The August Challenges #2 – Poetry and Place

Laura Furner, a former Foyle winner, sets the second of our four August challenges – a month of vivid and varied reading and writing tasks from Foyle Young Poets to get you inspired! This challenge encourages you to write a poem for the Timothy Corsellis Prize, by looking at the work of WWII poet John Jarmain.

John Jarmain was a poet and artillery officer in WWII, and spent his military career serving in the Western Desert in North Africa, until he was killed by a fragment of mortar shell in 1944, as his troop were passing through Normandy to return to England.

Although a pacifist, and therefore a reluctant solider, Jarmain was hugely inspired by the forbidding landscape of the desert, and wrote much of his poetry by moonlight whilst his unit were sleeping rough on the sands. These poems were contained in letters sent home to his wife, and are now held in Special Collections at the University of Exeter.

For Jarmain, the inhospitable terrain of the Western Desert possessed a potent natural beauty that only emphasised the painful realities of a destructive and brutal war. In his poem ‘El Alamein’, Jarmain envisages how the sandy planes which were the foreground for the Battle of El Alamein would change over time from a place of devastation, to a place of peace. In the poem, the desert has returned to its natural state of beauty, and asphodel lilies grow over the landscape, instead of the “dark-smoking wrecks” which the soldier recalls.

El Alamein

There are flowers now, they say, at Alamein;
Yes, flowers in the minefields now.
So those that come to view that vacant scene,
Where death remains and agony has been
Will find the lilies grow –
Flowers, and nothing that we know.
So they rang the bells for us and Alamein,
Bells which we could not hear:
And to those that heard the bells what could it mean,
That name of loss and pride, El Alamein?
– Not the murk and harm of war,
But their hope, their own warm prayer.
It will become a staid historic name,
That crazy sea of sand!
Like Troy or Agincourt its single fame
Will be the garland for our brow, our claim,
On us a fleck of glory to the end:
And there our dead will keep their holy ground.
But this is not the place that we recall,
The crowded desert crossed with foaming tracks,
The one blotched building, lacking half a wall,
The grey-faced men, sand powdered over all;
The tanks, the guns, the trucks,
The black, dark-smoking wrecks.
So be it: none but us has known that land:
El Alamein will still be only ours
And those ten days of chaos in the sand.
Others will come who cannot understand,
Will halt beside the rusty minefield wires
And find there – flowers.

Mareth, Tunisia. March, 1943

Jarmain explores how the “crowded desert crossed with foaming tracks” becomes a distant and dream-like memory in the future, when it has become a place where flowers bloom over the “rusty minefield wires”. There is a personal and somewhat isolated tone to the poem, as the soldier imagines that only those who fought in the battle will ever know of the horrors which the sand will eventually swallow. “Others will come who cannot understand”, writes Jarmain, touching upon the way in which the passage of time can change a particular place into something that is completely irreconcilable to the memories one might have of it. This is also suggestive of the psychological trauma which many soldiers undergo in the years even after the war has ended.

Yet the poem instils in the reader a sense of hope – the idea that although it will be impossible to truly convey the depths of the “harm of war” which the soldiers of WWII underwent, there will be a time of peace, in which the “chaos” of the war is simply a memory, and no longer a reality.

Now it’s your turn

Your challenge is to write a poem that explores the idea of environment. The world around us is constantly changing, so it can be interesting to think about the impact that we have in re-shaping our environment, and how we interact with changes that might naturally occur. Consider the way that a single environment develops over time, and how larger issues and developments can help or hinder that landscape. Can an environment ever truly change completely, or like El Alamein, does it always hold beneath the surface the scars of the past?

You could think about the ways that your own environment might shape the way you write, and how changes (good or bad) to that environment might impact your writing. Or choose a much wider subject matter – perhaps exploring a historical environment, or what the places we live in now might look like in the future. Good luck!

Sending in your poems

This challenge is now closed. You can read the winning poems in the Timothy Corsellis prize in the ‘Your Poetry’ section.

Laura Furner is reading English Literature at the University of Leeds, and is currently undertaking a study abroad year at the University of Oslo. She was one of The Poetry Society’s 2015 Foyle summer interns, and was a Foyle Young Poet in 2012.  

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