Keith Douglas, Extrospection, and Extremis
Writing under conditions of extremis presents a particular set of problems, to which Keith Douglas responded by adopting what he referred to as an ‘extrospective (if the word exists)’1 approach to poetry. Essentially, this approach involved seeing his surroundings with the clarity of abstract fascination. The dead of the battlefields of North Africa would become dolls and mannikins. Their blood was ‘cosmetic’,2 their wounds were caves,3 and their tanks and guns would become ‘beetles’4 or even sticks of split ‘celery’.5 Equally significantly, in Douglas’s poetry and prose, there is often little difference between the living and the dead, as is clear when a dead Libyan soldier is described as ‘reclining’,6 with ‘his arms flung out, one knee bent, his eyes open’, or when a dead German soldier becomes ‘like a cleverly poised waxwork’ whose ‘position suggested a paroxysm, an orgasm of pain.’7
There are traces of this approach in Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘Counter Attack’,8 or Ted Hughes’s nature poetry,9 as well as in Douglas’s letters and diary entries, including those written before he had experienced the war. The latter suggests that, to some extent, at least, what Douglas was actually doing in writing extrospectively about the war, was refining his methodology and applying it to a particular set of new and often dangerous circumstances, including desert landscapes, first-hand experience of combat, and serious injury. In Alamein to Zem Zem, his prose account of his involvement in the war, Douglas made it his ambition to write not ‘as a soldier’, but to consider combat ‘as my first experience of ...
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