I’ve just bought the new Faber editions of Jones’ ‘In Parenthesis’ and ‘The Anathemata’. I’ve said before that Jones is an excellent poet and deserves a much wider readership for his unique ‘voice’ and the sheer humanity of the work.
‘In Parenthesis’ contains an undated preface from T S Eliot who refers to both poems and places Jones in the same ‘bracket’ as himself, Ezra Pound and James Joyce which is praise indeed. Jones provided notes to these poems but Eliot encourages the reader to read the poem straight through: “For that thrill of excitement from our first reading of a work of creative literature is itself the beginning of understanding, and if ‘In Parenthesis’ does not excite us before we have understood it, no commentary will reveal to us its secret. And the second step is to get used to the book, to live with it and to make it familiar to us. Understanding begins in the sensibility: we must have the experience before we attempt to explore the sources of the work itself.”
Unusually, I find myself in complete agreement with Eliot on this. I’m very familiar with the thrill that first reading can bring and the consequent need to make a poem familiar but what strikes me as most important is the idea of living with a poem. In my experience this has many dimensions and different poems require different kinds of cohabitation.
The first kind of cohabitation usually applies to long poems, living with ‘Paradise Lost’ or ‘The Maximus Poems’ or ‘The Faerie Queen’ involves reading and re-reading from beginning to end until I am familiar with both the content and the ‘voice’ of the poem and the brilliant bits are inscribed in my skull.
The second way of living with a poem is best exemplified by my relationship with Celan and Prynne. With both of these I try to identify lines or phrases that are reasonably clear and then spend lots of time thinking about the more obdurate bits- I don’t need to have the text in front of me to do this but I do need to be able to concentrate. I find that this process of rumination gets the poem well and truly under my skin.
Geoffrey Hill’s poetry demands a unique kind of cohabitation from me. Ever since I first read ‘Comus’ I haven’t been able to separate out the work from the man and each reading has involved a deepening of a relationship that I can only describe as quasi-therapeutic. This is probably because I identify with some aspects of Hill’s psychology and re-reading certain poems involves a self-measurement that informs how I am in the world. Living with Hill is much more than getting my brain around the obscure references, it’s also about trying to work out aspects of the man that I can’t personally identify with.
Then there’s the poems that literally live with me, for most of this year Keston Sutherland’s ‘Stress Position’ and Neil Pattison’s ‘Preferences’ have moved around the house with me and are dipped into on a very frequent basis. I don’t think that this has led to any clearer understanding but I am now very familiar with both and continue to relish the brilliant turns of phrase that they contain.
Finally I must mention those cohabitations that teeter on the brink of divorce. I’ve had several attempts to live with ‘Orlando Furioso’ in a variety of translations this year and these have all collapsed in acrimony. Of greater import is the Simon Jarvis problem. I’ve just spent a week away trying to establish a relationship with ‘The Unconditional’ but I’m not entirely convinced that it’s worth the effort. It’s certainly unique in contemporary verse and there’s enough good stuff to keep me coming back but I have yet to find a point of entry that I can sustain.
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