Saturday, 9 September 2017

We are at War - Forty Years Backward March

Pleased to hear that the Second World War Experience Centre  magazine 'Everyone's War'   will include an article I wrote last year about poetry from the North Africa campaign. 

Two poems about the outbreak of World War 2 from the point of view of teenagers in Britain, Elizabeth Jennings and Michael A. Mason

                                                     Public Air Raid Shelter in Trafalgar Square from 1941
                                                                      Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Anniversary Fatigue

Deliberately decided to avoid posting about the anniversary of Britain entering into World War 2. Have to admit that anniversary fatigue is taking its toll .

But if I have posted on 3rd September 2017  would have included Elizabeth Jennings (1926- 2001), who later went on to become one of the 1950's 'Movement' poets.  Her work is rarely included in World War 2 poetry anthologies - the exception being 'Poems From the Second World War'
 ( Macmillan's Children's books in partnership with the IWM. 2005 ).

'The Second World War' - Elizabeth Jennings

"The voice said 'We are at War'
And I was afraid
for I did not know what this
My sister and I ran to our friends next door
As if they could help. History was lessons learnt
     With ancient dates, but here

     Was something utterly news,
The radio, called the wireless then, had said
That the country would have to be brave. There
was much to do. ....."

 Personally I am drawn to the simplicity of the poem, Elizabeth Jennings would have been 13 when war broke out and this poem captures the adolescent realising that they were experiencing ' something utterly news'.  I am not in a position to reproduce the whole poem.

The same anthology contains Anthony Thwaite's poem 'Bournemouth 3rd September 1939' , about a school boy enjoying the seaside whilst waiting to start the Autumn Term.  Born 1930, he was far younger than Elizabeth Jennings.  The poem ends with the ominous  lines

"...........Later, tucked in bed
I hear the safe sea roll and wipe away
The castles that had built in sand that day. "

Forty  Years Backward March -Michael Arthur Mason 

Canadian writer Paul Nicholas Mason has  shared this poem his father  Michael Mason   wrote about serving in the RAF during World War 2, on, and has kindly given consent for the poem to be reproduced here.

This is a memory of an outbreak of war from the point of view of a boy just about to turn fifteen. Again I appreciate the simplicity of the poem, which conveys the aspect of the unreal with what Elizabeth Jennings above called 'something utterly news'. Also like characterisation of Chamberlain as 'disheartened Victorian ' ( who was, after all, born in 1869)   and the commander who has been 'demothballed' who wishes the boys a 'good war'.

Paul has supplied the following biography.

Michael A. Mason was born September 29, 1924 in Oxfordshire, England, the son of the butler to the Earl of Jersey.  He was educated in state schools, and joined the RAF in 1943.  He was released early in 1946 to return to university in London.  Michael eventually earned his B.A. (Hons), Dip Ed, M.A. and PHD in English Language and Literature, and taught at universities in East Africa, B.C. and Ontario, Canada.  He finished his teaching career as Head of English and Philosophy at Royal Military College, Kingston, Ontario.

'40 Years Backward March ' - Michael A Mason. 

Tired but precise, a voice. “We are at war
With Germany.” I’d seen him the year before
Bringing home “Peace with Honour.”
Chamberlain. “It is the evil things
That we shall be fighting against.”
Thus spake a disheartened Victorian.

Warm summer and bright sunshine brought them out.
This was a Junkers, circling the school
Low down. “To shelters?” No.
We had no instructions. Besides,
The All Clear had sounded; and so, officially,
He wasn’t there. It seems he abided by that,
Drifting away from us, taking his time.
Just curious.

Bomber in a hurry shed its cargo
Over the woods. We were below it,
Hunting for walnuts. You fling up a stick and
Down they come. Old Tom was eighty,
But outran most of us. “What’s the use?”
You ask. Why, none. We might have become
So easily part of the harvest.

Air Commodore, once retired;
Demothballed. He was old; to us, on parade,
Incredibly. “I wish you
A good war,” he said. “Resent him?”
No, not now. For what he meant was
“I hope you survive it.” In such times
This is not the way you should say it.

An outsize motorbike belting along behind trees
But raised as if to skim them. Suddenly there’s
Our first Vee-One, yammering over the fields
Towards us – you can imagine them
Looking for you (which is bad for morale) –
Till high in plain view over
The huge dead elm behind the house it
Cut, dipped as it lost momentum, and
Blew up somewhere else.
“Missed by a mile?” Or so;
Unless you were in the houses it demolished.

