Keith Douglas and Anne Stevenson

I recently guest edited a special issue of Stand that was in part dedicated to marking what would have been the Second World War poet Keith Douglas’s 100th year.

I felt both hugely privileged to edit the celebration, and it was wonderful to be able to commission and then enjoy the thoughtful and insightful reflections on Douglas’s life, work, archive, and legacy, as well as the startlingly good new poetry that was informed, inspired, and imbued with Douglas’s poetry and poetic outlook. Thank you to Desmond Graham, Jeffrey Wainwright, Owen Lowery, Sarah Prescott, Dana Alice Niamh and Suna Afshan. To read their brilliant work, and to get your hands on issue 18(4), no 228, which also contains a fantastic special feature on Chinese Poetry in translation, as well as new writing by Vahni Capildeo, Aoife Lyall, Graham Mort, Eleanore Schönmaier and many more, as well as reviews by Stella Pye, Belinda Stiles and Tony Roberts, then head to the Stand website

You can also listen to Dana Alice Niamh read her startlingly good piece, ‘How Easy It Is to Make a Ghost’ on her blog

In the meantime, here is a little extract from my editorial, in which I discuss my own relationship with the poetry and reputation of Keith Douglas, and how my sense of his writing and ethos has evolved over the ten years I’ve known and admired him.

Keith Douglas was born in Tunbridge Wells on 24 January 1920. He was killed in action in Normandy on 9 June 1944, three days after landing on D Day, aged only twenty-four. 2020 marks the centenary of his birth, and this special issue of Stand celebrates the work and legacy of a poet whose writing and approach to poetry shaped the perspective of the next generation of Stand poets and editors. 

There is a fine layer of dust covering many of the scenes in Keith Douglas’s mature work. It gets everywhere – over machinery, furniture, the shattered heads of the saints at Enfidaville Church, the ‘paper eye’ of an enemy soldier blown open and left to decay in Tunisia. It is both a real and emblematic reminder of his experience of warfare fighting in the African campaign, but it also captures the fierce intensity of Douglas’s gaze. He captures life and death as the light hits it. He is there to enact violence and to document each molecule of dust and debris as it settles:

Death, like a familiar, hears

and look, has made a man of dust

of a man of flesh. This sorcery

I do’ (‘How to Kill’, CP, p.119) 

Yet this is no magician concealing his hand. Douglas does not keep secrets from his reader. This is a poetry that prides itself on a kind of nihilistic revelation. Keith Douglas sought to ‘exercise’ his ‘depleted fury’ (‘On a Return From Egypt’, CP, p. 132), but also to create a stark and forensic poetic that reflects ‘the careful absence of expectation (it is not quite the same as apathy) with which I view the world’(Letter to J.C.Hall, 10 Aug 1943, CP, p.127). 

No wonder then, that Jon Silkin so admired his poetry and approach to writing. Douglas’s belief – passionately argued in a letter to his friend as fellow poet J.C. Hall –  in the poem as something that must ‘write true things, significant things’ in the language of ‘significant speech’, sounds remarkably like Jon Silkin’s advocacy of the poem as a vital tool for communication – as a means to actively ‘look’ and ‘say’ what is wrong in society rather than just reflect and feel. Keith Douglas was championed within and beyond Stand by Silkin, Hill and Harrison, in their varied capacities as editors, critics, and poets. And in this issue, after the centenary of Douglas’s birth, we celebrate his writing and legacy again, with critical essays, archival research, and new poetic responses to the poet who understood all too well ‘how easy it is to make a ghost’. 

***

 I first discovered Douglas when I was a twenty-one year old PhD student at Leeds. At the time, I was primarily concerned with the legacy of war poetry on the work of Jon Silkin, Geoffrey Hill and Tony Harrison, and so read Douglas through the prism of their poetry, and a narrow idea of what war poetry was. I highlighted every reference to guns, violence and death. And in doing so I missed much of the nuance and beauty of Keith Douglas’s writing; the ‘constellations of feeling’ (‘D’, ‘The Bête Noire Fragments’) that drive both the nature and the intensity of his attention. 

I also didn’t pay close enough attention to his early work – only briefly passing over poems like ‘Mummers’, written when Douglas was only fourteen — ‘See where the outdoor snows, wind-fluttered, through the arched window fall.’ — in which he displays an intensity of vision and a command of the imperative far beyond his years.

If I’d paid closer attention to Douglas in his own right then I would have noticed how extrospection — his coined notion of reporting his surroundings (however disturbing) in a deliberately abstracted and precise detail — was already already taking shape in this request to ‘see’ beyond the window. 

My admiration is a decade older now, long outliving Douglas’s short life. Now, I read the early poems for their sensitivity and feeling as much as their clarity; for the little boy with a mind like a weapon and a firm understanding that he was to poet as a verb. Poeting and warfare are not so different. Submitting to old rules, breaking them. There is a power struggle in these early pieces between Douglas and the language at his disposal. He was always determined to submit it to his will. He was a war poet already; an example, later argued by Jon Silkin and Geoffrey Hill, within the pages of Stand, of how a war poet need not be entirely defined by a particular event or rank, but rather by approach, and interest, and struggle. 

I can’t finish this post without mentioning Anne Stevenson, who sadly passed away in September of 2020, and who was my dream contributor to this issue. She was an (maybe the) inheritor of Douglas, and was a fiery example of extrospection and tenderness in action. In the spring/summer of 2020 we corresponded about Keith Douglas and the issue, as well as her own poetic legacy. She had hoped to be able to live long enough to read the issue (her words, not mine). Unfortunately, that wasn’t to be. My editorial is certainly dedicated to her, just as my poetry has always been informed by her own sharp and exacting writing.

Blackbird, so old, so young, so
Happy to be stricken with a song
You can never choose away from.

photo credit: The Guardian

Read Keith Douglas’s poetry. Read Anne Stevenson’s poetry. And marvel.

One thought on “Keith Douglas and Anne Stevenson

  1. I loved this editorial – such a human and generous gaze you hold us all in. I hope to get to know Anne Stevenson through her work now, through the through lens of her love for Keith Douglas. It’s a heartbreakingly vulnerable and challenging issue – I cried reading Owen Lowery’s pieces, and connecting how a 24 year old soldier boy born a hundred years before – ‘always scribbling’ when he put his other weapons down – inspired, as in breathe in now, Owen to get up, map the hostile terrain of, try to understand and restore order to his life after the accident. To return to his body, and himself in the process. I feel that work unfolds inside relationship to other. Keith, window, celery. The line about the chemist. The line about the chemist!

    From what you say about the way Anne values (to poet is manifesting in present tense) Keith’s extrospection, his poetics, his passion, his sharpness of attention – I believe poetry is a radical act of paying attention – I think she could only have found this issue and all the labour and love gone into it from the whole team a desperate prayer for connection and return to humanity. I don’t think I will be the only one reaching into her own work to Owen Lowery myself, to constellate, to crawl out of the gaps as this year begins to turn. Maybe she is with Keith in the i.s.s., telling God all about us.

    Like

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