Tag Archives: in parenthesis

David Jones and the art of history

This is my weak Xmas attempt at a clever title. David Jones, better known as an artist and designer than as a poet, who wrote a long poem about a range of historical events and who also made a poetic record of his experiences in the trenches in 1916. He also has some things to say in ‘The Anathemata’ about signs, symbols and images together with the role of the poet in speaking some kind of truth to power.

I remain of the view that both of Jones’ long poems are amongst the very best of the 20th century and this is for two reasons- his ability to do new and startling things with language and form and the humanity of his work. Eliot, in his introduction to ‘In Parenthesis’ places Jones alongside Joyce rather than Pound or himself but I don’t think that this is useful because it misses the unique quality of the work and what it sets out to achieve.

I think I need a brief digression here about the nature of my interest in history. I’m a lifelong reader of history and I like to think that I’m reasonably discerning in that I try to avoid anything that’s overly simplistic or intellectually weak. I started off by wanting to read the stories and then by using those stories to ‘explain’ the present. I think I’m now at the stage where I want history to show me aspects of how things have functioned in the past in terms of processes and how people thought about those processes. For most periods I have a preference for primary sources but I do read some historians because I like the way that they think- Bayly, Walsham and Wickham are historians that I read and re-read because of their perspective and the fact that they write eminently readable prose.

Jones is doing different types of history (used here in the broadest sense)- ‘In Parenthesis’ deals with a specific process that occurred during the first world war and this is set out in his preface-

“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 1916. The first date corresponds to my going to France. The second roughly marks a change in the character of our lives in the Infantry on the West Front. From then onward 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 small contingents of men, within whose structure Roland could find and, for a reasonable while, enjoy, his Oliver. In the earlier months there was a certain attractive amateurishness, end elbow room for idiosyncrasy that connected with a less exacting past.”

These are the opening sentences from the preface and here Jones starts by stating his credential as witness before going on to outline his theme. In terms of the narrative, this concerns a group of soldiers who move up to the Front and take part in the Somme offensive in July 1916. The poem ends in the carnage in Mametz Wood on July 11th which is transposed by the visitation of the Queen of the Woods who attends to the dead and the dying.

The poem is utterly compelling and gives a clear impression of how Jones experienced this period and of the camaraderie and fears of those men around him.. Most of the poem is in prose but I’ve chosen a piece of verse to try and demonstrate the very high quality of the work-

Racked out to another turn of the screw
the acceleration heightens;
the sensibility of these instruments to register,
fails; needle dithers disorientate.
The responsive mercury plays laggard to such fevers - you
simply can't take any more in.
And the surface of fear steadies to dumb incognition, so that
when they give the order to move upward to align with 'A'
hugged already just under the lip of the acclivity inches below
where his traversing machine guns perforate to powder
white creature of chalk pounded
and the world crumbled away
and get ready to advance
you have not the capacity for added fear only the limbs are leaden
to negotiate the slope and rifles all out of balance, clumsied
with long auxiliary steel
seem five times the regulation weight-
it bitches the aim as well,
and we ourselves as those small
cherubs who trail awkwardly the weapons of the God in
Fine Art works.

I have no idea what it was like for both my grandfathers to rise out of those trenches in the face of sustained machine gun fire but I now have a very clear idea of what it was like for David Jones and for that I’m very grateful. The Somme offensive is one of those defining events in the national psyche remembered both for its wholesale carnage and for the mindset that led to it but Jones succeeds in presenting his own perspective on the process of mechanisation which he saw as heightening the barbarity on both sides.

So, the poet as witness to major event, as one who saw, felt and was part of things and felt the need to mark this particular point in with his own voice and in his own distinctive way.

Both poems have extended footnotes which are useful in providing additional context and the first edition of ‘In Parenthesis’ (and John Matthias’ ‘Introduction to David Jones’) contained Jones’ sketch map of the part of the front that he describes. This is unaccountably missing from the current Faber edition which was published last year.

‘The Anathemata’ was described by Auden as the greatest long poem long poem written in the twentieth century and I would certainly go along with this. Auden also remarked that he had been reading it for ten years and still didn’t fully understand it- I’ve been reading it for a mere eighteen months and feel that I am only beginning to scratch the surface.