Before long they were common as wasps and
Rather a trouble at night: each dragon of darkness
Bringing you to the window
The better to watch that
Flaring rumble charting its
Ruinous way. “I take a dim view of this,”
So the cliché ran; but you’d heard
They sometimes swung round before dropping,
And you always had to be sure
That this next one kept right on going.

Yes, a long time ago, and just
Marginal. Of the mute and inglorious
Multitude only a memory
By another long-time survivor.
But, when nobody’s left to remember
The strange particular drumbeat
Of a Junkers, or Vee-Ones, or summer
So fine that it brought all the wasps out
And thus gave a tinge rather special
To youthful ambitions in those years,
Let’s hope there won’t be such a mustering
Of heavy battalions of nightmares
Lining up on parade at the recall
To arms for the next Peace with Honour
That, by the time that one’s been swatted,
There’ll be nobody left to remember."

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Johannes Bobrowski


                                      Johannes Bobrowski - 'My dark has already come '
                                                  Image courtesy of Wikipedia-German troops crossing Society border 1941

                Johannes Bobrowski ( 1917- 1965)  served in the German army from 1940- 1945, and was a Soviet Prisoner of War from 1945- 1949, and then settled in the Russian zone which eventually became the DDR.   A large amount of his  work that  is available in English seems strangely impersonal, centred around a bleak but strikingly beautiful natural world.

                                     Place of Fire

                                      We saw that sky, Blackness
                                      moved on the water, the fires
                                      beat, darkness with trembling
                                      lights stepped forward in front
                                      of the wood on the bank, in animal hide,
                                      We heard
                                      the mouths in the foilage.

                                      That sky stood
                                      unmoved. And was made
                                      of storms and tore us forward,
                                      screaming we saw the earth
                                      ascending with fields and rivers,
                                      forest, the flying fires
The poet is a hopeless and helpless presence in a  tumultuous landscape.

References to his own experiences as a soldier and/prisoner of war intrude occasionally.

                       " I began to write near Lake Ilmen in 1941, about the Russian landscape, but as a foreigner, a German. This became a theme, something like this; the Germans and the European East-because I grew up around the river Memel, where Poles, Lithuanians, Russians and Germans, lived together, and among them all the Jews. ..."

                         Introduction to ' Shadowlands. (anthology from 1966)  page 16

The Memel region was German territory before the Treaty of Versailles, where it was placed under international control,only to be taken by Lithuania, then annexed to Germany in 1939.  Through his poetry, Bobrowski was to evoke the region of Europe as 'Sarmatia,' which he counted as being East Prussia, Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania, though sometimes stretched into western Russia.  In a long poem from 1952 'Pruzzische Elegie', Bobrowski added a note stating that this work "calls to memory the people of Pruzze ( Old Prussia) exterminated by the Teutonic Order", the Germanic knights who began military campaigns against north European pagans as from the  13th century.

                                         One poem  where humans activity is a central theme is 'Kaunas 1941' commemorating the killing of Jews by pro-German Lithuanian nationalists, who murdered their victims with  iron bars and shovels whilst their supporters cheered them on. The style even then seems understated compared with  the horror of the event.

                                       Kaunas 1941

                                                                         " Noisily
                                      the murderers pass the gate.we walk
                                      softly, in musty air, in the tracks of wolves.
                                       At evening we looked out
                                      over a stony valley. The hawk
                                      swept round the broad dome
                                      We saw the old town, house after house
                                      running down to the river.

                                     Will you walk over
                                     the hill? The grey processions
                                     -old men and sometimes boys-
                                    die there. They walk up the slope ahead of the slavering wolves."

                             If Bobrowski is a serving soldier and observer, he reports the scene with a distinct detachment,at one point asking the question "Did my eyes avoid yours brother" The poem ends with the cryptic line 'My dark has already come' .  Perhaps Bobrowski's work has been neglected in Britain as so many people wish to read war poetry as some  sort of historical eye witness account. Bobrowski comes over as an invader and intruder in his mythical 'Sarmatia' . He wrote from the view of an enemy soldier, and later as a Christian viewing the crushing of a heathen culture.

 Johannes Bobrowski's  work was read in both the DDR and in West Germany. Bobrowski avoided politics, and did not clash with the DDR authorities like his contemporary Peter Huchel. Bobrowski also avoided social comment and political polemic, unlike his fellow DDR citizen, Brecht.

Perhaps a favourite Bobrowski poem of mine is Lake Ilmen 1941, with its hints that the landscape of 'Sarmatia' will triumph over the Teutonic invaders.

                                                  Lake Ilmen 1941

                                              " -Days of the lake. Of light
                                                A track in the grass
                                                the white tower stands
                                                like a gravestone.
                                                deserted by the dead
                                                The broken roof
                                                in the caw of crows
                                               Nights of the lake.The forest
                                               falls into the marshes
                                               The Old Wolf
                                               far from the burnt out site
                                               startled by a phantom,
                                               Years of the lake.The armoured
                                               flood. The climbing darkness
                                               of the waters. One day
                                               it will strike
                                               the storming  birds from the sky."



Further reading On Line

Cutbank Journal  Montana University review of Bobrowski 's poetry , 1980

Writers No One Reads blog feature on Bobrowski

Literator South African literature blog  Fascinating article about Bobrowski's poetry, Jewish Suffering, and how this issue was treated by the DDR.


'Shadowlands' -excellent anthology of Bobrowski's work introduced by poet Michael Hamburger, poems translated by Ruth and Mathew Mead , first appeared in 1966, but has been reprinted several times.

A volume of Bobrowski's poetry in English appeared in the Penguin Modern Poets series of 1971.

'Between Sarmatia and Socialism -The Life and Works of Johannes Bobrowski' by John Wiezerock
1999, ( A lot of the poetry quoted is not translated from the original German).

 Michael Hamburger  East German Poetry (1970)

Monday, 17 July 2017

Choked Sunset Glow- the poetry of Peter Huchel

                                          Peter Huchel ( 1903- 1981) 


                                          Photo : Operation Barbarossa, March 1942, from German Federal 
                                                       Archive, in public domain via Wiki-media Commons

                        World War 2 poetry from Germany has been requested, and as there seems to be a revival of interest in the former DDR ,I  have been looking at the work of  Peter Huchel and Johannes Bobrowski. Bertold Brecht is probably the most famous DDR poet, and could well be the subject of another blog post.  (Brecht has the honour of writing one of my favourite ever poems How Fortunate the Man With None ),

British interest in the work of both poets developed in the 1960's and early 1970's, mainly through the dedication shown by poet-translators such as Michael Hamburger and Mathew and Ruth Meads, yet seems to have stalled.


                                        Choked sunset glow
                                        Of crashing time
                                        Interesections of flight.
                                        Chart tracks across the ploughed fields
                                        That with the eyes of killed horses
                                        Saw the sky in flames.

                                       Nights with lungs full of smoke,
                                       With the hard breath of the fleeing
                                       When shots
                                       Struck the dusk
                                       Out of a broken gate
                                       Ash and wind came without a sound,
                                       A fire
                                       That sullenly chewed the darkness.

                                      Flung over the rail tracks,
                                      Their stifled cry
                                      Like a stone on the palate.
                                      A black
                                      Humming cloth of flies
                                      Closed their wounds.

                                    Translation of Peter Huchel poem by Michael Hamburger from 'East German                                        ' by Michael  Hamburger, (1970)

                                   Peter Huchel was born in Berlin in 1903 and educated at Berlin Freiburg and Vienna universities. According to his entry in '' , Huchel travelled in different European countries, and published poetry from 1931- 1936 that was inspired by the landscape of  Brandenburg. Other on line sources maintain that  his first poetry collection was published then quickly withdrawn in 1932. Huchel was conscripted into the German Army in 1940- 1945  and fought on the Eastern Front, being captured in 1945 and held as a Prisoner of War. It is difficult to  find exact dates but by 1949 Huchel was in East Berlin, started broadcasting on radio, and also began editing a magazine 'Sinn und Form'  ('Sense and Form' ) . With the establishment of the Berlin Wall in 1961, Huchel's career prospects went into reverse and he lost the editorship ; The magazine needed to give priority to the work of pro-Soviet poets.  Living in Stasi enforced isolation, Huchel was finally allowed to leave the DDR in 1971. After spending time in Rome, he settled in West Germany, dying in 1981.


