Thursday, 22 September 2016

Henry Treece - 'Air Raid'

                                   Henry Treece -'Air Raid' 

   Graham Sutherland : bomb damaged buildings and twisted girders set against smoke and an evening sky.
 © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 893)

Was recently reading an anthology 'More Poems from the Forces By Serving Members Of the Navy, Army, and Air Force' edited by Keidrich Rhys from 1943 ' This Volume is dedicated to the U.S.S.R. 
Said anthology has some intriguing work such as Peter Hellings ( Aircraftman 2, R.A.F. ) 

(For the writers and artists of Europe who have been forced to leave their own countries )

" From distant lands
They have come, 
Across centuries held in the grip of murderous hands,
Leaving the bitter mirth
And the mock heroics of the drum
In the clear air
Of this town
A painter of men and women is caught in the flare
Of the great grief of the earth
Like workers breaking stone
For the blood and the bone 
Have returned
Life African fetishes or the burial of a nation's sun,
And under the threat of death
Pictures and books have been burned ......."

One aspect of World War 1 poetry that is not always very endearing is the indifference the acclaimed War Poets seem to demonstrate  towards the plight of  civilians- even refugees are rarely included in the 'pity of war' . The above poem-from World War 2- at least recognises displacement of artists .

Henry Treece, 22nd December 1911- 10th June 1966 , another RAF serving officer, depicted the unbearable tension of being caught in an air raid in a poem that also found its way into the above volume. So far have not established whether Treece himself flew on any bombing missions. His entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography isn't clear on this point - stating that he '"joined the volunteer reserve of the RAF in 1941, attaining the rank of flight lieutenant but serving mainly as an intelligence officer". Already an accomplished and published poet before the War,  and co-founder of the New Apocalypse movement,  Treece jointly edited a collection with John Pudney titled 'Air Force Poetry' , published in 1944.


" Here then a testament, drawn from my heart's black well
Like a bucket of blood;
It is still night and the steel birds hover
Over my paltry house on the hill,
Hover and hover. O will they fly over,
Away to the sea and let me lie still?
It is no food
This carrion hunts for; the hand on the lever
Knows no flesh's hunger; the pitiable kill
Is child at the body, or lover to lover
Counting the hours to a kindly future
In a house that can be over or under the hill
If this hell will but pass, and death cover his feature.

Have they gone then, away, and left body still breathing,
The clock on the wall?
The fire crackles gently, the door swings ajar,
The stairs with the ghost of a footstep are creaking.
Away at the coast the waiting guns fire,
At the shadow of death and his terrible speaking,
They turn again,
Re-seeking a prey, or retreating in fear,
Their heartless black hears a black litany croaking..
But there's only one hymn that we wait to hear,
And that is the Raider Past siren wailing....
It's morning again and the baby is teething,
There's a crack an inch wide in the drawing room ceiling. " 

One of the most surprising poems about air raids must be Dylan Thomas'  'Failure To Mourn the Death by Fire, of a Child ' , suggesting that the death of a child is a subject that is simply beyond words. Dylan Thomas was in London from 1940- 1944, taking the second from last verse. 

" 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 the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth." 

Other major poems dealing with Air Raids include ' Air Raid Across The Bay At Plymouth'  by Stephen Spender and 'Elegy on a City'  by Julian Symons.

Overall the 'War in the Air 'poetry has not considered to be of great significance : Perhaps the most famous example of this genre would be W.B. Yeats'  'An Irish Airman Foresees His Death' from 1919 with its staggering opening lines;

"I know that I shall meet my fate
 Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate
Those that I guard I do not love ".....

I use the term 'perhaps' quite deliberately. W.B.Yeats generally opposed the writing of war poetry , and was famously dismissive of Wilfred Owen's work, but its hard to avoid detaching 'An Irish Airman....' from the category of 'War Poetry' even though the poem embodies individual detachment from colossal events.