It is a historical poem in that it describes different periods in the past and pays particular attention to what Jones’ describes as the signs or symbols of those times. Jones converted to Catholicism in 1921 which informs much of ‘The Anathemata’- especially the Catholic liturgy and what it may signify or represent. The other key fact is that Jones was born in Kent but his father was Welsh and the poem contains lots of Welsh history, legend and phrases- it’s reasonable to assert that Jones on part Welshness is vastly superior to Geoffrey Hill on the same subject.

I have recently quoted from Jones’ Preface to this poem where he speaks of the role of the poet with regard to those in power but here I want to quote him on signs and the passing of time-

“The times are late and get later, not by decades but by years and months. The tempo of change, which in the world of affairs and in the physical sciences makes schemes and data outmoded and irrelevant overnight, presents peculiar and phenomenal difficulties to the making of works and almost insuperable difficulties to the making of certain kinds of works; as when, for one reason or another, the making of those works has been spread over a number of years. The reason is not far to seek. The artist deals wholly in signs. His signs must be valid, that is valid for him and, normally, for the culture that has made him. If a requisite now-ness is not present, the sign, valid in itself, is apt to suffer a kind of invalidation. This presents most complicated problems to the artist working outside a reasonably static culture-phase. These and kindred problems have presented themselves to me with a particular clarity and increasing acuteness. It may be that the kind of thing I have been trying to make is no longer makeable in the kind of way in which I have tried to make it.”

I’m neither Welsh nor Catholic and I wasn’t born in 1895 but I still feel/know that the signs contained in ‘The Anathemata’ continue to resonate with a pronounces ‘now-ness’ that we would all do well to take greater notice of. I’d like to finish by quoting from ‘The Lady of the Pool’ which primarily deals with London, this is part of the speech of the water maids-

                              If we furnish to the part
maybe we'll play it as St Aristotle would 'a' said.
Our shift must drape so -no, a trifle off, but not indecorous!
No helm? no matter,
we've mantling! From over the chapman-booths of level
Southwark does the stiffing breeze that freshes our Thames
play out our tresses - how this Maudlin gilt streamers
a tangled order
and sweet Loy!
how it do become us.

The reference to Southwark is glossed as “cf. ‘Some of the war-host held booths in level Southwark’ The Heimskringla, Section VIII, the Saga of Olaf the Saint”. Both ‘The Anathemata’ and ‘In Parenthesis’ are available in lots of places on the web at £18.00 each.

Keston Sutherland and the verse / prose divide

A while ago I spent some time enthusing about ‘Odes to TL61P’ and have now added a page on the first ode to arduity. The reason for doing this is not just my enthusiasm for the work but also the fact that it manages to push certain types of difficulty into newish territory.

The page has produced a helpful and positive response from Sutherland who tells me that it might not yet be finished and Chicago Review wants to publish Ode 1. He also takes me up on my assertion that most of the Odes are in prose-

that while you must be right that they are
“mostly in prose”, I wonder whether they might not at the same time, and in just those justified, block passages, be something other than prose, too? Prose cannot normally be imagined to have porous edges liable to be penetrated or broken through by lines that suddenly qualify as “verse”; I don’t know how to conceive it yet, but the function of that smashable edge must be somehow to introduce a generic contingency or blur, so that we are never fully “in prose”. I think so anyway (though of course you may not).

Before I throw this around, I think I’d better clarify my personal take on prose poems and the relationship between poetic prose and verse. In my adolescence I came across two examples of prose which was really verse. These were ‘Lessness’ by Samuel Beckett and a number of prose poems by Zbigniew Herbert. I understood the prose poem as something which couldn’t be said in ‘ordinary’ prose but couldn’t be versified either. At this point (in about 1971) my thinking on this issue stopped and I’ve spent the last forty years with the same level of understanding.
I’ve now had a bit of a think in response to the above prod and now realise that there are different kinds of prose poem and that poets use prose for all sorts of reasons. Then there’s the ‘form’ issue with some works being entirely in prose, other being predominantly in verse but making use of prose as well and those that are mostly prose interspersed with bits of verse.
I’m now in the process of looking in some detail at the way poets that I admire make use of prose. David Jones, Neil Pattison, Charles Olson, J H Prynne, Sean Bonney and Geoffrey Hill have all made use of prose, either to create ‘prose poems’ or to incorporate both prose and verse into a single poem. Jones, Olson, Prynne and Bonney are of particular interest because they have placed verse and prose together. All of these are distinctly different from the way that the two elements interact in the Odes.
I agree with Sutherland’s assertion that prose can be ‘more’ than prose when used in a poem.
I’m not of the view that the use of prose implies a weakness or lack of ability on the part of the poet but it does seem to me that the notion that ‘it’s a poem because I say it’s a poem’ is more than a little suspect. I’ve just realised that I’ve left out Kenneth Goldsmith from the above list, his appropriation of prose and the subsequent re-framing does result in poetry even though the banal and everyday original text has been left intact.
This is taken from Ode 1:

