Category Archives: history

Geoffrey Hill, William Cobbett and Jeremy Corbyn

For the past decade or so I’ve been intermittently musing on the nature of Hill’s politics, citing elements of his work as indicative of a kind of Little Englander High Tory (LEHT). The posthumously published The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin provides additional qualifiers and amendments on both points which I’ll try and outline here.

The first startlement comes with Poem 186;

This, it is becoming clear, is more a Daybook than ever The Daybooks were:
          il mestiere di vivere that secures its own private consistory and guards the
          door, admitting neither rich nor poor to the designs and details of poetry
          which are the very devil to portray without favour or fear.
Corbyn must win. Though he is a flawed man it is not my belief that Hogarth 
           would set him down as a tout or a thief.
To ask whether again Labour could ever again take power is beside the point at this
           juncture and hour.
Let me recomence my old caterwaul of 'intrinsic value' if only to rile you.
But why should you be riled at all? No disordinancy has been revealed, other
         than in the cabals that have reviled Corbyn with claptrap lobbymen.
It is the lobby that corrupts the language of praise, determines greatness to be 
         derisory. I should not trust even Hogarth on the topic of Jews and ususry.
         And Cobbett would be worse. I count them amongst my grievous heroes,
         whose structural stature - each minute particular of unbribed observa-
         tion, whether of turnip or fashion - combines in a singular authentic
         judgement upon the nation

I’ll start with Cobbett. For those that don’t know, William Cobbett was an early 19th century journalist and radical who was a key figure in the movement for parliamentary reform. He was also an ardent supporter of and advocate for all things English and rural. I rate him as the finest writer of prose that we have ever had, a talent that makes me smile a lot. I don’t share his politics nor do I admire him as a man but his writings are a constant source of pleasure and inspiration.

Hill has always been a bit evasive about the precise nature of his politics apart from his patriotism and his belief in the need for some kind of hierarchy in the way that we govern our lives. It is nevertheless reasonable to suggest that he shared many of Cobbett’s beliefs and compassion for the rural poor. Here he seems to be troubled by his hero’s antisemitism which appears to be akin to the current workings of the Westminster lobby industry.

The statement Corbyn must win is unusually short and direct. I’m taking it that this refers to the 2017 UK general election in which Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party was narrowly defeated by the incumbent Conservative leader, Theresa May. No doubt there will be many books written and many debates had over the Corbyn phenomenon and what it may have signified.

I’m one of those lefty cynics who recognised the gift that a Corbyn leadership would give to an already divided Tory party. As a paid up member of the ongoing failure that is the Great British Left, I’d followed Corbyn’s career with interest and had been unable to work out why the party hadn’t expelled him many decades ago- his views having much more in common with some of the small grouplets of the far left than they do with the parliamentary party.

It is therefore more than a shock to read these three words coming from this self confessed High Tory especially when, elsewhere in the series, he confesses to being a Remain supporter in the ongoing Brexit fiasco. Hill had made his anti-EU views clear in the Canaan collection of 1996 esp with regard to the political strife around the ratification of the Mastricht Treaty- an internal Tory kerfuffle mostly about the loss of sovereignty.

I’m going to glide over the Hogarth reference because I want to attend to all that Baruch has to say about him in another piece. I have however been casting about for commonality between Cobbett and Corbyn and it occurs to me that both of these are political outsiders. Neither were accepted by the political elites/establishment even though both, at times, enjoyed extraordinarily wide public appeal. Cobbett took several attempts to get elected to a seat, even after the 1832 Reform Act whilst Corbyn led his party to two defeats and gave the Tories their biggest majority since 1931.

We are pointed in the direction of two essays where Hill pays attention to the nature of intrinsic value. The first of these, Rhetorics of Value and Intrinsic Value, which starts with David Hume, proceeds to Joseph Butler and George Eliot before moving on to Richard Hoooker before alighting upon Ben Johnson;

“Wheresoever, manners, and fashions are corrupted, Language is, It imitates the publicke riot. The Excesse of Feasts, and apparrel, are the notes of a sick State; and the wantnonnesse of language, of a sick mind.”

Hill’s comment is telling;

The intelligence that believes in these words, from wheresoever derived, and seals that belief by giving them this cogent stability, affims also its acceptance of a doctrine of intrinsic value, albeit tacitly. The tacit understanding here is that language does not universally descend into corruption in company with a sick mind, or the mind of a sick state. Johnson had no doubt that his own times were sick; but he never doubted the capacity of language, his own language in particular, to guard its sanity and to guard the sanity of those who give it their assent…….. If you do answer with yea, yea! – as I admit that I do- you are henceforward committed to a course of thought and statement that accepts opposition as part of the common lot, which can hardly avoid controversy, and which will be, or from some points of vantage will appear to be, narrowly constrained and constraining.

To this reader, at least, things become a little clearer, the ‘old caterwaul’ is recommended because it identifies the value that both Corbyn and Cobbett brought redressing the sick state and the ways in which both were entangled in controversy. The Tory press took great delight in reminding all of us of Corbyn’s earlier support for the IRA and the PLO whilst his own campaigns gained popular support because he talked of a new kind of politics, one that was based on a sense of commonality and economic justice.

I’m not entirely sure that Corbyn has a notable mastery of language, as time went on his speechifying became increasingly equivocated by the supposed need hedge his bets, especially with regard to Brexit. Given Hill’s notion of value, it does make sense to see the Jeremy Corbyn of 2017 as a figure coming out of the cold to speak truth to power.

As might be expected, I don’t share this view of language as something special and apart from our daily lives. I remain of the view that the words we use are tethered to the lives that we live and the ways in which we live them. Words are very powerful but they aren’t special, they don’t transcend everyday life in the way that most poets seem to claim.

The other thing that I may wish to attend to is how much of this idea of value should be applied to Hill’s own work. For example, can Mercian Hymns be read, at least in part as an attempt at sanity guarding? What about the stunning Mysticism and Democracy poems from the Canaan collection?

Paul Celan’s poetic voice.

I start this with some trepidation, I enjoyed making the previous piece on Jones and Hill because it clarified a few things for me that had been lurking at the back of my head. Applying a similar filter to Celan seems fraught with a higher level of difficulty because of his subject matters and the sparse ways in which these are addressed.

In his comment on the Hill and Jones meandering, Confiteor observes;

It would seem likely that Celan’s extreme paranoia made empathy and compassion for others difficult for him. If it is present in the work, it goes without saying that it’s not ‘clearly and unambiguously expressed’. How then do we assess voice — raw, human, and personal — in Celan?

It apears to me that there are elements of this humanness in some of the work and I’ll try and attend to some of the ambiguities in these below. As ever, these observations are both tenuous and provisional.

The poems that immediately spring to mind are those addressed to Gisele, his estranged wife, and those that are to do with the victims of the Holocaust.

This, Joris’ notes tell me, was written a week after seeing Gisele for the first time in a year;

I can, look, sink myself into you, glacierlike,
you yourself slay your brothers:
earlier than they
I was with you, Snowed One.

Throw your tropes in with the rest:
Someone wants to know,
why with God I
was no different than with you,

wants to drown in that,
two books instead of lungs,

someone who stabbed himself into
you, bebreathes the cut,

someone, he was the one closest to you,
gets lost to himself,

someone adorns your sex
with your and his betrayal,

I was both

The notes also tell me that Celan had made an attempt on his life by stabbing himself in his chest but had only succeeded in injuring his lung.

As someone who has spent more time than most planning to do away with myself, the above makes me feel a bit queasy. I’m of the view that suicide is such an intensely raw and personal thing that it should be dealt with creatively with extreme care and discretion.

I experience this as very raw indeed because of how it intertwines these mental agonies with lust and mutual transgression. For late Celan, it’s also quite direct.

In terms of ‘voice’ I think the repetition of ‘someone/einer’ contrasted with the ‘I’ at the beginning and end of the poem gives it quite an angrily sarcastic effect which feels more than a little self-indulgent. It may also be the trope that Celan refers to as belonging to Gisele.

It’s important not to ignore the adornment and betrayal couplet which hints at mutual infidelities yet this ‘adorning’ is set in the present tense, The poem was written in response the couple’s first meeting in a year. The notes helpfully point out that ‘sex’ here can mean both the sexual organ and progeny/family/lineage.

I’m not denying the essential honesty of what’s been expressed, it’s just that I detect some cruelty that isn’t particularly pleasant.

Turning to something much more public, this demonstrates a heartfelt concern for the victims of the Holocaust;

mineral resources, homey,

the heated syncope,

The not-to-be deciphered

The completely glassed-in
spider-altars in the all-
overtowering low-building,

the intermediate sounds
(even yet?),
the shadowpalavers,

the anxieties, icetrue,

the baroquely cloaked,
language-swallowing showerroom
semantically floodlit,

the uninscribed wall
of a standing-cell;


live yourself
straightthrough, without clock.

