“I like you sir. You’re shit or bust, you are.”
– Keith Douglas’ batman, to Keith Douglas.
I was twenty three when I discovered the work of the Second World War poet Keith Douglas. I’d just completed an English degree and was worn out with novels, so for a year I read only comics and poetry. Good comics were easy to find, but good poetry was a rarer substance. It seemed to me that you had to read twenty impenetrable poems for every one that spoke to you, but I was fortunate enough to have time on my side. I flitted my way through a bunch of anthologies, skipping over anything that seemed wilfully obscure or concerned solely with the poet’s ego. I was a harsh judge, but I was on the hunt for pure, distilled language and I was determined to find as much of it as I could.
How To Kill was the first Keith Douglas poem I stumbled across, jammed into a thick collection of war poetry. It was written in such a frank style that it stood out to me as something that might have been written just that year, not in 1943. There were no riddles and no pretence. Douglas was a tank captain and How To Kill was about blowing up an enemy soldier. ‘Being damned,’ he writes, ‘I am amused/To see the centre of love diffused/and the waves of love travel into vacancy.’
I found that poem a striking thing, brutally honest and sad, but it was the sole Keith Douglas poem in the anthology and I only noted down his name as one to look out for. A few months later I was twenty four, and browsing in a bookshop while I waited for my girlfriend to finish work. There I found Keith Douglas’ one and only poetry collection. My girlfriend texted me to say she was held up and would be finishing late, so I bought the book and sat in the park to read some of it.
I won’t lie. To begin with I was unimpressed. Some of the first poems in the book seemed just the opposite of what I’d liked about How To Kill. Those, however, were poems from Douglas’ schooldays. I’d hate it if someone dragged out and published anything that I wrote while at school, but I suppose Douglas’ were included as a way to demonstrate his development, and in the absence of enough material from his adult life. Douglas died, like so many of his generation, very young, but the poems he wrote in what would prove the final years of his life, the poems that began to appear towards the end of the book, were among the finest things I’d ever read. By the time my girlfriend had finished work that day, I was not only a fan, I was inspired.
“And all my endeavours are unlucky explorers
come back, abandoning the expedition;
the specimens, the lilies of ambition
still spring in their climate, still unpicked:
but time, time is all I lacked
to find them, as the great collectors before me.”
– Keith Douglas, On A Return From Egypt
Keith Douglas died seventy years ago today. A mortar shell exploded overhead and he was killed by shrapnel pieces as fine as nibs, which didn’t even show a mark on his body. An army chaplain, Captain Leslie Skinner, wrote, ‘Spent day touring all medical units back to beach area in search of regimental casualties. News of death of Captain Keith Douglas on Fwd slopes pt 102…Forward on foot and found bodies of Keith Douglas and Lt Pepler. Buried separately near to where each lay. Occasional rifle fire while digging graves.’
Douglas was twenty four. Three days earlier, on D-Day, he had commanded a tank in the main assault on Gold Beach. He’s one of my writing heroes, and a few nice tributes have appeared to him this week. Here’s an article in The New Statesman and here Clarissa Aykroyd’s blog post, a lovely piece that paints a picture of his character. The Guardian made Desert Flowers their poem of the day, and here’s Clive James reading one of his poems a while ago.
At the back of Keith Douglas’ short Completed Works are two statements he made about how to write which, since I read them, have been a part of my own internal guidelines as I strive towards good writing. Even if you never read poetry, it’s worth buying his collection simply to read and memorise those, and I’ll end this little tribute with two quotes from them.
I don’t know if you have come across the word Bullshit – it is an army word and signifies humbug and unnecessary detail. It symbolizes what I think must be got rid of – the mass of irrelevancies, of ‘attitudes’, ‘approaches’, propaganda, ivory towers, etc., that stands between us and our problems and what we have to do about them.’
– Keith Douglas, from a letter to J.C. Hall, 10th August 1943
Poetry may be written in prose or verse, or spoken extempore.
For it is anything expressed in words, which appeals to the emotions either in presenting an image or picture to move them; or by the music of words affecting them through the senses; or in stating some truth whose eternal quality exacts the same reverence as eternity itself.
– Keith Douglas, from his contribution to On the Nature of Poetry.