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.
19 responses to “Anthony Richardson : the RAF poet (1)”
Now I’m curious and I’m going to have to ask my supplier if he anything like this. In the past, I’ve relied on historical tomes for giving me a poem or two. Thanks, John.
My pleasure. All three of Richardson’s books of poetry are on amazon.com although I found that in England abebooks were cheaper and had more copies to choose from. His books of verse are called “Because of these: Verses of the Royal Air Force” (1942), “These – Our Children” (1943) and finally “Full Cycle: Verses of the Royal Air Force” (1946). In my opinion, the best book is “These – Our Children” which will figure frequently in my future blog posts about him.
These three were the only books of poetry that Richardson wrote although he wrote a lot of cheap fiction and real life dramas in large quantities. No doubt, these made his money for him!
Thank you for the title and recommendations, John. I much prefer Abe books to Amazon (I avoid them at ALL costs.)
John, thanks for sharing Richardson’s poem. It’s rare to find poetry written by our men who have served on the front lines. War changes a man. I follow a blogger at onthepathleasttraveled.wordpress.com who is an American Vietnam veteran. He writes touching poetry about life and on being different.
Thank you for that link. I have decided to follow this gentleman’s blog posts, as he seems the kind of person I would like.
I think that my Dad was changed a lot by his war. In the 1930s he was an obedient, compliant young man who did what he was told, no questions asked. After the war, he had seen the incompetence of the people in charge and the huge numbers of young men who perished, many of them in fairly pointless ways. He had seen people die in front of his eyes in the most horrible of circumstances.
All of that gave him facial tics and a desire to smoke and to drink, although never as much as some men did. Only in his fifties did it begin to wear off, although even then he would never share his feelings with people and would not want to get close to them in case they were killed, as so ,many of his friends had been many years before.
Sitting in a turret, tanks or engine room of a ship, must give you time to think and ponder what is going on all around you. Poetry can be a fabulous way to reflect on life and war, the two intermingled and very much extremes of ugliness and beauty. Certainly it’s not for every one, but it’s from the heart and if you can stick with it, it can be some of the most beautiful writing you’ll ever come across. Thanks for this John, I look forward to the next post.
I’m sure that if you like poetry you will enjoy my posts about Anthony Richardson. I bought a fair bit of WW2 poetry recently and he seems head and shoulders above the rest. Only in his third, and weakest, book does he degenerate into that difficult to understand, aren’t I clever? sort of language that many poets cannot resist.
On the other hand, I’m going to explain most of what he is saying. I think that with poetry unless you keep the audience with you, they very soon give up the ghost and begin to treat poetry as one vast entity that they personally cannot understand, so why try?
And it all rhymes!
That sort of language does often detract form the flow and sadly puts many people off. As you say, you need to keep the audience with you otherwise they won’t read, or buy it!
So enjoyed this post, John! I had to laugh at the difficult prose you gave as examples and in comparison the real poetry this post is about was simply a pleasure to read. Thank you!
Thank you, Amy. I think that Mr Richardson is a really accomplished poet, with his ability to make things rhyme and to make them comprehensible to 99% of his readers.
And given his subject matter, he writes about some very serious themes in a way that we can all understand. Glad you enjoyed it and more to come!
Oh good! I’m really looking forward to the more, John!
For some odd and bizarre reason I stopped following you, John. Thankfully, I’m back.
Welcome back, Jack.
(Sounds like all this poetry is having its effect!)
Thank you, John!
Oh John. This topic is so much joy to me. I used these poems in all my English classes. And you will of course know John Magee’s
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, –and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of –Wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air…
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
I look forward to more.
I’m so glad that you enjoyed the first part of my posts about Anthony Richardson. There are quite a few more to come. I was very taken by his poems which are immediately comprehensible to somebody who is not particularly used to poetic language.
I know Magee’s poem quite well ! I wanted it put on my Dad’s grave but there was not enough room and it was also £1.50 a letter. I eventually got it down to:
“Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.
And while, with silent, lifting mind, I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God”
It’s not perfect, but at least we got it all on!
What an absolutely magnificent thing to put on your father’s grave
Well worth my saving your post in my emails John, excellent look back into war time poetry, I love collecting old books and you have stirred my enthusiasm with this post through the poetic eyes of old warriors.
I’m glad you enjoyed it! I found quite a bit of poetry by other members of the RAF but I didn’t particularly like them. They seemed too ready to slip into a special pretentious language, a lot of which I couldn’t understand.
Richardson though, was a popular prose author both before and after the war, with non-fiction books about various police officers in London which must have been fascinating to people in the 1930s. After the war, he wrote a best selling account of an RAF prisoner of war who escaped and got back to England.
I think his experience of writing for ordinary people helped the quality of his poetry and made it more understandable.