The Timothy Corsellis Prize: Poetry of the Second World War

To help inspire your entries for the Timothy Corsellis Prize and the Young Critics Prize, explore the context of Second World War Poetry, and find out more about the seven poets featured in this year’s competition.

Miles Magister larger
A Miles Magister aircraft, which Timothy flew.

WWI

At the start of WWI, rousing patriotic poems like Jessie Pope’s ‘Who’s for the Game?’ were still popular and widely published: “Who would much rather come back with a crutch/ Than lie low and be out of the fun?” It’s hard to imagine such thoughts being aired these days.

However, first-hand accounts such as those found in the poems of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon changed the public perception of what a war poet should be. The idea of the soldier-poet took hold, and over the course of the twentieth century their disillusioned and hard-hitting descriptions have come to define the way we think about war and what Owen believed was the pity and futility of war.

After WWI, the power of poets to influence public thinking about events was shown in the terrible fate of poets living under authoritarian or totalitarian regimes: poets such as Osip Mandelstam, Marina Tsvetaeva and Federico Garcia Lorca were exiled, censored, imprisoned or killed in their own countries.

WWII

In the UK, during WWII, many of the young poets who documented the new face of war were killed in their early twenties. During WWII, in Britain, there was a sense that there were fewer war poets than during WWI, and WWII poets certainly have a less prominent place on the current school curriculum and in the public consciousness. The vividly-described horrors of WWI poetry were familiar by the time of WWII, and so its poets did not feel the same urge to reveal the true conditions of war. As poet Keith Douglas noted, “Hell cannot be let loose twice: it was let loose in the Great War and it is the same old hell now.”

However, poets such as Keith Douglas, Sidney Keyes, Alun Lewis, John Jarmain, Henry Reed, Timothy Corsellis and Anna Akhmatova wrote with great insight and power of their experience of war. Their poems do not necessarily shock like Owen or Sassoon’s, but each is aware of this literary heritage and engages with it to produce deeply moving and thoughtful poems about war. They deserve much wider recognition, and we hope the Timothy Corsellis Prize will play a key part in this.

The Timothy Corsellis Prize

The Prize is for a poem responding to the life and/or work of Keith Douglas, Sidney Keyes, Alun Lewis, John Jarmain, Anna Akhmatova, Henry Reed or Timothy Corsellis. There’s a small biography of each poet below, with links to find out more. Read some of their poems and choose whatever inspires you to respond. Three winners  will receive book tokens, plus assorted poetry goodies, publication on Young Poets Network and (for the first prize poem) publication in The Poetry Society’s quarterly paper Poetry News.

Timothy Corsellis was the young poet who inspired this Prize. His poems explore the experience of the Blitz and the combined boredom and exhilaration of flight training. Originally a conscientious objector, Timothy volunteered for the RAF in 1940. However, horrified to be put under Bomber Command, which would involve the bombing of civilians, he requested a transfer, and spent six months as an Air Raid Precautions Officer, helping civilians through the Blitz. He then joined the Air Transport Auxiliary service, where he was killed in 1941, aged 20, when the airplane he was flying crashed over Carlisle. We have a fascinating biography of Timothy on Young Poets Network if you’d like to find out more, and you can see actor Tim Bentinck reading Timothy’s poems ‘Engine Failure’ and ‘Dawn After the Raid’ on Youtube.

Tim Corsellis 1938

Photo of Timothy at Winchester College, 1938; with permission of the Warden and Scholars of Winchester College.

Keith Douglas was 24 when he was killed during the invasion of Normandy, in 1944. His poems describe with difficult-to-read precision the actions required of a modern soldier, forcing the reader to face the realities of war without offering the moral release of great emotional distress. Douglas acknowledged openly that the First World War poets had perfectly expressed the horrors of war, and the subjective experience of the individual soldier, and so sought to convey this horror in a very different, detached style: “Now in my dial of glass appears/ the soldier who is going to die” (‘How to Kill’).