Here we appear to have have another unusually clear and direct poem, on this occasion addressing the Holocaust and the Nazi death camps. The notes tell me that Celan had retained a newspaper clipping that stated “In the standing-cells of Bloc 11 at Auschwitz, many detainees starved to death”.

I’m not going to do a line by line reading, instead I want to concentrate on the poem’s underlying humanity in its understanding of and compassion for millions of victims of Nazi savagery. The last three lines would seem to indicate that, in the present/now of 1967, it is still possible to live a life provided that it is removed from time. By ‘straightthrough’ I’m taking it that Celan intends something like directly and without encumbrance. This is reinforced by the fact that we are still, as in ‘even yet?’ held in by these ‘shadowpalavers’ which might relate to the kind of post- war special pleading done by ‘ordinary’ Germans regarding their culpability for the Holocaust.

As with much of Celan, the phrasing is both startling and accurate. The fact of the industrialised gassing of 6 million people does obliterate and trivialise language, does call into question all the achievements of Western culture and may still be fatal to all kinds of artistic expression within that tradition.

The instruction to ‘live yourself’ is telling, especially as it comes from a man who was making attempts to do away with himself and who succeeded three and a half years later. The compassion here, I think is about Celan’s ongoing sense of involvement with the dead and with his absolute need to do something positive in response to their destruction. This might not be the kind of humanness that many of my generation can readily relate to but we need to recognise it as one of the nobler/honourable kinds of response.

Of course, I don’t have any direct experience of genocide, nor of occupation by a foreign power so I don’t know how these things might feel with any kind of accuracy. What I can say is that, throughout my adult life, I have relied on the work of Celan to provide a framework for knowing how to feel about this especially terrible event and thinking about what it signify for living humans in the present.

Encountering the Other with Celan and Levinas

Looking back through these pages I see that seven years ago I wrote something about these two and, in particular, Levinas’ essay Being and the Other: on Paul Celan. I’ve just re-read my meandering and have decided that it needs updating and extending, mainly because it’s not very attentive and it needs to be.

First of all we need a note. Emanuel Levinas was an important 20th century French philosopher who many have seen as the successor and main proponent of the work of Martin Buber and his concern with our responsibility towards the Other. Celan was a keen admirer of Buber’s work and this idea is incorporated, if that’s the right word into his poetry.

Regular readers will be delighted to know that I’m not going to trundle out again the Heidegger v Buber argument in terms of their relative influence on the work. Instead I want to look at one of the late poems in terms of the encounter and the other.

As there’s a ‘you’ in the poem that follows, it may be as well to quote this from Celan’s preparatory notes for his Meridian Address:

In the poem something is said but, in effect, so that the said remains unsaid as long as the one who reads it will not let it be said to him. In other words; the poem is not topical but can be made topical, That too is, temporally the ‘cathexability’ of the poem: the You, to whom it is addressed, is given to it on the way to this You. The You is there even before it has come. (That too is a sketch-for-being.)

The poem is Gillyflowers from the Snowpart collection which was published posthumously in 1971;

GILLYFLOWERS, cat-enfranchised.
With wife
on your right, this lawn.

Rod- and moonsickle-stalemate.

You shouldn't, thus, like you, behind bars, back then,
Maltese Jew, big-
the bone jumped, abrupter
than I, the bone
that someone already from tomorrow threw-,
should not
look up to heaven, you left
him then, as he you,

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Sister chestnut, multifoliate,
with our blank overthither.

This is Pierre Joris’ translation and his notes explain ‘cat-franchised’ as being given ‘the freedom to express oneself’.

Here we have a your. a series of yous and a couple of hims. If we take all five of the yous to refer to a reader and an encounter with a reader then the poem becomes a bit too concerned with itself. As with most of Celan’s later work, we are given very few footholds but it would seem that there may be two addressees in this, as in You shouldn’t, thus, like you…… One addressee would appear to being warned off imitating the behaviour/actions of another. It’s tempting to assume that both of these are the poet simultaneously in the present and after an encounter has taken is the one who has read in the future. This mostly because I’ve just read Levinas’ take on the other and the nature of the encounter:

As if in going toward the other, I were reunited with myself and implanted myself in a soil that would, henceforth, be native; as if the distancing of the I drew me closer to myself, discharged of the full weight of my identity – a movement of which poetry would be the possibility itself, and a native land which owes nothing to rootedness, nothing to “prior occupation”: a native land that has no need to be a birthplace. Native land or promised land?

The ‘you shouldn’t’ instruction may relate to the constraints (bars) that were in place before the encounter occurred. Given Celan’s fondness for multiple ambiguities, it may also be about the experience of the Jews in the ghettos throughout European history and the death camps during the second world war. I’d risk a guess that this meeting is also felt as a setting free from the horrors of the past, the sense of being haunted by Nazi extermination permeates the later work.

I have to admit that I’ve never read any Christopher Marlowe but I’m happy to concur with the reliable Joris that ‘the / Maltese Jew’ is Barabas in Marlowe’s The Famous Tragedy of the Rich Jew of Malta, a play for many years seen as exclusively anti-semitic.

The bone is incredibly tricky, 30 minutes with the interweb reveals that the Jewish tradition has it that, at the Resurrection the dead will have either their merits or their faults written on their bones and will be judged accordingly. there is also the Luz bone which is the small bone at the top of the spine which is said to be indestructible;

……this is the bone from which the body will be rebuilt at the time of resurrection, and share the idea (with the Egyptian and Greek cultures) that this bone does not decay….

The book of Ezekiel also has the valley of dry bones, standing for the Jewish people in exile, encounters God.

Here we need a brief digression, I’ve been reading and consequently staggered by Celan’s poetry since 1970 and have been aware that many (many) thinkers of the past fifty years have seized, there is no other verb, on one or two of his many ‘threads’ in order to take the work to an ideological/theoretical point where it really doesn’t belong. As an agnostic in such matters, I have to point out that the ‘point’ of Celan’s many ambiguities is that he tells us and/or points to what it might mean to be a human on this planet. He does this with self lacerating honesty and incredible courage but this act is so packed with contrasting stuff that it must not be put into a single ‘box’. I digress thus because I’ve realised that, by attending to Levinas, I’m in danger of committing the same error.

One of the less remarked upon facts about Celan was that he was an enthusiastic and knowledgeable botanist. The poem in its original German begins with ‘LEVKOJEN’ in which Joris hears ‘Lev’ as the “Russian version of Celan’s father’s name, Leo, corresponding in Hebrew to the word “heart”. However, what Pierre doesn’t mention and I didn’t know is that, according to the exotic flowers blog, the gillyflower “remains historically as one of the original “romantic” plants for lovers” and:

The gillyflower can also stand for accepting and enjoying the life you have been given, endless beauty, purity, adoration, a religious connection and even as a sign for the zodiac, Taurus.  In general, this flower represents a long lived life, luck and immense happiness so it’s a wonderful choice for weddings, births and special anniversaries.  

If we take at least some of this as being pertinent then it contrasts with the closing many-leaved chestnut tree if, as I would, suggest it is echoing Orwell’s use of the Chestnut Tree nursery rhyme in 1984:

Under the spreading chestnut tree
I sold you and you sold me:
There lie they, and here lie we
Under the spreading chestnut tree.

In the novel this is Winston’s betrayal of Julia, his lover, as a result of being tortured and is thus brought back under the control of the totalitarian state. This is bitterly ironic as the chestnut traditionally symbolises justice, honesty and chastity.

The inclusion of Barnabas throws up a number of possibilities. As with Buber and Levinas, Celan’s other is a universal figure and Barnabas would seem to epitomise many others at once, he is a Jew, he murders and betrays with impunity, he kills his own daughter he dies by a means of his own devising. The last of these is apparently a feature in a few Old Testament stories. My point is that even Barnabas is able to encounter and receive the gift of the poem.

I’m taking it that an encounter occurs with this grotesque invention and then ends (you left him), leaving both of these alone again. The lighting from the side may be about, a gesture towards, a face in profile. Marlowe’s play apparently makes frequents references to the bigness of Barabas’ nose.

The suggestion that the you should not look up to heaven may simply infer that we have to deal with life as it is for humans than look to any kind of spiritual reality. I’m never sure as to the nature of Celan’s mysticism although I do accept that it’s a major element in his work. On this occasion, I’m with Michael Hamburger in discerning a negative theology with an absent God who may or may not have abandoned us. To my mind, Levinas falls into the trap of over identification as in:

The act of the poem speaking to its neighbor precedes all evocation; but it is in poetic speaking outstretched toward the other that, as if by magic, things
assemble their qualities as things. The for-other precedes the perception of evidence. The poem thus leaves to the real the alterity which pure imagination erases.

