Monday, 28 May 2018

Sidney Keyes 'A Poet of Great Promise' part one

Sidney Keyes ( 27th May 1922- 29th April 1943)

This an extract from a longer piece being prepared on Sidney Keyes. Been offered further material from the South East History Board forum after declaring my interest in Keyes' work.  This piece is more focused on Sidney Keyes connection to War poetry. A follow up article will look at Keyes in relation to the 'New Apocalypse' and other poetry from the 1940's along with the longest of his war poems 'The Foreign Gate' 

                                        Image: British Army in Tunisia NA880 courtesy of IWM & Wiki Commons 

                Lieutenant Sidney Arthur Kilworth Keyes was killed in action near Sidi Abdulla,  Tunisia, on 29th April 1943. He was serving  with the 1st Battalion of the Queen's Own Royal West Kent Regiment and was a month away from his 21st birthday : Keyes had seen active service for two weeks. and was posthumously awarded the Hawthornden Prize in 1943 for his second collection of poetry, 'The Cruel Solstice' which is dedicated to fellow Oxford University poet John Heath Stubbs.  He was buried at Massicault Cemetery, Tunisia.

There is fair amount of biography on line , including a recent feature on the War Poets Association website about Sidney Keyes. He came from a middle class background, brought up largely by his grandfather. Educated at Tonbridge School then Queens College, Oxford.  I have listed further sources for anyone interested in researching Sidney Keyes' life below,

I have a second edition copy of 'The Cruel Solstice' from 1944. The huge range of poetic themes is impressive:  Titles such as 'William Yates in Limbo, 'St. John the Baptist', 'William Byrd', 'Don Juan', 'Orestes and the Furies', 'The Kestrels', abound- perhaps one in ten poems are related to the War.

Certainly the poet Vernon Scannell in his much neglected work on World War 2 poetry- 'Not Without Glory '  (1976) stressed that Keyes  largely seemed to be avoiding the idea of poetry being some sort of war reportage and was strangely detached from World events.  It is possible to go further, Keyes is almost retreating into his inner world of nature and mysticism . The two examples  copied below, 'War Poet' and 'Europe's Prisoners' show Keyes breaking out of his own landscape .

Keyes also wrote a poem titled 'Dunbar, 1650'  ( written June 1942) ....referring to Cromwell's victory against a Scottish army of double his size on 3rd September 1650.  And 'The Foreign Gate' , an epic poem that covers several printed pages, which also deals with warfare ( written February- March 1942).

Keyes most famous poem is 'War Poet' from March 1942. One that has been regularly added to World War 2 anthologies.

War Poet

" I am the man who looked for peace and found
My own eyes barbed,
I am the man who groped for words and found
An arrow in my hand.
I am the builder whose firm walls surround
A slipping land.
When I grow sick or mad
Mock me not nor chain me:
When I reach for the wind
Cast me not down:
Though my face is a burnt book
And a wasted town."

It seemed quite non-specific, but then was written months before Keyes saw military action.

One of my favourite war related poems from 'The Cruel Solstice'  is 'Europe's Prisoners' . Just sums up what was happening in 1930's/ 1940's Europe.

The last two lines seem to suggest that  Keyes hopes that those in prison will break out to seek a devastating retribution on the world that has caged them.

"Until at last the courage they have learned
Shall burst the walls and overturned the world"

 Keyes was writing in 1941, and would have no concept of how horrific the labour and concentration camp conditions would be.  The poem is an interesting snapshot of how a British poet imagines the plight of the huge numbers of people in captivity, and yearns for them to stage a romantic rebellion. 

Europe's Prisoners

" Never a day, never a day passes
But I remember then, their stoneblind faces
Beaten by arclights, their eyes turned inward
Seeking an answer and their passage homeward:

For being citizens of time, they never
Would learn the body's nationality.
Tortured for years now, they refuse to sever
Spirit from flesh or accept our callow century.

Not without hope, but lacking present solace,
The preacher know the feels of nails and grace,
The singer snores; the orator's facile hands
are fixed in a gesture no one understands.

Others escaped, yet paid for their betrayal;
Even the politicians with their stale
Visions and cheap flirtation with the past
Will not die any easier at the last.

The ones who took to garrets and consumption
In foreign cities, found a deep dungeon
Than any Dachau. Free but still confined.
The human lack of pity split their mind.

Whatever days, whatever season pass,
The prisoners must start in pain's white face;
Until at last the courage they have learned
Shall burst the walls and overturn the world."

21st May 1941 

A final word by Private James Lucas :

"During my Army Service I had a number of Platoon commanders. Keyes was the best of them. He was the quieter, determined, non-blustering type of leadership. His manners impeccable and he did not talk down to us, nor was he condescending to us- so many officers were. He was a gallant, Christian gentleman who sacrificed himself for the men under his command. "

Memoir included in Sidney Keyes 'Collected Poems' , Carcanet , 2002.

In fact  Sidney Keyes' work is best explored via  'Collected Poems' , Carcanet, 2002. Essentially the last update of the original  1944 collected works edited by Michael Meyer , an Oxford contemporary. Biographical material has been added including two accounts of soldiers who fought with Keyes.