Isn‟t it the fact that I want you to stare at me until our eyes trade sockets, not the suggestion that hooding was banned in 1972, that asks for an adaptation on bliss in memory? Light
sockets, the penetration of bodies by power and remorse,
devoured in a shadow life sends back?
Remember this: I sort through the boxes,
my first poems are there, the
drawings I made at school are
and my toys are, lead prodigies and barbarians,

It’s difficult to know where the verse prose boundary is in the above, in the pdf the line beginning ‘sockets’ fills the full width of the page and is more part of the prose section than the verse that follows it but there’s also room for the word ‘socket’ to appear at the end of the line above. I’m either taking this too seriously or this is an attempt by Sutherland to create a ‘porous’ edge to the prose. This blurred break occurs in the most personal section of Ode 1, the edges between prose and verse are much clearer elsewhere in the ode as are the reasons for those edges.

Leaving the question of the ‘smashable edge’ to one side for the moment, consideration of other poets’ use of prose within a poem reveals a wide range of approaches. The Maximus Poems contains a few paragraphs of prose, some of which refer to events from Gloucester’s archives whilst others express Olson’s point of view. Given that Olson frequently versifies complete extracts from these archives, the prose/verse rationale isn’t immediately apparent but I’m prepared to accept the complexity of Olson’s thinking about form and structure.
With regard to Prynne, there are two prose paragraphs in ‘High Pink on Chrome’. Both of these are placed at the foot of the page, like unmarked footnotes. The first of these reads as a scientific elaboration of the poem whereas the second is more oblique and deliberately odd. As far as I’m aware, this is the only occasion where Prynne mixes the two elements and he does it such a way that the reader isn’t entirely sure whether the paragraphs are to be read as part of the poem or as a comment on the poem. This is also an example of having your cake and eating it in that both prose sections are very clearly delineated by the acre of white space above them leading this reader to view them both as somehow ‘optional’. The only other instance of Prynne using prose is in ‘The Plant Time Manifold Manuscripts’ which contains only a few lines that might be construed as verse.
We now come to David Jones who makes extensive use of prose in both ‘In Parenthesis’ and ‘The Anathemata’. I remain of the view that these are two of the most important poems of the twentieth century and thus make no apology for using these as examples of the ‘porous edge’.
‘In Parenthesis’ is concerned with the WWI Somme offensive and the Battle for Mametz Wood in particular. The following occurs in Part 4 (‘King Pellam’s Laund’)-

He noted that movement as with half a mind – at two o’clock from the petrol-tin. He is indeterminate of what should be his necessary action. Leave him be on a winter’s morning – let him bide. And the long-echoing sniper-shot down by ‘Q’ post alone disturbed his two hours’ watching.

His eyes turned again to where the wood thinned to separate broken trees; to where great strippings-off hanged from tenuous fibres swaying, whitened to decay – as swung
for the northern Cybele.
The hanged, the offerant:
himself to himself
on the tree.
Whose own,
whose grey war band, beyond the stapled war-net –
(as grey-banded rodents for a shelving warren – cooped in their complex runnels, where the sea-fret percolates).
Come from outlandish places,
from beyond the world,
from the Hercynian –
they were at breakfast and were as cold as he, they too made their dole.

(The two lines beginning ‘himself’ should be indented).

It’s interesting to note that Jones doesn’t address the prose/verse issue in his preface, he refers to the poem as a writing and points out that ‘In Parenthesis’ is so-called because it is written in a ‘space between’ yet he acknowledges that he’s not sure what it is between.

I’m not sure that this gets us very far but it does identify some ways in which verse and prose forms may ‘play off’ against each other in productive ways. It also demonstrates that the edges between the two can function as giving additional meaning or significance to the work.

I was going to conclude this by giving an example from ‘The Anathemata’ but wordpress won’t let me indent as I would wish. I’ll finish instead recording my agreement with Sutherland that some poets do manage to produce a ‘generic contingency or blur’ and that this can work to good effect. I’d add the rider that it also means that we are never ‘fully’ in verse either.

T S Eliot on David Jones and living with poetry

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