The obvious response is “no it doesn’t” and the giveaway way is ‘as if by magic”. For me this is very disappointing because my admiration for Levinas’ work has grown over the last decade and it saddens me that he should appear to invest the brilliance of the poetry with his own predilections. As i indicated earlier, he’s by no means alone in this, Derrida captures the work for language, Steiner for Heidegger and Gadamer for both Heidegger and mysticism.

Over the years I don’t think I’ve written about staggeredness which is the Bebrowed technical term for the feeling you get when paying attention to Celan’s work, a sense of been knocked off your cognitive feet and returned to a different kind of world. To demonstrate this I’d simply point to the last line of the above poem and leave readers to give some consideration to the many connotations and dimensions that ‘blank overthither’ might provide.


DW, who is becoming a regular commentator tried unsuccessfully to post these useful insights with regard to Gillyflowers:

‘The You is there even before it has come.’

‘… the bone / that someone already from tomorrow threw-‘

Is this bone, with its religious connotations (religion so pervasive yet ambivalent in Celan), the “You”? The Luz bone is where the tefillin-knot rests. Luz in Hebrew means “almond” – ‘Render me bitter, / Number me among the almonds.’

‘… mit dienen blanken / Hierdrüben’ – literally, ‘with your blank / Here-over-there’. Blank passport, exilic wanderings-writings, empty book.

‘… you left / him then, as he you, / stranded …’ – Conflicting stories about the night Celan’s parents were taken. Who left whom? Did Celan storm out of the house after arguing with his father? Was Celan stranded somewhere that night, unable to return home? Did Celan clutch in vain through barbed wire for his father’s hand (‘like you, behind bars, back then’)? 

Then there is the first stanza, which would seem to be obviously about Gisèle – Celan’s tragic Other, his (always-and-never) ‘approachable you’. The Gillyflowers are free to express the unspeakable, what is unsaid in the wedding bouquet full of promise, bearing witness to the ‘Rod- and moonsickle-stalemate’ of a shattered yet never renounced marriage.

I’m sure that others will also find this useful, I’ll endeavour to respond to this and the Blanchot comment once I’ve worked out which WP gremlin is messing around with the comments gizmo.

Still haven’t worked the comments gizmo problem out, will try again later As for DW’s insights, I think that he’s right with regard to Gisele although i would add that Joris’ notes concede that he has missed the word mund (to give speech’ from his cat-enfranchised translation of ‘katsenbemunidgt’.

With regard to Celan’s father, John Felstiner (a not-entirely-reliable scholar) tells us that Celan always blamed himself for failing to persuade his parents to leave their home before the Nazis came to arrest them. Celan’s time spent in a labour camp is less well recorded, the idea of the clutching through the wire is attractive. However, I’d like to add the above reference to the You in order to render things oriented towards the Buberian other as well.

I’m reluctant to hang an explanation on to the last line except to suggest the ‘blank’ can also stand for nothing and consequently nothingness- a recurring condition in the later work.

The OUP, the English Language and the Free Market. A Rant.

But hopefully a considered rant. Starting with the obvious, I like to think of myself as a writer who writes about poetry that is tricky to get hold of. This sometimes because it makes use of words that I don’t understand or the secondary definitions of ordinary words that I’m not aware of.

In order to par sustained attention to this kind of non-drive by work, I need access to the same dictionary used by those poets. this also applies to the sixteenth and seventeenth century poets that I’m particular fond of and occasionally write about.

This dictionary is the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) published by the Oxford University Press. In the not too distant past digital access was free via local authority library membership which is free. I was thus a member of the Hampshire library service until about three years ago when, quite suddenly, my access was denied. Further investigation revealed that the price of library affiliation had gone up to such a level that Hampshire were no longer prepared to pay it. This also proved to be the case amongst local authorities along the South Coast.

I don’t think I need to demonstrate the centrality of the OED but would gently point to the pic of Sir Geoffrey Hill sitting in front of a full set of volumes of the rear cover of The Orchards of Sion and both his and J H Prynne’s many complaints about the inferiority of the second edition when compared (in detail) with the first.

I couldn’t/wouldn’t afford the £215 annual subscription so I reluctantly had to devise a way of jumping over the paywall, for obvious reasons I’m not going into further details but it took me about five minutes and didn’t involve any kind of technical expertise.

The rant is that the OED is the definitive reference point for English speakers across the globe and millions of us are effectively locked out of both our heritage and the language we use.

I’ve just checked the OED site and came across this;

We are pleased to offer annual individual OED subscriptions at a reduced rate of £90 (usually £215) or $90 (usually $295) until March 31 2021.

As an ex-retailer, I can only surmise that this reduction is due to the fact that people have decided that they can’t afford the full amount and it’s been decided to reduce it to a more manageable amount. It is very unlikely that the OUP have had a sudden flurry of conscience.

I simply can’t write without this resource, I don’t and won’t charge for access to what I produce. I can’t afford spending either £450 or £1075 for five years’ use. I know that many others are in the same position and have to use Other Means to get access.

This brings me on to the pricing regimes of University presses which makes books about many subjects beyond the reach of the interested reader who doesn’t have access to a university library. I present examples from the OUP’s current poetry list;

American Experimental Poetry and Democratic Thought which currently sells for £98.00.

A History of European Versification at a breathtaking £212.50

Andrew Marvell, Orphan of the Hurricane which is priced at £79

Once again, as a reader. I have an interest in all of these, especially the Marvell, a major point that is becoming increasingly contested. I’m also guessing that like minded souls across the English speaking world would have a similar interest and would buy the book if it was reasonably affordable.

I readily accept that this is in part due to the funding crisis facing many of our universities which is compounded by the imposition of fees by the vile George Osborne and his posh boy chums. This kind of exclusionary practice may be a product of discredit economic models but it’s a double edged sword in that we, more than ever, need our workforce to be both knowledgeable and reflective to be able to survive in a global market, especially now.

I’ve just checked and, within three clicks, have discovered that I can download a complete pdf of the History tome for free. This again involves a small amount of technical knowledge that most poetry readers don’t have. I hope this demonstrates the futility of such a pricing regime and the inability of academic publishers to recognise the Writing on the Wall.

This particular Writing relates to the redundancy of charging for books and may other kinds of knowledge simply because there are and will continue to be ways to access these for free. I’m not talking about torrenting from pirate sites but via bodies that will remain nameless specifically set up to provide this service. I would use the open circulation of research into all aspects of Covid-19 as a prime example of how the scientific community is inching towards such a model and will continue to do so. Sadly I also recognise that lit crit and poetry journals will take more than a few years to catch up.

In conclusion, I hope I’ve demonstrated the extreme injustice of the current systems.

David Jones and art for art’s sake.

For the first time in a numbers of years I’ve been reading the Epoch and Artist collection of Jones’ essays and find myself struck again by Art and Sacrament and by The Utile from 1955 and 1958 respecitvely. This is primarily because of what Jones says about the relationship to the making of art with participation in the Catholic Mass in a note to The Anathemata which has always puzzled me.

I’m puzzled because this is a view that’s given with some force and has, what I find to be, an unpleasant sting in the tail:

But I here confine my use of the word to those artefacts in which there is an element of the extra-utile and the gratuitous. If there is evidence of this kind of artefacture then the artifex should be regarded as participating directly in the benefits of the Passion because the extra-utile is the mark of man.

For which reason the description ‘utility goods’ if taken literally could refer only to the products of sub-man.

This is note 2 on p.65 of the 2010 Faber edition of The Anathemata the italicised adverb is in the original text. I write as a reader who is unsettled by both paragraphs and, although I have had conversations with the leading critics on this, what follows is intended in a readerly way rather than lit crit.

I’m unsettled specifically by this notion of direct participation and by the use of sub-man.

I am happy to accept that taking part can be an unconscious thing and that it therefore includes non-believers. What I’m agitated by is how it works, even for believers. Being far too curious in many things I do like to know the details of this kind of belief. I’ve spent many hours getting to the finer points of how the dialectic is supposed to function, how religious grace has been fought over by Christians since the time of Christ for example. In comparison the what I think of as the Jones Problem is a very, very minor concern.

It matters to me because the use of emphasis disrupts my enjoyment of the work as a whole and this particular poem that I consider to be the finest long poem of the 20th century. I also consider myself to be, in part, an explicator of Jones’ longer work and therefore feel a bit of a fraud because I’ve never got to grips with this.

