Simon Jenner on
Sidney Keyes: Collected Poems
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 27th 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 29th 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, Holderlin - and Clare and Wordsworth. He told Richard Church he should have been a 19th century regionalist. Keyes was, firstly, sickeningly precocious, aided by a poet schoolmaster Tom Staveley. Back in 1938 he wrote 'Elegy', about his extraordinary grandfather:
April again, and it is a year again
Since you walked out and slammed the door
Leaving us tangled in your words. Your brain
Lives in the bank-book, and your eyes look up
Laughing from the carpet on the floor:
And we still drink from your silver cup.
The directness of this ritual commands respect. 'April again. . . . a year again' at the commencement of each stanza whips the paradoxically fast moving funereal rhymes from scutcheoned hearse horses to the 'smart cobs' of the dead man's youth that appear in the second stanza. Recalling his virility and speed are fitter memorials than nodding graveside oratory. The grandfather is omnipresent not simply in a register of smart cobs, silver cups, or in the minutiae of burial. His clearly dominant character 'drives our thoughts' both like his cobs, in the brisk tempo of the second stanza, and in the ritualistic 'neither. . . nor. . . nor' of the poem's closing lines that suggest a regal slackening of pace, an arrived cob: 'We shall never forget nor escape you, nor make terms/With your enemies, the swift departing years.'
Perhaps 'Sour Land', also quite early, fulfilling Keyes's regionalism, encapsulates his solitary poetics and sly self-portrait, here refracted through Pope:
His lame leg twisted on the spiral stair,
He cursed the harsher canker in his heart;
Then in the turret he would scrawl and glare
And long to pull his enemies apart.
When night came knocking at the panes
And bats' thin screeching pierced his head,
He thought of copulation in the lanes
And bit his nails and praised the glorious dead.
It ends in the third section by returning to blank verse, lines which Geoffrey Hill - very influenced by Keyes as much of his work shows - quotes in Tenebrae:
Two men are digging not a trench -
A grave for all you know and all you hope.
Remember the weasel questing down the hedge,
The dead crow hanging from the oak.
This is a very ancient land indeed;
Aiaia formerly or Cythera
Or Celidon the hollow forest called;
This is the country Ulysses and Hermod
Entered afraid; by ageing poets sought
Where lives no love nor any kind of flower -
Only the running demon, thought.
Keyes was a master of blank verse, of deft metonymic manipulation, disturbed pastoral. Although Eliot blew wind into longer poems, Keyes individuated themes shared by contemporaries Allison, Larkin, Ross, Douglas. Auden was a common factor, literariness peculiar to Keyes. Hill was his inheritor. Jeffrey Wainwright's introduction is a model of analysis and evaluation. But the heroes are a father and daughter. Antony Smith, the headmaster of Keyes's (and Mick Jagger's) old school, Dartford, mounted a Keyes conference in 1987. Its success, pooling Keyesiana, led everyone to agree on a permanent site. Shamefully, only Greenwich University accepted the archive. And latterly his daughter Sarah Smith wrote her PhD there on Keyes, enriched with a 15 year absorption in the poet and his friends. Her biography is forthcoming.
Anthony Smith badgered Keyes's publishers, Routledge, to reissue a new Collected in 1988, with original editor Michael Meyer able to add overlooked poems, mainly blues - another trait common with Larkin. Smith managed to track down Keyes's runner, and elicit the moving testament we again have here. Alas, Meyer did not agree with the Smiths or the poet's sister, that more fine poems should be added. There it is, till 2014. But we have this handsome volume, returning Keyes to print - topped with a striking painting by the poet's grand nephew. Robert Nye thinks Keyes a potentially even finer poet than his admired Douglas. With Keyes's astonishing assurance and clarity of purpose before us, we can again wonder. Pace Philip, Sidney is ours.
Simon Jenner © 2008