There will be more on Henry Treece on this blog in the future, particularly his involvement in the Transformation anthologies, that appeared annually between 1943-1947, combining poetry, prose, drama and art.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Vernon Scannell -The neglected Prose and The Walking Wounded

                                                  Vernon Scanell

                                        Allied soldiers in North Africa campaign 1942, unable to trace the original source 

                            Vernon Scannell deserves the title of 'War Poet'  (1922- 2007) . Saw active service in North Africa and in the D Day campaign. He was what was euphemistically called a 'serial absconder' , i.e a deserter, who served time in a military prison, and spent several years on the run when World War 2.  His achievement including writing some superb poetry, and compelling auto-biography. 

Scannell also made a vital contribution to keeping interest in World War 2 poetry alive in his 1976 book ' Not Without Glory- The Poets of the Second World War' , though declined to give his own work a mention. 

His 1987 account of his war service- ' Argument of Kings' deserves as much as attention as Siegfried Sassoon's 'Memoirs of an Infantry Officer' , or Robert Graves ' Goodbye To All That'. 

This passage of 'Argument of Kings' , concerning his experience of the 1944 Normandy campaign, is a vital snapshot of being under enemy fire. 

" The fury of artillery is a cold mechanical fury but its intent is personal.When you are under fire you are its sole target. All of that shrieking, whining venom is directed at you and at no one else. You hunch in your hole in the ground, reduce yourself into as small a thing as you can become, and your harden your muscles in a pitiful attempt at defying the jagged, burning teeth of the shrapnel. Involuntarily you curl up into the foetal position except that your hands go down to protect your genitalia..."

'Argument of Kings ' supplants Scannell's earlier autobiography  'The Tiger and the Rose'  (1971) in offering more candid explanations of his desertion at Wadi Akarat, Tunisia,on   6th=7th April 1942  whilst serving with the 51st Highland Divisioan - using his Army name Private John Bain ;

"I just remember all those dead Seaforths lying out there, and our blokes going round, settling on them like fucking flies, taking their watches and wallets and Christ-knows-what and I just got up and walked. It was like a dream. Why didn't anybody stop me? I just floated down that fucking hill like a ghost or the invisible man." 

Scannell was soon caught and sentenced to three years imprisonment in a military jail. He kept silent about the incident and sentence until 1987. As well as the publication of  ' Argument of Kings' , Vernon Scannell was a guest on Radio 4 's Desert Island Discs, and disclosed his experiences. 

In 2013 two books were published which have added to a evaluation  of Scannell : 'Walking Wounded -The Life & Poetry of Vernon Scannell' by James Andrews Taylor, is a thorough examination of Scannell and goes into great detail about his war trauma which would now be called PTSD . Also his violent father, indifferent mother, his extensive drinking bouts which sometimes led to bar fights.....Scannell had spells as a professional boxer. Also Scannell's violence towards women he was involved with were depicted in some detail.  The second was 'Deserter -The Last Untold Story of the Second World War ' by Charles Glass, which drew on Scannell's prose and poetry quite sympathetically. 

                       'Walking Wounded '

                         " ....And then they came, the walking wounded
                         Straggling the road like convicts loosely chained.
                         Dragging at ankles exhaustion and despair.
                        Their heads were weighted down by last night's lead
                         And eyes still drank the dark. They trailed the night
                        Along the morning road. Some limped on sticks.
                        A few had turbaned heads, the dirty cloth
                        Brown-badged with blood. A humble brotherhood,
                        No one was suffering from a lethal hurt,
                        They were not magnified by noble wounds,
                        There was no splendour in that company.
                        And yet, remembering after eighteen years,
                        In the heart's throat a sour sadness stirs
                        Imagination pauses and return
                        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 bears arms again. "

Have reproduced the second half of the poem , first published in 1965 in an anthology of the name. The only one of Scannell's poems to make it into the Salamander Trust's 1995 anthology to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the VE day- 'The Voice of War -Poems of the Second World War' . 

I doubt that the poem needs much analysis. The 'Walking Wounded' are those who are deemed to have wounds that they can either recover from . They haven't become 'heroic corpses' and given 'decorated sleep' nor does time make the wounds better.  