‘Sub-man’ is different because it smacks of a number of ideologies that I find repellent. I’m prepared to accept that this was an accepted ‘type’ used to refer to some indigenous people to justify colonial expansion and slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries and the Nazi’s extermination of the Jews during World War II. Naively I had thought that all Western artists had rejected thinking in this way after the discovery of the camps in 1945. The above paragraph demonstrates clearly that this isn’t the case.

As with T S Eliot and many others, Jones was an admirer of the French Action Francaise party (which was both far-right and monarchist) in the thirties. He was also a keen reader of the works of Oswald Spengler which was intially appropriated by the Nazis.

To return to the passion, Art and Sacrament clarifies what is meant by participation and why the proposition is universal rather than confined to the Catholic mass. This is arrived at by a long and detailed argument and I realise that it didn’t sink in to my brain because its various twists and turns will have deterred me from giving it the attention that it deserves.

What follows is a much abbreviated summary of what I read as the central argument. This, as ever, is both tenuous and subjective and should not be taken as in anyway definitive. It has, however, given me as a reader a better handle on some of What Might Be Going On in the glorious complexities that make up The Anathemata.

The essential bits are the function of religion as a binding force, a kind of ligament that binds man so that he man be free. Then there is art as a making/doing of signs, the sacrament as strategy and the mass as the place where signs are done.

To give the full flavour of the arguments made in support of these, I would need to produce the essay in full. Instead, I reproduce below the passages that I find most helpful.

It was in order to convey this that I chose the art of strategy as my example. For strategy in so far as it partakes of art, offers less occasion for those particular misunderstandings which would tend to arise had something more recognizably an art, and immeasurably more typical, been chosen: for example had poetry, dancing, painting, sculpture, song or architecture been chosen.

But having made some attempt to indicate certain characteristics that are implicit in the activity of art we are now free to consider some more explicit manifestations of those same characteristics by which we recognize that the art of man is essentially a sign-making or ‘sacramental’ activity. We have come through a tangled wood of attempted definitions and have been hampered by unavoidable explanations, but now perhaps we are more free to deploy in the open and can see better how the front shapes.

As it is the sign-making or ‘sacramental’ character of art that is our chief concern, I shall, in the following pages, confine myself to a more explicit consideration of what that may mean, and especially what it may mean to us today in view of our civilizational trend.


But brief reflection will show that Calvary itself (if less obviously than the Supper) involves poiesis. For what was accomplished on the Tree of the Cross presupposes the sign-world and looks back to foreshadowing rites and arts of mediation and conjugation stretching back for tens of thousands of years in actual pre-history.


But leaving Christians and their obligations altogether aside and speaking, for a while, as one unconcerned for the truth or untruth of the Christian documents, main tradition or divergent theologies, it remains true that in the signs referred to we have not only an element of art but some indication of the kind of activity that we predicate of Ars at her most abstract. This much should be as evident to those who imagine themselves to be antipathetic to the signs as to those who claim a love of them. A non-Christian person would rightly observe that these signs equally involve Ars whether the intention of the sign-makers is un-Catholic or Catholic. But such a person would also observe that in the latter case something further was involved. He would note that the intention in this case envisaged an abstract art par excellence; for nothing could be less ‘representational’ or more re-presentative or further from ‘realism’ or more near reality than what is intended and posited in this latter instance. He would note an extreme objectivity in the view that sign and thing signified are regarded as having a true identity. He would note the rejection of the opinion held elsewhere that such an identification overthrows the nature of a non-Christian person would rightly observe that these signs equally involve Ars whether the intention of the sign-makers is un-Catholic or Catholic. But such a person would also observe that in the latter case something further was involved. He would note that the intention in this case envisaged an abstract art par excellence; for nothing could be less ‘representational’ or more re-presentative or further from ‘realism’ or more near reality than what is intended and posited in this latter instance. He would note an extreme objectivity in the view that sign and thing signified are regarded as having a true identity.

I’m obviously not impressed by this ‘explanation’ and this isn’t because I’m a lifelong agnostic but rather that I still don’t have an explanation of how this might come about. I am, mostly, a materialist but I like to think that I’m reasonably accepting of things spiritual. I also accept that I have a soul and find that it is mostly fed by poetry.

I have to refute this notion of religious sign = artistic sign and the consequent participation in what the sacramental sign stands for by all sign makers and doers. At least I’m a lot learer on what Jones’ note intends and this does give me an additional hold on the thinking behind and within the Anathemata.

The following chapter was written as a kind of addendum to the first and part of it offers a clarification and defence of the term sub-man. First of all, I need to point out that Jones intends utile to mean that which is practically useful useful rather than art which isn’t. As was stated in the preceding essay, man is essentially a maker of art and the making of the merely useful is much less significant- hence the term in question.

I have just used the term ‘sub-man’ but that will not really do, except rhetorically. Also it is too suggestive of some primitive anthropoid or hominiform type, and that is not at all the association intended. On the contrary these apparently ‘sub-human’ works are the products of full homo faber, homo sapiens, modern man, and they are of course made and used by men, some of whom are in a high state of spiritual, moral, intellectual and aesthetical awareness. None the less these products are, to all appearances, ‘sub-human’ in quality. And they are not few, but many, not only many but ubiquitous and characteristic

I understand this but it feels like special pleading after the event by a man who now realises the offence that he has caused. Unlike the universal participation, I do understand how this is supposed to work but disagree with it, even without the sub-human quip. Jones claims that man has a special status as a maker of art because he has consciousness. Again this manages to be both too simple and complicated in equal measure.

There have been many over the centuries who have claimed that poetry is somehow closer to the truth than other art forms. This also strikes me as silly.

This ‘above and below’ way of thinking is a product of the very human desire to put things in order, to invent orders of hierarchy and then to argue about both. Both are constructs and have no grounding whatsoever in reality. Even if we apply the practical/creative split we find that it is perfectly possible to be a technically proficient artist just as it is to be an artistic technician.

In terms of the quote, Jones’ ‘it will not do, except rhetorically’ misses the point. It will not do at all, not in 1958, nor in 2021 especially in light of the growth of antisemitism across Europe. It’s significant that Jones doesn’t make a specific reference to the most obvious ways in which ‘sub-man’ can be defined and his defence / explanation is too convoluted and illogical to be taken seriously.

In conclusion, I’m disappointed and my view of David Jones the man has been diminished. I’m particularly concerned that I’ve spent the last decade informing others that Jones’ finest quality is his humanity. Sadly I feel the need to go back to the work to see if this view remains the same.

Incidentally, Faber published in 2017 a new edition of Epoch and Artist which is available from most UK outlets.

Edmund Spenser and his stanza.

It has been some years since I last wrote about Spenser but I’m now re-reading the brilliant Faerie Queene and want to pay some attention to the Spenserian stanza which is a Thing of Wonder and Delight. For those not familiar with the work, the FQ is very long indeed and divided into 6 books, each dealing with a virtue. The books consist of 12 cantos which usually contain more than 40 9-line stanzas apiece.

As an aside, I owe a personal debt to this work, for about ten years from 35 to my mid forties I went through my first period of disenchantment with poetry, feeling that it was all a bit trivial and took itself far too seriously. Up until then, I’d only paid attention to work produced after 1921 and was surprised to find myself being into something Very Big from the end of the 16th century. What surprised and pleased me most was that the Spenserian stanza made poetry fun, in short I was hooked.

As the name implies, this particular stanza is of Spenser’s own devising and, in his hands, is remarkably effective in addin additional dimensions to his tales. As examples, I want to use this dialogue from Book 111 and then a fight scene between Arthur and Cymochles from Book 11. This is a conversation between Britomart (the personification and her nurse;

The Damsell pauzed, and then thus fearfully
      Ah Nurse, what needeth thee to eke my paine?
      Is not enough, that I alone doe dye, 
      But it must doubled bee with death of twaine?
      For nought for me, but death there doth remaine.
      O daughter deare (said she) despeire no whit,
      For never sore, but might a salve obtaine;
      That blinded God, that hath thee blindly smit,
Another arrow hath your lovers hart to hit.

But mine is not (quoth she) like others wound;
       For which no reason can find remedy.
      Was neuer such, but mote the like be found,
       (Said she) and though no reason may apply
      Salue to your sore, yet loue can higher stye,
     Then reasons reach, and oft hath wonders donne.
     But neither God of loue, nor God of sky
     Can doe (said she) that, which cannot be donne.
Things oft impossible (quoth she) seeme, ere begonne.

