‘Sunset from Plane’ by Humberto Moreno
Young Poets Network is very excited to announce the first annual Timothy Corsellis Prize, for poems responding to the Second World War. Discover some fascinating young soldier-poets and write a poem in response to their life or work. The lucky winners, chosen by judges from the Poetry Society, IWM (the Imperial War Museums) and the War Poets Association, will receive book tokens, poetry books, poetry posters and publication!
Read more about war poetry and Second World War poetry, and then find out about the Prize below…
War has always been one of the central subjects of poetry – from the Anglo Saxon warrior king Beowulf, to Homer’s classical Greek epics The Iliad and The Odyssey, to Shakespeare’s Henry V crying “Once more unto the breach, dear friends”. It is a fertile and regrettably timeless theme, and one which poets have responded to very differently over the centuries.
Classical poets like Homer evoked the bloodshed of war, but also portrayed it as a stage for noble and heroic deeds. Beowulf’s virtue lies in his valour. Shakespeare’s Prince Hal is shown maturing and growing into his role as king in Henry V, where his success as a military leader proves his good character.
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 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 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 lucky winners – chosen by Professor Fran Brearton of the War Poets Association, and judges from the Imperial War Museum and the Poetry Society – will receive £100, £50 and £50 book tokens, plus poetry books and posters, 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 aeroplane 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.
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.
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.
Submitting your poems
This year’s Prize has closed – the winners were announced on 10 October 2014, to commemorate the anniversary of Timothy’s death in 1941. Read their incredible poems and be inspired for next year’s Corsellis Prize…
We have a new free, downloadable lesson plan to support the Prize, and to help you explore Second World War poetry in your classroom. The resource discusses one of Timothy Corsellis’ poems in-depth, encouraging students to closely analyse the poem in order to write their own. Please do encourage your students to enter the Prize – it’s free and they could win some wonderful prizes!
Young Poets Network would like to thank the Corsellis family for their generosity in establishing this Prize and supporting the Poetry Society.
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. This year, we are delighted to be collaborating with the Timothy Corsellis Prize for the first time, as one of the competition’s judges.