Monday, 4 February 2019

Wladyslaw Szlengel - Poet of the Warsaw Ghetto

                      Poem: A Small  Station called Treblinka 

Warsaw Ghetto: Zelaznej Bramy (Iron Gate) Square , ghetto wall and Lubomirski palace

Walyslaw Szlengel was born in Warsaw, between 1911-1914, the exact date is disputed. He is most known for using poetry to chronicle the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

Writing poetry at an early age, Szlengel was already published in literary journals in 1930. It was not long before he was also writing songs and directing cabaret performances, solely in Polish. Some sources maintain that his father, who died in 1934, was a theatre director. Szlengel spent a few months towards the end of 1939 until the early part of 1940 in the town of Bialystock, which was in the Soviet occupied part of Poland but returned to Walicow Street, Warsaw, which  in November 1940 was incorporated into the notorious Warsaw Ghetto.

The Warsaw Ghetto was the area where all Jews of the City were confined behind barbed wire fences and high walls as from November 1940. Jews from other parts of Poland and from Germany, along with Roma people were moved there with as many as 400,000 people being held there . Overcrowded accommodation, wretched conditions, with only an entitlement to starvation rations, as many as ten per cent of the population perished. Random killings by the Germans, public executions of those who fell foul of regulations, the sight of  inhabitants expiring from illness or starvation,  increased the terror and sense of despair.  On 22nd July 1942,  deportations by train began-supposedly on the grounds of 'resettlement; in the east - but the actual destination was the death camp at Treblinka, around fifty miles north-east of Warsaw. As many as 6,000 people could be moved out in a day.

 Szlegnel carried on writing, and performing, managing to secure  regular employment at the  coffeehouse Cafe Sztuka in Lesno Street 2 .  Vladyzslaw Szpilman accompanied various artists on piano including the popular singer Wiera Gran.  Cafe Sztuka is portrayed in Ronan Polanski's 2002 film about Szpillman- 'The Pianist' . The weekly Cabaret night 'Life Journal' was organised by Szelngel and where possible satire was encouraged at the expense of the authorities. It seems that Szlengel was using both Polish and Yiddish by this point. However in Polanski's film, the subversive nature of the cabaret at Cafe Sztuka is missed, and one gets an impression of Jews who had money enjoying themselves in the Cafe, being supposedly  oblivious to the suffering of the wider community. Cafe Sztuka was closed, most likely between 19th-22nd of July 1942.

 Wladyslaw Szlengel and his wife were forced to work in a brush factory, but carried on organising literary evenings, and presenting further poetry   The Ghetto population was gradually reducing due to deportation though the Nazis were prepared to leave 'productive' Jews working. In October 1942 Jewish Resistance groups merged together to form the organisation ZOB. Word reached them that the trains were in fact going to Treblinka , a death camp.

 Having the Warsaw Ghetto largely full of younger and physically stronger people, who had no illusions of the dangers they were in, stimulated a number of skirmishes with Germans and those collaborating with them as from January 1943. When the Germans arrived to organise a final mass deportation resistance culminated in the magnificent  Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that begun on 19th April 1943 and lasted until 10th May 1943. Wladyslaw Szlengel and his wife were shot by Germans when the house they were hiding in was stormed on 8th May 1943.

Though the Uprising was facing impossible odds, it is generally regarded as both an act of great  heroism and defiance but also for inspiring the 1944 Warsaw Rising, showing that the Germans were by no means invincible and could be confronted.

I am pleased to be able to reproduce the  Waldysaw Szlengel  poem 'A Small Station Called Trebelinka', reproduced here by kind permission of Halina Birenbaum     from the website which features a selection of his work in different languages on the site  Szlengel webpage 

What makes the poem quite haunting is that it is written in the present tense, and though the station itself seems unremarkable, one can never purchase a return ticket. It is not known how widely circulated the poem was, but certainly resistance workers with in the Ghetto were issuing proclamations desperately trying to warn the remaining populace of the dangers they were in.

