Monday, 29 April 2013

The Poetry of Sidney Keyes: "We Shall Never Forget Nor Escape You..."

Takrouna - Two Miles West of Enfidaville, in Tunisia during World War II, by Alex J Ingram. Used under IWM Non Commercial Licence

He said 'Dance for me,' and he said,
'You are too beautiful for the wind
To pick at, or the sun to burn.' He said
'I'm a poor tattered thing, but not unkind
To the sad dancer and the dancing dead.'

-Sidney Keyes, from Four Postures of Death

It is 70 years today since the death of Sidney Keyes, on 29 April 1943. He is considered one of Britain's most important World War II poets along with Keith Douglas and Alun Lewis. Aged only twenty, he died during his first battle of the war, in Tunisia.

It may not be a great surprise to readers of this blog that I discovered Sidney Keyes through Watership Down. The quotation above, from a poem sequence called Four Postures of Death, appears as the epigraph at the start of one of the book's chapters. What I find somewhat more mysterious is how I came to start reading his poetry, beyond those few lines. From the age of about ten, I read Watership Down so many times that the literary epigraphs, and the words of the book itself, are buried very deep inside me. However, even after I started using the internet (in 1995, I think) and after I started my university studies (in 1996, which gave me access to a whole new library) I don't recall looking for more information on Keyes, though I'm sure I could have.

I moved to Dublin in 2002, and from there to London in July 2005. My final 2004-2005 year in Dublin was largely spent trying to decide where I wanted to go next - it was only by April or May of 2005 that I was certain I wanted to go to London. In March, I visited London for a few days, partly to meet up with friends from Canada who were passing through. I was ill with flu for most of those few days, but fortunately I managed to see my friends, visit the amazing Caravaggio exhibition at the National Gallery, and see Derek Jacobi perform in the extraordinary revival of Schiller's Don Carlos.

I also went to Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road and bought Carcanet's edition of Sidney Keyes's Collected Poems. The mysteriousness of this is due to a "why then?" question in my mind which I can't resolve. I remember going to Foyles, and I remember that I specifically wanted to look for poetry by Sidney Keyes. But I had already been reading and buying poetry for years, and I had certainly visited Foyles before - so I don't know why I only went looking for Keyes in 2005. I can only assume that something told me that the time was now right.

I don't think I had previously been aware that Keyes was only twenty when he died, or even that he was a "war poet". It certainly put everything in context - the tragedy of his death, like the tragedy of other war deaths; and also the extent to which he was already a "finished" poet versus showing potential. I don't see Keyes as a "finished" poet in the way that Keith Douglas was, but they were plainly two very different people with very different styles, and this probably also has something to do with the difference between twenty-four (Douglas's age when he died) and twenty. Keyes really didn't have time to fully move beyond his influences, and their presence is a weighty one in his work: Yeats, Rilke, Eliot, Hölderlin and others. The translator Michael Meyer, a friend of Keyes who edited his work, wrote of Keyes not long after his death:

He had either inherited or been infected with a sense of guilt and evil destiny. The subject of pain and death fascinated him, and his duality had sharpened since his childhood. That inner chamber of his mind, where he held converse with the heroes of his imagination, had become unapproachable to human beings. It was inhabited only by ghosts and phantoms. Keyes had developed an acute historic sense which enabled him to recreate the very spirits of those who stirred his imagination; and the poet within him dwelt only among the mighty dead. Blake, Schiller, Wordsworth and, above all, Yeats and Rilke, were more intimate to him than the contemporary world. He was in the closest and most constant contact with their minds through their writing, and he preferred their company to that of the living. (from Memoir by Michael Meyer, reproduced in Carcanet's Collected Poems of Sidney Keyes)

There is certainly an inescapable morbidity to much of Keyes's work - I think I guessed as much as a child from those short lines from Four Postures of Death. One of his first significant poems, written when he was only sixteen, commemorates the death of his grandfather. His own death in April makes it that much more poignant:

April again, and it is a year again
Since you walked out and slammed the door
Leaving us tangled in your words. [...]

(from 'Elegy (In memoriam S.K.K.)')

He also wrote poems with titles such as 'Shall the Dead Return?', 'Schiller Dying' and 'An Early Death'. His most reproduced poem (though not his best, I think) is 'War Poet', which you can find under Excerpt on Carcanet's Sidney Keyes page. He was also very interested in themes of nature and visual art ('Pheasant', 'The Kestrels', 'Paul Klee'). His love poetry tends to be sadly lacking in optimism, either for himself or for his beloved. He wrote this poem for Milein Cosman, a young German artist who only saw him as a friend:

NOT CHOSEN (Sidney Keyes)

(For Milein)

Not chosen, but unsure protagonist
Of my father's folly and his father's greed,
I rake the acres that I should have sown
And burn the corn to save next season's seed.

