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This review is taken from PN Review 149, Volume 29 Number 3, January - February 2003.

WAR POET SIDNEY KEYES, Collected Poems (Carcanet) £9.95

On or about November 2nd 1941, British poetry changed. An overkill, a publicity stunt even. But literary history can be altered by literary accidents - and personalities. Eight Oxford Poets, edited by rising Oxford poet Sidney Keyes, went to press without Philip Larkin. It began a feud with the posthumous Keyes lasting forty years and fissuring the perception of a whole poetic decade. Keyes's neo-romantic stance fuelled his antipathy to the then Audenesque Larkin. It also made him highly influential, so particularly reviled. Writing to Robert Conquest on the latter's prospective inauguration of New Lines and Movement, Larkin was fuelled by - in 1955 - revenge on 'our Sidney'. Larkin's animus against Keyes enshrined the Forties for him. It fuelled Larkin's bid at recognition in another decade, that might underwrite his existence.

They were exact contemporaries. Keyes, born on 27 May 1922, attended Queen's, Oxford, where he had a wonderfully cross-fertilising friendship with John Heath-Stubbs and Drummond Allison - one poet not influenced by Keyes. After becoming a member of what he termed 'the O.C.T.U. Generation, he left for Libya and was killed covering a patrol on 29 April 1943. His posthumous second volume and Collected Poems inflamed a myth - and Larkin.

'War Poet', the ironic title of one of his poems, was a supremely ironic epitaph for such a poet, even one haunted, as one would expect, by rather Rilkean notions of death. A keen internationalist, he loved Klee, Hölderlin - and Clare ...


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