Sidney Keyes was born in the same year as Philip Larkin, his contemporary at Oxford. At university, Keyes was the editor of Eight Oxford Poets. Influenced by Yeats, Rilke and the French symbolists, Keyes’ subjective, metaphysical work showed great promise at a very young age. It is mature and reflective: “I am the man who groped for words and found/ An arrow in my hand” (‘War Poet’). He was killed just before his 21st birthday in the Tunisian desert.

Welsh poet Alun Lewis was a pacifist by nature, but events in Europe convinced him to enlist. He was troubled by his status as a soldier, and what it meant in terms of his character. His poems are sensitive and lyrical, dealing with loneliness, alienation, love and death. He was strongly influenced by First World War poet Edward Thomas, whom he invokes in his poem ‘All Day It Has Rained’, remembering happier days walking “where Edward Thomas brooded long/ On death and beauty – till a bullet stopped his song”. In a sad piece of irony, the same lines may also apply to Lewis himself: he died in mysterious circumstances in 1944, of a bullet wound.

Bombed out children

John Jarmain wrote many of his poems by moonlight in the North African desert, sending them home in letters to his wife. His poems are understated, richly influenced by his environment, particularly the desert. They also look at how the horror of personal pain and sacrifice in war are soon effaced by the passing of time: “here is left/ Only a worthless corpse of sense bereft,/ Symbol of death, and sacrifice and waste”. Vita Sackville-West wrote of his death in 1944, “Among the poets lost to us by the war, John Jarmain must take a considerable place. A real loss.”

Henry Reed was the only one of these six poets to survive the war. Conscripted to the army in 1941, he spent most of the war as a Japanese translator, which he didn’t enjoy. His most famous poem, ‘Lessons of the War’, is a satire on British army basic training:

“You must say, when reporting:
At five o’clock in the central sector is a dozen
Of what appear to be animals; whatever you do,
Don’t call the bleeders sheep.”

After the war, Reed worked for the BBC as a radio broadcaster, translator and playwright.

“Portrait of Anna Akhmatova.” 1915 by Natay Altman. From the State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg

Anna Akhmatova is one of the best-known writers in the Russian canon. Persecuted under Russia’s oppressive Stalinist regime for her ‘outspoken’ writings, her poetry was unofficially banned for fifteen years from 1925 to 1940, and then banned again from 1946 until the late 1950s, some years after Stalin’s death. Akhmatova’s great poem ‘Requiem‘, written  between 1935 and 1940, describes the hardships and injustices of life in Stalin’s Russia: “Everything has become muddled forever -/ I can no longer distinguish/ Who is an animal, who a person, and how long/ The wait can be for an execution.” Much admired in literary circles for her regal bearing and great charisma, Akhmatova was initially one of the leading figures of ‘Acmeism’, a literary movement which advocated for clarity and structure, in contrast to the vague and allusive style of the preceding Symbolist movement. Akhmatova died in Leningrad in 1966.

Submitting your poems

General rules
• The Timothy Corsellis Poetry Prize and Young Critics Prize are open to individuals from all over the world aged 14-25.
• Please send as many poems as you like for the Poetry Prize.
• Please send one essay per entrant for the Young Critics Prize, between 500 and 1,500 words long (the word count includes quotations),
• You are very welcome to enter both Prizes.
• The deadline for entries for both prizes is Thursday 15 September.

Please also read our terms and conditions for entering your poems to a Young Poets Network challenge.

Read more about the prizes and how to submit your entries.

Young Poets Network would like to thank the Corsellis family for their generosity in establishing this Prize and their continuing support of The Poetry Society.

IWMWPA

IWM is unique in its coverage of conflicts, especially those involving Britain and the Commonwealth, from the First World War to the present day. We seek to provide for, and to encourage, the study and understanding of the history of modern war and ‘wartime experience’. We offer a range of options for schools, colleges, youth groups and adult groups that would like to visit our branches in London, Cambridgeshire and Greater Manchester. We also provide free on-line resources for educators to use to use in their classroom. For more information, please visit www.iwm.org.uk.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *