Category Archives: history

David Jones Week: Homage and Heresy

I was going to post recordings of The Anathemata today but then changed my mind because there’s something else I’ve been meaning to do for the past couple of months. One of the things that I’ve wondered out loud about is the absence of Jones’ successors, worrying that he may suffer the fate of John Skelton and have no successors.

Vested interest time, Earlier this year I was invited by Carlo Parcelli to write something for Flashpoint which I duly did. Carlo then drew my attention to Flashpoint’s special on Jones and sent me a copy of his remarkable The Canaanite Gospel, A Meditation on Empire. In addition, John Matthias sent me a copy of his A Gathering of Ways and his Selected Works of David Jones when we started corresponding in 2010. End of vested interested disclaimer.

The Homage.

I’ll start with John’s An East Anglian Dyptych which is written in memory of David Jones and Robert Duncan. The poems is dived into two parts, Ley Lines and Rivers and encapsulates some of John’s writing about the English cultural past. I’m of the view that John is currently the best poet that we have on England’s many layers which is odd because he’s American. Perhaps British poets have a kind of bashful ambivalence about England (I include G Hill ) and this produces an odd kind of queasiness in the work. Anyone who is in doubt of this claim should read both the Diptych and Kedging in Time and then come back and argue with me.

The OED defines a homage as ” A work of art or entertainment which incorporates elements of style or content characteristic of another work, artist, or genre, as a means of paying affectionate tribute” and also a declaration of allegiance and I’d like to use both of these to think about the Diptych. The first ‘panel’ uses the ley line as its framing reference point. a ley line is a straightish line/track in the landscape between specific vantage points. The identification of these lines was first made and developed by Alfred Watkins in the 1920s. It has to be pointed out that the existence of these is denied by most of academia but the idea of these lines has embodied itself quite deep in our current popular culture.

Jones work is knee deep in myth and in his cultural past and these form a rich vein running through his work. In his notes John describes the Diptych as a ‘poem of place’ but it is much more than that. As with Jones, the lines are packed with proper nouns and both poems track to and fro through time. This is very difficult to carry off, only Olson springs to mind but he had to use many, many pages and years to do it. In terms of homage, the poms carry Jones within but John has made this spatio-temporality his own. This is the first half of the third part of Ley Lines:

Past Tom Paine's house behind the pudding stone
and castle there aligned
strategically along the Icknield Way

Beyond the Gallows Hill
beside the Thetford tracks to Brandon
down the Harling Drove

Across the Brickkiln Farm to Bromehill Cottage
& below the tumuli before
the rabbit warrens and top hats...

Some burials, some dead,
and here their flinted offerings.
Seven antler picks,

A phallus made of chalk, 
a Venus (did they call her yet Epona?)
and a tallow lamp...

Beltane fire line forty miles long?
Conflagration's law where energy's electric
down the herepath 
                         if belus is spelled Bel...

In terms of the temporal ‘shift’, there is also a poignant description of Edward Thomas who wrote about the Icknield Way which is one of England’s major tracks.

This seems written as an ‘affectionate tribute’ but also a declaration of allegiance of John pinning his colours to the Jones mast, a statement about the worth and strength of Jones’ work at a time when this had all but disappeared from view.

Rivers is equally remarkable and moves from prehistory to John Constable and the 19th century:

Or with a ship, a Syren or a Terpsichore. And if a giant, then a giant
metamorphosed over time. The man who'll six years later paint The Hay 
Wain may not know his river rises as a tiny Brook east of the Chilterns 
in the Gogmagogs. And yet he feels the giant in it, yet he knows its
gods. Today he finishes his sketch of Flatford Mill--the mill itself, the
locks, the barge and bargemen, and the small distracted barefoot boy on
his horse. He'll work it up in 1817 for the Academy and no one will
complain that it lacks finish. The sketch itself is rough he add an 
ash--his favourite tree--some elms a broken oak. He shades in clouds
he's come to study with a meteorologist's precision. Then he shuts the 
sketch book and trudges off toward Denham, marking in his mind
the river's fringe of willow herb and reed, the rising heron and the darting
snipe and redshank in the sky...

Before we get to the heretic, I’d be grateful if anyone knows of similar homages to Jones could let me know.

