Friday, 2 January 2015

'Words' by Keith Douglas: "Turning in the Lightest of Cages"

The Axis retreat and the Tunisian campaign 1942-1943: A goatherd tending his flock watches the arrival of the Eighth Army transport at Wadi Zem Zem after an Axis attempt to make a stand there had been defeated. Image used under IWM Non Commercial Licence.

The fact that the work of World War II poet Keith Douglas is now out of copyright (he died in 1944) represents something of a milestone for me personally. I started this blog in late 2011 and I developed a passion for Douglas's work around early 2012. At that point it occurred to me that it would be another three years until his work would be out of copyright and I could freely reproduce it without permission. Early on I did inquire of Faber as to whether I could reproduce one of his poems, but they told me that the copyright was controlled by Douglas's friend JC Hall. Shortly after that I learned that JC Hall had died, and it all seemed a bit too complicated to pursue. I have occasionally linked to his poems online but there are not many places I can do that.

What I'm trying to say is that I didn't know if the blog would last long enough for me to post Douglas's poems - but here we are. I suppose that this is both happy and sad for me. I'm giving readers fair warning that you will read plenty of poems by Douglas in the near future - but he shouldn't have died in 1944. He was only 24 and he could have still been alive today. How many poets, and people, could we say that of who died senselessly in the 20th century?

In the summer, I wrote at some length here about Douglas, on the anniversary of his death. As you can probably tell, I'm quite fond of him. The diamond edges of his poems contrast sharply with the scattered, fickle young man he seemed to be in his life, but I think that particularly in the last couple of years he was digging deep, reaching toward self-knowledge. I also think that he was always a perfectionist.

This poem, 'Words', was written after Douglas was wounded at Wadi Zem Zem and while he was recuperating. It shows a keener degree of humility than we might expect from Douglas. Not that it's a false humility - he knows that words are "instruments" which for the most part he uses skilfully, but "sometimes they escape forever". To me it feels more abstract than many of his poems, but still concrete, although with a lightness. The metaphorical web of this poem is very beautiful, and it really is a web. Douglas builds something airy, with "hollow birds' bones" and "the lightest of cages": the poem, in fact, is the cage and at the ending we are uncertain whether the words have escaped or whether they remain before us. Both, perhaps.

WORDS (Keith Douglas)

Words are my instruments but not my servants;
by the white pillar of a prince I lie in wait
for them. In what the hour or the minute invents,
in a web formally meshed or inchoate,
these fritillaries are come upon, trapped:
hot-coloured, or the cold scarabs a thousand years
old, found in cerements and unwrapped.
The catch and the ways of catching are diverse.
For instance this stooping man, the bones of whose face are
like the hollow birds' bones, is a trap for words.
And the pockmarked house bleached by the glare
whose insides war has dried out like gourds
attracts words. There are those who capture them
in hundreds, keep them prisoners in black
bottles, release them at exercise and clap them back.
But I keep words only a breath of time
turning in the lightest of cages - uncover
and let them go: sometimes they escape for ever.

                                             El Ballah [General Hospital] 1943

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