Tough Guy

Ian Hamilton

  • Keith Douglas: The Letters edited by Desmond Graham
    Carcanet, 369 pp, £14.95, September 2000, ISBN 1 85754 477 3

Keith Douglas was 24 when he was killed in action, in 1944, and although quite a few of his poems had by then appeared in anthologies and magazines, he was not generally thought of as a significant ‘war poet’. But then, who was? ‘Where are the war poets?’ was a familiar journalistic cry from 1939 to 1945, and few answers were forthcoming. There were two main poetic fashions on offer at the time: clapped-out Audenesque or a torrid Neo-Romanticism that had Dylan Thomas as its vaguely guiding force. Keith Douglas had no particular allegiance to either camp, although he was closer to Auden than to Thomas and had had a poem published in New Verse when he was still at school. But he was also represented in Eight Oxford Poets (1941), a supposedly key selection of the time, in which one of the editors, Sidney Keyes, apologised for the ‘over-floridity’ of his contributors, explaining that ‘we have on the whole little sympathy with the Audenian school of poets.’ Keyes himself was killed, aged 20, after only two weeks of active service, leaving behind him several florid verses in which he urged the young men of England to ‘go on, go out/Into the badlands of battle’ and thus ‘plant a better orchard’, but Douglas seems to have known little of his work and was pretty scathing about Eight Oxford Poets when he eventually saw a copy (‘Some of the decade’s worst printed verse,’ was his summation).

On the whole, Douglas kept his distance from literary company, allowing friends like Edmund Blunden and J.C. Hall to push his work, and when successes came his way, he tended to respond to them with a theatrical offhandedness. Talking further of Eight Oxford Poets, he offered a grim picture of the current poetry scene:

Their attitude to the war is that of the homosexual guardsman returning from Dunkirk – ‘Oh my dear! The noise! and the people!’ They turn a delicate shoulder to it all. But no paper shortage slows the production of hundreds of slim volumes and earnestly compiled anthologies of wartime poetry, Poems from the Forces etc. Above all, there are a hundred shy little magazines, whose contributors are their most ardent supporters. Benevolent publishers, it seems, are constantly patting blushing young poets on the head . . . and encouraging them to lisp in numbers.

Edmund Blunden at one point sent a batch of Douglas’s work to T.S. Eliot at Faber and Eliot’s response was encouraging. Douglas, though, made sure that he was not caught blushing. His reaction was to wonder how much he could get for Eliot’s autograph.

Some of this was tough-guy affectation but a substantial part of it was genuinely felt. Douglas wanted to write poems but he had no wish to be regarded as a cissy-poet. He had a soldierly distaste for emotional display and always had one eye on his ‘cynical’ or commonsensical self-presentation. And this sometimes made things difficult for his admirers. Douglas soaked up their praise as if it meant not very much, got ratty when his work was criticised on technical grounds or found to be insufficiently ‘poetic’, and altogether made a point of seeming to be quite indifferent to the ins and outs of poetry politics.

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