. A historian's case against War Poetry having an influence on how a conflict is viewed,  is often based on the notion that a poem will not explain why the war began or ended, in other words will not disclose why someone is serving in the ranks or caught up in an air raid. A poet's defence is that poetry records or recreates  impression  of crucial  human experience. People turn to poetry in times of emotional intensity, to read out at a funeral, or wedding, or at an Remembrance event.  For example Sassoon poem to the World War 1 dead - 'Aftermath' with the refrain 'Have you forgotten Yet' ? can say more in two minutes hard hitting language than a whole book on the subject ever could.

Yet the problem is that 'A War Quartet' doesn't quite work. One sort of admires Macbeth for attempting such an ambitious project. Particularly in 1969 when the Vietnam War was of a concern to the younger generation, he seemed to be going against the grain. In the seminal biography 'Walking Wounded-The Life and Poetry of Vernon Scannell 'by Andrew Taylor, Macbeth  is portrayed as being hesitant to write about World War 2 due to the fact that he was not a combatant. Vernon Scannell, born ten years earlier in 1922, served in the North Africa campaign and the Normandy invasion, is shown to have encouraged George Macbeth to have written poetry about World War 2.

Firstly the Battle of El Alamein , which opens 'A War Quartet ' was part of the Desert War : This was the one campaign within  World War 2 that was so covered by poets, many of them who actually fought there. Keith Douglas,Hamish Henderson, Edwin Morgan, Sorley Maclean, G S Fraser, George Campbell Hay. Great initiatives took also took  place with organisations such as The Oasis Trust to encourage those in uniform to write whilst they served in North Africa.. George Macbeth's take on the Desert War doesn't seem add anything to what had been written before.

"So when, days later,we
Looked back from Libya, saw the flowing line
of turret after turret, fortress like
As if a city stirred, such awkward tears
Throttled us, that we blinked in strange grit, steamed
Inside the famous metal, touched it felt
Victory tangible.
             And those we killed,
Or captured after so much turmoil, where was their star bound?"

Next section 'Autumn Victory' about a Battle of Britain shows an improvement, featuring bomber crews preparing for take off.

                    "In a blur
of green and reaching leaves, hitting the wind,
All  plunged against their boundary, split and pulled,
Easing the joy-stick to their mid-riffs, wings
Gather of others' muscles, to quick fans
Cloud-ramming, jubilant
                        In a surge of air
The sky flowered with fighters."

The main character, the pilot, visits London where he manages to find a woman serving as a WAAF for quick sex which is interrupted by an air raid. The pilot then wanders, stunned in the aftermath of the bombing

The next sequence is under the sea. Featuring a U boat commander who has to surrender to the Allies. Again the notion of the war just being some of perverse dream is raised . It manages to convey the claustrophobia of life on a U-boat

"             A sort of morbid fear,
Acute-sensed, looked over, swelled my body.
Became an instrument, as if the sea
Entered my blood, mixed with it.
                                           In strange salts
Her monsters watched
                      In my narrow bunk, awake
Under the blue alarm light, I would like
Listening to each miniature noise-pit flick
of the gyro compass, an irregular click
Like someone sharpening a pencil, control-noise
Lifted or fallen.."

The final and shortest section of 'A War Quartet' concerns Stalingrad , and is written from a German point of view. Somehow just doesn't quite flow. In the introduction to 'A War Quartet, Macbeth cites the success of James Schevill's lyrical sequence 'The Stalingrad Elegies' from 1964 , based on the letters of German soldiers, to show that a poet does not need to be an eye witness to the events that they are writing about.

                                           " After
the fire-war from the air, the snow-war from
The ground

                Settle in cellars, bombs
Mines and grenades expended, we came down to guns
             Each had heroes, men
Who never wasted fire
                                    The was the month
Of the sniper.
                      We had a crack one under tin
A hundred years off.
                     In six days, he ruled
The area we could walk in, pinned our lives
With quadrant fire
                 Then, in a fit of risk
Lifting a mitten on a stick, he lost
Full Secrecy....."


George Macbeth's Collected Poems '1958-1982 'has been out of print for many years.

'A War Quartet ', George Macbeth, was originally published by Macmillan in 1969, and reprinted twice in 1970, then seems to have fallen out of print. Both 'Collected Poems' and 'A War Quartet ' were available on Amazon Co UK last time I checked.

Tribute to George Macbeth from  King Edward VII school Sheffield

Feature on George Macbeth from High Windows Press

Further work by Michael Bully

Bleak Chesney Wold   Charles Dickens / 'dark' Victoriana

13th century history blog

A Burnt Ship  17th century war and literature blog

Thursday 5 March 2020

Capel-le-Ferne by Greg Harper

                                           World War 2 featured in song lyrics

                                        Statue of seated pilot at the Battle of Britain Memorial Capel-le-Ferne, Kent UK
                                        Shared by Detraymond via Wikpedia Creative Commons Licence

I have been aiming  to write about how World War 2 has been covered  in contemporary song lyrics. There is of course a debate whether or not song lyrics can be defined as 'poetry' and I am not going to attempt to resolve this.

Anyhow. one track I have recently discovered is 'Capel-Le- Ferne' by Sussex singer songwriter, Greg Harper from an album titled 'Well Spun Lies' , and is about a former Battle of Britain pilot reminiscing.Greg has kindly agreed to allow me to reproduce the lyrics in full.


