Monday, August 17, 2015

'Vergissmeinnicht' by Keith Douglas

It is often said that there were no great poets of the Second World War - unlike the First with outstanding figures such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen highly acknowledged, among others. This isn't at all accurate, though is a view that has persisted. There was, for example, the Welsh poet Alun Lewis, who fought in the South-East Asian campaign and wrote some truly moving poetry through the war years, including 'Goodbye', a heartbreaking piece to his wife before he returned to the front where, it seems, he died, perhaps, by his own hand, though the exact circumstances remain unclear. The poem ends:

Yet when all’s done you’ll keep the emerald
I placed upon your finger in the street;
And I will keep the patches that you sewed
On my old battledress tonight, my sweet. 


It is also often forgotten that T.S.Eliot's Four Quartets was written during the war years and while oblique, it is a clear statement about how civilization rested in the balance at this time, though such a large-scale work deserves far more than a few lines of summary.

For me though, it is the work of Keith Douglas that stands above all others as an expression of the daily reality of 'soldiering'. Douglas fought in the North African campaign and wrote one of the finest war memoirs in Alameim to Zem Zem. On leave in early 1944, and aware a 'big push' was coming, Douglas desperately tried to finalise his poetic works, then made another (desperate) search to try find a publisher in the limited time available to him. During this spell, he had an intensely strong presentiment that he would not outlive the year. In haste, he found an enthusiastic figure in the form of an Indian Prince who took on the task of publishing him, though sadly this proved a disastrous choice (though he had no other) with his work effectively falling out of of print, almost immediately, and with no acknowledgement of its importance in the post-war years. It took several figures, including Ted Hughes, to rediscover it in the 1960s and revive to small interest. It was subsequently republished by Faber but still remains somewhat under-represented and less know than it should be. A Complete Poems is now in print, thankfully.

Douglas's presentiment proved sadly true. He survived the D-Day Landings - and all the fortune that entailed - but was killed by a mortar shell while on a reconnaissance mission in a field in Normandy three days later. He was twenty-four.

Here is a poem from his time in North Africa. Staggering to imagine, he was 23 when he wrote it. First a fine reading by Tom O'Bedlam of the piece, followed by the text. It's an extraordinary, beautifully tender and 'unblinking' poem about the nature of war. Vergissmeinnicht, translates as "Forget-me-not" from the German.


Three weeks gone and the combatants gone
returning over the nightmare ground
we found the place again, and found
the soldier sprawling in the sun.

The frowning barrel of his gun
overshadowing. As we came on
that day, he hit my tank with one
like the entry of a demon.

Look. Here in the gunpit spoil
the dishonoured picture of his girl
who has put: Steffi. Vergissmeinnicht.
in a copybook gothic script.

We see him almost with content,
abased, and seeming to have paid
and mocked at by his own equipment
that's hard and good when he's decayed.

But she would weep to see today
how on his skin the swart flies move;
the dust upon the paper eye
and the burst stomach like a cave.

For here the lover and killer are mingled
who had one body and one heart.
And death who had the soldier singled
has done the lover mortal hurt.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Levine, Berryman, Sexton - from the archives

Some rare and priceless footage from the archives about the Boston poetry scene in the late 1950s. Philips Levine first talks about Lowell and Berryman, then some Berryman and Sexton reading. Believe me, not to be missed. I just love the freewheeling (non-media trained) nature of these poets, along with their profound commitment to their art.

So, firstly, the wonderful Philip Levine on studying with Lowell and Berryman at the University of Iowa.

This one is a clip is of John Berryman during his famous stay in Dublin in 1967.

Anne Sexton at home. If this was an arts programme today, most of this wonderful interview would've been cut. Something very carefree and honest about this.

And to end, Berryman reading  'Dreamsong 14', again in Dublin in 1967. He's clearly drunk as was his want. So: 'There sat down,once, a thing on Henry's heart' heavy...

Great that this stuff has resurfaced. Poets, and TV, were different then!