Explore the context of Second World War Poetry, and find out more about the ten poets featured in the Timothy Corsellis Prize.
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.
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, Anna Akhmatova, Gertrud Kolmar, Günter Eich, Miklós Radnóti and Timothy Corsellis 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, Henry Reed, Anna Akhmatova, Gertrud Kolmar, Günter Eich, Miklós Radnóti 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.
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.
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, unlike the five poets named above, survived 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.
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.
Gertrud Kolmar (real name Gertrud Chodziesener) was born in Berlin in 1894 to German-Jewish parents. Kolmar had a reasonably privileged upbringing, the eldest of four children in a middle-class household where reading, writing and a love of theatre were part of everyday family life. Kolmar herself was initially shy about sharing her own writing – she worked at a kindergarten and earned teaching degree before she published a volume of poetry Gedichte (Poems) in 1917. During the First World War she worked as an interpreter and censor in a POW camp near Berlin. She began to publish more widely in anthologies and magazines, and in 1938 published her second collection, Die Frau und die Tiere, containing poems written over the preceding ten years. At this time, the rise of antisemitism in Germany forced Kolmar and her father to sell their house and move into a ‘Jewish suburb’ of Berlin. By now unable to flee Germany, by 1941 Kolmar was forced to work in an armaments factory. Her father was deported to Thersienstadt in 1942, and Kolmar was deported to Auschwitz in March 1943. The date of her death is unknown.
Kolmar’s writing legacy consists of 450 poems, three plays and two short stories, as well as a collection of letters written to her lawyer, sister and niece, many of which describe her suffering under the Nazi regime.
So then, to tell my story, here I stand.
The dress’s tint, though bleached in bitter dye,
Has not all washed away. It still is real.
I call then with a thin, ethereal cry.
You hear me speak. But do you hear me feel?
from ‘Die Dichterin’ (‘The Female Poet’)
Günter Eich was a German poet, dramatist, lyricist and author who served in the German Wehrmacht and was captured by American forces during the Second World War. Eich’s poems are often wracked with a very personal sense of guilt, such as in ‘Game Paths’, dedicated to the Jewish Nobel Prize winner Nelly Sachs. During his time as a prisoner of war, Eich started many of the poems that would appear in his acclaimed first collection Abelegene Gehöfte (Outlying Farms). One of these poems is ‘Inventur’ (‘Inventory’), one of Germany’s most famous war poems. In this work, Eich austerely lists items owned by his narrator, a prisoner of war. Using short lines and repetition, he creates a sense of sparseness in the poem’s language and form that reflects the speaker’s situation:
This is my cap,
this is my overcoat,
here is my shave kit
in its linen pouch.
Some field rations:
my dish, my tumbler,
here in the tin-plate
I’ve scratched my name.
From ‘Inventur’ (‘Inventory’), translated by Michael Hoffmann
You can read Michael Hoffmann’s translation of ‘Inventur’ here.
Eich is also known for his post-war radio play Dreams in 1951 which includes a nightmare in which Jewish people and other minorities are taken to concentration camps. The play ends with an oft-quoted poem, full of startling lines that seek to wake the reader from the ‘juicy roast’ and ‘frolicsome Easter lambs’ of the society in which they live: ‘Wake up, your dreams are bad! / Stay awake, the nightmarishness is coming ever nearer.’ Eich was influenced by Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams; you can read more about poets influenced by Freud in previous YPN challenges. You can read Michael Hofmann’s translation here, and a line-by-line translation of the poem here. Eich was dedicated to bringing the German language back to “life” following the war. He continued to write prose, poetry and radio plays until he died in 1972.
Miklós Radnóti, one of the great European poets of the Twentieth century and certainly one of Hungary’s greatest, was only thirty-seven when he died. Radnóti was murdered in 1944, along with twenty-one others on an exhausting march back from a slave camp at Bor, now Serbia. His body was thrown into a mass grave along with the others and, when the bodies were uncovered at the end of the door, he was identified by a small notebook of poems in his overcoat pocket. These were the poems – some of his most famous poems – that he wrote as a slave labourer. In them he recalls his home, describes conditions and even foretells his own death. He watched his fellow prisoner collapse and saw them shot in the back of their heads. He knew the same would happen to him:
I whispered to myself,
That’s how you too will end. No more now, peace.
Patience will flower in death. And I could hear~
A voice above me say: der springt noch auf.
Earth and dried blood mingling in my ear.
from Razglednica (Postcards) 4, translated by George Szirtes.
(Der springt noch auf means the shot body seems to spring to life before collapsing.)
These few lines come from a set of short poems he called, ironically, Razglednicas (or Postcards), the kind you might send from a holiday.
Radnóti, born in 1909, came from a Jewish family in Budapest and for a while it seemed he was going to have to follow the family business, but he managed to switch university courses and to write poems. He had published eight highly-praised books by the time he died. Some poems celebrate life as he lived it with his beloved Fanni Gyarmati, (who died only recently at a hundred-and-one); some celebrate the land; most anticipate the darkness of the of the coming war.
So time and tide turn over into a new war,
hungry clouds eat up the gentle blue of the sky…
from Háborús napló (War Diary 1, Monday Night), translated by Zsuzsann Ozsváth and Frederick Turner
You can read more about Miklós Radnóti and his poems on the Poetry Foundation website and on the Penniless Press website. Read up on Carolyn Forché’s idea of ‘poetry of witness’, inspired by reading Radnóti’s work, in our interview with her here.
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.
Miklós Radnóti’s introduction written by George Szirtes.
First published June, 2014