                                                 Władysław Szlengel
                                                'A Small Station Called Treblinka'

                                               On the line between Tluszcz and Warsaw
                                               From the railway station Warsaw - East
                                               You get out of the station
                                               and travel straight…
                                              The journey lasts
                                              sometimes 5 hours and 45 minutes more
                                              and sometimes the same journey lasts
                                              a whole life until your death …
                                              And the station is very small
                                              three fir trees grow there
                                              and a regular signboard saying
                                              here is the small station of Treblinka...
                                              here is the small station of Treblinka...
                                              And not even a cashier
                                              gone is the cargo man
                                             and for a million zloty
                                             you will not get a return ticket
                                             And nobody waits for you in the station
                                             and nobody waves a handkerchief towards you
                                             only silence hung there in the air
                                             to welcome you in the blind wilderness.
                                            And silent are the three fir trees
                                            and silent is the black board
                                            because here is the small station of Treblinka...
                                            here is the small station of Treblinka...
                                            And only a commercial board
                                            stands still:
                                           "Cook only by gas"

* Translated from Polish to Hebrew by Halina Birenbaum and from Hebrew to English by AdaHoltzman. Yehuda Poliker, son of an Auschwitz Holocaust survivor from Thessalonika, wrote music to the poem and it is featured  on his album: "Ashes and Dust"

On 2nd August 1943, a rebellion broke out at Treblinka itself, when a number of prisoners raided the armoury and organised a mass breakout. The Germans began to start dismantling Treblinka in the Autumn of 1943, and it had virtually fallen into disuse by the time the Red Army took the district in July 1944. Another reason to read the poem to ensure that the horror of  Treblinka is remembered, along with Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the mass breakout at Treblinka itself.


 Wladyslaw Slegel- The Ghetto Poet

Culture.PL -Polish Cultural website

The Manhatten Review

Background information on the Warsaw Ghetto by one of the Uprising's leading participants, Marek Edelman can be found here

General News 

Companion blogs

Great War at Sea Poetry Blog

A Burnt Ship    Stuart era War and Literature

MeWe War Poetry Group   New War Poetry discussion group being set up by Michael Bully

Thursday, 17 January 2019

Sean Jennett Missing Poet from Faber &Faber

                                                Sean Jennett

                                        'Shelter Experiments' John Piper 1943 
                                        IWM ART LD 3859  in public domain courtesy of the IWM/
                                       Wikipedia Commons 

     I was recently reminded of the  'Earth Voices Whispering- An anthology of Irish War Poetry 1914-1945' edited by Gerald Dawes, published in 2008. It was intriguing to find poems by Sean Jennett included, who doesn't seem to have been included in any anthologies since 'Poetry of the Forties-introduced and edited by Robin Skelton' (1968) .

Also managed to locate Jennett's collection  'Always Adam' from 1943, from the National Poetry Library, at the Southbank Centre, which contains 51 poems, written from 1935 onward.

 Sean Jennett, who worked for Faber & Faber' as a typographer during World war 2, who has been added to the ranks of 1940's 'neglected' poets. His Wikipedia entry consists of three sentences , maintaining  that he was born in 1912- and died in 1981, wrote 'The 'Making of Books ' in 1951 and went on to write travel books. The British Library online catalogue confirms this, with 'The Making of Boooks' seeing several editions.


                            We talked of war with light and easy lips,
                            jesting upon our action, this or that,
                            if it came to the last, and while we chattered
                            we drank our coffee in delicious sips
                            and watched the soft, contented cafe cat.

                            But then the woman in the wicker chair
                            cried Havoc! and suddenly I was afire
                            because I saw, under the skirts of light,
                            the corpses of our laughter and delight
                            smashed and dismembered, bloodily bespattered
                            across the red carpet....

                                                           And still the solemn stare
                           of all the sleepy cats in Oxfordshire

One of the most interesting pre-war  poems about World War 2 - if such a genre is possible. The strange reflection of an unreal sedate world detached from the reality of war that is about to strike them. The motif-'Cry havoc and unleash the dogs of war'  from Shakespeare's 'Julius Caesar', was repeated in Beverley Nichols book 'Cry Havoc' from 1934, advocating Pacifism, a stance Nichols was later to reject.

                                          XLII. AUTUMN 1940

                           The days were glorious- we remember that
                           because the clear September of that year
                           was good for bombers. We remember it
                           because the sky screamed and we were mere
                           items of wreckage in the ruined day,
                           the half- face or the limbless or the dead.
                           the convenient basis for the hero's fame,
                           the rescued in the hospital bed.

                           I was the man in the collapsing tower.
                           I was the body in the flooded shelter.
                           I was the mad objector shifting stone,
                          the conscious saint arising in his hour.
                          I was the bomber, the breaker and the welder
                          I was the shattered and the exulting son.

Strange understatement -September 7th 1940 is of course accepted as the first day of the London Blitz.

Best wishes for 2019 to all Blog visitors from round the world .  Have written an article on British World War 2 poetry for 'Everyone's War' , the magazine published by the Second World War Experience Centre.

If anyone has joined MeWe.Com   I have just started a MeWe War Poetry group

I am working on a further post for the companion blog to this one A Burnt Ship -devoted to 17th century war & literature.

And hoping to write a longer article on Timothy Corsellis for

Sunday, 9 December 2018

Timothy Corsellis

                                                Timothy John Manley  Corsellis 
                                 ( 1921-1941)

                                  Timothy Corsellis in 1938, in the Public Domain via Wikipedia 
                          Was reminded of  the work of Timothy Corsellis after finding  two Youtube clips ( linked below) of the actor Timothy Bentinck reading two Corsellis poems ' Dawn after the Raid' and 'Engine Failure'.  Also learnt that Timothy - most known as  David Archer from BBC Radio 4's drama 'The Archers'- was named after Timothy Corsellis, and his father,Henry Bentinck  was friends with Corsellis.

Born on  21st January 1921, Corsellis' father was a barrister-Douglas Corsellis - who lost an arm fighting in the Gallipoli campaign, and died in a flying accident in 1930. Attending Walmer School in Kent, Timothy Corsellis  went on to study at Winchester College.

It is extremely difficult to offer much of an opinion concerning the work of someone who died at the age of twenty. All one can say is that his work that remains shows a great range of topics. The aforementioned  'Engine Failure' concerns RAF training, 'After the Raid'  tackles the impact of an air raid on London. And Tim Bentinck's delivery is superb.  'There Is A Meeting Place in Heaven' is Christian themed. Corsellis also wrote a poem titled 'Stephen Spender' some two weeks before he died, in which he offers his impression of meeting Spender, most probably at the offices of 'Horizon' magazine in 1941.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Timothy Corsellis declined to go to university when leaving Winchester College in 1938. He started work at Wandsworth Town Hall , and registered as a Conscientious Objector in April 1939.  After the fall of Dunkirk, Corsellis asked to be removed from the list of Conscientious Objectors, and took up training with the RAF . However, Corsellis cited a conscientious objection to bombing civilian and felt unable to take up a post within Bomber Command. He received an honourable discharge from the RAF in early 1941 and worked was an Air Raid warden in London, seeing some of the most horrific sights of the Blitz.

In August 1941, Corellis joined the  as 2nd officer Air Transport Auxiliary, which effectively meant flying planes from factories to various RAF bases. On 10th October 1941 , flying from Luton to Carlisle, Coresllis plane accidentally crashed  near Dumfries, and he died instantly.

Have shamelessly drawn on an  article 'From Winchester to War: Timothy Corsellis ( 1921-1941) ,  which originally appeared on the War Poets Association website : Informed that this article was written by Helen Goethals. 
The Winchester College at War website has a different timeline- linked below. 
The Young Poets Network presents the Timothy Corsellis prize for poetry written  by those aged between 18-25 who are appraising World War 2 poets.  Of course any initiative to introduce World War 2 poetry is much welcomed,and the latest new (2018) can be found here

The poem 'What I Never Saw'  looks at the tedium of war in a most  anti-heroic fashion, showing has a large part of war can be 'waiting for something to happen'.