The importance of Vernon Scannell's work  is that we need to be reminded again of the 'Pity of War'. to take a phrase from Wilfred Owen , when looking at World War 2. Understandably there's a huge body of opinion to maintain that the conflict was a 'just war'. There has not been the equivalent of 'disenchantment' like that there has been  against World War 1. It took decades for Scannell to be open about the scenes he saw in World War 2, whilst the writers and poets of World War 1 had a much stronger cultural and political impetus to depict their experiences ten years later.  A final word from Vernon Scannell from his collection 'The Winter Man' 

                         'Six Reasons for Drinking' 

                      "I drink to forget
                       But he remembers everything , the lot;
                       What hell war was,
                       Betrayal, lost
                       Causes Best Forgot ".

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Introduction -World War 2 Poetry

                        World War 2 Poets- Were there any ? 

                                        "Landing Artillery at Rendova Island, Solomons Group," by Aaron Bohrod.
                                                        (Army Art Collection) World  War II  -Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons  

                                     " The real always fades into the meaning
                                      From cone to thread some grave perception drives
                                      The twisted failures into vast fulfilments
                                      After the holocaust of shells and knives,
                                      The victory, the treaty, the betrayal,
                                      The supersesession of a million lives
                                      The hawk sees something stir among the trenches,
                                      The field mouse hears the sigh of what survives. "

                                      Alun Lewis ( 2nd Lieutenant , South Wales Borderers )
                                      Killed in an accident whilst on active service, March 1944
                                     'The Assault Convoy'- final verse .
                                     ' Selected Poems of Alun Lewis, - Jeremy Hooker and Gweno Lewis'

            'The War Poetry Review - Journal of the War Poets Association 2014--2015 ' features some excellent articles. One of the highlights is a feature 'War Poetry: A Conversation with Michael Longley, Andrew Motion and Jon Stallworthy -Edited by Santanu Das '.

Doctor Das raised the question :
"What then is 'war poetry' ? When does a poem become a 'war poem'? Are there particular pressures in writing war poetry' ? "

Michael Longley responded "First of all, it has to be a good poem. Tens, hundreds, thousands of poems were written in 1914-18, and most of them are ghastly  ...."

Jon Stallworthy's answer was " Yes, more than 2,000 poets- most of them were hopeless. I think we make too much of some of the minor poets of the First World War because they were fine courageous people. But not all their poems are as good. Many are less good than those of the underrated poets of the Second World War. "

First I was dismayed  when I read this. Their view seemed snooty and elitist . The concept of what makes a 'good' poem is incredibly loaded. I had been busy constructing a website and blog for the 'Great War at Sea Poetry' . Who would be qualified to judge what is a 'good ' poem in respect of  World War 1 at Sea? Is it the most literary ? Or a poem that confines to various technical forms ? A poem that reinforces  our preconceived ideas about the ethics of War? Perhaps a poem that seems to offer us authentic impressions of what it must have been like to be under fire?

Also wouldn't it be dishonest to weed out work written by such poets as 'Klaxon' and Captain , later Admiral Hopwood ,  because their work would not meet with approval today on the basis of their patriotism and 'triumphalism' , and seemingly ignoring the horror of war? They were examples of what was circulating and popular at the time.

But after a time I came round to the point of view expressed in the article, albeit from a different angle. Not because World War 1 poetry is so 'hopeless'  or 'ghastly' , but simply because the more World War 2 poetry I read, the more impressive it is. Offering both literary quality and an insight to the dilemma of how an individuals deals with something to massive, ferocious and impersonal as World War 2.

Michael Bully
3rd September 2016

Great War at Sea Poetry website

Great War at Sea Poetry Blog

War Poets Association

A Letter To The Moon

     love dances under mountains
    where never the waves fall

    her arms are columns of memory
     o spell this wilful liberty
    for sailors clad in weed

   how can she ever be proud?

   tell these tears like beads
   for airmen bridling the sky

  their faces are broken cloud

  and bind up the branches of slaughter
  for soldiers in shackles of water

  whose scythe flows over history ?

  whole armies march under seas'
 crumpled up horizon

 my eyes are drowned in dice

 a whirlwind strikes     owls freeze
swords fall out of the sun

 "who'll carves the rose from the ice?"

 in a helmet plumed with fountains
the hero shouts in the hall "

J.F. Hendry , (Cadet , Intelligence Corps)
'More Poems from the Forces
 A Collection of Verses By Serving Members of the Navy, Army and Air Force 
Edited by Keidrych Rhys  , published 1943