Poetry talks to everyone in times of trouble

There has been much emotion and pain at this year’s Armistice events – certainly here in Britain and, I suspect elsewhere too. We have British soldiers dying in Afghanistan and very recently they were dying in Iraq too. I don’t know what the Queen was thinking as she laid her wreath at the Cenotaph in London but this year ideas of war and the war-dead cast a melancholy mood over the nation and here in Lewes, UK, the rain didn’t stop people coming out onto the streets to mark the occasion.

A lot has been said but, in the end, I wonder why people don’t just read the poetry of two gallant soldiers and great writers who, one in the First World War and one in the Second, said all we have to hear to know that it is a terrible, almost unforgiveable thing for nations to fail so badly in government that their young people have to die for their countries.

Wilfred Owen and Keith Douglas were brave young men and brilliant soldiers and yet their voices echo down the decades and will do so for centuries telling us to find a better way to do things. It is at times such as these that poetry speaks to us all.

Wilfred Owen

Anthem For Doomed Youth
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,–
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
Wilfred Owen 1893-1918

Wilfred Owen, aged 25,  was buried in Ors Community Cemetery, France in 1918

Keith Douglas

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.

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 wave 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.

Keith Douglas 1920-1944

Keith Douglas, aged 24, was buried in Tilly-sur-Seulles War cemetery, France in 1944.

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