I remember that summer a long time ago
The waiting and the weather wondering if they’d show
Flying high over white cliffs over fields and sand
Looking down and protecting this green pleasant land

Now they ask was it exciting well you must’ve been so proud
A swooping and a soaring way up in the clouds
Mister how many did you get how many did you kill
But me I think of lost friends I’m thinking of them still

But if you ask me I’ll tell you
It felt just like dancing
Dancing on air
A dance for survival
A dance of despair
A life on the edge
Living life to the full
For death or glory
Oh glory so cruel

So I stand on the white cliffs at Capel-le-Ferne
There’s a band and a fly past how the years have flown
As I stand in the crowd there I feel so alone
Well the few they get fewer and soon we’ll be gone

But if you ask me I’ll tell you
It felt just like dancing
Dancing on air
A dance for survival
A dance of despair
A life on the edge
Living life to the full
For death or glory
Oh glory so cruel

Works well both as a poem and a song. I asked Greg via email for further background to the song:

"At the beginning of July 2010 I visited the Battle Of Britain memorial site at Capel-le-Ferne, Kent. It was just a couple of days before the annual ceremony, which is held to mark and remember the start of the battle. As I stood there on the cliff edge looking towards France, I tried to imagine what the remaining members of the Few might be thinking each time they attended the event over the years. What thoughts did they have as the dignitaries spoke, as the band played and the flypast went over their heads? My song Capel-le-Ferne is what I imagine they might have been thinking, on that day, and maybe every other day for the preceding 70 years. Now in March 2020, 10 more years on, only two of them remain "

To hear the track on line go to Greg Harper Music Audio webpage  and look for the 'Well Spun Lies' album. 'Well Spun Lies' also features another superb track relating to World War 2,  'November Sky,' about the bombing of Coventry on 14th November 1940.


Greg Harper's website

Youtube video of the track 'Capel-Le-Feme'

Other blogs by Michael Bully

Bleak Chesney Wold Charles Dickens/ 'dark' Victoriana launched February 2023 

13th century history

A Burnt Ship  ( Poetry and other writing relating to 17th century warfare)

Sunday 26 January 2020

Holocaust Memorial Day 2020

                 I felt that something had ended for Mankind

“I felt that something had forever ended for me and for mankind,” Różewicz wrote, “something that neither religion nor science nor art had succeeded in protecting"

                                          Hungarian Jews arriving at Auschwitz 1944
                                                        In public domain ,courtesy of Wikipedia 

In 1949, the German critic Theodor Adorno wrote the famous line ' After Auschwitz it is barbaric to write poetry' . The notion that the catastrophic impact of World War 2 was simply beyond poetry had been considered in such poems as Dylan Thomas' 'Refusal to mourn the death of a child by fire in London'.

"The majesty and burning of the child's death
  I shall not murder
  The mankind of her going with a grave truth
  Nor blaspheme down the stations of her breath
  With any further
  Elegy of Innocence and Youth. "

It's almost as if Dylan Thomas thought  that trying to write poetry about the death of a child in an air raid could not be done, in fact would debase the tragedy. Adorno went one step further using the term 'barbaric' . Yet Polish poet Tadeuzs Rozewicz (1921- 2014)  , who lived through the German occupation of Poland took an opposite view -"What I have produced is poetry for the horror stricken . For those abandoned to butchery . For survivors. " The view seems to be that writing holocaust poetry is somehow an act of human empathy, trying to acknowledge the suffering of those who perished or survived, carrying their trauma with them..  German Jewish poet Nelly Sachs, who managed to escape to Sweden and survive the War seemed driven to write about the Holocaust as if she had no other option  . Her famous poem 'The Chorus of the Rescued'   has the line " The worms of fear still feed upon us", as in being rescued she was committed to feelings of 'survivors guilt'  and grief for all those she knew who  failed to escape. ; more on Nelly Sachs can be found on a previous post.

To return to Rozewicz  it is worth noting that besides being a poet, he was also a playwright, translator of Hungarian poetry, screenwriter and novelist. During World War 2 he served in the Polish Home Army.  In his poem 'The survivor' ,Rozewicz  hinted that after the holocaust, language had lost the ability to make value judgement "Virtue and crime weigh the same" .  Yet from accounts of people who have visited Auschwitz , seeing possessions of prisoners can generate strong response. Can be a pile of shoes, a pair of glasses, knowing that their owners were systematically murdered. Rozewicz seemed to find such feelings in his poem 'Pigtail'

"When all the women in the transport
had their heads shaved
four workmen with brooms made of birch twigs
swept up
and gathered up the hair

Behind clean glass
the stiff hair lies
of those suffocated in gas chambers
there are pins and side combs
in this hair

The hair is not shot through with light
is not parted by the breeze
is not touched by any hand or rain or lips

In huge chests
clouds of dry hair
of those suffocated
and a faded plait
a pigtail with a ribbon
pulled at school
by naughty boys "

The Museum, Auschwitz, 1948
Translated by Adam Czerniawski 

Seems that Rozewicz found the language to write about Auschwitz but thought out his time as a poet could never write about beauty.


'Pigtail' is taken from 'Second World War Poems' chosen by Hugh Naughton, Faber and Faber 2004

Opening Quote by Rozewicz from review of his collected works Sobbing Superpower

Quote by Adorno taken from the introduction to  'Holocaust Poetry ' anthology edited by Hilda Schiff

Culture Poland website   English language page on Rozewicz is essential reading

Pigtails Poem read in English   with animation  on You Tube uploaded 2009  by 'Dawid'.


 Currently working on Bleak Chesney Wold  Charles Dickens/ 'dark' Victoriana bog launched February 2023