                       What I Never Saw (extract) 

                         What I never saw
                         Were the weary hours of waiting while the
                                                              sun rose and set,
                         The everlasting eye turned upwards to the sky,
                         Watching the weather which said,
                          Thou shalt not fly'.

                         We sat together as we sat at peace
                         Bound by no ideal of service
                         But by a common interest in pornography and
                                             a desire to outdrink one another

                            War was remote;
                          There was a little trouble in Abyssinia;
                          Some of us came from Kenya and said
                         'Why I was on the spot all the while
                          And the Italians sprayed the roadsides with
                                                                   mustard gas'

                           Theirs were the stories of war.

                           Then came the queuing, the recurrent line of
                                                                    pungent men
                           Dressed in dirt with mud eating their trouser legs,
                           The collar that is cleaner than the shirt
                           And the inevitable adjectives.

                           The papers ran out early today,
                           There was no butter for the bread at breakfast,
                           Nobody calls us at dawn
                            We never strain or sweat,
                           Nor do they notice when we come in late.

                            When I was civilian I hoped high,
                            Dreamt my future cartwheels in the sky'
                            Almost forgot to arm myself
                             Against the boredom and the inefficiency
                            The petty injustice and the everlasting grudges.
                             The sacrifice is greater than I expected

Of course there is the irony of the last line 'The sacrifice is greater than I expected' when considering Corsellis' death in a military accident.

                             "I" Always "I"

                            I passively acquiesce in the avalanche of death
                            Under my breath I lose the sincere feeling
                            That while hands are dealing in sin the soul is free.
                            No harm to me, justifying the material deed
                           With the new born seed of a higher emotion,
                           A sudden devotion to a greater thing than imperial expansion

                         "I" always "I" in this turmoil of souls;
                         God above holds millions of lives in his arms
                          Yet the word harm means only one thing to this mind
                         Help me to find an idea successive to soliptic I!
                         Let them all die; one day a bullet inscribed with
                         Shall find the same written upon my heart with shame.

                        Why in the middle of complete conflagration
                         Involving a nation, must the solipsist idea
                        Rise? To conquer fear ? To hide from a wrangling soul
                       The extinction of the whole? Give me part of God's
                       From the centre of unrest make me realise
                       That no man dies; not the souls that once spoke from
                             behind gristle eyes.
                      From 'More Poems From The Forces' edited by Kheidrych Rhys, 1941

Have added this poem simply because it's so curious. It as if Corsellis is writing a philosophy essay, trying to make sense of a being young and caught up in war. Trying to find some greater meaning wrestling with solipsism- 'the self is all that can be known to exist' and as Christian Corellis is trying to reconcile his faith with whilst caught up in a 'complete conflagration'.  I don't think that the poem has great literary merit- but as a section of war memoir it is fascinating.

Thank you to Patrick Villa of the War Poets Association for pointing out a couple of errors in the original post- hopefully now corrected. 


Winchester College Tribute                  

Timothy Bentinck  reads  Dawn After The Raid    on Youtube

Timothy Bentinck reads   Engine Failure              on Youtube

Timothy Corsellis Prize   page maintained by the National Poetry Society /Young Poets Network

Commonwealth Wargraves Commission  entry for Timothy Corsellis

War Poets Association  page on Timothy Corsellis

Further poems found by Corsellis  Interesting blog post about further poems and notebooks by Timothy Corsellis that were featured on BBC Antiques Roadshow in 2012.

A Burnt Ship blog    Companion blog to this one. Poetry & prose related to the Stuart era

World War Poetry website  Further writings by Michael Bully


A biography titled 'The Unassuming Sky, The Life and Poetry of Timothy Corsellis' by Helen Goethals was published in 2012.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

John Pudney 'For Johnny' and other 'Songs'

                       John Sleigh Pudney 1909- 1977


                    Bristol Beaufighter Mark IF of No. 252 Squadron RAF at Chivenor, Devon.
                              CH17305 , Imperial War Museum, photo taken by Mr. B J H Daventry

                                   John Pudney's poem 'For Johnny' was one of the most famous 'War in the Air' World War 2 poems. The writer was a former journalist,  who served as a squadron leader in RAF intelligence during the War. The poem was written in 1941 on the back of an envelope during an air raid alert in London, then later submitted to News Chronicle , who published the poem. 'For Johnny' also appeared in Pudney's collection of war poems titled 'Dispersal Point' ( from 1942, reprinted the same year, and again in 1943).

