Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Tag Archives: Keith Douglas

Keith Douglas makes a ghost

IMG_0001I’ve been catching up with Desmond Graham’s 1974 biography of the difficult but brilliant Keith Douglas  (mentioned in passing in a recent post on Drummond Allison). Douglas was killed by an invisible splinter of shell a few days after D Day, aged 24. His Faber Complete Poems is still about, with an intro from 1987 by Ted Hughes. Hughes finds in Douglas a manly man, betrothed to Death, a poet-as-martial-artist, a Home Counties samurai, though this may say more about Hughes than about Douglas. But he does draw attention to the relentless labour with which Douglas chipped away at the rough block of his drafts, and he does rightly hail “Vergissmeinnicht” and “How to Kill” as probably the two best poems to emerge from combat in World War Two.

In his biography Graham reproduces one of the fourteen pages of drafts and revisions that went into “How to Kill”, and quotes from others. Comparison with the finished version is instructive. Here is something of the evolution of the first verse:

Under the parabola of his ball
the child turned into a man
looking in the air at the bright thing.
The ball fell in his hand; it sang
IMG_0002in the closed fist, Open, Open.
for the gift you hold is lethal

Under the parabola of his ball went
the child turning into a man
looking upwards at the thing
in the air. The ball fell: it sang
in the closed fist: Open Open
behold a gift, a lethal instrument.

Under the parabola of a ball
a child turning into a man
I stared into the air at the bright thing.
The ball fell into my hand: it sang
in the closed fist: Open Open
behold a lethal instrument.

As the child is turning man (and as a tennis ball is unlikely to kill), I take this as an image from the school cricket pitch; in the end the cricketer becomes the first person.

In an early version of what would become the third verse, Douglas seems to identify with the man who is to die:

I have committed sorcery
sorcerers are of the angels cursed,
for by sorcery the focus of love is diffused
so the waves of love travel into vacancy
it is sad to be a ghost.

Then a second verse is inserted which puts him at the near end of the rifle barrel:

In my dial of glass appears
the young man I have come to kill.
He smiles, and moves about in ways
his mother knows, habits of his.
The wires touch his face. I call
NOW. Death, like a familiar, hears

leaps out and turns to dust
a man of flesh. I have committed sorcery,
see how my hand turns black. I am accursed
who have the focal point of love diffused
the waves of love travel into vacancy.

My hand has made a man of dust
of a man of flesh: a sorcery
achieved by fragile mechanism.
Now, my face smiling in the prism
of another, he erases me.
It is easy to be a ghost.

Suddenly there is a man of dust
the live man gone as if by sorcery,
look down, some demon, and be amused
to see the focus of women’s love diffused
the waves of love will travel into vacancy
I am the creator of a ghost
it is sad to be a ghost.

“Sad to be a ghost”; “easy to be a ghost”; “creator of a ghost”: the writer’s identity flickers between killer and killed. But the “dial of glass” and the cross hairs of the “wires” are a rifle sight, and Douglas, though he had certainly killed in battle, was a tank commander. In the final version, though narrated in the first person, it is not Douglas who pulls the trigger, as indicated by the poem’s provisional title, “The Sniper”. The poem is a dramatic conceit, not autobiography. But, preoccupied with his own death in battle, which he regarded as inevitable, does Douglas write himself in as the young man blown to dust?

The last verse introduces another theme:

As a weightless mosquito who
meets her shadow on the stone
a puffball, enclosed in my own silence
as in a glass sphere, I am gliding
towards the minute when shadow and self are one
meeting unnoticeably as insects do.

The weightless mosquito touches
her tiny shadow on the stone
like a balloonist I
am borne along to die

The weightless mosquito touches
her shadow on the stone
with such an infinite
lightness, in a brief minute
my shadow & I will join
for the mosquito death approaches

The final version of this verse loses the first person voice, and death is generalised. Here is the published poem:

How to kill

Under the parabola of a ball,
a child turning into a man,
I looked into the air too long.
The ball fell in my hand, it sang
in the closed fist: Open Open
Behold a gift designed to kill.

Self portrait 1944

Self portrait 1944

Now in my dial of glass appears
the soldier who is going to die.
he smiles, and moves about  in ways
his mother knows, habits of his.
The wires touch his face: I cry
NOW.  Death, like a familiar, hears

and look, has made a man of dust
of a man of flesh. This sorcery
I do. Being damned, I am amused
to see the centre of love diffused
and the waves of love travel into vacancy.
How easy it is to make a ghost.

The weightless mosquito touches
her tiny shadow on the stone,
and with how like, how infinite
a lightness, man and shadow meet.
They fuse. A shadow is a man
when the mosquito death approaches.

It is remarkable how this sits fresh and effortless on the page, as if evoked whole and immaculate. It doesn’t occur to us that it was the culmination of a lengthy and painful struggle, for it doesn’t look like the result of a process of accretion. Or rather, it is as if Douglas has had to hack his way through a maze of misbegotten apocrypha, searching for the Ur-poem, stripping away erroneous associations and testing alternatives, pulling together themes that at first appeared quite disconnected, finally to uncover the poem itself as it always has been.

