Wednesday, 9 September 2009


The media coverage of the 70th anniversary of the start of the Second World War has reminded me of a poem and a poet I was introduced to in secondary school. This introduction was courtesy of the same inspirational English teacher to which this blog has previously alluded.

I speak of The Naming of Parts by Henry Reed (this is a really good website, by the way), one of a six part sequence based on and partly satirising the army's instructional lectures from that period. The way in which the poem took words and phrases from one context and gave them new connotations and meaning in another, was something I found very powerful and magical, and studying the poem helped set the seal on an early appreciation of poetry.

I was similarly affected by a Keith Douglas poem from the same war:

Vergissmeinnicht (Forget Me Not)

Three weeks gone and the combatants gone
returning over the nightmare ground
we found the place again, and found
the soldier sprawling in the sun.

The frowning barrel of his gun
overshadowing. As we came on
that day, he hit my tank with one
like the entry of a demon.

Look. Here in the gunpit spoil
the dishonoured picture of his girl
who has put: Steffi. Vergissmeinnicht
in a copybook gothic script.

We see him almost with content,
abased, and seeming to have paid
and mocked at by his own equipment
that's hard and good when he's decayed.

But she would weep to see today
how on his skin the swart flies move;
the dust upon the paper eye
and the burst stomach like a cave.

For here the lover and killer are mingled
who had one body and one heart.
And death who had the soldier singled

has done the lover mortal hurt.

If, as I suspect, these poems are less well known than their counterparts from the first global conflict, I think it is a sad cultural loss.


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