War Poets Association  page on Sidney Keyes

Tonbridge School  page on Sidney Keyes

Please check my other blog featuring Stuart era War & Literature  A Burnt Ship

Sunday, 29 April 2018

T R Hodgson

       Thomas Rahilley Hodgson 1915 -1941 'This Life This Death' 

                                         'Blue Runway Study' by Alexander Johnson
                                         Used with kind permission of the artist.

Thomas   Rahilley   Hodgson,  Pilot Officer RAF Volunteer Reserve, was killed in action on 17th May 1941 aged 25. He was survived by his parents and his wife. Hodgson is  listed on the Runnymede memorial , which commemorate around 20,000 individuals who served with the RAF during World War 2 and had no known grave.

In 1943, a collection  of his poems titled ' This Life This Death' was published by Routledge, London. Hodgson had been writing poetry since 1932, and only seven out of the fifty-five poems could strictly be called 'war poems'.

It is not known how many of his poems were published in his life time but Hodgson's poetry has been included in two crucial World War 2 poetry anthologies,'The Terrible Rain ' and  'I Burn For England' .

Robert  Graves has been quoted as stating "No war poetry can be expected from the Royal Air Force"
( source Daniel Swift -'Bomber County') .

Certainly seems that World War 2 War in the Air poetry is even less known that its land and sea counterparts.  One exception is Timothy Corsellis  (1921- 1941 ), who served in the RAF for only a
matter of months in 1941, produced a couple of highly reclaimed poems such as 'Dawn After The Raid' and 'News Reel of Embarkation .' His work was anthologised in eleven anthologies of war poetry. In 2014 the 'Timothy Corsellis Prize' was established by the Poetry Society, in conjunction with the War Poets Association and the Imperial War Museum, to encourage young people aged 14- 25 to write poetry about World II.

Two poems worthy of note are 'Searchlights Over Berlin' , written before the Allies saturation bombing of Germany started. Hodgson indicated being part of the War effort couldn't be explained -"And he is rising mad who searches here for meaning."

Searchlights Over Berlin

"Their silver scalpels probe the wound of night
seeking out doom, a death
to death. And now
no highflung phrase, no braggart
gesture of the hand or jaw
can still the double fear. Who fly
ten thousand feet about in the shrill dark
are linked with those who cover
under earth to hear, vague as sea
upon an island wind. the murmur
which is, for some
eternity, for some
an ending,
And he is rising mad who searches here
for meaning."

Whilst 'It is Death Now We Look Upon " , commemorates a similar lack of meaning. Death is the ultimate negation of life, there is no value placed on dying whilst fighting in a war .

Both poems are bleak, and without a clever subtext, and not a single word is wasted. There's probably little to be gained in trying to analyse them. There is a strange sense of loss of self, when faced by the sheer enormity of the War.

It is Death Now We Look Upon. 

murmurous the river-
which is a memory -

it is death now we look upon.

hands have no meaning
eyes no longer speak
kisses call
sorrow like a dream
out of the dusk remembering

it is death now we look upon .

call home the old,
and let him lie
lapped in their shaken
yet unshaken,faith

call home tomorrow's quick
the beautiful, the glad,
the unrelenting
Call home the children
we have made
but shall we not know.

Cancel all tears,
and let all love
grow cold,
that pain we may ease,

it is death now we look upon."


More artwork from Alexander Johnson :  Alexander has been working on a World War 2 related art projects  and is also inspired by his father' s service as a pilot during the War.

A Burnt Ship   A blog about Stuart era poetry and prose related to warfare . Companion blog to this one.

Timothy Corsellis   Page maintained on the 'Discover War Poets' website.


Copies of 'This Life This Death' can still be found on Amazon UK but the book has been out of print for decades now.

'The Terrible Rain :   War Poets 1939- 1945 , an anthology selected and arranged by Brian Gardner'  , Magnum Books, 1977

'I Burn for England . An Anthology of the poetry of World War II Selected and Introduced by Charles Hamblett, Leslie Frewin, 1966

'Bomber County The Lost Airman of World War 2 ' , Daniel Swift, Hamish Hamilton , 2010.

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

More on Johannes Bobrowski -Gertrud Kolmar

     Johannes Bobrowski's tribute to Gertud Kolmar ( Gertrud Kathe Chodziesner )         

                                   Plaque dedicated to Gertud Kolmar, in Berlin, in 1993 courtesy Wikipedia

                            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.

 'Gerturd Kolmar'

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

1940 -Poetry of the Darkest Hour

                                            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.  "

-Bertolt Brecht

                                               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.

                                                      Headland 1940 

"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."

-Lilian Bowes-Lyon

   ( 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' .

Spring 1940 

"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."

Prudence Macdonald

( 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'.

                           (extract) Newgale Sands 1940 

"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......"

-Joan Barton

(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 ' haunting.

Notes on the Poets.

Bertolt Brecht

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

Prudence Macdonald 

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

Lynette Roberts -'Cross and Uncrossed'

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
           everywhere escaping

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.”

Further Reading 

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

We are at War - Forty Years Backward March

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

Anniversary Fatigue

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, 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. 

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.
Just curious.

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."

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Johannes Bobrowski


                                      Johannes Bobrowski - 'My dark has already come '
                                                  Image courtesy of Wikipedia-German troops crossing Society border 1941

                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,
                                      We heard
                                      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.

                                       Kaunas 1941

                                                                         " Noisily
                                      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)