27 of 31 people found the following review helpful
The James Dean/Kurt Cobain of war poetry,
By A Customer
This review is from: The Complete Poems (Oxford Poets) (Paperback)
Keith Douglas wrote a poetry boasting an incantatory and muscular lyricism that few others of his generation matched. He could carry off sentimental themes effectively because he used language that never blinked or swooned. Yet his tough,verbal carapaces sheltered a heart that bled to see "how easy it is to make a ghost". He was just beginning to find his own voice when he was killed in 1944. What were his influences? His poetry contain traces of the arch-modernist T S Eliot, recalling the latter's whimsical tone in "The Love Song of Alfred J Prufrock": "Shall I get drunk or cut myself a piece of cake/a pasty Syrian with a few words of English/or the Turk who says she is a princess" ("Cairo Jag".) Or Douglas recalled William Blake and his conversational apocalypticism, when "he looks at the sea/and does not smell its animal smell/Does not suspect the heaven or hell/in the mind of a passerby" ("Egytpian sentry). He even recalls WH Auden's opinionated rhythms: "I praise a snakeskin or a stone: a bald head or a public speech I hate" ("Snakeskin and Stone". Occasionally, Douglas conjured Matthew Arnold of "Dover Beach" fame, where "Everywhere is a real of artificial race/of life, a struggle of everyone to be/master or mistress of some hour." ("Egyptian sentry"). But perhaps his most characteristic influence was John Donne and the conceits of the Metaphysical poets: "Can I explain this to you? Your eyes/are entrances the mouths of caves - I issue from wonderful interiors/upon a blessed sea and a fine day/from inside these caves I look and dream". The telegrammatic sharpness and urgency of his language remained taut throughout his short writing life. Even as a precocious fourteen year old, he wrote with a disciplined terseness: "The small men walk about antlike/and the bell tolls. God created these/beautiful and angular, not different", when many others of his age might be experimenting with the verbal luxuriance of Keats or liquid verbosity of Shakespeare. However, the key to the poetry of this very unEnglish poet, more of a Latin with his impulsive temperament, is contained in several loving translations of Arthur Rimbaud, which gives us a clue as to how the twentysomething tank commander perceived himself and his poetry. Translating Rimbaud, a tortured young French symbolist poet who gave up writing at 20, Douglas premonitions his own death from shellfire shrapnel in "Le Dormeur du Val", where "A young soldier with bare head and mouth open/and his neck immersed in the fresh blue flowers/is sleeping stretched out in grass under heaven/pale in his green bed where the light showers". The sentimentalisation of a hero's death and the Romantic liebestode is at odds with his saner observation elsewhere: "How can I live among this gentle/obsolsecent breed of heroes, and not weep?" (Aristocrats), suggesting a fundamental tension in his personality and work, between cool sobriety and dramatic passion, which remained unresolved, perhaps because he failed to find personal reconcilation in what he called the "rose of love" ("I experiment"). Ultimately, Douglas demands not to be judged by his immature outbursts, or sentimental dreaminess, but by his tough yet humane response to what "the others never set eyes on". He implores us in "Tel Aviv": "Do not laugh because I have made a poem;/it is to use what then we could not handle/words too dangerous then, knowing their explosive/or incendiary tendencies when we are so close-/if i had said this to you then, BANG will/have gone our walls of indifference in flame."