The Operating System

3rd Annual NAPOMO 30/30/30 :: DAY 3 :: BARRETT WARNER on KEITH DOUGLAS (1920-1944)

The first poems or stories anyone writes are often letters, which is why young letters—those written before the writer has developed his genre and style and voice—are helpful when looking at a mature author. Included in the Keith Douglas archive are thank-you notes to his grandparents for a crayon set, and various pleading, homesick letters to his mother sent from boarding school as he inveigled her to mail care packages of chocolate. Douglas was an energetic letter writer always eager to report new mates, new triumphs on the soccer field, and new beatings by the faculty’s salty paddle. He lavished his texts with great emotion and even some cunning. While he never outgrew his love of a caper and his social dependence on constantly having a buddy, his many letters were like small tests of himself; not of his strengths, but of his weaknesses. He was afraid of being a coward and afraid of being alone. He had tremendous, earth-shaking desire in spite of a small heart. He wished his father hadn’t left him at eight. He wished he had more money. He wanted to know everything but he adored what he didn’t know.

Douglas’s early loves were his only loves. He romanced six women with late-night correspondences. They heard his fears, how dying meant nothing to him except that his love for Toni, or Olga, meant everything to him. Now he didn’t want to die at all, but wanted to pass the night in a stupor of desire, making love to his darling while someone recited Shakespearean balcony scenes. When Douglas died none of these women had married yet, and after, they wouldn’t part with his letters at any price. The great thing about dying at 24 is that no one has had enough time to get rid of your shit.

And so, readers of Douglas have a literary record of him twenty times or so larger than our ability to imagine him.  His subtle thoughts about the seer’s distance and being blown to bits make him seem not like a poet but a prophet. At his early death, in the second attack wave at Normandy, these words and mementos became relics for his survivors. Now every scrap must be saved, both his notebooks and his socks (where he stored his tea and sugar). They’re part of his legacy as much as the poems he wished he had written and the ones he wished he hadn’t giving us a nearly complete picture of a very incomplete life.

A mind could be taught, crafted, shaped, but if poets were both architects and dreamers, Douglas leaned to the gushy, emotional, dreamer side of the bargain. His essay on Othello is such a rant that it contains no facts or citations. For Douglas, it was all about the heartfelt response. He resented his post at division at the start of the desert campaign where attack blueprints were drawn, and he wanted to be in the sand, hollering and fighting with his men in the armored cavalry’s B Company. He went AWOL from headquarters to find war on the horizon and was promptly given a tank which fired six pound shells.

This is why his poetry is so shocking. Something happened to Douglas as he chased Rommel from Palestine to Tunisia. Maybe it was traumatic stress disorder, but whatever the case, Douglas began to write in a manner that defied his true gregarious nature. He called what he did “Extro-spection.” The tone was cold, inert, the terrible images lacking any drama or psychological stage. In it, metaphor is a cold, heartless thing, and the poet is just a stinking dead fish. It is almost as if Douglas is showing us that in order to evolve it is imperative that one know one’s nature inside and out, and then to seek out circumstances that defy our nature totally. If you are best at writing short poems, your best poem will be a long one, says Robert By. If you’ve the gift of gab, your best poem will be silence.

In Douglas, the poet’s voice is the poet’s eye. His poem “The Marvel” is about a “great tropic / swordfish, spread-eagled on the thirsty deck / where sailors killed him.” One of the sailors uses a “sharp enquiring blade” to yield the swordfish’s eye which becomes a “powerful enlarging glass // reflecting the unusual sun’s heat.” The sailor uses the corpse-robbed eye to write the name of a woman he desired in his last port. Interesting waves, querulous soft voices, ghost mariners: “All this emerges from the burning eye.” In another poem, “The Prisoner,” the speaker lightly caresses a captive, as if it were a greater torture: “Today, Cheng, I touched your face / with two fingers…like moths my hands / return to your skin, that’s luminous.” Both poems are so cold in their narrative, yet so intimate.

As a tank commander, Douglas peered through the small periscope and reported to the driver and the gunner. Simiarly, as a poet, Douglas’ eye is much more active than a Modernist eye, which remains motionless while the word happens around it, perhaps confirming our helplessness and our isolation. Instead, Douglas’ eye goes out looking for things to notice. It writes names. While Douglas certainly comes after the Moderns he’s not quite post-Modern either since he’s not trying to change how poems use scaffolding—the hallmark of early 1950s post-Modern work. It’s as if he dreams of being post-Modern before its path has been mapped out by his literary descendants.

