It is often said that there are no great poets from the Second World War, but I’m not always so sure about that.
True, there are perhaps none as good as Wilfrid Owen or Siegfried Sassoon from the First World War, but, armed only with a computer and a credit card, I’ve still managed without too much difficulty to buy around half a dozen books of decent quality World War Two poetry, all of them the original editions published in the early 1940s.
And if I do inspire you to buy any poetry books from this period, please be aware that after more than seventy years, the dust jackets can be very tatty and may even have changed colour. And if you can find a copy where the dust jacket has been covered by “Mylar”, buy that one!
What I intend to do is to show you some examples of what I think are the best poems, with my own explanations of the difficult bits if I feel that they are necessary.
DO NOT PANIC
None of this RAF poetry is in “ye funnie lankuage” spoken by Shakspere or Geoffrey Chaucer.
There’s nothing from King Lear:
“Thou changed and self-cover’d thing, for shame,
Be-monster not thy feature. Were’t my fitness
To let these hands obey my blood,
They are apt enough to dislocate and tear
Thy flesh and bones: howe’er thou art a fiend,
A woman’s shape doth shield thee.”
It’s not from Chaucer:
“And, whan he rood, men mighte his brydel here
Ginglen in a whistling wynd as clere,
And eek as loude as dooth the chapel-belle”
The RAF poetry is all easy to understand and you might even enjoy it.
First up to the plate is Anthony Richardson, (1899-1964). His full name was Anthony Thomas Stewart Currie Richardson and he would one day marry a lady with an equally impressive name. She was Marion de Mouchet Baynham.
Richardson’s first book of poetry was entitled “Because of these: Verses of the Royal Air Force” (1942). You can even get a nice dust jacket if you are patient:
This poem is called “W/OP–A/G Blenheim Mk IV” and it was included in what is actually a rather slim volume. A Blenheim is an RAF light bomber and a “W/OP–A/G” is a “wireless operator-air gunner”. Read this easy bit first. Balham is a district of London:
Richardson draws the parallels between the inoffensive man at home in the first eight lines above, and then the air gunner in the extract below, sitting in his gun turret, holding his guns, ready to fight. And at eventide he wonders if he will be alive to see the rising sun greet the morning. And in the last two lines, he watches the sky for German fighters, just as once he used to watch his beautiful daughter with the firelight on her hair creating a halo around her beautiful face. And finally, “this most strange, impersonal affair”, I think, refers to the fact that any quarrel between himself and the fighter pilot is not personal, it’s just the way things are:
All that, and it rhymes too! And the syllables have a regular pattern.
That’s why it’s poetry and not prose.
Next time, I’ll tell you about Anthony Richardson in more depth and we’ll look at one more of his poems. Poetry is like spicy food for the brain. You have to take it slowly at first.