Missing in action
Keith Douglas: the complete poems
Edited by Desmond Graham Faber & Faber, 175pp, £12.99
When Keith Douglas was killed in action, a few days after the first Normandy landings, he was just 24. He left behind the slenderest body of work - around a hundred original poems and a smattering of translations from Horace and Rimbaud. He had barely started to emerge as the distinctive poetic figure he would have become, although he had made a good start. His precocious talent was nurtured at Christ's Hospital (Coleridge's alma mater); at Oxford, he was tutored by Edmund Blunden, and he received encouragement (though not the hoped-for offer of publication) from T S Eliot. Yet his influence on the poetry of those who came after him has been immense, growing steadily since the posthumous publication of his collected poems in 1951.
Readers who approach Douglas looking for a latter-day Wilfred Owen will be greatly disappointed (although Ted Hughes's introduction to this reissued edition provides an intriguing comparison between the two poets). Those who went into the Second World War did so already disabused of the jingoistic insouciance that, 25 years before, had infected their fathers and uncles and inflected their verse. It simply was not necessary to revisit "Dulce et Decorum Est", and Douglas did not do so. His aesthetic was spare and sober: "I don't know if you have come across the word bullshit," he wrote to his friend J C Hall in 1943. "It symbolises what I think must be got rid of - the mass of irrelevances, 'attitudes', 'approaches', propaganda, ivory towers, etc, that stands between us and our problems and what we have to do about them. To write on the themes which have been concerning me lately in lyrical and abstract forms would be immense bullshitting."
An aversion to bullshit is evident even in Douglas's staggeringly mature, tightly worked early lyrics. Indeed, it is tempting to think that, had there been no war, his poetic development would not have been much different. But the war gave him a subject, or rather it gave to his subject - which was the eternal tension between the individual and the world, the duty to confront reality while maintaining a self-sufficient detachment, a defining context.
Fully half his work was produced while in the army, on active service in north Africa (he saw action at El Alamein with the Sherwood Rangers), in hospital in Palestine, or in England, while training for the European campaign. But it would not be quite right to refer to this work as "war poems". "I never tried to write about war (that is, battles and things)," he commented. They are poems written at war and often about war; but, while the heat of battle is rarely more than "a day's travelling" away, neither is the sense of another kind of life continuing, whether drinking in a bar in Alexandria or wandering the streets of Jerusalem at night. Even in extremis, war always refers back to somewhere else. In "Cairo Jag", we discover "a man with no head/has a packet of chocolate and a souvenir of Tripoli". In "How to Kill", the poet reflects that the difference between life and death is as fine as the wires in the sights of his tank's gun: "Now in the dial of my glass appears/the soldier who is going to die./He smiles and moves about in ways/his mother knows, habits of his./The wires touch his face: I cry/NOW."
The mechanisation of life and death, and the supreme indifference of a hostile, material world to both, runs throughout these poems.
In his letter to Hall, Douglas continues: "My rhythms, which you find enervated, are carefully chosen to enable the poems to be read as significant speech: I see no reason to be either musical or sonorous about things at present." And it is in this formal sense that Douglas has been most influential. Although Anglophone poetry took off after the war in ways Douglas could not have foreseen - with the arrival of the Beats, for example - his disdain for literary fashion (and for the neo-Romanticism of some of his contemporaries) is consonant with the harder style of the 1950s and 1960s. "Stars", for instance, a poem written at Oxford, prefigures some of Thom Gunn; elsewhere, one hears echoes of Philip Larkin's conversational style.
These are not poems in which to take comfort. Nowhere is this more apparent than in "Simplify Me When I'm Dead", written in 1941, shortly before Douglas left England for north Africa: "As the processes of earth/strip off the colour and the skin/take the brown hair and the blue eye/and leave me simpler than at birth/when hairless I came howling in/as the moon came in the cold sky./Of my skeleton perhaps/so stripped, a learned man will say/'He was of such a type and intelligence', no more."