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This review is taken from PN Review 142, Volume 28 Number 2, November - December 2001.

WRITING HOME KEITH DOUGLAS, The Letters, edited by Desmond Graham (Carcanet) £14.95

In 1946 Stephen Spender confidently proclaimed that the recently-concluded hostilities had produced 'no war poets'. The best poems of the past few years, he felt sure, had been written by people like him - 'older men and women whom the war effort almost passed over'. The serious accomplishment was not to be confused with the 'indiscriminate writing and publishing' of poetry in which servicemen had shamelessly indulged. Keith Douglas's mature work would not be collected until 1951, but like so many of his gifted contempories (Sidney Keyes, Alun Lewis, John Jarmain), he did not survive the war to challenge Spender's misconceptions. All the more pleasing, then, that Douglas had always known his enemy: 'that shit Spender' appears several times in his correspondence, never favourably.

Spender was not alone in his pomposity or in his haste. Just months after the armistice, John Lehmann urged contributors to Penguin New Writing to forget the war and instead focus on experiences of a 'wider and more generally valid scope'. With honourable exceptions such as Tambimuttu, who had supported Douglas and published his work, literary London saw war as an inconvenience, and was keen to suppress any talk of a new generation of Owens and Rosenbergs who might distract attention from established names. The job was well done: prejudice against the poetry of the second world war has lasted to the present day. Despite having been championed by the likes of Ted Hughes, Charles Tomlinson, Geoffrey Hill, Edna Longley, William Scammell and ...


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