Technical Prowess in ‘The Anathemata’

This is in response to Michael Peverell’s recent comment on the ‘Dead End’ post. Initially I was going to make some pithy observation in the thread but then I got to thinking that my idea of technical worth might require a bit of explanation.

I don’t think what Geoffrey Hill describes as technical efficiency should be confined to rhyme and meter but should also include a range of techniques, foibles and slights of hand. These can vary from word choice, phrasing, cadence, enjambment through to subject matter and ‘message’.

In the technical department extra marks are given for disguising the means by which effects are achieved and additional points are awarded when these effects carry important or profound material. Elizabeth Bishop is a good example of a great poet who put enormous effort in to achieving technical perfection so that the reader wouldn’t notice the devices used along the way. John Matthias’ ‘Kedging in Time’ has the same effect on me in that I know what effect the poem has but I don’t know how this effect is achieved.

David Jones is not as technically accomplished as Bishop but ‘The Anathemata’ is full of little flurries of technique that assist the reader in getting to grips with this incredibly ambitious work. Auden called it the best long poem of the 20th century and confessed that he had been reading it for ten years and still didn’t grasp all its levels of meaning so readers of this might understand when I say that after 18 months of paying attention I’m still on the nursery slopes in terms of understanding but I think I can recognise skilled verse even when I don’t fully understand it.

I find ‘The Lady of the Pool’ to be the most amenable section of the poem because I’m reasonably familiar with one of its themes (the history of London) and because it uses a number of established techniques to good effect. I make no apology whatsoever for the length of what follows because it really does illustrate why more people should pay this poem some attention;

              From the two sticks an' a' Apple to Bride o'
the Shandies' Well over the Fleet; from Hallows-on-Wall to
the keel-haws; from the ditch without the Vicinal Gate to
Lud's hill; within and extra the fending circuit both banks
the wide and demarking middle-brook that waters, from the
midst of the street of it, our twin-hilled Urbs. At Martin
miles in the Pomarary (where the Roman pippins grow) at
winged Marmor miles, gilt-lorica'd on his wheat hill stick-
ing the Laidly Worm as threats to coil us all.
At the Lady-at-Hill
above Romeland's wharf-lanes
at the Great Mother's newer chapelle
at New Heva's Old Crepel.
(Chthonic matres under the croft:
springan a Maye's Aves to clerestories.
Delphi in sub-crypt:
luce flowers to steeple.)
At Paul's
and faith under Paul
so Iuppiter me succour!
they do garland them with Roman roses and do have stitched
on their zoomorphic apparels and vest 'em gay for Artemis.
When is brought in her stag to be pierced,
when is bowed his meek head between the porch and the
altar, when is blowed his sweet death at the great door, on the
day before the calends o' Quintilis.
At the tunicled martyr's
from where prills the seeding under-stream. At Mary of the Birth
by her long bourn of sweet water.
In where she mothers
her painters an' limners.
In Pellipar's
where she's virgo inter virgines for the skinner's boys an budge-dressers.
In all the memorials
of her buxom will
(what brought us ransom, captain!)
as do renown our city.

Michael will be pleased to know that I have proof-read this with some care from the Faber 2010 edition (I don’t have access to the original) and that I have preserved the line breaks in the prose sections as they occur in that edition.

The other good news is that this is one of the most densely annotated passages in the poem but I’ve chosen it for the way that it throws the reader into a specific place (London) whilst moving across a number of different time-frames. I’d like to point out the use of repetition in a complex act of invocation, the rhetorical tropes involved in situating both the work and the person reading / participating in it. There’s also the supreme skill involved in making a list both poetic and the point of what is being listed. Those of us who love long poems know that even the best of these will occasionally resort to the list, Milton’s description of the fallen angels in hell is gloriously digressive but it is still a list, as is his initial description of Eden, Spenser’s chronology and rivers are both examples of lists getting in the way of the poem but here the poem is in part about what you do with this cultural clutter, this conglomeration of signs and symbols. I would argue for a very long time that the above is the one of the most accomplished examples of modernist technique which is deeply rooted in the classical tradition.

In his introduction Jones refers to the difficulties he encountered in gaining some control over his material but his success is demonstrated by the fact that on the page the struggle is transformed into something both elegant and effortlessly profound.

I’m of the view that Ezra Pound was technically brilliant well before 1920 and that ‘The Cantos’ are a fascinating and gloriously erratic use of that brilliance to extremely ambitious ends (‘the whole shooting match’) but he couldn’t thrust the reader into a place or a time as effectively as Jones although it is possible to read the development of a variety of techniques from Pound to Jones – the use of the demotic to say complex things being the most obvious.

So, Jones’ prowess lies not so much in meter or rhyme but in the ability to use repetition and a range of rhetorical devices to thrust the reader into the cultural detritus that we all carry with us. We can argue with the components of Jones’ clutter (Catholicism, Wales, London, the Roman Empire etc) but we do have to acknowledge the skill with which he brings these to our attention.

7 responses to “Technical Prowess in ‘The Anathemata’

  1. With poetry of this sort, syntactical devices visibly take their place alongside meter and rhyme — the varied grouping of images and ideas is more than a list.

    I’m looking into Edward Sanders’ America: A History in Verse (vol. 1), and it falls instructively short. First, the verse is dead on the page. Second, the principle of organization is disappointingly familiar — a “timeline of history” in which events are grouped by calendar year. One could imagine this working if the events were told or selected in a distinctive way, but the point of view is encyclopedia-standard (remember them?) plus a salting of Howard Zinn, and the language differs from these only in a hasty coating of Olsonish poeticism.

    Sanders’s best poem may still be the classic title of his underground magazine of the early ’60s.

    • (Better images from the magazine here.)

      • I am just about old enough to recall similar ventures in provincial England when we thought we were daring and political and confrontational, happy days. Good title but I do worry about the content.

    • I was going to thank you for this observation but then I followed the link and had the great misfortune to read the first three pages of ‘A history’ which is an object lesson in how not to do poetry- should carry a health warning, it’s going to take me a while to recover.

      • Sorry about that. We could use a poem that managed to do something with such ambitions. The factoid that Johnny Appleseed was a Swedenborgian (the last thing I happened to see in there) is rich with potential. But it would require a more resourceful marshalling of other facts (the religious awakenings, the strange geneses of our folk heroes) to germinate.

        [I had a textual example to pick at, but I won’t further spoil your dinner.]

      • Tangenitally, with regard to effective lists, have you seen this- ? I think it’s impressive for at least a couple of reasons mostly to do with being relentlessly artless and listfully obsessive.
        My recovery is now complete but I think I’ll give the Appleseed thing a miss…

  2. Those two are quite different, aren’t they? Your description fits the first — a kind of process piece, following a procedure doggedly. Not sure I actually like it — the word “purchase” was defamiliarized, sure enough, but not pleasurably. (Was the point of that to highlight or exorcise a bureaucratic or business usage? Once even with the indirect object: “He purchases his girlfriend chocolate.”)

    I wonder if Bloemeke actually worked at the convenience store in a gas station, and made the poem on the job — if not, well simulated.

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