Isaac Rosenberg: The Life Half Used
Closing Date is 15th Septemeber
Entrants must be 25 or Under
‘War poetry’ is a phrase that, for many of us, brings to mind the lines of Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon – “what passing-bells for these who die as cattle?”; “O, but Everyone/ Was a bird; and the song was wordless; the singing will never be done.” The poetry of the First World War has been consistently anthologized, remembered and studied in classroom and universities across the world. The poetry of the Second World War, in contrast, seems to have much more of a fragile grip on our public consciousness – although this is a balance that many are seeking to redress.
The Poetry Society’s Timothy Corsellis Prize, hosted on Young Poets Network, was created and memory of a young poet and pilot killed in 1941 at the age of 20. Timothy Corsellis’ poems explore the experience of the Blitz and the combined boredom and exhilaration of flight training. Originally a conscientious objector, Timothy volunteered for the RAF in 1940. However, horrified to be put under Bomber Command, which would involve the bombing of civilians, he requested a transfer, and before his death, spent six months as an Air Raid Precautions Officer, helping civilians through the Blitz. There is a fascinating biography of Timothy here on the War Poets Association website if you’d like to find out more, and you can also hear actor Tim Bentinck reading Timothy’s poems ‘Engine Failure’ and ‘Dawn After the Raid
The Timothy Corsellis Prize, named in his memory, was originally launched in 2014 and encourages young poets up to the age of 25 to explore the poetry of the Second World War, and the lives and legacies of its authors, by producing their own poetic responses. The 2016 Prize profiles the work of seven poets writing during the war years: Keith Douglas, Sidney Keyes, Alun Lewis, John Jarmain, Henry Reed, and Anna Akhmatova.
All these poets – lesser-known to many than Sassoon, Owen or Rosenberg, but poets of just as much power – wrote with great insight of their experience of war. Keith Douglas noted that “Hell cannot be let loose twice”, and there seems to have been a sense of this among poets of the Second World War, resulting in a markedly different – although no less vivid or valuable – style of war poetry. You can find out more about each of the seven poets featured in this year’s prize, and read examples of their work, by following the link to this special article on Young Poets Network.
The winner of last year’s Corsellis prize, Jenny Burville-Riley, used Alun Lewis’ poem ‘All Day It has Rained’ as the inspiration for her own haunting tribute and prize-winning poem:
Hovering ghosts in Himalayan foothills
skin beautifully cool, eyes
hollow as spent cartridges
we exhale smoke from Victorys
by the side of a road that passes
the convalescence hospital.
Rough cut layers of mountain above
march in sturdy sequence to
a towering crescendo of white summits.
Geology softens in morning light
transforms to crumpled piles of jumble
waiting to be rifled through.
Beneath, a lone Sherpa
starts his slow ascent, bent back
burdened with a baby grand piano
stiff legs skyward as a big game trophy.
We watch the weighted figure
with amazement for the Sherpa
is a mere eighth-rest of a man.
“Look at that lazy bugger”
quips Dusty and quick laughter
landslides in a throaty scree.
Jenny writes: “In Lewis’s poem there is the juxtaposition of mundane details such as “darning dirty socks” with dramatic images such as “dropping bombs on Rome” and “herded refugees”. I tried to create juxtapositional images too: a raw, rugged environment vs the strange, unexpected appearance of a refined instrument – the baby grand piano – on a man’s back!”
Young Poets Network has already received many fantastic entries to the 2016 Corsellis Prize, and it’s encouraging more! As well as poetry, Young Poets Network also welcomes the insights of essayists in its Corsellis Young Critics Prize, which runs concurrently with the poetry prize, and asks you to write about which three poets of the seven listed above you think are most likely to be read in twenty years’ time, and why.
Both prizes are open to all young writers aged 25 and under, living anywhere in the world. The deadline for all entries is Monday 15 September.