The Heresy

Before we go any further I must warn those of a sensitive disposition that this isn’t in any way comfortable material and that there will be film.

Carlo’s Gospel is a collection of 88 poetic monologues spoken by a range of characters at the time of the Passion. The heresy works in two directions, the first being the absence of reverence and the second being defiant irreverence in the face of critical sobriety. Needless to say I’m all in favour of the second of these traits and not at all offended by the first. Before we get to the extract I think I should mention that Carlo is of the view that the Romans should speak with a cockney twang. This is the first part of Orianus 1 which is subtitled “a Roman principalis protests his confinement to quarters adamantly denying the frumentari Gatian’s accusation that he and his detail killed Ezekial and several members of his gang after questioning them in the fortress Antonia”:

And you can tell that Capuan shite Gatian
     Me proper animus a any bangers
         What's slinging stones at me detail,
Special when posted bounties for these body snatches, and a fuckin'
         80 denarii donatio for any nasty bits a the Nazarene.
If these Jew mommas can't keep their little Davids
    Out the road I'll bring Hephaistos down on 'em to leave a mark.
Lucky I didn't request me ordo send a writ to the speculatores.
      A mock drownin' and a broken chalk's a bargain
What these whinin' women better be gracious
      Or next it'll be bread and the house what goes missin'.

Before we go any further, the good news is that youtube has a video of Carlo reading this monologue and seven or eight others of an equally scabrous and gnarly nature. I do appreciated that some may wish to denigrate this kind of material but there’s much to be admired about one who appears so single minded in moving the demotic on to a different plane. The po-faced historian in me would also like to point out that this kind of language and these attitudes are probably a much more accurate portrayal of the average Roman NCO than the description(s) that Jones gives. Of course, the heresy is counterbalanced by the affectionate nod in Jone’s direction. I also wish that more poets would provide reasonably produced videos of themselves reading their work because poetry should be read out loud.

The other important point to note is that the monologues tell provide an interlinked narrative on several levels, one which challenges most of our stereotypes and assumptions. Reading this through in sequence I have gained a much clearer impression of the place and the time. It’s a fascinating piece of iconoclasm and one that I thoroughly recommend, currently available on amazon and from County Valley Press.

David Jones Week: Reading The Fatigue.

First of all,I need to than the generosity of Nathaniel Drake Carlson and Dylan Lloyd for their generosity in providing me with these recordings which have been an absolute revelation for me. This one is from Nathaniel and it is the longest (23 mins) and it jumps around a lot at about 19 mins, I’ve decided to leave this in rather than edit it out because it is how it is, if that makes sense.

Secondly, because of these recordings, I’ve realised that I haven’t paid enough attention to the shorter work and this has done Jones a great disservice because this material is staggeringly good and I’m very, very impressed by The Fatigue because of its elegance and deep humanity.

This oversight is even more heinous because I’ve had a copy of The Sleeping Lord collection for more than three years and have failed to give it the attention that it deserves. This is made worse by the fact that these ‘fragments’ are probably the best entry points for most new readers. Although Jones’ intro here is good, I want to quote something from the print intro where Jones describes an incised stone marking the site of a legion’s cook-house that he saw on a trip to Jerusalem in 1934:

The incised stone they showed to me was set up more than half a century after the Passion, for the tenth Fretensis was not I understand posted to Judea until the days of Trajan. None the less the sight of it brought the ordinary serving soldiers of First Century Roman Judea very close to one especially owing to its alleged domestic-regimental use. And at the same time it brought back vividly to my mind those ill-scrawled inscriptions of the Forward Zone. equally domestic and regimental, marking at the turn of a duck-board track, the flimsy shelter that served as the cook-house of B Coy, nth Batt. R.W.F. or the painted board, set askew, and pock-marked by stray bullet-holes, which read nth Field Coy. R.E. To gum-boot store. No loitering by day. But what a fall in the calligraphy.

Given that In Parenthesis was published two years later, I don’t think it takes too much imagination to suggest that this neatly expresses the shifting complexities of that long poem about life in the trenches. I don’t want to over-read (again) but this fascination with his personal cultural clutter talks to me of a strong notion of the past living and breathing in the apparent immediacy of the present.

This will take less than twenty five minutes of your life and hopefully will demonstrate to you just how important a poet Jones is to all of us.