With “how infinite a lightness” the poem looks to have been done. “How easy it is to make a ghost”. Well, not really. It only appears to be.

Drummond Allison, bulldog poet

drummond allisonFor no particular reason, time for an honourable mention of WW2 poet Drummond Allison – possibly the only baby ever to have been named after Sapper’s thuggish gentleman detective Bulldog Drummond, on account of his strikingly pugnacious physiognomy as a newborn – at least in his mother’s eyes.

Photos and recollections reveal no thug but “an extrovert, a rackety enfant terrible with tow-coloured hair” (David Wright), resembling, as another friend remarked, an “almost grown-up” Just William. His exuberance, generosity and humour coloured his poetry, which is energetic, quirky, jagged but stately, musically alliterative, telegraphic, with little concession to poetic fashion, though he had clearly absorbed Auden and George Barker among others. Here’s a personal favourite:

O sheriffs

the yellow nightO sheriffs hung with long pearlhandled guns
Showing your stars, coachditching dark road-agents,
O Pony Express on Sioux-surrounded plains,

Mushers of huskies, dudes in border towns,
Rustlers of painted mustangs down thin gorges
And tumblers out of rustler-run saloons,

O Darrell who the revolving logs defy,
O Billy caught with bacon, mad-eyed Hardin
Daring to draw each pallid deputy.

God like a lone and lemon-drinking Ranger,
Or at a far fur-station the half-breed stranger,
Them string up undecayed and stellify.

eight oxford poetsIt could be objected that the last verse suffers by the necessary inversion of “Them string up” and by the obscurity of “stellify” (turn into a star). But let’s face it, “stellify” is a cracking word. And “God like a lone and lemon-drinking Ranger” – just how good is that?

From one boyhood constellation to another passion – cricket. Of all Allison’s poems, “Verity” may be the best known, featuring Death as a batsman, and written for the Yorkshire and England bowler Hedley Verity, killed in Sicily in 1943, a few months before Allison’s own death:


The ruth and truth you taught have come full circle
On that fell island all whose history lies,
poemsFar now from Bramall Lane and far from Scarborough
You recollect how foolish are the wise.

On this great ground more marvellous than Lords
– Time takes more spin than nineteen thirty four –
You face at last that vast that Bradman-shaming
Batsman Whose cuts obey no natural law.

Run up again, as gravely smile as ever,
Veer without fear your left unlucky arm
In His so dark direction, but no length
However lovely can disturb the harm
That is His style, defer the winning drive
Or shake the crowd from their uproarious calm.

But Allison is no mere boyish, or even Boy’s Own Paper, poet. His subjects range from suburbia, class allegiance, social change and Marxism to war, death, girls and sex. Try this study of unlucky love in which every humdrum object embodies uncertainty:

Rejection Song

Now from closing car park and last bus stop start
Vehicles whose muffled passengers and drivers
Have worked out true bearings on their loved and lovers,
But explain no variation of my heart.

collectedNow admitting it my error to have thought
You the right reply to each unsure red setter,
To the query in each clockface in each clutter
Of bewildered boulders, every doubtful fort;

Every question mark that forms on spark-scorched grass,
Puzzled stares of Greenline coach and double decker,
Unconvinced old slot machines, the startled knocker
And the flabbergasted spareroom looking-glass;

Now aware not only unity and shared
Hunts for reasons and for purposes, but looking
More than most, but kissing tired and watching waking,
Are like birds that tantalise their leader snared;

Yet before the unlit fire I know my need
Of your thighs your throat your abdomen their movements,
Yet beside the dry-voiced bookcase on pale pavements
I repeat the quite incredible my creed.

Lieutenant John Drummond Allison left for the front in October 1943. Little more than a month later he was killed in the assault on Monte Camino. He was 22 years old.

A biography by Ross Davies appeared in 2009, though I can’t pretend to have read it. At the same time, Allison’s Wiki stub still consists of just four sentences. His work, sadly, is thoroughly out of print, a 1994 Collected (published by his old school in an edition of 300, and admirably edited by Stephen Benson) being his most recent appearance. Before that, we have a 1978 Poems (Whiteknights Press in a run of 200), his posthumous 1944 collection The Yellow Night, and his modest appearance in the 1941 anthology Eight Oxford Poets.

VerityLimited editions or not, none of these are at all pricey second hand – a sure sign of neglect. Of Allison’s fellow Oxford soldier poets who never returned, Keith Douglas and Sidney Keyes, Douglas is now properly regarded; Keyes remains interesting but was hugely overrated at the time. Allison stands up solidly against Douglas, and is a far more important poet than Keyes, but both the latter are still in print, with Faber and Carcanet no less. A manuscript of “Verity” in Allison’s hand, on the endpaper of a Yorkshire County Cricket Club programme for 1911, turned up at Christie’s in 2004. It made £72.

His poetry demands urgent recognition. Him string up undecayed and stellify.