Tag Archives: first world war

Making poetry in these slurred times

This may not be the most coherent piece I’ve written but it might be the most heartfelt and urgent. We’ll start with some context. It’s now April 19th 2020 and I’m living with my lover, for the first time, in Ventnor in the UK and we’re in lockdown.

I don’t know about others but I write verse in order to work out about how I feel about something. The previous blog was a poem I made in response to the current and ongoing disaster, I’ve also made a v short performance piece (see below) in response to how this thing seems to be unfolding.

The shock for me is how hard this is. It should be ideal because I use documentary material, I’m a vaguely anarcho-lefty policy wonk with specific interests in health and social care and I hover on one of the main ‘vulnerable’ groups. This should therefore be the ideal opportunity, in a spacious property overlooking the Channel, to write at least one epic of Spenserian length and probably two.

In fact, there is an argument that gently points out that we creative types have a duty to spend this time documenting the disaster and how we feel about it from the inside in, more or less, ‘real’ time. To go further, I would hold up Celan’s Todesfugue as one of the greatest poems we have that did exactly that.

I’m under no illusions, I am at best an interested amateur who writes in order to perform rather than to be read. I’ve written and had performed lengthy pieces on Bloody Sunday, Ferguson and the Newtown shootings, I’m thus not averse to dealing with challenging subjects and am drawn to the complicated.

Covid-19 has, however, from nowhere on my horizon, has scrambled any feelings and thoughts that I might have.

We’ll start with bigness. In terms of a single Whiteheadian event, this particular virus is huge. A glance at one of those fucking dashboards reveals that it is infecting and killing everywhere and our collective response is hugely passive. As I type the global economy is continuing to collapse and a return to any kind of normal is looking increasingly unlikely for any of us. From this viewpoint, the making of art in itself can appear to be trivial and poetry making then becomes even more self-indulgent and vain than normal.

I’m not suggesting that all art is of little import but that big events and themes require a degree of brilliance that few of us have. In fact the bebrowed rule is that the quality of material required increases in step with the importance of the subject matter. The most obvious examples to me are Dante on the afterlife, Milton on the Fall, David Jones on World War One and Celan on the Holocaust. There are quite a few others.

Those of us who aren’t brilliant then have to try and avoid irrelevance by saying something that might be useful to the reader by presenting a different perspective and providing a consequent moment or two of reflection..

Moving on to plenitude, this catastrophe is producing too many aspects and too much data as it scythes through us. All of the media, quality and otherwise, is feasting on this stuff and putting forth opinions on everything from the plight of those locked in with their abusers to the chemistry of enzymes and proteins. None of these very many concerns are minor issues and they will all be struggled over in the years to come.

In the face of this poetry can become:

a ranting thorn in the side of the powers that be;

a record of the disaster and its effects;

a memorialisation of the dead;

a blueprint for the future;

an interrogation of the nature of science and expertise

a personal response providing one possible way feeling about this stuff.

My problem is that I want to do all of these (except perhaps the blueprint), and they all keep crowding on to my page and all of them seem really important which results in either clever-clever rantery or a major wallow.

As well as complexity, I’m also struggling creatively with adjusting to the disaster as it reveals different aspects of itself. This weekend the British media have discovered that residents of care and nursing homes may be dying in their thousands in addition to those currently recorded. As an ex-manager of the inspection and regulation of such homes I know that these figures are readily and easily available and national collation should have begun in February at the very latest. I’m also disgusted that politicians failed to act upon the bleeding obvious fact that these homes are by far the most vulnerable part of society. I’ve ranted about this on social media this morning but now feel that I need to add this specific negligence into the creative mix.

The other problem that I have is that of sudden isolation. We’re living in a small town that,for all its many faults, has a strong sense of community and collective endeavour, these things have, literally, kept me sane over the last ten years and now going out on our daily walks reveals a blank page.

Both Megan and I want/need to talk to others face to face about the weight and complexity of what’s going on and that is the activity that is most Against The Rules. Incidentally, we now have a society that’s governed by rules rather than laws and nobody seems to have noticed.

I’ve just realised that this may have turned into an extended whinge, the kind of semi-ranting self indulgence that I’m wary of. My only excuse is that at least it’s an honest exploration of the bewilderment and angst that I feel in the gripof Covid 19.

Within Minutes, read by John Armstrong (writer) and Megan Mackney (actor)

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,
Bent-wit.
   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
over.

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.