Prynne week: J H Prynne on George Herbert’s Love [III]

Today I’m going to turn away from the harrying of the poetry and pay serious attention to the prose. Prior to the publication of Prynne’s tome on the above (in 2011) I was completely in the dark about the strength of Herbert’s work and the place it seems to occupy in the God-related debates of the time.

I’d previously read Prynne’s equally lengthy work on Wordsworth’s Solitary Reaper which didn’t encourage me to read more of the Romantics but did suggest a new way of reading poems. Given that the book is 87 pages in length, I’m not going to attempt a précis but pay attention to one aspect of Love [III]:

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
                 Gulitie of dust and sinne.
But quick-ey'd Love, observing me grow slack
                 From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
                 If I lack'd anything.

A guest, I answer'd, worthy to be here:
                 Love said,  You shall be he.
I the unkinde, ungratefull? Ah my deare,
                 I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
                 Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr'd them: let my shame
                 Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, sayes Love, who bore the blame?
                 Me deare, then I will serve.
You must sit down, sayes love, and taste my meat:
                 So I did sit and eat.

This seems a fairly straightforward exposition of how the “grace” might ‘work’. Those familiar with the first half of the seventeenth century will know that this was the most controversial subject of the day which split the Protestant faith into a bewildering plethora of competing factions. One of the main causes of controversy was the increasing popularity of Arminius, a Dutch theologian, who held that recognition of and repentance for past sin could be a way of gaining salvation. As a gross simplification, this might be seen as a ‘half-way’ position between the teachings of Calvin and the Roman Catholic church. Needless to say, Prynne gives much space to the place of the poem in this debate which seems (to me) to be closest to the Arminian ‘position’.

I want to pay attention to what Prynne has to say about the first line of the third verse, he starts with ‘truth’ and remarks that “notable is the way in which the admission of truth is brought forward as a countering concession in argument, when what is at stake is the divine agency of God’s own constant fidelity”. He goes on to quote from John’s First Letter: “…….it is the spirit that beareth witness, because the spirit is trueth”. This is followed by three extracts from Donne, Savnorola and Toshell expounding on the nature of God’s truth and how it is indivisible from His mercy.

Some might think that this is too small a detail to spend much time over but ‘truth’ has always been a term that is loaded with significance and this was very much the case in the second decade of the 17th century when the poem was written. From my perspective, as one who has some problems with the notion of truth as Truth, it is as well to be reminded that the truth was considered to be part of the spiritual rather than the imperial realm and that it was most impertinent to suggest otherwise.

The discussion moves to “Truth Lord” which Prynne takes to be the guest’s acknowledgement of ‘weak’ humanity’s distance from God. We are also presented with this dilemma described by George Downame in 1631 “And if we acknowledge him to be our Lord, we must be carefull to do his will, otherwise in vaine do we call him soe”. I’m not so sure that the word placed here carries that much significance but I accept that it might carry more than an echo of The Lord’s Supper, Prynne describes this as an “implicit presence” which seems accurate given the guest/meal metaphor that frames and structures the poem.

So, hopefully the above demonstrates the kind of detail and consideration that Prynne is prepared to give each part of the poem. As with anything so densely argued as this, over reading can occur but the overall impression here is a respectful and careful attention that is given to the text. I’d like to contrast this favourably with other current criticism which is (usually) badly written and overladen with underlying themes that simply aren’t there. In this instance I think our critic is correct to give weight to the theological context but should perhaps have wondered what these two words are doing in this particular place. It is possible as reading them both forward and back, that is to confirm Love as the creator of sight but also to add some kind of veracity to them being harmed by sin. I know that this might further complicates this but it strikes me that someone as technically adept as Herbert could be, in effect, making two points as one. Of course I readily acknowledge that Prynne is a much more astute reader than I will ever be, indeed I wouldn’t have considered any of this without his gentle prodding.

Even with the above quibble, I am staggered by the brilliance of the final sentence on Truth Lord: “These are august shadows to the ostensible debating tone in the poem’s polite cross-talk; the social idiom of speech intonation unmistakably implicated with fundamentals of belief”. Sentences like this demonstrate just how far in front of the rest of us Prynne is. Needless to say, I’ll be throwing ‘august shadows’ and to be ‘unmistably implicated’ into as many sentences and conversations as possible in the coming months.

Now we come to the importance of words and their various meanings. Mar, it is pointed out, apparently had a much ‘firmer meaning than it does in contemporary use: to impair fatally, to destroy or to cosign into irretrievable ruination. In the interests of readerly research, I’ve looked at the OED and these do appear but there is another definition that might be more pertinent: “To damage (a material thing) so as to render useless”. This works for me because of the place it seems to occupy in the poem. It’s also a bit odd that Prynne doesn’t provide this definition as well.

Further examples are provided of the use of ‘mar’ with prominence given to a sermon given in 1609 by Lancelot Andrewes on the way in which God sent Christ to redeem mankind: ‘He should not have sent Him made: but as he was, neither made nor created, but like Himselfe, in His own estate, as was meet for the SON OF GOD , to be sent. To make Him any thing, is to send Him Marred and no better’. Now, I’m not disputing the erudition deployed here nor am I doubting the point of placing the verb in a contemporary god-related context but I’m having a little trouble seeing how God’s putative marring of Christ has a lot to do with the guest’s eyesight.

There’s another paragraph, the gist of which is that the guest is confessing his responsibility for the ‘spiritual damage’ that he has caused but is blocked from repentance (and hence salvation) by his insistence on condemning and punishing himself.

Time for a personal interjection: one of the many reasons that this poem appeals to me is that I’m a bipolar depressive with a fairly ropey psychology and I can identify with the kind of self-negation that the guest is expressing here, especially shame, perceived wrongdoing and a complete denial of self-worth. What I find hard to get my brain around is the view that this state equates with not being ‘saved’ by God, even though I don’t dispute the technical skill involved in expressing so many things with such compressed precision.

Returning to the poem, Prynne gives a full account of the nature of religious shame and provides this explication from Thomas Wilson’s wonderful A Christian Dictionary:

Trouble and perturbation of minde and Conscience, being greeved and cast down at the remembrance of sinne against God … This is shame of Conscience, which in wicked men is an euill affection, and part of the torment of Hell: but in the godly it is a good affection a signe and fruite of their repentance.

This may we be evidence of a rapidly vertiginous descent into peculiarity but I cannot express how much I love rummaging through and plundering this tome. The above is a good example of its unequivocal no-nonsense approach to what many thought of as hopelessly complex terms. We should have more of these now- and I speak as one who is over-fond of complication.

I’d have left it at that and felt quite pleased with myself but our critic takes things a couple of steps further pointing out that here there are two meanings:

  • the objective and public shamefulness of the guest’s acts and omissions and;
  • the inward sense of shame and contrition that these acts and omissions give rise to in him.

I’m not sure that there’s a clear difference here even though Wilson points to it. As a shame regular, from the inside there is always an awareness of both even if the first is fictive. For example, I feel deep shame, inwardly and outwardly, about (as I see it) succumbing to my condition> I’m sure that the above good/bad dividing line has its god-related appeal but from the inside the problem is that they are both intertwined and feed into each other. End of second interjection.

Prynne follows his double meaning up with the ‘mistake’ of the guest in his assumption that he is inevitably condemned but that ‘Love knows better’.

So, is this the kind of attentive reading that we should all apply? What might this tell us about the ‘way’ to read the later Prynne? I consider myself to be an attentive reader, I like to think that I’m careful and thoughtful in my reading but I’m not sure that I’d want to be this relentlessly forensic although I acknowledge that I might be tempted to be this forensic but by giving a bit more weight to the poem as poem- those of us who are not fans of theological debate in the early 17thy century may feel overwhelmed by the amount of context. I do however think it’s a good thing to be extremely concerned with words in all their various glories and must try to apply this concern to more contemporary material other than Hill and Prynne. The insights this material give to Prynne’s poetry are many and varied, there’s the interest in the nature of faith, in the ambiguities and contradictions therein and about social and political context. Most of all though I think there’s a clear indication of approach to the poem with a capital P and that must be useful for those of us who want to get a little closer to the poems.

Prynne week: Hands and Biting the Air.