Book three is ‘about’ Britomart and her quest to find Artegall, the object of her love. The above takes place after our heroine has fallen in love but before she and her nurse have set off on their mission. In order to appreciate the full effect, it’s really important to read this out loud and feel the strength of the rhymes and the pulse of each stanza. The content here is both sophisticated and refreshingly human, the second stanza sets out respective positions on love and how to respond to it but this is done in away that carries the attentive reader forward. This reader is struck by “Then reasons reach, and oft hath wonders donne” which is very accomplished indeed, expressing something complex in a deceptively straightforward way.

One of the marks of a great poet is the ability to make the very difficult appear easy. Many poets over the last 420 years have tried to imitate this form but very, very few have come close to make the device ‘work’ as it should. Claims have been made for Shelley’s Adonais and Keats’ The Eve of St Agnes but neither of these equal the sustained quality of Spenser’s content.

The second example is one which demonstrates how the stanzas run/flow into each other, especially when reporting action scenes. Here, Prince Arthur is fighting Cymochles and Pyrrhochles;

For when Cymochles saw the fowle reproch,
  Which them appeached, prickt with guilty shame,
  And inward griefe, he fiercely gan approch,
  Resolu'd to put away that loathly blame,
  Or dye with honour and desert of fame;
  And on the haubergh stroke the Prince so sore,
  That quite disparted all the linked frame,
  And pierced to the skin, but bit no more,
Yet made him twise to reele, that neuer moou'd afore.

Whereat renfierst with wrath and sharpe regret,
  He stroke so hugely with his borrowd blade,
  That it empierst the Pagans burganet,
  And cleauing the hard steele, did deepe inuade
  Into his head, and cruell passage made
  Quite through his braine. He tombling downe on ground,
  Breathd out his ghost, which to th'infernall shade
  Fast flying, there eternall torment found,
For all the sinnes, wherewith his lewd life did abound.

Which when his german saw, the stony feare
  Ran to his hart, and all his sence dismayd,
  Ne thenceforth life ne courage did appeare,
  But as a man, whom hellish feends haue frayd,
  Long trembling still he stood: at last thus sayd;
  Traytour what hast thou doen? how euer may
  Thy cursed hand so cruelly haue swayd
  Against that knight: Harrow and well away,
After so wicked deed why liu'st thou lenger day?

Book II’s protagonist is Guyon and his quest is for temperance. Arthur (magnificence) comes to his aid in the struggle with these two brothers who represent the inability to exercise different aspects of self control. What attracts me to the above is the way in which Cymochles ‘guiltie shame’ goads him into attacking Arthur, particularly the reference to ‘inward griefe’. This shows a much more sophisticated and considered approach than we would expect from a ‘standard’ fight between good and bad.

Spenser’s fights contain a fair amount of gore and the ‘cruelle passage’ here is fairly typical. The end of this stanza again expresses the consequences of a sinful life in an elegant and precise way. The third stanza moves us rapidly to Pyrrhocles’ anger at his brother’s death. The pace of the action from fight to death to reaction is remarkably swift, especially when the various asides and sub-texts are taken into account. This rhythmic movement through the stanzas also gives a sense of emotional intensity and drama.

The other less noticed aspect of the Spesnerian stanza is that it creates something that is quite profoundly visual, almost filmic which enables the reader to feel more like an active onlooker rather than a passive consumer of text.

The final point I’d like to make is that it is Spenser’s exuberance that carries things forward with such sustained panache for over 3800 stanzas. It is clear that the poet knows that his stanza is successful as a form and takes delight in showing off what it can do. This sense of energetic pleasure is communicated to the reader who thus becomes another smiling enthusiast.

Incidentally, ‘haubergh’ is the Spenserian spelling of ‘hauberk’ or chain mail coat/jacket whilst a ‘burganet’ is a type of helmet.

I hope I’ve demonstrated at least some of the value of The Faerie Queene and encouraged one or two of you to pay it some attention.

J H Prynne’s Zinc Option

This is one of the poems from Prynne’s Or Scissel collection which was published by Shearsman in 2018. I’m probably running before I can walk but there’s a couple of things beings said here that appear to be unusually clear;

And despite twin to gem in such placement,
at the sun-drift, at the turn nearby run
across it with a near tremor galvanised even
high and brittle; splinter alteration all known
beyond range incessant as slower for removal,
perish in parallel, squared off. Indignant both
in stock over elevate without pause for dial
laser before due moment, perfunctory if by
measuring zinc option, beyond the gem-tilt
ice crevasse. Not reluctant by match willing
as would all be or variable; button furnace
steel chasing, defect for prospect indexical
home on the range in company expected abate-
ment accession roaming sense acknowledge,
make pack and fasten. Refract fully possible
to get close, alternate dispossession to
the upper frank reach, brow in mark not yet
or notable, in quake hot furnace in new-broken,
offended. Declare vertical in certain pitch
wants no more for hunger makes contortion on
every side, despite censure or because of 
its absence, to pay entirely on the nail ahead,
open. Weld inlay dangerous to carry forward,
deal unfound until by surprise uncovered,
on the floor keep up: necessary parclose. How
otherwise deal fair or first before, go there
extenuate by staunch prior permission, your feet

I always feel some trepidation in writing about a Prynne piece that’s new to me, the opportunities to ‘go wrong’ are enormous yet I’m always tempted by even the most obdurate work when it hints that it might my attention. What follows is, as ever, provisional and tenuous and I reserve the right to change my mind at any time in the future.

As well as this proviso I must make clear that the town I grew up in, Middlesbrough, began as a centre for iron and steel making and throughout my adult life has been in a slow but steady state of decline.

I therefore want zinc option at least in part to address the increasingly farcical progress of that slow death. In support of this claim, I draw attention to the following;

across with a near tremor galvanised even
high and brittle; 

To galvanise, the OED tells me, is (incorrectly) referred to as the coating of iron with zinc even though “no galvanic process is involved” it’s also used to energise or give enthusiasm to either a group or an individual. Zinc is said to be brittle at temperatures below 100 – 150 celsius where it becomes malleable but is brittle again above 210 degrees.

The galvanic process involves passing a galvanic charge through something which may be what the small tremor refers to. It can also be argued that the British steel industry has been given small shocks of capital over the years which have resulted in small tremors of activity rather than a full recovery.

as would all be or variable; button furnace
steel chasing, defect for prospect indexical

I’m here taking ‘button’ as a noun meaning to close something and to be silent about something. I’m resisting the temptation to place too much importance on the OED’s “Of broccoli, cauliflower, etc.: to form a small, premature head” but reserve the right to keep it in mind. As an aside, one such premature head from my adolescence was the building of a new blast furnace which was heralded as putting Teesside in front of all other steel makers when the sad fact remained that the developing world could make the same product at a much cheaper price.

For the moment, it may be as well to take ‘furnace/steel’ at face value but to give additional attention to ‘chasing’ which throws up a number of possibilities. This has a subsidiary definition of setting something with gems as well as to emboss or to engrave. There’s also chasing as pursuing which could characterise the UK government’s forlorn attempts to lure foreign investors to the industry.

There are several ambiguities within ‘prospect’ – a view, something to do with the future and, as a verb, seeking out mineral resources. Sadly I have no idea as to what any of these might have to do with ‘indexical’

.................................... Refract fully possible
to get close, alternate dispossession to

Looking at the many possibilities of ‘refract’ highlights what is both intriguing and infuriating about Prynne’s work. I’m a fan of ambiguity in all forms of creative expression mainly because that’s how life in general seems to be. There are times, however, when there are too many possible / likely intentions that the exercise begins to cancel itself out. This particular instance may well be one of those.

Having very little scientific or technical knowledge, I decided to start here with refraction rather than the verb and this is the first entry in the OED;

Rhetoric. Use of the same word in opposing senses. Obsoleterare.

The one example given is from 1555;

1555   R. Sherry Treat. Figures Gram. & Rhetorike f. xxx   Refraction serueth to the like, when all one worde is repeted in a contrarye sense, as I know all this life to bee but bitternes, but I pray you geue me such bitternes.

I’ll proceed in a moment with the more standard definitions but there’s something here that what Prynne’s later work might be about. Here there’s the repeated use of ‘furnace’ but there’s also his interest in paradox and contradiction that seems to form part of the way in which we should read this material.

The ‘normal’ use of this verb applies to the deflection of light or sound waves when they enter another medium, water being the most obvious example. It can also mean to reflect or return, to break up or impair, to analyse nitre in order to calculate the extent of its impurities and to measure and then correct the refractive error of the human eye.

All of these would seem to ‘fit’ the sense of the poem in some way but there is also something called seismic refraction which, wikipedia tells me, is used in geological prospection because;

The methods depend on the fact that seismic waves have differing velocities in different types of soil (or rock): in addition, the waves are refracted when they cross the boundary between different types (or conditions) of soil or rock.