Forgive my heavy hands their new precision
Learnt otherwise than we had wished or hoped;
Look not too closely as I move beside you -
My feet are shackled and my neck is roped.

I am the watcher in the narrow lane -
My tongue is schooled in every word of fear.
O take me back, but as you take remember
My love will bring you nothing but trouble, my dear.

He was partly a Romantic (he wrote a very beautiful elegy for William Wordsworth, another influence) and partly a Symbolist; in his fascinating poem 'The Anti-Symbolist', he comments wryly:

[...] The tall old woman
Eating her sandwiches on a pompous vault
And her dog who loves to play tag with tombstones,
Need never recur, yet link me with the drowned ones
Of earth, quite unforgettably.

(from 'The Anti-Symbolist')

I have to admit that the sensitive, death-preoccupied Keyes reminds me somewhat of Joy Division's Ian Curtis. It's hard not to see the deaths of these young men as inevitable, though the war poets such as Keyes and Douglas were really just caught up in very difficult, deathly times and influenced by the profoundly dark atmosphere of the world at that time.

For myself, I prefer Keith Douglas's work at this point in my life, but Keyes has had a long influence on me just through those few lines reproduced in Watership Down, and through several years of reading his work on and off since 2005. I go back to his poetry when I want something dark, thoughtful and highly symbolic, to admire his developing voice and to wonder how he might have gone on to transcend his influences if he hadn't died when he was just a boy. The words "We shall never forget nor escape you," from the 'Elegy' for his grandfather, are very appropriate.

I really recommend that anyone with an interest in Keyes look up the Carcanet Collected Poems, as it not only reproduces all the poems available to us, but also includes interesting commentaries by those who have studied his work closely or knew him personally. This review by Robert Richman of the Collected Poems is also excellent, and challenges both the ideas that he was a "war poet" and that he was obsessed with death:

I am happy to be able to conclude this entry with a long excerpt from 'The Foreign Gate'. Although considered a war poet, Keyes's own participation in the war was obviously short-lived, and I think he was influenced much more by the darkness of his times than by war as a literal theme. 'The Foreign Gate' is certainly about war, though, and the bringing together of the voices of those affected by and participating in war across the ages. There are lines in it which have echoed through me ever since I first read it.

from THE FOREIGN GATE (Sidney Keyes)


The moon is a poor woman.
The moon returns to weep with us. The crosses
Burn raw and white upon the night's stiff banners.
The wooden crosses and the marble trees
Shrink from the foreign moon.
The iron gate glitters. Here the soldiers lie.
Fold up the flags, muffle the soldier's drum;
Silence the calling fife. O drape
The soldier's drum with heavy crêpe;
With mourning weeds muffle the soldier's girl.
It's a long way and a long march
To the returning moon and to the soil
No time at all.
                       O call
The soldier's glory by another name:
Shroud up the soldier's common shame
And drape the soldier's drum, but spare
The steel-caged brain, the feet that walk to war.

Once striding under a horsehair plume
Once beating the taut drums for war
The sunlight rang from brass and iron;
History was an angry play -
The boy grew tall and rode away;
The door hung slack; the pale girl wept
And cursed the company he kept.
And dumb men spoke
Through the glib mouths of smoke;
The servile learned to strike
The proud to shriek;
And strangled in their lovers' lips
The young fell short of glory in the sand
Raking for graves among the scattered sand;
The tattered flags strained at the wind
Scaring the thrifty kite, mocking the dead.
But muffle the soldier's drum, hide his pale head,
His face a spider's web of blood. O fold
The hands that grip a splintered gun.
                 The glittering gate
Baffles him still, his starvecrow soul. O drape
The soldier's drum and cry, who never dare
Defy the ironbound brain, the feet that walk to war.

The cold hand clenches. The stupid mouth
Writhes like a ripple. Now the field is full
Of noises and dead voices ...
                                          'My rags flap
Though the great flags are trampled ...'
                                                           'My mouth speaks
Terror and truth, instead of hard command.'
'Remember the torn lace, the fine coats slashed
With steel instead of velvet. Künersdorf
Fought in the shallow sand was my relief.'
'I rode to Naseby' ... 'And the barren land
Of Tannenberg drank me. Remember now
The grey and jointed corpses in the snow,
The struggle in the drift, the numb hands freezing
Into the bitter iron ...'
                                      'At Dunkirk I
Rolled in the shallows, and the living trod
Across me for a bridge ...'
                                            'Let me speak out
Against this sham of policy, for pain
Alone is true. I was a general
Who fought the cunning Africans, returned
Crowned with harsh laurel, frantically cheered
Through Roman streets. I spoke of fame and glory.
Women grabbed at my robe. Great poets praised me.
I died of cancer, screaming, in a year.'
'I fell on a black Spanish hillside
Under the thorn-hedge, fighting for a dream
That troubled me in Paris; vomited
My faith and courage out among the stones ...'
'I was a barb of light, a burning cross
Of wood and canvas, falling through the night.'
'I was shot down at morning, in a yard.'