                                             "The desert now will be history
                                             Termites with their pincers
                                             Write it
                                             On sand
                                             And no one will enquire
                                             Into a species
                                             Eagerly bent
                                             On self-extinction ."
                                            translated by Michael Hamburger from East German Poetry (1970)

                                    Another poet from the DDR was Johannes Bobrowski (1903-1965), who also fought on the Eastern Front and spent several years as a Soviet prisoner of war. A few months before his, death Bobrowski was asked in an interview conducted in East Berlin, which poet has inspired him the most. He replied
" Peter Huchel of course. I first read (a) poem of his in Soviet prison camp in a newspaper, and it impressed me immensely." ( Quote taken from Rich Ives 1980 article)
I have not  quite worked out whether Huchel was being published in a prison camp magazine as both men were Prisoners of War at roughly the same time. Peter Huchel was later to publish five Bobrowski poems in 'Sinn und  Form' in 1957.  Both poets work contained elements of 'Natursprache' - defined by the critic Nicolas Yuille as being the concept that "nature objects are part of language system that refers to a higher order."

One of my personal favourites  Peter Huchel 's poems is 'The Pastor Reports on the Downfall of His Parish' , in which  Christian eschatology undergoes a meltdown due to the ferocious impact of war. The whole notion of Christ is demolished and the verse ends ominously "Here was no Law. My day had been to brief to recognise God."

'The Pastor Reports on the Downfall of His Parish'

"It was not the fall of hell:
As if pelted by stones in a vast fury
That melted even dust, bones and skulls
And, at one with the startled light, Christ's head,
Broke from the wood.
The squadrons wheeled threateningly.
Through the red sky they flew off
As if they were slashing the arteries of the noon.
I saw it smouldering, devouring , burning-
And graves, even graves, were churned up.
Here was no Law. My day had been too brief.
To recognise God."

From 'The Pastor Reports on the Downfall of His Parish'
translated by Michael Hamburger from East German Poetry (1970)

                                         Memorial plaque to Peter Huchel, Berlin-Wilemersdorf
                                        Courtesy Wikimedia Commons 


 Rich Ives  Johannes Bobrowski Poetry from East Germany CutBank journal Spring 1980
 Michael Hamburger  East German Poetry (1970)

 Nicolas Yuille   Visionary Poetry in the German Dictatorships (1978)

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Two Laments for Cologne 30th May 1942 -First Thousand Bomber Raid

                 Cologne 30th May 1942  -Thousand Bomber Raid 
                                             Mary E. Harrison/Vera Brittain


                                         The National Archives UK (Mass bomber raid on Cologne)-artist unknown

          On the night of 30th May 1942/31st May 1942 the first of Bomber Command's Thousand Bomber Raids was directed against Cologne.  Found two poems related to the attack, both by British women. 

Mary E. Harrison 

 As a member of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force ( WAAF) and an artist, Mary E. Harrison made a model of Cologne that was used in the planning of the raid of 30th May/31st May 1942. She was horrified to see photographs of the results of the bombing, which inspired her poem 'My Hands'

The poem was published in two Oasis Salamander Trust anthologies,  'More Poems of the Second World War ;the Oasis Selection''. (1989), also in 'The Voice of War' Poems of the Second World War ' (1995) . Then again in  'Shadows of War- British Women's Poetry of the Second World War' edited by Anne Powell, ( 1999). Not clear when it was first written or published. 

The biographical information on Mary in the 1995 'Oasis' anthology advised that she trained as a model maker at RAF Nuneham Courtney, Oxfordshire, and posted to Allied Central Interpretation Unit (Photographic Intelligence) RAF Medmenham , Bucks. 'My Hands' is the only poem that I have found by her in print, or referenced on line.

The poem's strength is the way that  forged connections between an artist's model and  reality. There is no attempt to talk about war in oblique detached terms. 

My Hands

" Do you know what it is like to have death in your hands?
When you haven't a murderer's mind?
Do you know how it feels when you could be the cause
Of a child being blind?.
How many people have died through me
From the skill in my finger tips?
For I fashion the clay and portray the landscape
As the fliers are briefed for their trips."

I have reproduced the first verse, a longer extract can be found on the Oasis Trust Website

Vera Brittain  

Vera Brittain was a pacifist  during World War 2, and leading member of the Peace Pledge Union. Though more famous for her writing relating to World War 1, Vera wrote extensively about World War 2 as well. 

Lament for Cologne 

"You stood so proudly on the flowing Rhine,
Your history mankind's, your climbing spires
Crowned with the living light that man desires
To gild his path from bestial to divine
Today, consumed by war's unpitying fires,
You lie in ruins,weeping for your dead
Your shattered monuments the funeral pyres

Perhaps, when passions die and slaughters cease
The mothers on whose homes destruction fell,
Who waiting sought their children through the hell
Of London, Warsaw, Rotterdam, Belgrade, 
Will seek Cologne's sad women, unafraid
And cry's God's cause is ours. Let there be peace.! " 

Reproduced by kind permission of Mark Bostridge and T.J. Brittain-Catlin, Literary Executors for the Estate of Vera Brittain 1970.

The poem was re-published in Vera's 'Seed of Chaos' (1944) ,but  originally published in 'The Friend' magazine on 19th June 1942. 'Seeds of Chaos' contained a  survey of Allied attacks on German cities. Vera stated that  Cologne had been subjected to repeated raids as from 30th May 1942 and by the time of writing the devastation of this  city was the equivalent of 'seventeen Coventries ' ; a reference to the notorious Coventry air raid of the 14th November 1940. In her memoir of 1925- 1950, 'Testament of Experience' ( 1957),, Vera claimed that  "news bulletins, boasted that 70,000 were killed or injured " during the 30th May 1942 night raid on Cologne : RAF figures mention 500 dead, with 5,000 injured. 

I am fascinated, and sometimes exasperated, by the writing of Vera Brittain and other pacifists of World War 2. The hopeless naivete, , the endless call for 'negotiations' with Germany when Appeasement had clearly failed, and their  lack of any coherent tactics to oppose Nazism. Moreover, I totally understand criticism  that the deaths incurred during the raid on Cologne 30th May 1942 are not extensive  compared with the millions of casualties incurred during the Eastern Front, the Holocaust. the Japanese invasion of China, the vast numbers of Polish slave labourers worked to death by the Germans, the hundreds of thousands of victims of the pro-Nazi Croatian Ustasha let loose in Yugoslavia, and more. 

 I can even see the objection that George Orwell and also some 'absolutist' pacifists had, albeit from opposing viewpoints, that Vera and the Bombing Restriction Committee were somehow trying to 'humanize' war via campaigning against the 'saturation' bombing of cities. 

But it's hard to remain aloof when Vera connects Cologne with other bombed cities of Europe. Her poem was drawing on the notion that there is something essential about all human experience during a bombing raid. That there's still a human price to pay in fighting even a 'just' war. Poetry is an obvious vehicle to remind one of this fact. Most of all, a writer of Vera's standing, publishing a statement lamenting the German losses that resulted from RAF bombing, was a courageous act in 1942. 

'Seed of Chaos' was reprinted along with 'Humiliation of Honour' under the title 'One Voice-Pacifist Writings from the Second World War' -Vera Brittain, with a foreword by Shirley Williams. ( Continuum, 2005) 

An alternative view : George Orwell v, Vera Brittain

George Orwell was highly critical of 'Seed of Chaos' . 

 " Pacifism is a tenable position, provided that you are willing to take the consequences. But all talk of 'limiting' or 'humanizing' (sic) war is sheer humbug, based on the fact that the average human being never bother to examine catchwords. "

Tribune 19th May 1944.

The George Orwell v. Vera Brittain disagreement re-emerged in recent years, with an accusation that Vera falsely claimed that George Orwell changed his views on civilian bombing  in her book 'Testament of Experience' , which was  published well after Orwell's death in 1950.  The Orwell Society website  below links to a piece 'Vera Brittain v. George Orwell' by Richard Westwood , from February 12th 2012. 

Orwell Society

Friday, 5 May 2017

Latest News May 2017 and some thoughts on Keidrych Rhys

                            Latest news 

                                            Image: Nijmegen, kerkhof Graafseweg, monument vergissingsbombardement 
                                          ( to commemorate the casualties from the Allied bombardment of  22nd February 1943)
                                           With thanks to Wikipedia commons 

The Great War at Sea Poetry 'Weebly' website has now closed. Thank you to everyone who has offered support over the last three years.  Posts from the website have been archived at

Have been very pleased to publish 'The World is a Broken Place' parts 1 & 2 ', interview with Professor John Guzlowski , and his writing about his parents' experience as Polish slave labourers during World War 2 and the family's subsequent lives as 'Polack' immigrants to the US. His last collection of poetry and short prose 'Echoes of Tattered Tongues' has already been reviewed on this blog a few weeks ago.
Full interview is also to be found at

I have written an article about the poetry of the North African campaign 1940-1943 which the Second World War Experience Centre (SSWEC)  are considering publishing in their magazine 'Everyone's War'- and on line-  later this year,  Their website can be found here. SWWEC.


                                                        Keidrych Rees                                          

                                                     image courtesy of the National Gallery 
                                                     Photo of Kedrych Rhys taken in 1943.

Currently reading Keidrych Rhys  'The Van Pool : Collected Poems'  edited by Charles Mundye, published by Seren, 2012. Extremely helpful in supplying biographical information and also great to have a definitive collection of Rhys' work. 

                             "Worse than branched antlers in the blood stream
                             Worse than the tapping pain of madness in the veins
                             For grieving mother's is her boy's death
                             In the smoke -plumed spinning reaches of smooth air."
                             'Lament '

This collection reprints the whole of the original book ' The Van Pool and Other Poems' that was first published in 1942. Further poems are added, along with translations from Welsh that  Keidrych Rhys  worked on. 

 Keidrych Rhys ( 1915- 1987)  was born William Ronald Rees Jones, and took the name Keidrych Rhys in 1940. He served in the London Welsh Regiment as an anti-aircraft gunner after being called up in 1940, and was stationed in Kent during the Battle of Britain, later in Suffolk, and also at Scapa Flow.  In 1943, Rhys was invalided out of the army after a spell at Northfield Hospital , near Birmingham, which specialised in treating psychiatric conditions.

Rhys was married to the poet Lynette Roberts from 1939- 1949.  He edited the magazine 'Wales'  from 1937- 1949, a publication crucial to the development of 'Anglo-Welsh' culture though there was a three year intermission due to the War from 1940-1943.:

"No, I'm not an Englishman with a partisan religion

My root lie in another region
Though ranged alongside yours' "

-'Tragic Guilt'

His contribution to World War 2 poetry is immense, Keidrych Rees edited an anthology titled ' Poems from the Forces' in 1941, and its successor ' More Poems From The Forces -A Collection of Verses By Serving Members of the Navy, Army and Air Force' published in 1943 .This anthology included some of Keith Douglas' earlier work (before the 'War in the Desert' poetry) , and also featured work by Alun Lewis and Gavin Ewart.  By contrast to World War 1, it seemed that war poetry anthologies were slow to emerge in World War 2. 1943 also saw the publication of the classic anthology 'Oasis -The Middle East Anthology of Poetry from the Forces' ,a Cairo based initiative

Death of a Hurricane Pilot 

Too late; the Pilot dead inside
An RAF officer soon came but interrogated nothing,
More concerned with the marvellous stress of aluminium 
Gee what stress they take-wizard workmanship"

- 'Death of a Hurricane Pilot'

The Poem 'Death of a Hurricane Pilot ' is perhaps the most famous poem that Rhys wrote. Marking the death of a Belgian pilot Roger Emile d' Cannart  D'Hamale  fighting for Britain in the , 46 Sqdn, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, shot down over Kent on 1st November 1940 . He subsequently was re-buried at the Brussels Town Cemetery Belgian Airmen's Field of Honour.  Rhys' poem depicts a scene of indifference to the fate of the dead pilot. An RAF official is more interested on the crash landing's impact on the plane's wreckage. The behaviour of the rest of the crowd is worse.

 "Children, ghastly souvenir hunters, forty yards away, kick the skull."

Keidrych Rhys was friends  with some of  the literary luminaries of the time.  Dylan Thomas was his best man, borrowed a suit from fellow poet Vernon Watkins for the occasion. Rhys also managed to maintain a presence  with the Fitzrovia  literary set whilst stationed in Kent, and was therefore ideal to develop what we would now call a network to stimulate the genre of  World War 2 poetry.

But in regard to World War 2 related literature,  he somehow lost momentum . Something made him move away from a role of being a literary advocate for World War 2 poetry. And his work offers us a clue- 'Poem Being Invalided Out Of Army '  -which was  written long after the 'Van Pool'  collection -   refers to " Terrible accusing patterns  "  that seem ingrained to a discharged man's mind, making him belong to a category of

" despised anonymous personalities
admonished by the other half from whose callous sanity
the whole mad recognising world is unanimous in self-redemption."

A  review of Lynette Roberts collected poems by Alan Tucker, written in 2010 , which suggested that Rhys had gone AWOL in 1942. If correct, Keidrych Rhys would be the only other  known World War 2  poet to have absconded besides Vernon Scannell. 

Keidrych Rhys, as a literary editor, went on to promote the work of R.S. Thomas and John Cooper Powys. Along with Lynette Roberts, he encouraged Robert Graves writing of 'The White Goddess' . Three provisional extracts from this book were published in the magazine 'Wales'. 

A longer article about Keidrych Rhys will follow. 

For more information

Lynette Roberts

Monday, 27 March 2017

John Guzlowski - Memory Unfolded

             John Guzlowski - 'Echoes of Tattered Tongues '

At the moment I am meant to be running one website and two blogs related to War Poetry.  All the material has now been merged into one on-line resource and will be available to read soon. 

 And said new website will feature a long interview with John Guzlowski, who uses poetry to retell the experiences of his Polish parents, both as slave labourers for the Third Reich, and then as Polish immigrants to the USA. 

Whilst I am looking forward to publishing a full interview, here is a review of his collection 'Echoes of Tattered Tongues- Memories Unfolded' ; I placed a slightly amended version on Amazon UK.

John also runs an excellent blog titled Lightning and Ashes about the experiences of the Polish people under Nazi Occupation and its aftermath. 

-Michael Bully 

Review of Echoes of Tattered Tongues 

“We came with heavy suitcases
made from wooden boards by brothers
we left behind, came from Buchenwald
and Katowice and before that
Lwow, our mother’s true home

Came with our tongues
in tatters, our teeth in our pockets
hugging on ourselves, our bodies
stiff like frightened ostriches.”


A son of a Polish immigrants , with both parents spending years as labourers in German concentration camps, Professor Guzlowski uses poetry and short pieces of prose to convey their experiences. John Guzlowski was born just after World War 2 in a Displaced Persons camp, and moved with his parents and sister to the USA 1951.

 The writer  initially turned his back on Polish culture and the stigma of being considered a  ‘‘dumb Polack" by those hostile to immigrants, stating that “ I began running from my otherness as soon as I could.” The young John Guzlowski wanted to “ spend as little time as possible thinking about my parents and their Foolishness” along with what his mother called her 'concentration camp shit'. 

As a consequence, he began immersing himself in American Literature, movies and rock n roll. But gives the impression that once he had constructed an American identity, he began to realise
“Really there aren’t a lot of people writing about people like my parents and other DPs” ( displaced persons).

Most of the poems depict the systematic brutality and cruelty of the German occupation and concentration camp life : German soldiers appear in Poland “ like buffaloes , terrible and big” ,

“Soldiers from nowhere
came to my mother’s farm
killed her sister’s baby
with their heels
shot my grandma too

One time in the neck
then for kicks in the face
lots of times…”

-‘My mother was Nineteen’

John Guzlowsi's mother was taken away to be deported to Germany as a concentration camp labourer, whilst other members of the families were killed.

“She learned that the world is a broken place
Where no birds sing, and even angels
Cannot bear the sorrows God gives them.”

-’What the War Taught Her’

Professor Guzlowski’s father also experience the trauma of the camps, losing an eye in the process:

“He ate the leaves off trees. He ate bark,
he ate the flies that tormented
the mules working in the fields.
he ate what would kill a man….

“And when there was nothing to eat
he’d search the ground for pebbles
and they would loosen his saliva
and he would swallow that. “

It’s the starkness of the poetry and it’s lack of romance, along with the economy of language that gives John  Guzlowski’s work such strength. 

Also  the details of concentration life, the fact that his mother faced her first winter in the camps with only the clothes that she was wearing when captured. A guard took her away, raped her, but then left her to live and work with the cattle for warmth.

There’s also a strange enchantment in his work such as in ‘Pigeons’

“My father dreams of pigeons,
their souls, their thin cradles
of bone,but it is their luck

he admires most. A boy in Poznari
in a dawn all orange and pinks,
his hands opened like saint’s “

Professor Guzlowski’s poetry doesn’t offer political or religious explanations let alone solutions to the horrors that his parents and those like them experienced. Just wanting his parents lives recounted in poetry seems to be enough. And he does this so well.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Remember Babi Yar -'Art Destroys Silence'

'Babi Yar' -Yevgeny Yevtushenko (born 1933)

People knew about Babi Yar before Yevtushenko's poem, but they were silent. And when they read the poem, the silence was broken. Art destroys silence. 

'Testimony-The Memoirs of Dimitri  Shostakovich,' ( edited by Solomon Volkov) ,1979.

                        Painting of Babi Yar by Shalom Goldberg, Spertus Museum, Chicago, Illinois

During the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Babi Yar,  a ravine by Kiev, was the site of  a particular horrendous massacre of  some 33,000 Jews on 29th September -30th September 1941 at the hand of the Nazi killing unit, Einzsatsgruppen: The Babi Yar Memorial Centre maintains that 120,000 people were shot by the Germans and their allies. Those who died included " Soviet prisoners of war, political opponents, mental patients, civilians of Roma, Russian and Ukrainian origin."

The atrocity was immortalised by Shostakovich's 13th symphony in B flat minor, opus 113, completed in 1962, which opened with a musical setting of the poem 'Babi Yar' by Yevgeny Yevtushenko . This poem was first published in Soviet journal ' Literaturania Gazeta' in 1961.

The Soviet Union had seen a wave of anti-Jewish feeling instigated by Stalin in 1952- 1953. Yevtushenko's poem presented the massacre of 29th September -30th September 1941 as the culmination of antisemitism generally, and referenced anti- Jewish feeling amongst Russian people. The poem opens with a protest that
 " No monument stands over Babi Yar/A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone."

Although more cultural expression was permitted under Kruschev , the first performances of the 13th sympathy were placed under immense scrutiny  by the Soviet authorities. Two performances, on 1st December and 3rd December 1962 went ahead at the Moscow conservatory. Yevtushenko soon had to rewrite parts of the poem ( that were being performed as part of the symphony ) as it was felt that not enough emphasis was placed on the non-Jewish people who were killed at Babi Yar. One revised verse read

"I think of Russia's heroic deed
In blocking the way to fascism,
To the smallest dewdrop, she is close to me
In her very being and her fate."

( Source 'The New Shostakovich', Ian MacDonald. 2006 edition)

The combination of the poem and the symphony , particularly as Shostakovich was well known outside the Soviet Union, helped to highlight Babi-Yar. The massacre was also a setting for a scene in the famous 1978 US television series 'Holocaust' . Memorials to the victims have now been placed in different parts of Europe and North America.

The treatment of Jews in the Soviet Union was to remain a major human rights concern during the Cold War, and beyond. Yet the collaboration between Shostakovich and Yevtushenko over 'Babi Yar' has made quite an impact :

"No monument stands over Babi Yar.
A steep cliff only, like the rudest headstone.
I am afraid.
Today, I am as old
As the entire Jewish race itself.
I see myself an ancient Israelite.
I wander o’er the roads of ancient Egypt
And here, upon the cross, I perish, tortured
And even now, I bear the marks of nails.
It seems to me that Dreyfus is myself.
The Philistines betrayed me – and now judge.
I’m in a cage. Surrounded and trapped,
I’m persecuted, spat on, slandered, and
The dainty dollies in their Brussels frills
Squeal, as they stab umbrellas at my face.
I see myself a boy in Belostok
Blood spills, and runs upon the floors,
The chiefs of bar and pub rage unimpeded
And reek of vodka and of onion, half and half.
I’m thrown back by a boot, I have no strength left,
In vain I beg the rabble of pogrom,
To jeers of “Kill the Jews, and save our Russia!”
My mother’s being beaten by a clerk.
O, Russia of my heart, I know that you
Are international, by inner nature.
But often those whose hands are steeped in filth
Abused your purest name, in name of hatred.
I know the kindness of my native land.
How vile, that without the slightest quiver
The antisemites have proclaimed themselves
The “Union of the Russian People!”
It seems to me that I am Anna Frank,
Transparent, as the thinnest branch in April,
And I’m in love, and have no need of phrases,
But only that we gaze into each other’s eyes.
How little one can see, or even sense!
Leaves are forbidden, so is sky,
But much is still allowed – very gently
In darkened rooms each other to embrace.
-“They come!”
-“No, fear not – those are sounds
Of spring itself. She’s coming soon.
Quickly, your lips!”
-“They break the door!”
-“No, river ice is breaking…”
Wild grasses rustle over Babi Yar,
The trees look sternly, as if passing judgement.
Here, silently, all screams, and, hat in hand,
I feel my hair changing shade to gray.
And I myself, like one long soundless scream
Above the thousands of thousands interred,
I’m every old man executed here,
As I am every child murdered here.
No fiber of my body will forget this.
May “Internationale” thunder and ring
When, for all time, is buried and forgotten
The last of antisemites on this earth.
There is no Jewish blood that’s blood of mine,
But, hated with a passion that’s corrosive
Am I by antisemites like a Jew.
And that is why I call myself a Russian"
Benjamin Opoknik translation

Babi Yar holocaust memorial centre

Yevgeny Yevtushenko reading Babi Yar in English

Shostakovich 13th Symphony