By Carmel Shortall
When we think of the great war poets of the 20th century, we inevitably think of those of the first world war – Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon. Most would struggle to think of a poet whose work sought to chronicle the second world war but there was at least one: Keith Douglas.
Unlike that of the first world war poets, however, his poetry never gained favour and all but disappeared after the war and his death in the Normandy landings. Although there has been an increase in interest in his work in recent years, he is still virtually unknown to the wider public.
Shane Burke’s play, appropriately titled, Forget Me Not, seeks to redress this – not by introducing us to Douglas’ poetry per se but by concentrating on biographical detail. He uses the initial meeting between Douglas and Betty Jesse, his publisher’s assistant, as a framing device to introduce the man and the poet.
It is December 1943: Douglas is on leave in London and hoping to publish his poems. In six months he will be dead. For now, he meets Betty Jesse who has been championing his work. She draws him out and gets him to talk about his life and work while he tries to avoid doing so by flirting with her. Their initially abrasive exchanges soften into a mutual respect and we learn that he is dismissive both of his own early ‘pretty’ poetry, written at Oxford, as well as that of other scholars. ‘It rings hollow’, he says:
‘The truth was lost in the contrived lyrical forms … a poem is most powerful when it comes screaming out of you like a bullet.’
Perhaps it is because Douglas’ poetry is written unapologetically from the viewpoint of a soldier, rather than from the viewpoint of a civilian trapped in a soldier’s uniform – as in the poetry of the first world war – that his poetry failed to capture an audience in the aftermath of the war. His poetry is not pro or anti-war as such – it is, as near as can be, a dispassionate record of the reality of war from the viewpoint of a participant, not an observer. In reading the poems, therefore, the reader becomes a witness.
Vergissmeinnicht translated as Forget me not is one such poem. The poet and his comrades find the corpse of an enemy soldier that they killed three weeks earlier, sprawling in the sun. He still has a picture of his girlfriend, Steffi, with the word, vergissmeinnicht, written on it.
‘But she would weep to see today
how on his skin the swart flies move…’
Shane Burke’s play succeeds in bringing back to vivid life a forgotten but important poet whose work offers a unique insight into the reality of war in general, and the second world war in particular. Direction by Sasha Roberts manages to conjure up the drama both of the war in the desert and the privations on the home front from a conversation between a man and a woman in the basement of a London publishing house.
The cast are excellent: Tom Worsley captures the contradictions of Douglas: his social awkwardness and his complete belief in his own path as a poet. Annabella Forbes as Betty is both combative and nurturing: an admirer of the poet but not so sure about the man.
I saw an earlier production at the Teahouse Theatre in Vauxhall in July and can thoroughly recommend Forget Me Not. You can see it at the Camden Fringe at the Phoenix Artist Club, 1 Phoenix Street, Charing Cross Road on 6 August at 8:30pm and again on the 12 and 13 August at the earlier time of 6:30pm at the same venue. Tickets are £5.
Make sure and pick up a programme – Vergissmeinnicht and another poem, Simplify Me When I’m Dead, as well as a fragment from Bête Noire, are reproduced on it.