The moon regards them without shame. The wind
Rises and twitters through the wreck of bone ...
                                            'It is so hard to be alone
Continually, watching the great stars march
Their circular unending route; sharp sand
Straying about the eyes, blinding the quick-eyed spirit.'
A soldier's death is hard;
There's no prescribed or easy word
For dissolution in the Army books.
The uniform of pain with pain put on is straiter
Than any lover's garment; yet the death
Of these is different, and their glory greater.
Once men, then moving figures on a map,
Patiently giving time and strength and vision
Even identity
Into the future's keeping;
Nourished on wounds and weeping
Faces and laughing flags and pointed laurels,
Their pain cries down the noise of poetry.

So muffle the soldier's drum, forget the battles;
Remember only fame's a way of living:
The writing may be greater than the speaking
And every death for something different
From time's compulsion, is a written word.
Whatever gift, it is the giving
Remains significant: whatever death
It is the dying matters.
Bronze eagle or bright banner or carved name
Of fighting ancestor; these never pardon
The pain and sorrow. It is the dying pardons,
For something different from man or emblem.
Then drape the soldier's drum
And carry him down
Beyond the moon's inspection, and the noise
Of bands and banners and the striking sun.
Scatter the soldier's emblems and his fame:
Shroud up the shattered face, the empty name;
Speak out the word and drape the drum and spare
The captive brain, the feet that walk to war
The ironbound brain, the hand unskilled in war
The shrinking brain, sick of an inner war.

Permission to reproduce the poems was kindly given by David Higham Associates. Poems © Sidney Keyes and the Estate of Sidney Keyes, taken from Collected Poems of Sidney Keyes, published by Carcanet Press Limited.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Emily Dickinson for World Book Night

Bill Woodrow's 'Sitting On History' at the British Library, London. Photo by John McCullough. Used under Creative Commons license

It's World Book Night, and this lovely poem by the totally unique Emily Dickinson seemed very appropriate.


There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry -
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll -
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul -

Sunday, 21 April 2013

The Poems of Abdellatif Laâbi: "Only Vagabonds Can Be Poets..."

Poems - Abdellatif Laâbi, translated by André Naffis-Sahely (The Poetry Translation Centre Ltd, 2013)
The poetry of Abdellatif Laâbi has seen relatively little translation into English as yet, although he is viewed as a key contemporary poet in the Arab and French-speaking worlds. Also a novelist, and awarded the Prix Goncourt for poetry in 2009, this Moroccan poet was imprisoned for several years in the 70s and 80s for his literary work and political views. You can read his biography, and other translations of his poetry, on the Abdellatif Laâbi page at the Poetry Translation Centre website. (I was fortunate enough to take part in one of the Poetry Translation Centre's translation workshops, where I helped to translate a couple of the poems on the website.)
The Poetry Translation Centre specialises in translations of and collaborations with contemporary poets from Africa, Asia and Latin America, and this is the latest in a series of chapbooks which bring such work to a wider audience. Elegantly produced, these chapbooks always feature facing originals with the translations - a big advantage for discerning the shape and sound of the originals, even if you don't understand the original language - and a high standard of translation.
The ten poems in the chapbook include longer and shorter pieces, and a few prose poems as well. Forceful and often angry, they touch on subjects such as corrupt leadership ('The Wolves'), the power of language and poetry ('The Poem Tree') and questions of spirituality and its motives ('The Elegant Sufi'). Laâbi is sparing with his words, and the poems tend to end on a note of dark realism rather than optimism: "My head turned to the East/I lie in the middle of the road/and wait for the caravan of the mad" ('I'm a Child of This Century').
I was particularly moved by 'The Earth Opens and Welcomes You', which was written for an Algerian writer, Tahar Djaout, who was murdered by extremists. The poem is an elegy and a call for his work to be remembered:
The earth opens
and welcomes you
One day, your beloved will rediscover
your legendary smile
and mourning will come to an end
Your children will grow
and read your poems unashamed
Your country will heal, as if by magic
when men consumed by the illusion
will drink from the fountain of your kindness
(from 'The Earth Opens and Welcomes You')
The translations are for the most part elegant and effective, but I felt that occasionally the subtleties of the original French were lost (French being the one language where I am able to comment on the originals). For example, in 'The Wolves', the wolves "stuff their faces with fresh game/elect their token Judas by show of hands", a good translation; but "Ils mangent a treize" ("They eat in a group of thirteen"), which reinforces the idea of a twisted Last Supper, has been lost. French has a cutting edge that English often doesn't, and this was not always conveyed, but in general Naffis-Sahely has acquitted himself well with the challenges of these poems.
I'm a big fan of the Poetry Translation Centre's work and mission, and this is an excellent addition to their list of publications. I really hope that it will bring Abdellatif Laâbi's impassioned vision to more English readers.