The judges for both prizes will be Professor Fran Brearton (for the War Poets Association), a leading authority on war poetry; Nic Vanderpeet from Imperial War Museums; Judith Palmer, Director of The Poetry Society, and, new to the panel this year, Wendy Cope, noted poet and author of, among other collections, Making Cocoa For Kingsley Amis.
Prizes include book tokens, a selection of poetry goodies, and publication on Young Poets Network. The first prize poem will be published in The Poetry Society’s quarterly paper Poetry News, and the first prize essay will be published on The Poetry Society’s website.
For more information and for details of how to submit your work, please visit the Timothy Corsellis Prize page on Young Poets Network.
Young Poets Network is The Poetry Society’s online platform for young poets up to the age of 25. Here you’ll find features about poets and poetry, challenges and competitions to inspire your own writing, new writing from young poets, and advice and guidance from the rising and established stars of the poetry scene. We also bring you the latest news and ideas from the writing world, and a list of competitions, magazines and writing groups which particularly welcome young writers.
Young Poets Network would like to thank the Corsellis family for their generosity in establishing this Prize and their continuing support of The Poetry Society.
On July 22, 1916, Colonel Crawshay, the commanding officer of the 2nd battalion Royal Welch Fusiliers, sat down to compose a letter. It was the same perfunctory note he had already written so many times in the opening weeks of the Battle of the Somme.
“Dear Mrs Graves,” he began. “I very much regret to have to write and tell you your son has died of wounds. He was very gallant, and was doing so well and is a great loss.”
The Graves he referred to was the young Captain and poet, Robert, struck by an exploding shell a few days shy of his 21st birthday. The shrapnel had pierced his lung, and the Army medics who found him on the battlefield presumed he would not last the night.
But 6ft2ins and with a toughness that belied his poetic verse, Graves survived that, and the subsequent jolting hospital train ride to Rouen; even if he arrived in such a terrible state that doctors described him as a “hopeless case”. By the time his obituary appeared in the British press, Graves was homeward bound and healing, writing letters to redress the premature news of his demise.
From that moment until he finally lost his faculties and died aged 90 in 1985, the poet continued to furiously scribble; his work never done. And now, in the same house on the same Spanish island where Graves lived for most of his adult life, his son strives to continue that legacy.
“As far as I’m concerned, what he did during his life didn’t matter as long as his works are remembered,” William Graves says.
The 76-year-old is striking not only for the startling resemblance to his father (he possesses the same high forehead, full lips and shock of greying hair) but also for the fact that he and his siblings represent the very last surviving direct links to the poets of the First World War. Siegfried Sassoon’s only son died in 2006, while the likes of Richard Aldington and Ivor Gurney never had children of their own in peacetime. Isaac Rosenberg, Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke were killed during the war.
Of the 16 Great War poets commemorated on a stone in Westminster Abbey, only Graves, and the lesser known Herbert Read and Edmund Blunden, are still survived by their children.
William Graves is tanned and slim from a lifetime spent on Mallorca. Strolling in the afternoon sun past lemon and plum trees in the grounds of the home his father built in 1932, he recollects a treasure-trove of stories of Graves’s eccentricities, celebrity companions, affairs, and cruelty.
Graves called this place on the outskirts of the village of Deià, high up in the towering limestone range of Serra de Tramuntana, Ca N’Alluny (The Faraway House), but even here he could not escape his demons. The horrors of what he had seen during the war and which he had documented in his 1929 biography, Goodbye To All That, remained seared on his consciousness.
As he became racked with dementia during the last 20 years of his life, he retreated ever closer to the trenches. William recalls his father cowering from loud bangs and putting his stick out to try and halt his wheelchair if pushed too fast.
“The last 10 years he didn’t know who anybody was,” he says.
William, who calls his father Robert, first spotted the start of this decline in 1963 when he received the same letter twice. Soon his father, then in his late 60s, started losing his glasses and struggling to write.
It was at this advanced stage of life, William says, when his father began to adopt his “muses”, young international pseudo-intellectuals that he hosted in the marital home.
