In its naked pain this poem of lost or unrequited love may seem very much a young man’s outpouring, but after all Keith Douglas was only 24 when he died, something that one tends to forget, given the power and originality of his best poems.
I Listen To The Desert Wind
I listen to the desert wind
that will not blow her from my mind;
the stars will not put down a hand,
the moon’s ignorant of my wound
moving negligently across
by clouds and cruel tracts of space
as in my brain by nights and days
moves the reflection of her face.
skims like a bird my sleepless eye
the sands who at this hour deny
the violent heat they have by day
as she denies her former way:
all the elements agree
with her, to have no sympathy
for my tactless misery
as wonderful and hard as she.
O turn in the dark bed again
and give to him what once was mine
and I’ll turn as you turn
and kiss my swarthy mistress pain
Robert Frost was a fine poetic chronicler of marital disharmony, as attested by such poems as ‘Home Burial’, ‘The Subverted Flower’ and ‘The Thatch’. But this poem is one of a love still unshadowed by the tragic events and stresses of his life, about that sweet unrepeatable time when a couple are first exploring the territory of each other’s life and identity. If you want an object lesson in what simplicity of language can achieve, look at the closing two lines.
Meeting and Passing
As I went down the hill along the wall
There was a gate I had leaned at for the view
And had just turned from when I first saw you
As you came up the hill. We met. But all
We did that day was mingle great and small
Footprints in summer dust as if we drew
The figure of our being less than two
But more than one as yet. Your parasol
Pointed the decimal off with one deep thrust.
And all the time we talked you seemed to see
Something down there to smile at in the dust.
(Oh, it was without prejudice to me!)
Afterward I went past what you had passed
Before we met and you what I had passed.
This excerpt from a longer, slightly rambling elegy for Auden’s friend Louis MacNeice seems even more likely to strike a chord with practitioners of poetry today than when it was written back in the sixties. A slightly dangerous chord maybe: its proud stance too easily tipping over into a disdain for the common reader and a retreat into the obscurantism that goes some of the way towards explaining the common reader’s alienation from poetry in the first place. Yet when all is said and done poets must still reconcile any distaste they may have for elitism with a desire to render a true account, a desire that they may feel to be largely lacking in the culture that surrounds them, and in the end may feel that they have no choice but to continue broadcasting on their own channel even though no one, it seems, is tuning in to listen…
From ‘The Cave of Making’
Who would, for preference,
be a bard in an oral culture,
obliged at drunken feasts to improvise a eulogy
of some beefy illiterate burner,
giver of rings, or depend for bread on the moods of a
Baroque Prince, expected,
like his dwarf, to amuse? After all, it’s rather a privilege
amid the affluent traffic
to serve this unpopular art which cannot be turned into
background noise for study
or hung as a status trophy by rising executives,
cannot be ‘done’ like Venice
or abridged like Tolstoy, but stubbornly still insists upon
being read or ignored: our handful
of clients at least can rune.
At school I used to go out running with a slightly mad fellow enthusiast who persuaded me one winter that we should run barefoot in the snow ‘to toughen our feet’. Small stuff on the scale of what cold can do to you, but enough that this poem by Edgell Rickword (1898-1982) can still make my toes tingle at the memory of it. And what a brilliant stroke of personification, to fuse the hostility of winter with that image of callous commanding officers whom at least some of their soldiers on either side seem to have viewed as no less a hazard of the war.
Colonel Cold strode up the Line
(tabs of rime and spurs of ice);
stiffened all that met his glare:
horses, men and lice.
Visited a forward post,
left them burning, ear to foot;
fingers stuck to biting steel,
toes to frozen boot.
Stalked on into No Man’s Land,
turned the wire to fleecy wool,
iron stakes to sugar sticks
snapping at a pull.
Those who watched with hoary eyes
saw two figures gleaming there;
Hauptmann Kälte, Colonel Cold,
gaunt in the grey air.
Stiffly, tinkling spurs they moved,
glassy-eyed, with glinting heel
stabbing those who lingered there
torn by screaming steel.