Thursday, 4 October 2012

National Poetry Day: 'Stars' by Keith Douglas

Milky Way photo by jurvetson. Used under Creative Commons license

Today is National Poetry Day in the UK, and this year's theme is 'Stars'. (It also happens to be a year to the day since I started writing this blog, but I think that may be a subject for another entry.)

Landlocked and lightbound in London, I don't see as much of the stars as I used to growing up in a small city/large town in Canada. When I am back in Canada and I see Orion (generally, the only constellation I really recognise...) and its attendant stars, a pang strikes me. I remember travelling to Australia and New Zealand and being confounded by how different the night sky was. Everything was in the wrong place (actually, I'd noticed that even on the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico) and I could see the Southern Cross, which really was thrilling. In recent years, I have been stunned by the wash of stars across the sky in the Sahara and in the Western Desert in Australia. They were like sand and they made the sky white.

Stars can signify so many things. They tend to lead me to thoughts of the smallness of human beings and the overwhelming vastness of the universe; questions of faith and eternity. They can also instill a feeling of loneliness, or give life to striving and attainment. It is very much dependent on the context, like so many things.

I have chosen Keith Douglas's poem 'Stars' for this National Poetry Day. I noticed that the National Poetry Day website had featured this poem in one of its suggested lesson plans for teachers and students, but I had been thinking of writing about it for some time and this is the perfect moment.

STARS (Keith Douglas)

At first I thought that this might be a poem reflecting Douglas's experiences during World War II in the deserts of North Africa, but it is dated 1939 and he did not go to the Middle East until 1941. It seems that the hills he describes in this poem are English and that he was a university student when he wrote it. The poem is dedicated to Antoinette, with whom he was at Oxford and who was either a girlfriend or someone he pursued (I'm not quite sure about this.)

Poets often seem like prophets (or perhaps they are, at least occasionally) but this seems especially the case with Douglas. I could be projecting onto this poem but one could easily assume when reading it that he had already gone to the war. (Of course, whenever the poem was written during the year 1939, everyone knew that the war was coming or that it was going to last for some time.) He writes of the stars as a vast army "marching in extended order", as "comrades". It's easy to imagine the starry army above reflecting a human army below, and soldiers seizing moments of peace amidst death and darkness.

There could be something a little whimsical about this poem - "greetings of ethereal officers", and so on - but the final lines undercut it: "Yes, we look up with pain/at distant comrades and plains we cannot tread." Although Douglas was to write finer, more accomplished poems - he would only have been 18 or 19 when he wrote this - this is one of his truest and most distinguishing marks, and one of the hardest to bear: his brutal, unflinching honesty. When I read those lines I wonder at his state of mind. Knowing that his own death was coming, and soon, is a theme throughout his poems. It's hard to know if it was some sort of death wish, or just a stern realism about his situation, or something else. There is something in the conclusion of this poem that bears out Ted Hughes's comments on Douglas, in his introduction to the Faber Collected Poems. Hughes speaks of a "passionate, fatalistic outlook ...the gallantry a cool acceptance of the worst possible fate. The source of the stage-lighting of this whole performance is, perhaps, that thing difficult to face - a vision of his own early death, his own death already foresuffered."

I am still trying to figure out why Keith Douglas's poetry blew my mind so comprehensively when I started reading him about a year and a half ago. This really does not happen to me often with such speed and force, not since my teens. Hughes's introduction to Douglas touches on some of it. "The dominant component of Douglas's line," says Hughes, "suggests a masculine movement, a nimble, predatory attack, hard-edged with a quick and clean escape." I have a liking for poetry with a certain masculine and muscular quality to it, which also has something to do with my love of Louis MacNeice, among others (see "Manly Men" for more details - I should probably have a Manly Men tagline.) But I found this comment from Hughes's essay particularly haunting, as it reflects something that I quickly came to feel about Douglas: "The music is familiar and intimate, like the inner voice of one's own voice, yet a desolate sort of music, closer to the crying of a bird than to the massed organ tones of great abbeys audible in [Wilfred] Owen." This is spot-on. When I started reading Douglas, there were aspects that felt so close to my own perceptions and experience (and this in the work of someone whose life was very different from my own) that I couldn't understand it, and still don't entirely.

Anyway, I have departed from the original idea of this entry, the National Poetry Day theme of 'Stars'. There are a lot of great poems on the subject out there. This one is by a poet who, I suppose, fulfilled some of the star-related clichés about burning out rather than fading away. I am very glad to have discovered Keith Douglas, as sad as he sometimes makes me feel.

Have a great National Poetry Day!


  1. I really like poems that use stars as subjects and they remind me, as you said, of the vastness of the universe.

    This is probably why I like poems such as "Falling Stars" by Rilke or "On Utopias" by Brazilian poet Mario Quintana. They see the stars as something unreachable, far away.

    About Douglas' poem: how hopeless! ("out of nowhere into nowhere, true no man's land). But it's very interesting how he uses a subject we already know (stars) in a new way, connecting it with war.

    Have a great Poetry Day too and happy anniversary for your blog!

    1. Thanks, as always!

      I know the Rilke poem (a little, at least), but I want to look up Mario Quintana now. Looking around at poems for National Poetry Day, I realised how frequently the image of "stars" occurs. Of course, it can also be about human "stars", which opens up a whole other field.

      I think a lot of Douglas's poems are a strange mix of despair and defiance. He seemed to have lived life to the full, but he was fatalistic too. What I find so strange is how little I relate to many things in his life and even his views on things - and yet the poetry resonates so much. I really recommend him!