Saturday, March 2, 2013

Poetry Of The Second World War

ImageAn International Anthology,

         Edited With An introduction

                    By Desmond Graham


Hast Du Dich Verirrt?* – Stevie Smith.

My Child, my child, watch how he goes

The man in Party coloured clothes.



At one point in time it was considered that the horrors of the Second World War and the Holocaust had left poetry silenced, almost tongue-tied, as though the sheer monstrosity that man was capable of could not, or should not, be expressed in this art form. Like with most things, time has rendered that view obsolete, in fact revealed a necessity to bear witness, to lament and question all that was done by man to man. Whether this was Primo Levi, writing “You who live secure/ In your warm houses/ Who return at evening to find/ Hot food and friendly faces: Consider whether this is a man/ who labours in the mud”**, or  Tamik Hara, who wrote “this is a human being/ look what an A-bomb has done to it/ the flesh swells so horribly/ and both men and women are reduced to one form”*** who survived Hiroshima only to commit suicide at the confirmation of the symptoms of “Atoms Disease” poetry not only found it’s voice, but found itself more than capable of conveying the “the vast and terrible sweep of the war”.


Horoscope – Vladimir Holan

Early evening…. Cemetery…. And the wind sharp as

bone splinters on a butcher’s block.

Rust shakes its model out of tortured form.

And above it all, above the tears of shame,

the star has almost decided to confess

why we understand simplicity only when the heart breaks,

and we are suddenly ourselves, alone and fateless.

                                                       Trans: Jarmilla & Ian Milner


The poetry in this anthology highlights the utter abhorrence and sheer mundanity of conflict, whether on the frontline or the home front, Auschwitz or Hiroshima, the experience of war is apparent and central. From Osip Mandelshtam, writing in 1937 (a year before his death in Siberia), through Keith Douglas, killed in Normandy or Miklos Radnoti murdered on a forced march, this collection charts the course of the Second World War, through the voices of these poets.

What  makes this a great book is its sheer scope, it truly is an international compilation. One hundred and thirty poets from about twenty countries, from Australia, Japan, Europe, America and Russia show the scope of this collection and also reveal how universal is the need to articulate their experience, to record their thoughts and feelings – to witness.


The Second Eclogue – Miklos Radnoti.


Last night we went far; in rage I laughed, I was so mad.

Their fighters were all droning like a bee-swarm overhead.

their defence was strong and friend, O how they fired and


Till over the horizon our relief squad appeared.

I just missed being shot down and scraped together below,

But see, I am back! And tomorrow, this craven Europe shall


Fear in their air-raid shelters, as they tremble hidden


But enough of that, let’s leave it. Have you written since




I have. the poet writes, as dogs howl or cats mew

or small fish coyly spawn. What else am I to do?

I write about everything – write even for you, up there,

So that flying you may know of my life and of how I fare

When between the rows of houses, blown up and tumbling


The bloodshot light of the moon reels drunkenly around,

when the city squares bulge, all of them stricken,

Breathing stops, and even the sky seems sicken,

And the planes keep coming on, then disappear, and then

All swoop, like jabbering madness down from the sky again!

I write; what else can I do? If you knew  how dangerous

A poem can be, how frail, how capricious a single verse…

For that involves courage too – you see? Poets write,

Cats mew, dogs howl, small fish…. and so on; but you who


What do you know? Nothing. You listen, but all you hear

Is the plane you have just left droning on in your ear;

No use denying it, friend. It’s become part of you.

What do you think about as you fly above in the blue?



Laugh at me: I’m scared. And I long to lie in repose

On a bed beside my love, and for these eyes to close.

Or else, under my breathe, I would softly hum her a tune

In the wild and steamy chaos of the flying-men’s canteen.

Up there, I want to come down; down here, to be back in


In this world moulded for me, for me there is no place.

And I know full well, I have grown too fond of my


True; but, when hit, the rhythm both suffer at is the same….

But you know and will write about it! It won’t be a secret

that I,

Who now just destroy, homeless between the earth and the


Lived as a man lives. Alas, who’d understand or believe it?

Will you write of me?



If I live, if there’s anyone left to read it.

                                                Trans: Clive Wilmer & George Gomori


This book also offers biographical notes on all the poets, with a reference for further reading given for each writer.

* Have you lost yourself?

**  Shema – Primo Levi

*** This is a human being – Tamiki Hara



James said...

What a wonderful anthology a war poetry. It will complement one of my favorites The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry. The Penguin, while good, lacks the international expansiveness of Graham's selection.

Brian Joseph said...

The poems that and lines that you posted are very powerful especially the lines by Hara.

I am glad that someone saw fit to put together this anthology.

me. said...

Thanks for posting on and highlighting this anthology.

Looking through the contents via google books there's so many poets here that I'd like to read more of.

Looks like an essential collection.

@parridhlantern said...

Hi James, this is a great anthology introducing me to some new to me poets.

Hi Brian, Totally agree with all your sentiments.

Hi Me, Yes the quality & scope of the poetry amazed me, not just your usual ones, but from all sides of the conflict.