Without getting too lit crit, Prynne spends much time in Field Notes, his remarkable study of The Solitary Reaper, discussing how the sound of the human voice travels across the landscape. If we read refract as to break up or impair and close as to shut down then things may again appear to support my straw clutching. The 1980s saw the Thatcher government preside over many plant closures throughout the UK causing further poverty and hardship in the communities affected.

The final couple of lines that I’d like to call to my aid are;

deal unfound until by surprise uncovered,
on the floor keep up: necessary parclose. How

A deal unfound is a deal not found, the steel industry has sought many deals in the past in terms of both mergers and sales. All of these have failed to produce a viable concern with some plants having to stand idle for years waiting for the next rescue deal to come along. Reading ‘parclose’ as a partition and as a conclusion or end, I interpret a bitter irony deployed in ‘necassary’ which was usually the term faux regretful politicians would use to excuse further plant closures.

In conclusion, I may be entirely wrong but this seems to me a fair, if tenuous, stab at what might be going on here and I’ll return to Zinc Option in the next few weeks. With that in mind, any comments would be most helpful

David Jones, his notes as strata.

I’ve been re-reading Tom Goldpaugh and Jamie Collison’s brilliant and essential edition of Jones’ The Grail Mass and Other Works. I was going to pick out a few of the notes and talk about Jones’ views on both the Roman Empire and All Things Welsh. Something in the editors’ introduction, however, caught my eye before I had the chance to dive in;

These notes are best understood not as didactic attempts to limit the meaning of the lines to which they refer, but rather in terms of Jones oft-used geological metaphors of ‘strata’ or ‘deposits’ to describe the way in which meaning builds up over time within a culture. He was particularly concerned with layers of meaning, and argued that to appreciate the textures on the surface one must know what lies beneath. A page of Jones’ poetry with footnotes running along the bottom and the verse printed above instantiates this understanding. The footnotes do not explain away the verse, they uncover a lower stratum of meaning upon which the poetry above is built. From this perspective, they endeavour not to draw the text down to a fixed meaning, but rather point upward, opening out possibilities of association that would have been otherwise inaccessible and which Jones hopes will subsequently inform the reader’s engagement with the verbal play of the poem itself. The visual impact of Jones’ footnoted poetry is one of the reasons the editors have confined commentary to extended endnotes.

As a self-opinionated Jones obsessive, this detailed explication provides a lot to think about. I’ve been of the view that the notes to The Anathemata don’t ‘work’ in that they often explain things that don’t always need an explanation glide over in silence the things that are Very Obscure Indeed. Self-annotation always seems to me to be fraught with hazard. Some poets manage it reasonably well but others seem much more concerned with self-justification rather than providing assistance. Of course, different readers require different kinds of help but Jones’ later work is so obdurate that I feel that we could all benefit from more consistent ‘cover’. The editors describe these notes as providing a ‘lower stratum of meaning’ that is somehow foundational to that particular part of the poem. If this is the case then I’m not sure that it’s something that I need, I’d much rather have some idea of context which provides broader information rather than these foundations. If this is the case then I don’t mind if more information is provided than I need as long as it gives me that cognitive breadth.

I’m nevertheless intrigued by this geological aspect and have now paid some attention as to where this might apply in the Grail Mass. I want to start with a couple of lines from The Third Celtic Insertion;

or circumambulate the world of
Mother Mona to wheat her furrows
for Camber's mess.........

Mother Mona gets this lengthy note;

Anglesey was known as Mon fam Cymru, ‘Mona the Mother of Wales’, on account, it is supposed, of the corn grown on the island. We have already noted the association of the sea god Manawyddan with the soil, The great fabulist, Geoffrey of Monmouth, in order to provide suitable founders for England, Scotland and Wales respectively names as the sons of Brute: Locrine, Ambarnact and Camber. Camber, no more than the other two, has any place in the earlier mythology. He is, I suppose, a literary invention of the Angevin age. Geoffrey was trying to provide an Aenid for Henry of Anjou’s empire. We can, however, at this date afford to utilise his inventions, for he himself has become part of our deposits. (Incidentally what a tragedy it was for Britain as a whole that the Angevin hegemony ever disintegrated. For had it continued the unity between these islands and French civilisation would have been assured).

The above would appear to be a bit at variance with our editors’ observation. It’s more of a justification for making use of an erroneous reference than ‘a deposit’ in itself. The two elements which may require explanation (‘Mother Mona’ and ‘Camber’) are dealt with first and this provides all the information that I need. As a reader, the observation about Geoffrey’s work having become ‘part of our deposits’ strikes me as extraneous to my engagement with the work. As Jones ackowledges, the last observation is also extraneous (and incorrect).

I also want to have a think about this;

Here in Kemais, igneous and adamant, 
and high - there in Penfro, the high trees
are low under Manannan's tide
where the Deisi foray who converse with incubi.

Does the tufted coverlet drape the shifting
or do we tread the paleozoic
                Where, hard strata lean on leaning strata
harder yer, and with each greater hardness
the slow gradient falls, slowly falls to where
the basalts dark gull's side beyond the fretted
knuckles of Pebidiog
                 Where the brittle rim of the lithosphere
hangs and jutties between water-cloud
and water
                  where the last grey tokens are.

All the names, except ‘Mannanan’ from the fist stanza are directly defined in the notes and that omission is clarified by the explanation of the reference to the ‘high trees’ lying low under the tide.

The rest of this extract however has no notes at all so I’ve had to use the interweb to elucidate both ‘Pebidiog’ and ‘lithosphere’ and to look up ‘jutty’ as a verb. This is what I mean with regards to the notes not ‘working’ in any of the later poems but especially this and The Anathemata. It may be argued that The Grail Mass is an incomplete draft an and Jones may have been intending to do this at a later stage before publication. All the same, this seems unlikely given the similar gaps in The Anathemata. Jones’ introduction to that work has;

I have a last point that I wish to get clear. Although in the notes to the text and in this apology I refer to or cite various authorities and sources that does not mean that this book has any pretensions whatever of a didactic nature. I refer to those sources only to elucidate a background.

This seems to me to be reasonably clear, I think that Jones could have done more elucidating but feel that thinking of the notes as some kind of strata just serves to complicate things that are already complex.

David Jones, In Parenthesis as Documentary..

What follows is a version of the brief paper I was going to give at the York University Jones conference in July 2016 The reason for putting it here is that heart surgery had prevented any long distance travel and various other normal activities a couple of months. I originally put this on my arduity site but it may well be of interest to readers here.

In Parenthesis is a heartbreakingly beautiful account of the days leading up to and including the first day of the Somme offensive on July 1st in 1916. According to our foremost military historian, Michael Howard, it is also one of the greatest ever accounts of warfare.

In 1938 IP won the then prestigious Hawthornden Prize, in his 1961 Note of Introduction T S Eliot describes it as a “work of genius” and places Jones in the same group as himself, Pound and Joyce.

Before beginning, I’d like to acknowledge Tom Dilworth’s account of the very close parallels between IP and David Jones’ personal experience of the war, a proximity I’ll return to more than once as we progress.

Regular readers will know that I’m a fan of the documentary poem but I’m suggesting that that this is more, that IP transcends this particular Poetry Mode and spills over into a thing both more specific and, at the same time, universal. I’m fully aware that this doesn’t make any kind of sense but (please) bear with me. As well as being a fan on the Poetry Mode, I’m also a devotee of the documentary film because great factual films bring with them a sense of immediacy and exactness that both moves and fascinates me.

In his Preface, Jones sets out his two main aims, the first being to memorialise his fallen comrades and the second to give an account of the period leading up to the mechanization of warfare that, as he saw it, coincided with the slaughter on the Somme:

This writing has to do with some things I saw, felt and was part of. The period covered begins early in December 1915 and ends early in July in 1916. The first date corresponds to my going to France. The latter roughly marks a change in the character of our lives in the infantry on the West Front. From then on things hardened into a more relentless, mechanical affair, took on a more sinister aspect. The wholesale slaughter of the later years, the conscripted levies filling the gaps in every file of four, knocked the bottom out of the intimate, continuing, domestic life of men, within whose structures Roland could find, and, for a reasonable while, enjoy, his Oliver. In the earlier months there was a certain attractive amateurishness, and elbow-room for idiosyncrasy that connected one with a less exacting past.

The are the opening lines of Jones’ preface and I’m suggesting that it might be useful to take him at his word. It’s a writing that a specific period of time, not a written record, nor a memoir, nor an elegaic account but a having to do with and it’s this aspect that I’d like to pay some attention to here.

