How would you describe the  structure and the language of Keith Douglas' poem "How to Kill"?  

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vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator


One thing to notice about the poem's structure is the absence of a conventional rhyme scheme. Only two lines (15 and 16) really seem to rhyme in any standard way. Elsewhere Douglas uses "slant" rhymes, "rhyming" words that do not rhyme exactly.  Thus, "ball" in line 1 sounds a bit like "kill" in line 6, and "long" in line 3 sounds a bit like "sang" in line 4. One can even make the case that "man" in line 2 sounds a bit like "Open" in line 5. If this analysis is plausible, then the "rhyme scheme" of stanza 1 would be as follows: a,b,c,c,b,a. This same kind of scheme appears in each of the following stanzas, so that the analysis just offered does indeed seem plausible.

Is this interesting and unusual rhyme scheme relevant to the meaning of the poem in any ways? Perhaps.  It is almost as if each half of each stanza is the reverse, or mirror image, of the other half. This structure seems relevant to the poem's idea that although men are separated in war, they really are not very different from one another if they are viewed as human beings rather than as soldiers. The speaker is a soldier who takes aim at another soldier in the scope of his rifle, but the two men do not seem shockingly different except that one is about to kill and the other is about to be killed. This idea that enemies in war have much in common is a standard theme in much writing about war in the 20th century.

The language of the poem is also worth examining. That language is clear, simple, direct, and straightforward. The poem is highly accessible and easy to understand. The poem's phrasing is blunt, unsentimental, and realistic, like the speaker of the poem. Indeed, everything the speaker says in this text about the other man and about their shared situation helps to characterize him. He is a young man not too far from childhood; he is a young man who finds himself in a situation in which he must kill, even if he does not want to kill; and he is a young man who is capable of imaginatively identifying with the person he is about to shoot. It is in fact his capacity for real feeling that makes his role as killer all the more tragic.  When he looks at the enemy soldier, he doesn't see simply an enemy; he sees a man (probably another young man) who

. . . smiles, and moves about in ways
his mother knows, habits of his. (9-10)

The shooter in this poem is not some unimaginative, insensitive lout; it is precisely because he is a man of sensitivity and sensibility that the poem even exists. The language this man speaks perfectly suggests his personality. He is capable of emotional perceptiveness, but he is not overly emotional or melodramatic. He is perfectly aware of the irony of his situation, and so he uses language which is itself often ironic, as when he refers to "a gift designed to kill" (6) or when he refers to "Death" as a "familiar," or a kind of old friend (12).

The shooter in this poem is also highly aware of the paradoxes of life, especially in wartime, and so he uses paradoxical phrasing, as when he says that Death

. . . has made a man of dust
of a man of flesh . . . (13-14)

Yet no sooner does the speaker say that "Death" has done this than he suddenly and honestly admits:

. . . This sorcery
I do. . . . (14-15)

The simple, plain language, then, is appropriate to a speaker who is determined to be honest, to speak the unvarnished truth, and even to condemn and mock himself, as he does in lines 15-17.