In his poem “The Sea Bird,” the poet is walking the Mediterranean shore when he spies two birds close together, “a dead bird and a live bird, / the dead eyeless, but with the bright eye // the live one discovered me / and stepped from a black rock into the air.” Douglas has portrayed tradition lying dead beside the present, and he uses the fabulous motion of one bird—the present—to contrast the opacity of the dead thing, as if one could be the ghost of the other: “I turn from the dead bird to watch him fly, // electric, brilliant blue, / beneath he is orange, like flame, / colours I can’t believe are so, / as legendary flowers bloom / incendiary in tint, so swift he / searches about the sky…”

Douglas wrote his war memoir Alamein to Zem Zem while recovering from shrapnel wounds he suffered in the British Eighth Army’s attack on Tripoli. It was one of those fights where companies traded ground, gaining one day, losing the next. Hardly anything decomposed in the great drying heat. When his company gained ground they discovered dead Germans who had shot at them three weeks before. When they lost ground they saw their own members as if they hadn’t been dead a month. Douglas recognizes that his art could only come from the death of his nature. There it was, lying on the ground, rotting away, pestered by flies. Did someone kill it? Had he? No matter, there are notes to take about the “hostile miraculous age.”

“This is my particular monster,” Douglas writes in one of his “Bete Noire” fragments. “I know him; / he walks about inside me: I’m his house / and his landlord. He’s my evacuee / taking a respite from Hell in me / he decorates his room of course / to remind him of home. He often talks of going— / such a persuasive gentleman he is / I believe him, I go out quite sure / that I’ll come back and find him gone / but does he go? Not him. No, he’s a one / who likes his joke…”

In his 1964 introduction to Simplify Me When I’m Dead: Keith Douglas, Ted Hughes wrote:

“Douglas has not simply added poems to poetry, or evolved a sophistication. He is a renovator of language. It is not that he uses words in jolting combinations, or with titanic extravagance, or curious precision. His triumph lies in the way he renews the simplicity of ordinary talk, and he does this by infusing every word with a burning exploratory freshness of mind—partly impatience, party exhilaration at speaking the forbidden thing, partly sheer casual ease of penetration…There is nothing studied about this new language. Its air of improvisation is a vital part of its purity. It has the trenchancy of inspired jotting, yet leaves no doubt about the completeness and subtlety of his impressions, or the thoroughness of his artistic conscience. His poem “Egypt” could be a diary note, yet how could it be improved as a poem?”

Hughes had produced a BBC radio program on Douglas two years before. In Douglas, Hughes found what he believed to be the perfect way to shape personal, or confessional, poetry which grew out of an emotional experience. The more dispassionate our eye, when we ourselves are passionate, the more we could penetrate our depths. Sylvia Plath had a great gift for applying Douglas’ ideas to her own writing and extro-spection would become a central technique for Plath where the coldness of her narrative eye juxtaposed with the fantastic intimacy of her subject.

While the Douglas influence hasn’t been fairly observed by most Plath scholars, his influence was very much on Hughes’ mind when he wrote Birthday Letters, and he and Plath were great fans of Douglas. Plath wrote her mother about Douglas in June 1962: “Both of us mourn this poet immensely and feel he would have been like a lovely big brother to us.” It is ironic that our complete view of Douglas’ incomplete life would resonate with Plath of whom we have an incomplete record of a more or less complete life.

Eight months later Plath committed suicide. Hughes suffered great public hue and cry for burning her journals. Maybe that was a little psychopathic of him, or at best, an over-reaction to his own grief, so it’s interesting that for his very first literary project after Plath’s death was to compile and annotate a new edition of selected Douglas poems—the Keith Douglas whom they both admired and who could open a window onto Plath’s style. The edition would be published in 1964, the twentieth anniversary of his death, and the first anniversary of his wife’s passing.

Simplify Me When I’m Dead

Remember me when I am dead
and simplify me when I’m dead.

As the processes of earth
strip off the colour and the skin
take the brown hair and blue eye

and leave me simper than at birth
when hairless I came howling in
as the moon came in the cold sky.

Of my skeleton perhaps
so stripped, a learned man will say
‘He was of such a type and intelligence,’ no more.

Thus when in a year collapse
particular memories, you may
deduce, from the long pain I bore

the opinions I held, who was my foe
and what I left, even my appearance
but incidents will be no guide.

Time’s wrong-way telescope will show
a minute man ten years hence
and by distance simplified.

Through that lens see if I seem
substance or nothing: of the world
deserving mention or charitable oblivion

not by momentary spleen
or love into decision hurled
leisurely arrive at an opinion.

Remember me when I am dead
and simplify me when I’m dead.

Barrett Warner is an associate editor at Free State Review.

 

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