Saturday, 24 January 2009

Keith Douglas

Keith Douglas (1920-1944) would have been 89 today. He is often called the best English poet of the Second World War, but even that is to do him a disservice. He belongs among the greatest Anglophone poets of his century. His influence has not yet been properly acknowledged, but a hint of his importance to later poets can be taken from a letter Sylvia Plath wrote to her mother in June 1962: 'Ted did a beautiful [BBC radio] program on a marvelous young British poet, Keith Douglas, killed in the last war... Both of us mourn this poet immensely and feel he would have been like a lovely big brother to us.' For Hughes's considerable indebtedness to Douglas, see my essay here.

Douglas was more than a major poet. He also wrote Alamein to Zem Zem, the best prose memoir of combat that I have read. In poetry and prose, Douglas lingers over images of war's nastiness and squalor, by which I don't mean the terrible hardships of war such as Owen writes about. His truths go beyond even Owen's range: Douglas tells us what it is like to kill, or to stumble across the rotting corpse of a dead enemy soldier, or to watch a wild dog digging up a fresh corpse, or to loot through the 'bran-tub' of a battlefied. 'Shall I get drunk or cut myself a piece of cake', 'Cairo Jag' opens; as one anthology primly observes, cutting cake is a euphemism for 'procuring a woman'. And the poem ends unforgettably:

But by a day’s travelling you reach a new world
the vegetation is of iron
dead tanks, gun barrels split like celery
the metal brambles have no flowers or berries
and there are all sorts of manure, you can imagine
the dead themselves, their boots, clothes and possessions
clinging to the ground, a man with no head
has a packet of chocolate and a souvenir of Tripoli.

You'd struggle to find any Owenite pity in that. The pairing of nouns in the last line and a half --- man/head, packet/chocolate, souvenir/Tripoli ---makes the tone comedic, even frivolous, rather than sombre. Anyway, what good is chocolate to a man with no head?

1 comment:

  1. Appropriately, the 51st Highlanders marched into Tripoli the day before Douglas' 23rd birthday.