John Pudney had already published poetry as from 1933.  He also edited the collection 'Air Force Poetry' (1944) with Henry Treece and had seven poems included in the anthology 'More Poems From The Forces' edited by Keidrych Rhys , (1944).  He also wrote short stories about his life in the RAF under the names of PERSPEX

Famous for its simplicity, and its message that the best tribute to be paid to a deceased pilot is to take care of his children.  And for being read at the end of the film ' The Way to the Stars'   by Michael Redgrave .

                                        For Johnny

                                         Do not despair
                                         For Johnny-head-in-air,
                                         He sleeps as sound
                                         As Johnny under ground.

                                        Fetch out no shroud
                                        For Johnny-in-the-cloud,
                                        And keep your tears
                                        for him in after years.

                                        Better by far
                                        For Johnny-in-the cloud;
                                       To keep you head,
                                       And see his children fed.

In 1976, a collection of 23 World War 2 written by John Pudney was published , all taken from his 1957 'Collected Works', and not surprisingly, was titled 'For Johnny'. In the introduction, Pudney explained that there was no particular 'Johnny' in mind, which added to the poem's appeal as readers could pick an RAF casualty they knew,  and personalise the poem.

John Pudney's work has been included in subsequent anthologies such as 'The Terrible Rain'  and 'I Burn for England' . Not meeting with universal approval . Fellow poet Vernon Scannell  ( who served in the army during the War ) was quite catty about Pudney  "John Pudney's facile verses were popular during the war but their shallow sentimentality would be unlikely to find admirers now " ( 'Not Without Glory -poets of the second world war'-1976).

It is easy to  agree with Scannell if we are looking for literary merit.  Pudney's work is comforting in the way a well chosen  'with sympathy ' card can be. Or occasionally his poetry  veers to being too  clever such as  the line "Timelessly in time with time"- from the poem 'Air Gunner' below,  which could be a Yes song lyric from the early 1970's.  But John Pudney did make a significant contribution to World War 2 poetry, and deserves a mention, and can't just be dismissed in one line.

And there's a massive discussion to be had. World War 2 poetry can be appraised as literature, but also a source of writing that feeds a cultural need. 'For Johnny' might be sentimental but it has worked as war poetry if so many people can find it relevant to the whole trauma of  loss during war. I had also wondered if Vernon Scannell, who had traumatic experiences due to fighting in the North African and Normandy campaigns, and been jailed as a deserter, resented John Pudney possible lack of direct combat experience ? Scannell's 'Not Without Glory' does not draw on the writer's own war experience or his own poetry.

Two further poems from the collection  'For Johnny' . As far as I can tell they were both from around 1941 or 1942 .  'Missing' doesn't need much further comment, but draws on a similar theme to 'For Johnny' - the poem. 'Air Gunner' was more literary, about a youth finding his way into this role.


                                 Less said the better.
                                 The bill unpaid, the dead letter,
                                 No roses at the end,
                                 Of Smith my friend

                                  Last words don't matter
                                  And there are none to flatter
                                  Words will not fill the post
                                  Of  Smith, the ghost.

                                  For Smith, our brother,
                                  Only son of loving mother,
                                  The ocean lifted, stirred
                                  Leaving no word.

                                          Air Gunner

                                   The eye behind this gun made peace
                                   With a boy's eye with doubted, trembled.
                                   Guileless in the mocking light
                                   Of frontiers where death assembled.

                                   Peace was as single as the dawn,
                                   Flew straightly as the birds migrating,
                                   Timelessly in time with time,
                                   Purposeful, uncalculating

                                   So boyish doubt was put away:
                                   The man's eye and boy's were one.
                                   Mockery and death retreat
                                   Before the eye behind the gun.

In the publisher's blurb for 'Dispersal Point' third edition 1942, John Pudney was quoted as saying ;
"I hope these songs will be taken as a simple commentary on the Service and on war occasions generally. They are  only songs -not written in tranquillity, but in odd places and corners never far from the sound of aircraft. "
This is perhaps the final word to be said on his war poetry.


John Pudney entry from Science Fiction Encyclopedia

Don't forget the companion blog to this one A Burnt Ship   17th century related war poetry and prose.

Have just published an article on  RAF poet Thomas Rahilley Hodgson
on the World War Poetry website

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Anna Akhmatova's Poetry / Al Stewart track 'Roads To Moscow'

                  Anna Akhmatova ( Anna Akhmatova Gorenko)         
Update : I am preparing a longer piece about Anna Akhmatova with the kind assistance of Lucy London from the 'Female Poets of the First World  War  Blog' which will be featured on the website    Michael Bully, 22nd September 2018     

Further update said webarticle now ready to view at Anna Akmatova -joint piece with Lucy London                          

                        1922 portrait of Anna Akhmatova by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin ( courtesy of Wikipedia) 

                                     "At the burial of an epoch
                                      no psalm is heard at the tomb
                                      soon nettles and thistles                                       
                                      will decorate the spot 
                                     The only busy hands are those 
                                      of the grave-diggers .Faster! Faster!
                                      and it's quiet, Lord, so quiet
                                      you can hear time passing."
                                      Anna Akhtmatova poem,  'In 1940' 
Many basic details of concerning the life of Anna Akhmatova are not agreed upon. Some sources state that Anna Akhmatova was born in St. Petersburg in 1888, others offer Boshoy Fontain, near Odessa, Ukraine in 1889.  Associated with  the Acemist poetry movement centred round St .Petersburg, Anna Akmatova married fellow poet Nikolay Gumilyov in 1910- though divorced in 1918. Their son, Lev Gumilyov was born in 1912, and collections of Anna's work appeared in 1912 and 1914.  

Though met with official disapproval during the Bolshevik regime, further collections of Anna Akhmatova's work appeared in 1917, and two in 1921. However, Nikolay Gumilyov was executed in 1921 for alleged taking part in an anti-Bolshevik conspiracy.  Anna Akhmatov found that her poetry was no longer permitted to be published, and she survived as a translator and literary critic ,becoming a specialist on the work of Pushkin. Lev Gumilyov served three sentences under Stalin's regime. Anna Akhmatov's close friend, the fellow poet Osip Mandelshtam, was hauled away by police in front of her , and imprisoned.  Two future husbands would also be jailed- in fact her third husband, the art historian Nikolai Punin died in a camp in 1934,

When World War 2 began, Russia had already  signed the Nazi-Soviet pact with Germany. Anna Akhmatov's poetry was allowed to be published again in 1940, but a full collection would not appear until 1961- one source I consulted, stated 1965. One of her 1940 poems - ' To The Londoners,' was a written dedication to those who were facing the London Blitz. 

Following the launching of Operation Barbarossa ,Stalin permitted Anna Akhmatov to broadcast live to the women of Leningrad as the blockade of the city began in September 1941, but she departed the city in the Spring of 1942 for Tashkent, Uzbekistan. One account has Anna flying out of the city , clutching the manuscript  for   Shostakovich's 7th Symphony - The Leningrad Symphony'. Whilst absent from Leningrad, Anna Akhmatov read poetry to the wounded troops. In June 1944 Anna Akhmatov returned to the city. During this time her poetry began to be published again, and in 1945 she performed her work to an audience of some 3,000 people at an event in Moscow, and received a standing ovation.  

However in 1946, the Soviet authorities clamped down on her work. An extensive collection of Anna Akhmatov's poetry being prepared for publication was banned. A high standing member of the Politburo, Anrei Zhadanov, notoriously denounced her work for being "utterly individualistic" and referred to Anna Akhmatov as " a nun and a whore, who combines harlotry with prayer."