“He started needing more input for his poems and that is when he started having flirts with young girls,” William says. “So long as they behaved badly then he could write poems.” Did he sleep with them? “He’d just had a major prostate operation so it wouldn’t have done him much good.”
Even before his formidable mind began to be undone, Graves had already passed a colourful life. He married twice; first to painter Nancy Nicholson, who produced four children before he left her for the American poet Laura Riding and eloped to Spain.
In 1936 they were forced into exile by the Spanish civil war. Riding eventually fell for another man and Graves met his second wife, Beryl Pritchard, a dark-haired Oxford University graduate 20 years his junior. During World War Two they rented a house in Devon and had three children, William, Lucia and Juan (who died last year). Their fourth, Tomas, was born in Mallorca in 1953 after they had moved the entire family back at the end of the war.
William, who has two grown up children of his own, recalls an idyllic youth playing with the offspring of his father’s famous friends. An eight-year-old Stephen Hawking was an early pal – he remembers him delighting in setting off stink bombs – and he once provoked the fury of Alec Guinness after taking his teenage son Matthew to the beach and plying him with strong local wine.
While his father revelled in the exotic company, William remembers his mother as a quiet Victorian presence. “She was very closed,” he says. “If you started talking about anything personal she would start talking about cats. It was that generation.”
What, then, did she make of his muses? “As long as he kept quiet and didn’t rock the boat she didn’t care. Well, she cared, but realised there wasn’t a damn thing she could do about it.”
William, who combined his career as a geologist with running a hotel in Deià with his Spanish wife Elena, recalls “vicious” arguments with his father later in life.
In his own autobiographical book, Wild Olives, published in 1995, he describes the bizarre scenario of his father trying to plant marijuana in the hotel to get them into trouble with the local constabulary. “You were either with him or against him,” he says.
When Graves died in December 1985 William says he was “amazed” to learn he had been appointed an executor of his estate. One of his first acts was to publish an anthology of the war poems which Graves had suppressed during his life, deeming them “juvenile” and uninteresting. The Imperial War Museum retains a number of the poems in its archive including one which still bears a muddy imprint of the writer’s thumb.
Following the death of his mother in 2003, the family decided to sell the house to the local government and have it preserved as a living museum to Graves’s life and work, of which William is unpaid director. Today everything remains in situ.
In his study his notes are still attached to the clipboard he used to carry wherever he walked. The ancient coins and Neolithic axe-head Graves once rubbed for inspiration are still on the mantelpiece. The Georgian candlesticks and tins of Colman’s mustard and Cadbury’s Cocoa show that even in exile Graves never lost his innate sense of Englishness.
The village itself, though, has changed beyond recognition. Celebrities followed the bohemians to Deià and Bob Geldof, Michael Douglas and Andrew Lloyd Webber now keep holiday homes in the mountain. Most recently, the Tom Hiddleston series The Night Manager was filmed here.
William says the culture change was enough to make him and his wife sell up their own home in 2007 and move to the Spanish mainland (although they still keep a flat in nearby Palma and his sister Lucia remains in the village).
Modernity wearies, and he does not know for how much longer he will keep coming here and dusting off the ghosts of his past.
But for now, like his father before him, he remains driven to keep his own history alive.
Leading British film, TV and stage actor Edward Fox will be reading his favourite poems of the First World War and talking about what they mean to him. This will include poems by Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Mary Borden, Edward Thomas and other poets caught up in the war.
Edward is famous for his leading roles in major productions including The Day of the Jackal and Edward and Mrs Simpson. He will be joined by Professor Paul O’Prey, editor of First World War: Poems from the Front, published by IWM in 2014 to mark the centenary of the start of the First World War. Professor O’Prey will also launch his new edition of the poems of Laurence Binyon.
Tickets: £20, IWM Members: £15
Ticket includes one glass of wine or soft drink.
To book call: 020 7416 5255 / 5372 .
Unfortunately this event cannot be booked online.