This writing proceeds by way of narrative, by telling the story of its protagonist, private John Ball, as he makes his way from the English parade ground to the first day of the battle. The focus is almost entirely on the internal relationships within Ball’s company, the men’s responses to each other and the events going on around them. In this way Jones’ captures and conveys a specific and personal kind of reality. Now, I know very little about the Great War, only a little more than the consensus cultural view of a senseless slaughter that didn’t achieve anything for either side. I am therefore in no position whatsoever to assess the accuracy or otherwise of this story. What I have done is noted how it has affected me and my perspective on these events. The first thing to be said is that this tired old cynic continues to be emotionally stirred up and that his view of the quotidian existence of these men has changed dramatically.

Because of the reported conversations and behaviours, I feel as if I know all of these characters and yet throughout the story I know that many of them are going to die. During the first reading i attempted to maintain some kind of manly distance from the characters but still managed to be heartbroken and emotionally mangled for them, as living and breathing individuals, as they fell. In terms of my perspective, that’s changed on both the event and on the priorities I give to historical trends and the bigger perspective in general.

In terms of the event, I now understand that WWI wasn’t four years of continuous and relentless hell, that there were periods of respite and recuperation to be had whilst behind the trenches, that the main thing that kept men going was their camaraderie and resolve, even though they didn’t hold the officer class in any great regard. The second is the importance of personal experience in the scheme of things, as in it is of little use knowing and understanding the causes of and the general progress of things without an at least equal understanding of the effect of these on individual lives.

I’ve written before about the physical awkwardness and effort involved in getting to and living in the front lines but here I want to think about this in terms of documentary, of this ‘having to do with’. This brief extract is from Part 3, Starlight Order which deals with the Company moving at night towards the forward positions:

And sleepy-eyed see Jimmy Grove’s irregular bundle-figure, totter upward labouringly, immediately next in front, his dark silhouette sways a moment above you – he drops away into the night – and your feet follow where he seemed to be. Each in turn labours over whatever it is – this piled brokenness – dragged over and a scared hurrying on, the slobber was ankle-deep where you found the road again.

And this as the troops near their destination:

The night dilapidates over your head and scarlet lightning annihilates the nice adjustments of your vision, used now to, and cat-eyed for the shades. You stumble under this latest demonstration, white-hot nine-inch splinters hiss, water-tempered, or slice the cross-slats between his feet – you hurry in your panic, which hurrying gives you clumsy foothold, which falling angers you, and you are less afraid; you call them bastards – you laugh aloud.

Before we proceed, theere is a note to ‘Jimmy Grove’s’ but I don’t understand it (the notes don’t always ‘work’). Whatever this may refer to, I don’t think my ignorance in any way detracts from the jaw-dropping brilliance of the above. Incidentally ‘hedropsaway’ isn’t a typo, it’s how it appears in the 2010 Faber edition.

Reading part 4, I’m on this road with these men, I’m struggling with them, I’m aware of the immediacy of danger and equally scared by the annihilating lightning. I’m sucked in by the use of ‘you’ and carried along by the quicknesses of the rhythm and the exquisite use of language. All of these convey to me the most convincing ‘having to do with’ warfare that I have ever read. Of course, this is a subjective and personal view but I’m happy to argue for it against other contenders for the above reasons.

Jones’ is also keen to describe aspects of life behind the trenches and there is one passage concerning a local couple who run a bar serving the troops during their days of respite. This is from Part 5, Squat Garlands for White Knights:

   She bolted the door for the night
and when it was morning
Jacques said that the Englishman's guns had kept him awake.
   She said that it was a pleasant morning, and the first in June.
   He said it was time the English advanced, that they were a
stupid race, anyhow.
   She said they were not.
   He would like to remind her of the Pastoral,
for which she laughed a long time,
with: Vah, vah,
and her head wagging
with: La - la, la, and her finger pointed, with:
Tawny-tooth go watch the priest, and,
   She said that the war was lucrative, and chid him feed the
fowl, and smoothed her pinafore: sometimes the Siege Artil-
lery came in during the morning, If there wasn't a shoot on.

There are many conversations in IP but this is the only one between non-combatants and thus the only one that is likely to have be supposition rather than direct experience. The Preface addresses the issue of the authentic thus:

Each person and every event are free reflections of people and things remembered, or projected from intimately known possibilities.

I’d argue that this rationale and these components embody the very best documentary form in every genre from Lanzman’s Shoah to the accounts of Eamon Duffy and Vanessa Place. I’d also like to observe that, as a close and attentive Jones reader, I have yet to encounter any aspect of dishonesty, as in things done exclusively for effect, or artifice in his work.

To return to these two and their conversation, the perspective is new to me in that I haven’t read an account of those who lived in proximity to these horrors and went on as, best they could, with their ‘ordinary’ lives. What I find particularly efficacious here is the casual, almost incidental, discussion of what I would consider to be terrifying and murderously destructive events. Both the artillery barrage (described with vivid clarity by Jones elsewhere) and an ‘advance’ are given this everyday tone. Again, I don’t empirically know if this is accurate or not but it does seem to me to be as close a ‘projection’ of the real that we are going to get.

This is also achieved by the Pastoral joke, the stupidity argument and the general observation that the war was an economic opportunity for those who chose to stay near the fronts. People talk like this, conversation is generally good-humoured and the subject under discussion tends to jump around a bit.

There a couple of possible quibbles that spring to mind and the first of these relates to genre. It could be argued that IP is a memoir or a personal history rather than a documentary, that the events describe an aspect of Jones’ life or an account of that period immediately before the descent into mechanised ‘wholesale slaughter’. It might also be argued that poetry-wise that it’s an extended elegy for the first half of 1916. In response, I’ll quote again from the preface:

None of the characters in this writing are real persons, nor is any sequence of events historically accurate. There are, I expect minor anachronisms, e.g. the suggestion in Part 4 of a rather too fully developed gas-defence system for Christmas 1915. The mention of ‘toffee-apples’ (a type of trench-mortar bomb so shaped) at perhaps too early a date.

That appears to me to be a clear refutation of the history argument. There is the last part of the above where Jones indicates his awareness of two inaccuracies and provides these to show that he either is arguing for the history reading or he is indicating that this is not his primary task. Given the preceding disclaimer, I’d go for the second option. This extract follows on from the ‘intimately known possibilities’ quote provided above:

I have only tried to make a shape in words, using as data the complex of sights, sounds, fears, hopes, apprehensions, smells, things exterior and interior, the landscape and paraphernalia of that singular time and of those particular men.

I’d like to think that this diminishes the memoir argument as especially by the careful ‘using as data the complex’ which would seem to enhance my case as this again is an essential part of the documentarist’s task.

The other supporting point is Jones’ sketch map of the relevant front lines that was included in the first Faber edition of 1937 but criminally excluded from the recent reprint. I only know about this object because I have a copy of John Matthias’ Selected Works of David Jones. I would reproduce it here but my scanning skills are less than brilliant and some of the names are faint and barely legible. However, there are two dates, ‘24.12.’15’ and ‘9.9.16’ , a scale (‘1.10000’) and no man’s land clearly marked out, together with the complex of trenches behind the front line.

I accept that these are by no means conclusive and that I may be making this argument because I want IP to be documentary. I’m less convinced by the argument that we shouldn’t take Jones’ Preface at face value. IP was 20 ye4ars in the making and our poet will have been fully aware of how an attentive of this frame would inform and perhaps direct readers’ approach- it certainly did for me.

In conclusion, I’m writing this on the morning of July 1st 2016, exactly a century since these men walked (walked) into that place of unnecessary slaughter. I’m not usually a fan of military commemoration for all sorts of reasons but I’d like to end with the fate of Mr. Jenkins, the 21 year old officer in charge of John Ball’s platoon:

Mr Jenkins half inclined his head to them - he walked just
barely in advance of his platoon and immediately to the left of 
Private Ball.
   He makes the conventional sign
and there is the deeply inw3ard effort of spent me who would
make response for him,
and take it at the double.
He sinks on one knee
and now on the other,
his upper body tilts in rigid inclination
this way and back;
weighted lanyard runs out to full tether,
                 swings like a pendulum
                 and the clock run down.
Lurched over, jerked iron saucer over tilted brow,
clamps unkindly over lip and chin
nor no ventaille to this darkening
         and marked face lifts to grope the air
and so disconsolate;
enfeebled fingering as a paltry strap - 
buckle holds,
holds him blind against the morning.
  Then stretch still where weeds pattern the chalk predella
-where it rises to his wire- and Sergeant T.Quilter takes

This remarkable work is available second hand from Amazon at a mere 7 quid which is laughably cheap. There is no excuse not to get it and place yourself in the presence of greatness.