Following her son Lev Gumilyov 's third arrest and imprisonment in 1949, Anna destroyed a substantial amount of her own work including a play that she had written during her stay at Tashent. 

However, following 'The Thaw' after Stalin's death, Anna Akhmatov was allowed to have her work published again with 22 of her poems appearing in an official anthology of Soviet poems in 1958.  In 1959 her membership to the Soviet Union of Writers was restored, and Anna was permitted to embark on a foreign travel . Following more of her work being published, Anna Akhmatova was permitted to travel abroad again in 1965.
On 5th March 1966 Anna Akhmatov died after a short illness. 

Anna Akhmatova seemed to have lost so many people close to her during the Revolution, the Purges, World War 2 that she reached a state evoked in her poem 'The Return' from 1944  

"The souls of my dears have all flown to the stars
Thank God there's no one left for me to lose"

A cycle of 16 short poems 'The Winds of War  appeared in 'Second World War Poems-chosen by Hugh Haughton ' ( Faber & Faber, 2004). Here is number three in the series.


And people's colourful daily round
Suddenly changed drastically
But this was not a city sound,
Not one heard in the villages.
It resembled a distant peal of thunder
As closely as one brother resembles another,
But in thunder there's the moisture,
Of cool cloud towers
And the yearning of the meadows-
For the news of joyous showers,
But this was like scorching heat, dry,
And we didn't want to believe
The rumour we heard-because of
How it grew and multiplied,
Because of how indifferently
It brought death to my child

September 1941

Yet there were notes of victory within the poetry cycle. 

 15 JANUARY  27, 1944

And on starless January night,
Amazed at its fantastic fate,
Returned from the bottomless depths of death,
Leningrad salutes itself


A clean wind rocks the firs'
Clean snow covers the ground.
No longer hearing the tread of the enemy,
It rests, my land 

February 1945 


10 Anna Akhmatova Poems to Read when Life, Love, and Politics Are Hard


The Muse of Keening  Short film about the life of work  including as interview with step-daughter.

Poem-'Requiem'       Anna Akhmatova's most famous poem read out with some minimal electronic backing. Superb.

Contemporary  St Petersburg website about Anna Akhmatova (English language)

 St. entry for Anna Akhmatova Museum

Recommended Books

'Anna Akhmatova Poems' Selected and Translated by Lyn Coffin -Introduction by Joseph Brodsky'
 published by 'Norton & Company' London/New York 1983

'Anna Akhmatova Selected Poems-Selected, Translated and Introduced by Stanley Kuntiz with Max Hayward'
published by Collins Harvill, London 1989

Al Stewart song 'Roads To Moscow'  

Folk rock singer-songwriter Al Stewart has excelled in writing countless songs with a historical theme.  My favourite is 'Road To Moscow'  from the 1973 album 'Past, Present and Future'. Unfortunately not in a position to  reproduce the lyrics so can only quote from them

'Roads to Moscow' tells the story of a Red Army soldier serving at the time of Operation Barbarossa. The first verses describe the Soviets retreating deep into Russia, then in turn drive the Germans back. The soldier begins to dream of his return home-but becomes a prisoner of war, but escapes after a day. He successfully  rejoins the Red Army. But only to be moved from the ranks and ordered to a  Soviet labour camp for allowing himself to be taken prisoner. The song ends with him gazing through the wire, realising that Winter was approaching.

"It's cold and damp in the transit camp
 The air is still and solemn
The pale sun of October whispers
The snow will soon be coming
And I wonder when I will be home again
And the morning answers never. "

The debate whether song lyrics about war can be counted as 'war poetry' seems hard to resolve. But if it is accepted that lyrics can be considered as war poetry, then 'Roads to Moscow' is a strong contender.


Al Stewart explanation  of 'Roads to Moscow'

'Roads to Moscow' (song)   from 'Youtube'

Finally Please remember that there is a companion blog to this one called A Burnt Ship  about Stuart era War Poetry and literature. Also features contemporary fiction about the 17th century . 

