One Day Late

I’d hoped to write something about Second World War poet Keith Douglas yesterday, since it was the eleventh of November, but today will have to do instead.  Besides, I’m sure I’ll mention him on a hundred more blog posts, because he’s such an enormous inspiration.

A few times people have asked me what my influences were when writing The Girl with Glass Feet.  I’ve wanted to be cheeky and rephrase the question to ask what my inspirations are.  In my experience few writers feel any force of influence on their work.  You don’t set out to write something that’s in the style of x or the tradition of y, you just start writing.  That’s not to say that what’s been published in the past has no bearing on what’s being written in the present, its just that the things you’ve read that have motivated you to write for yourself don’t neccessarily have anything in common with your final output.

All this is a very roundabaout way of saying that Keith Douglas is my biggest literary inspiration, even if I write nothing like him.  His poems have an emotional poise that I find riveting.  Although they’re all set against the backdrop of the Second World War, they don’t deal much in politics and history, taking the enormity of their period as a given.  Instead they focus on what it’s like to be alive in such times.  Not just what it’s like to be on a battlefield, but what it’s like to sit smoking in a Jerusalem tea garden or lose a lover because of the distance between one country and another.

I feel very lucky to be able to read Douglas’ work at all.  He was an unknown poet when he was killed and buried under a hedge in France in 1944.  He’d had bits and pieces published here and there and had received rejection slips from, among others, T S Eliot, but his early death (aged 24) meant he had left too seemingly small a body of work to be remembered.  So he slipped into obscurity and remained there for many years until Ted Hughes – thank goodness – began to champion him and throw his weight behind the republication of his poems.

This potted history is apt, because Douglas doesn’t seem to fit in among his contemporaries.  To me his work feels less tied to tradition (or to the idea of having to break with tradition).  His poems take the form he needs them to take, with a disregard for the literary fashions of his time.  That’s not to say they were wildly experimental, just that he was enormously comfortable in his medium (he even wrote a poem about this, straightforwardly called Words, which sums up neatly his approach to writing). 

I first came across Keith Douglas when I was about the same age he would have been as he wrote his best poems.  I was looking for a way to understand what I was trying to achieve with my own writing, trying to figure out what form it should take.  Reading Douglas’ perfectly-formed works just seemed to make things click into place.  Suddenly I knew how I wanted to write.  Obviously I wouldn’t be writing Second World War poetry, but I wanted to make something that was expressive in the way that his poems were.  I’m still trying to figure out precisely how to do that, which has led to an even greater admiration for Douglas.  He was so young when he wrote these things and it’s such a tragedy that he never got to write more.

If you buy his poetry book (of which there will only ever be one), don’t start at the beginning, because the poems are arranged chronologically and at the beginning is all the stuff he wrote as a schoolboy.  I suspect this is included for two reasons.  Firstly, there aren’t enough complete adult poems to fill a book and secondly, it’s interesting to see his literary development.  You can come back to all this later.  Start, instead, at the end and read backwards.  The very last poem in the book, On A Return From Egypt, is my favourite, and the only bit of writing I’ve ever memorised.

I wish I could reproduce some of his work for you here, but the copyright is a bit uncertain, I’m afraid.  The internet seems like a brilliant tool through which publishers could promote their poetry lists, but I doubt that’s going to happen any time soon.  All I can suggest is that you go to the D shelf of your bookshop’s poetry section and find this little grey book.  Try reading Time Eating and On A Return From Egypt, which I hope you will enjoy as much as I do.