Keith Douglas and detachment

'A cold and sunny morning in Tunbridge Wells' [Keith Douglas' birthplace], by Bob Farrell
‘A cold and sunny morning in Tunbridge Wells’ [Keith Douglas’ birthplace], by Bob Farrell
Bob Farrell

Dominic Hale, 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, the annual poetry award on Young Poets Network, by looking at the work of WWII poet Keith Douglas.

The poetry of Keith Douglas (1920-1944) contrasts interestingly with that of his First World War forerunners. While soldier-poets such as Wilfred Owen adopted a subjective, involving, lyric style to expose the horror and futility of the trenches, such a mode appears to have been impossible for Douglas in the Second World War. Indeed, Douglas noted in 1943 that “Hell cannot be let loose twice: it was let loose once in the Great War and it is the same old hell now.”

In order to articulate his experiences of the fighting in North Africa, Douglas preferred what he termed an ‘extrospective’ style: a style of objectivity preoccupied with details, impressions and surfaces rather than with openly internalised, personal responses to the conflict. This seems partly informed by the notion that the Second World War was very much a just cause, an unavoidable response to fascism and the atrocities of Nazi Germany in which the killing of the individual soldier was perhaps a necessary evil (at least for Douglas).

In ‘How To Kill’, Douglas assumes a calm, almost journalistic pose, with the poem’s disturbing title conflating the ordinariness of an instruction manual with the act of killing an enemy soldier. Douglas’ detached ‘extrospection’ is amplified by his speaker’s negotiation of military technologies: the speaker is numbed by the confinement and distance his tank affords as he observes the soldier he must kill through the partitioning “dial of glass” of the tank’s sights. Such technology has made killing simple: it is “easy” now to “make a ghost”.

The speaker’s loss of innocence (“a child turning into a man”) is reinforced by his reliance on comforting ‘fairy tale’ imagery indicative of his evaporating childhood and the difficulty he has rationalising his experience: the act of shooting the enemy soldier is described as “sorcery”. A personal emotional response is expected but never comes: in the second stanza the enjambment separating “I cry / NOW” plays with the meanings of “cry” in order to disappoint the reader’s anticipated desire for introspection.

The challenge

Write a poem which mimics Douglas’ stylistic detachment. While the obvious way to write about a traumatic subject might be to announce your speaker’s emotions and feelings quite blatantly, a more objective, external and even superficial style can clearly be just as effective and potentially more interesting.

Choose a situation for your poem’s speaker to be in – it does not necessarily have to be about war. Try writing down all the ways in which your speaker might feel about this situation, and then suppress all direct mention of the feelings you have listed in your poem. Rely instead on showing rather than telling, imagining that your speaker is reporting their experiences to an impartial news channel as opposed to scribbling their subjective opinion into a diary.

Focus on detail and surface impressions, leaving the weight of meaning and inward-looking feeling unsaid (what Hemingway called the ‘Iceberg Theory’ in relation to his prose). Notice how Douglas’ speaker does not state outright that he is young and scared and no longer innocent, but how these feelings are betrayed by the aforementioned juvenile description of killing as “sorcery”, something strange and disturbing and beyond reason or logic. Try and experiment with this sort of descriptive detachment in your own poetry and see how it compares with or even improves upon a more personal exploration of a subject or theme.

How to enter

Submissions to this challenge were automatically included in the Timothy Corsellis Prize. Read the fantastic prize winners and be inspired to enter the Prize when it reopens in 2015.


The three winners of the Timothy Corsellis prize will receive book tokens, poetry goodies and publication – and the overall winning poem will be published in the Poetry Society’s quarterly Poetry News!

Dominic Hale

Dominic Hale grew up in Lancashire and now lives in Edinburgh where he is reading for a degree in English Literature. He was a Foyle Young Poet of the Year in 2009 and 2010 and won the University of Edinburgh’s Grierson Prize in 2014. He was a poet in residence at this year’s Ledbury Poetry Festival. Tweets @DominicHale. 




Published August, 2014

9 thoughts on “Keith Douglas and detachment

  1. Where are the winning poetries published and when will the winners of ‘poetry from maths n science’ receive their prizes?

    1. Hi Paluk, the winning poems will be published later this week – prizes will also be sent out later this week/ early next week.

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