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

Nelly Sachs ( 1891- 1970) 'Chorus of the Rescued '

Nelly Sachs   - 'The Worms of Fear  Still Feed Upon Us'

I wish to thank the 'Swedish History in English' Facebook group for their help with this feature

Nelly Sachs in 1966 at the time of being joint winner of the Nobel prize for Literature

                     German Jewish poet Nelly Sachs (1891- 1971) managed to escape from Berlin  to Sweden in 1940.  A fellow poet, Gudrun Harlan, managed to contact the Swedish novelist  Selma Lagerholf to assist : Nelly Sachs had been a long standing reader of Selam Lagherholf's work and they had corresponded for some years, and Nelly Sachs later maintained that her own love for Sweden developed from Selma Lagerholf's writing- particularly the novel 'Gosta Berling' (1891) .  Prince Eugene of Sweden also helped in acquiring the necessary documentation.

 Nelly Sachs  had already been interrogated a number of times by the Gestapo, and one source suggests that she had actually received notification to report for deportation. However on 16th May 1940, Nelly Sachs and her mother took one of the last flights from Germany  to Sweden, where they remained for the rest of their lives.

It was only after World War 2 that Nelly's poetry received international acclaim : She wrote a great deal about the Holocaust. Her most famous poems include Chimneys, Numbers. Some are just too stark and painful to read . They evoke the systematic brutality of the Holocaust as much it could be possible in the written word.

There is an element of trauma for having escaped, the 'guilt of the rescued' . Many of Nelly Sachs'  relatives did not survive the camp. A number of friends such as fellow poet  Getrud Kolmar were also murdered in the holocaust. Nelly befriended the Romanian poet Paul Celan, who survived a Nazi Labour camp, and later settled in Paris.

There is a brittle and fragile element to her poetry- 'the rescued' can not separate themselves from the horror of those who perished:

Chorus of the Rescued

We, the rescued,
From whose hollow bones death had began to whittle his flutes,
And on whose sinews he had already stroked his bow-
Our bodies continues to lament
With their mutilated music.
We, the rescued,
The worms of fear still feed on us.
Our constellation is buried in dust.
We, the rescued,
Beg you;
Show us your sun,but gradually.
Lead us from star to star, step by step.
Be gentle when you teach us to live again.
Lest the song of a bird,
Or a pail being filled at the well,
Let our badly sealed burst forth again
and carry us away-
We beg you;
Do not show us an angry dog, not yet-
It could be, it could be
That we will dissolve into dust-
Dissolve into dust, before your eyes ,
For what binds our fabric together?
We whose breath vacated us,
Whose soul fled to Him out of that midnight
Long before our bodies were rescued
Into the ark of the moment.
We, the rescued,
We, press your hand
We look into your eye-
But all that binds us together now is leave-taking,
the leave-taking in the dust
Binds together with you.

- Nelly Sachs, translated by Michael Hamburger 

Taken from the anthology 'Poetry of the Second World War- An International Anthology ' .edited by Desmond Graham 1995.

Several collections of her work were printed during Nelly Sachs' lifetime.  Her New York Times obituary suggested that her collection  ' Flight and Metamorphosis'  (1959) received particular acclaim.
A play 'Eli' from 1950- set in Nazi Occupied Poland- was read out on West German radio, and performed on stage in 1962. In 1965 Nelly Sachs won the Peace Prize of German Publishers ( Friedenspreis des Deutcshen Buchandels ) And  in 1966 she became the joint winner of the Nobel Prize of Literature along with Israeli writer Schmuel Yosef Agnon.

Paul Celan took his own life in 1970, three weeks before Nelly Sachs died in a Stockholm hospital on 12th May 1970. She was 78.

Links of interest 

Nelly Sachs'    Nobel Prize Speech 1966

New York Times obituary  to Nelly Sachs

Jewish Women's Archive   Article on Nelly Sachs

Nelly Sachs Collection on line

Home page has English language biography feature. The digitalised documents are largely in German and Swedish.

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