T S Eliot Prize Redux: Sam Willetts' 'Digging'

It seems that the reading for the 2010 T S Eliot Prize (in January 2011) was particularly memorable for me. When I thought of writing a couple of T S Eliot Prize Redux entries, the two that came most strongly to mind were from this reading.

I correctly picked the 2010 Prize winner as Derek Walcott, but I actually hedged my bets and privately decided that it would be either Walcott for White Egrets, or Sam Willetts for New Light for the Old Dark. I think that Willetts would also have been a very worthy winner. It was his debut collection and the poems trace various aspects and influences of his life - his family history, the Holocaust, the English countryside and the poetry of John Clare, love at first sight - and also his long struggle with heroin addiction. A poem which struck me with its terrible power was 'Digging'.

DIGGING (Sam Willetts)

'Digging' is a shocking poem, and shock value is not something I particularly seek out in art (unless it's the shock of the new). It has its place, though, and I think that the dreadful honesty of this poem was wrenching to all in the audience. The title 'Digging' would remind many of Seamus Heaney's very famous poem of the same title, and I wondered if it was deliberately chosen. I was glad that Willetts concluded with 'Coup de Foudre', which was lovely and self-explanatory.

In fact, you can listen to Sam Willetts' entire reading, including 'Digging', on this link (audio only):

Be prepared, and enjoy.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Poetry on the Slopes of Mount Everest

Everest photo by shrimpo1967. Used under Creative Commons license

Thus far, in a break with the tradition established by T S Eliot, March was the cruellest month this year and seems to have left me pointlessly exhausted for April - hence a slight lack of posting enthusiasm lately, though I have a long list of entries that I absolutely have to write sooner or later...

Today I was watching a documentary on BBC iPlayer about the Eiger, one of the great mountains that is always alive in my subconscious mind. I saw the Eiger a few years ago, and passed through it on the railway up the Jungfrau, and that was one of my travel dreams fulfilled. Watching the documentary, about the tragic and dynamic history of its climbs, played out on the brutally visible "theatre" of its North Face, I realised that I know the names and the stories quite well: the White Spider, the Traverse of the Gods, Toni Kurz, Heinrich Harrer, Chris Bonington, John Harlin, so many others... Some survived and some didn't; it has claimed more than sixty lives. I found it impossible to look at the mountain without a lot of emotion, and the view from the window halfway up the North Face was overwhelming.

I recently finished reading Into the Silence by Wade Davis, an account of the early British expeditions to Everest with Mallory and others, which culminated in the death of Mallory and Irvine in 1924. The book sets the expeditions firmly in the context of the horrors of World War I (which I have never found so vividly, accurately and graphically described) and how this affected the national consciousness.

For the purposes of this blog, a detail which fascinated me was the fact that Mallory brought a poetry anthology with him on the expeditions, and that he spent a lot of time reading it. Published during the war, the anthology was called The Spirit of Man and was intended to rally the spirits of the British public. It was edited by Robert Bridges, who was then the poet laureate.

Mallory wrote to his wife about a month before his death on Everest in 1924, one afternoon huddled in a tent during a storm, of reading from this anthology with his companions: "We all agreed that [Coleridge's] 'Kubla Khan' was a good sort of poem. Irvine was rather poetry shy but seemed impressed by the Epitaph to [Thomas] Gray's 'Elegy'. Odell was much inclined to be interested and like the last lines of [Shelley's] 'Prometheus Unbound'. Somervell, who knows quite a lot of English literature, had never read a poem of Emily Brontë's and was happily introduced."

The actual poetry of World War I would, of course, take poetry into new and frightening areas with the emergence of figures such as Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg, who saw clearly how the world and its certainties were being brutally shattered, and thousands of lives with them. Mallory and his companions were perhaps among the last representatives of an age where men fought, or climbed, for high ideals of conquest and nationalism which turned out to be desperately flawed. But I still love the idea of these brave men reading poetry on the slopes of Everest, and I'm glad that it brought them some peaceful moments.

Here is a link to Gray's 'Elegy', which Irvine had liked - its Epitaph does seem especially poignant in light of the fact that Mallory and Irvine were to die so soon afterwards.


Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Edward Thomas and W H Davies: Life and Death in April

Memorial stone for Edward Thomas near Steep, Hampshire

Edward Thomas died on 9 April, 1917 at the Battle of Arras. His work has started to fascinate me increasingly, especially since I saw The Dark Earth and the Light Sky at the beginning of this year. As a South Londoner for the last few years, I was also interested to discover that Thomas was born in Lambeth and educated at Battersea Grammar School, which at that time was not very far from where I now live.

Here is a poem about April which Thomas wrote in 1915. It seems more optimistic than many (if not most) of his poems. The identity of 'Emily' is not known.

APRIL (Edward Thomas)

The sweetest thing, I thought
At one time, between earth and heaven
Was the first smile
When mist has been forgiven
And the sun has stolen out,
Peered, and resolved to shine at seven
On dabbled lengthening grasses,
Thick primroses and early leaves uneven,
When earth's breath, warm and humid, far surpasses
The richest oven's, and loudly rings 'cuckoo'
And sharply the nightingale's 'tsoo, troo, troo, troo':
To say 'God bless it' was all that I could do.

But now I know one sweeter
By far since the day Emily
Turned weeping back
To me, still happy me,
To ask forgiveness, -
Yet smiled with half a certainty
To be forgiven, - for what
She had never done; I knew not what it might be,
Nor could she tell me, having now forgot,
By rapture carried with me past all care
As to an isle in April lovelier
Than April's self. 'God bless you' I said to her.

Welsh poet W H Davies, who had known Thomas, wrote this poem as an elegy for him. It was published less than two weeks after Thomas died.


(Edward Thomas)

Happy the man whose home is still
In Nature's green and peaceful ways;
To wake and hear the birds so loud,
That scream for joy to see the sun
Is shouldering past a sullen cloud.

And we have known those days, when we
Would wait to hear the cuckoo first;
When you and I, with thoughtful mind,
Would help a bird to hide her nest,
For fear of other hands less kind.

But thou, my friend, art lying dead:
War, with its hell-born childishness,
Has claimed thy life, with many more:
The man that loved this England well,
And never left it once before.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Poets After Dark/Light Show at the Hayward Gallery: This Is Your Brain On Poetry and Art

Hayward Gallery, London, Southbank. Photo by Aurelien Guichard. Used under Creative Commons license

On Monday night I went to the Light Show exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, Southbank - which on Monday and Tuesday was also the setting for Poets After Dark, where ten poets commissioned to write about some of the artworks read their poems. (You can find pictures from the show, and more information, at Hayward Light Show.)

I carried away a medley of impressions. There were moments when I thought the concept wasn't working that well, and others when I was completely caught up in the experience. I suspect that a certain amount of adjustment was required. I am much more used to experiencing art on its own, or poetry on its own (whether at a reading, or reading it on my own) - not the two at the same time, and I occasionally felt what I think was mild sensory overload. In at least some cases, though, the art/poetry interaction was one I wouldn't have missed.

The experience felt like being in a sort of poetic funhouse. There were moments, amidst the dark rooms, the mirrors and the strobe lights, and the poems, where I expected the floor to move beneath my feet. I was intrigued to hear Kate Tempest read, alongside Leo Villareal's cascading column of light, Cylinder II - her poem was one which closely observed the reactions of people she had watched as they looked at the artwork, as well as her own reactions. Kate Tempest  has just won the 2013 Ted Hughes Award for new poetry, for her work Brand New Ancients - she falls into the "spoken word artist" area of poetry, which is not (so far) entirely my cup of tea, but her passion was fascinating. I loved Amjad Nasser's poem (which he read in Arabic, followed by an English translation) about the death of a family member and exploring related concepts of light, but I was unsure whether the accompanying artwork did much for me. Mimi Khalvati read a very sensuous poem amidst the strobe lights of Olafur Eliasson's Model for a Timeless Garden, where fountains and water jets froze moment by moment into peaks and arcs of ice - overwhelming, but fantastic. I also felt that Sam Riviere's poems, which explored visions of a city through the filter of the digital age, worked remarkably well alongside the whirling shadow-cubes of the artwork by Conrad Shawcross. (Riviere referred to it as "the room of feeling increasingly sick", and I can confirm that I almost fell over when I walked through the door.)

You can read the poems and some comments from Julia Bird and Tamar Yoseloff, two of the poets who participated, on this link: