Keith Douglas was 24 when he was killed in action, in 1944, and although quite a few of his poems had by then appeared in anthologies and magazines, he was not generally thought of as a significant 'war poet'. But then, who was? 'Where are the war poets?' was a familiar journalistic cry from 1939 to 1945, and few answers were forthcoming. There were two main poetic fashions on offer at the time: clapped-out Audenesque or a torrid Neo-Romanticism that had Dylan Thomas as its vaguely guiding force. Keith Douglas had no particular allegiance to either camp, although he was closer to Auden than to Thomas and had had a poem published in New Verse when he was still at school. But he was also represented in Eight Oxford Poets (1941), a supposedly key selection of the time, in which one of the editors, Sidney Keyes, apologised for the 'over-floridity' of his contributors, explaining that 'we have on the whole little sympathy with the Audenian school of poets.' Keyes himself was killed, aged 20, after only two weeks of active service, leaving behind him several florid verses in which he urged the young men of England to 'go on, go out/Into the badlands of battle' and thus 'plant a better orchard', but Douglas seems to have known little of his work and was pretty scathing about Eight Oxford Poets when he eventually saw a copy ('Some of the decade's worst printed verse,' was his summation).
LRB 8 February 2001 | PDF Download