Paul Celan: some wordwords from Timestead

For those who don’t already know, the bebrowed view is that Paul Celan is the greatest poet of the twentieth century and his later work stands far above that of any other poet since 1900. I’m not going to expand or justify this point as I’ve already done this elsewhere. What I am going to do is hopefully illustrate this brilliance by attending to his abiding interest in language as shown in Timestead, his final collection which was published posthumously in 1976, six years after he took his own life.

Before we get on to the poems, a few points might be useful:

Before proceeding, it’s probably as well to throw into the mix some of what the Address and the notes for it have to say about language. I’m going to select a few that I find most helpful in my ongoing involvement with the work. So this is entirely subjective, my only defence is that I don’t have space to attend all of those that might be pertinent.

As with the poems, I’m using the English translations of Pierre Joris simply because I find his to be the most reliable. This is a key passage from the Address:

But language actualized, set free under the sign of a radical individuation, that at the same time, however, remains mindful of the language draws and of the possibilities that language opens up for it.

The always-still of the poem can indeed only be found in the work of the poet who does not forget that he speaks under the angle of inclination of his Being, the angle of inclination of his creatureliness.

The the poem is – even more clearly than previously – one person’s language-become-shape, and, according to its essence, presentness and presence.

These are from the Poem and Language section of the notes:

This pictorial is by no means something visible, it is, like everything else connected with language, a mental phenomenon. Language is not that an encounter with an invisible. It is, even in what is furthest from the voice a question of the accent; in the poem the perception of its sound pattern also belongs to the perceived image. By the breath-steads in which it stands. you recognize it by the crest-times. That is by no means the same as this or that cheap impressionistic tone painting, timbre etc. It is, here too, a manifestation of language, a speech-art that has to be hear in the written, i.e. the silent, ( the language-grille which is also the speechgrille, makes this visible.)


The poem is inscribed as the figure of the complete language but language remains invisible; that which actualizes itself – language – takes steps, as soon as that has happened, back into the realm of the possible. “Le Poeme”, writes Valery est du a l’état naissant; language in statu nascendi, thus language in the process of liberation.

As with any great work, Celan’s output has been the subject of fierce critical debate, most of which is sufficiently obfuscatory to deter even the most attentive of fans (me). So I’m going to leave these kerfuffles to one side and present my view of the deployment of language in one particular late poem that hopefully will demonstrate the sense of involvement and fascination that this stuff triggers in the soul.

 The whisperhouse,
open on leapday,

handed on
on jute, surface-

it naturalizes 
the fricatives,

the lallation-stage
is taken care of 
by the lip-

―does the 
other snap in,
on time?―

this, yes this
of your hands,

the network of the dead 
helps to carry the firnice,

the moon,
poles reversed,
rejects you, second

at the restheaven, deathproud, the
takes the hurdle.

We’ll get the trickier words out of the way with the help of the OED-

Fricative= “Of a consonant-sound: Produced by the friction of the breath through a narrow opening between two of the mouth-organs”, English examples include ‘v’ and ‘f’

Lallation = ” An imperfect pronunciation of r, by which the sound of that letter is confused with that of l” or “childish utterance”.

The definition for firnice comes from Wikipedia- ” is partially compacted névé, a type of snow that has been left over from past seasons and has been recrystallized into a substance denser than névé. It is ice that is at an intermediate stage between snow and glacial ice. Firn has the appearance of wet sugar, but has a hardness that makes it extremely resistant to shovelling. Its density generally ranges from 550 kg/m3-830 kg/m3, and it can often be found underneath the snow that accumulates at the head of a glacier.”

The first line is close to my heart in that I’ve just incorporated the Loud Whisper into my own performance work. What I’ve found fascinating is this activity as halfway, or thereabouts, between speaking and breathing. Whispering loudly also involves a conscious effort to empty the voice of all its sonority which is really difficult to sustain over a long period.

Four occasions when we whisper come to mind:

  • when we are in a religious building, as a mark of reverence;
  • in libraries, museums and arts venues where we don’t want to disturb the concentration or enjoyment of others;
  • when we want to keep something secret and we don’t want to be overheard;
  • when we are in hiding and in danger of being discovered.

So, the ‘house’ suffix may be a place of worship, study, entertainment, display, secrecy or hiding or a mixture of any of these.

Whispers are also nouns, the sound we make when we whisper or a sound made by something else that sounds like a whisper. Bearing mind how the poem proceeds, the escape of gas can sound like a whisper which might have us leaping to the idea of the whisperhouse as a gas chamber, a place of industrialised slaughter. This may or may not be conjoined with any of the above, ambiguity being a recurring device in Celan’s work. Here I’m going to make use of J H Prynne on the poetically ambiguous:

In very summary form we may describe the effect like this. In strictly local context the surrounding sense may point strongly to one word-meaning rather than to another, different meaning of the same word. But in larger context within a poem a less “probable” meaning may also open a semantic possibility that can give the overall meaning a richer sense, even (or especially) by irony or contradiction, so that often a very wide range of different senses can be found to be active and having an effect, maybe on different levels or discoverable in different stages of the poem’s development.

Of course, outside the field of contemporary cultural endeavour, this quality is frowned upon precisely because it is inexact, imprecise and generally wooly in a world in which clear answers and meanings ‘matter’ more than anything else. The ambiguous, an expression that might point in two or three ways at once, is not tolerated even though the quantum world appears to be characterised by this kind of uncertainty.

It might be worthwhile to give some attention to the less likely meanings which in order to see whether any of them do provided these additional aspects. There are a few that spring to mind:

  • a house is also, in English at least, a place of government (Houses of Parliament, House of Representatives etc.) and thus might point towards the way in which the political elite in Germany acquiesced in the political ascendancy of the Nazis, who made no secret of their virulent hatred of the Jews;
  • a whisper, in this sense, could also signify the way the Holocaust was accepted but not discussed by the German people during the war, the extent of this knowledge is still an issue of quite fierce scholarly debate but I think Celan’s body of work shows that he felt that the German people were at the very least complicit in this calculated genocide;
  • this whisper may also about the fact that the Nazi regime was intent on keeping the fact of mechanised slaughter a secret from the allies as a way of avoiding blame for their deeds;
  • a whisperhouse may also be a house where Jews were hidden during the war and needed to remain quiet in order to evade discovery.
  • the house may carry some of whatever it was that Heidegger may have meant in his Building, Dwelling, Thinking.

All of these might be completely wrong, they may well reflect what I want them to signify rather than Celan’s intentions. However I feel that the above possibilities demonstrate Prynne’s ‘richer sense’.

It appears to me that much firmer ground is reached when we get to the fricatives and the lallations. Fricatives involve the lips, lip pegs may suggest an impairment of the lips thus making speech very difficult indeed, perhaps reducing it to a ‘childish utterance’. The main stumbling block to this set of tentative assumptions is the gas chambers ‘naturalising’ the fricatives. In its wider sense, this verb relates to the turning of something or person foreign or alien into something native. In a secondary sense, the OED has ” To introduce or adopt (a word, phrase, etc.) into a language or into common use; also in extended use”.

Plants are one of the things that can be made native in a number of different senses.

This, as might be expected, sets your humble servant on a whole new round of re-ambiguation, starting with the fact that Celan was born in Romania but his mother tongue was German, he became a translator in Paris after the war, working across many different languages. One of the aspects noted by many critics is that he wrote his poems in German, the language of those responsible for the Holocaust and the death of his parents. I’m of the view that this facet is given too much prominence but I can’t deny that translation has something to do with putting things foreign into a more usable form. I also have to recognise that Celan was a keen amateur botanist.

These pegs may be used to hold the lips together thus denying/preventing speech except for humming. So, is this a confirmation of the then widely held view that the fact of the Holocaust renders all creative expression impossible? Todesfuge, an early and most famous poem was heralded as demonstrating how such expression is possible. His later work suggests that this process of bearing witness to the unspeakable proved exceptionally difficult and emotionally destructive as the years went by.

This noise made by the glacier is also a sound without meaning, a sound of fear and pain but one that doesn’t speak with words, in language. I would thus, provisionally and tentatively, that one of the ‘threads’ running through this brilliant poem relates to the destructive effect of the gas chambers on our ability to put anything into language.

In conclusion, I hope I’ve given at least some indication of the fruits that close attention to Celan can bring and that some readers may feel encouraged to have a look for themselves. Breathturn into Timestead is available from Amazon at fifteen and a half of your finest English pounds and for free from a number of those criminal free books sites. For new readers, the second option is probably preferable to the first.