After today I’m going to leave BTA and move on to the work on George Herbert’s Love III because I’m conscious that there’s only four days left and many things that I want to pay attention to. First, a few thoughts on ‘meaning’. I’m of the view that, as with Celan, we shouldn’t expect an an all-encompassing overview of what’s going on. I’m also mindful of Prynne’s Mental Ears and Poetic Work essay where he writes “I am rather frequently accused of more or less altogether taken leave of discernible sense. In fact I believe this accusation to be more of less true, and not to me alarmingly so, because for what so long has seemed the arduous royal road into the domain of poetry (“what does it mean”) seems less and less an unavoidably necessary precondition for successful reading”. So, in these pieces I may be trying to unpick a number of threads that appear to make a kind of ‘sense’to me but I also recognise that there’s too many ambiguities and intertwined subjects for complete sense to be made. So far I have armed conflict alongside Big Pharma but these are both still provisional and may indicate completely different subjects altogether.

Today, instead of working out ‘what’ I’m going to have a go at ‘why’. By this I mean attending to the repeated use of the word ‘hand’ and things closely related to hands and what hands do. I’m an enormous fan of repetition and recognise it, in any form, to be a particularly strong means of expression. Those that read Monday’s piece on BTA may have noticed that the word crops up three times in the first eight lines of the poem. It then reappears with unusual frequency throughout the rest of the sequence. I’d like to start by highlight the third of these: Enough out of one hand / to grasp another and the last two line of this poem: a country prosperous and blue and bright over / and blindness forever in hand on hand proverb. These appear to be connected especially if I take the proverb to be a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush It seems to my small brain that any process of negotiation involves letting go of some of what you’ve got in order to get more of what you want. In the good old days when we had effective strikes, workers may have closed down a number of factories and have these standing idle so they can get management to either agree terms or reach a beneficial compromise. In Ulster, the situation was a bit more complex- this was a three-sided civil war with all three parties having a different set of objectives. Paramilitaries on both sides of the community could have carried on their murderous campaigns against each other and the British army but (for different reasons) chose to give that campaign up in favour of a political settlement. In order to achieve this both sides had to disarm- ie give up what strength they had in return for that much fatter bird in the bush. Of course, this might be too ‘neat’ but it might tie in with yesterday’s ‘thread’ especially if the eternal blindness refers to the ongoing inability of either side to understand the other’s point of view and aspirations.

This mutual obduracy might also occur if we take ‘rag’ as a ragstone (i.e a hard sedimentary rock that can be broken up and fashioned into paving stones) and for ‘pacify’ to have the same connotations as ‘mollify’ in the second poem that I wrote about yesterday. Would it be too easy to read ‘hand attachment in’ as both giving in an attachment and that hand attachment being a firearm? It probably would.

Before we go any further, it might be useful to consider the why question. Apart from the possible linkage of a thread of sense, is there any other reason to use repetition to this extent? The reiteration of a phrase or image or melody serves to give emphasis, to perhaps signal up this element for greater attention than what surrounds it. In songs a chorus can contain the main theme and give structure to the whole by establishing a kind of rhythm. There’s also Prynne’s strong interest in work songs which rely on a degree of repetition in the chorus. It may be an exploration of using the same word in different ways. Or, it may be none of these.

The word ‘same’ has even more repetition in Prynne’s later Streak~Willing~Entourage~Artesian and some of that may be an echo of the Spanish equivalent in Goya’s notebooks during the Peninsular War. Here it seems less obscure but more complex. These are form the second poem that I wrote about on Tuesday:

......................................Hold one

before leasing forage behaviour; wash the novice
wrist, finger tight. Do you already know this or yet
allocate sufficiency.

and this:

..................................A forever dulcet 

hesitation in the mouth long-dated ostensible tap,
stare in daylight, one hand washes the other.

Both of these throw down a number of challenges, the first doesn’t use ‘hand’ but has two verbs that normally need a hand to be carried out. The preceding sentence ends with “got a banner” so it may be this that someone is being told to hold. As in most civil ways, the flying and display of flags and the respective flag colours was a wearily regular feature throughout the Ulster conflict(s). This ties in with “leasing forage behaviour”. The OED defines the verb to forage as: “To collect forage from; to overrun (a country) for the purpose of obtaining or destroying supplies; to lay under contribution for forage. Also in wider sense, to plunder, pillage, ravage”. To lease something is (in my improbably broad sense) is to allow something to be used for a specific length of time in return for a payment. So, the waving of the flag on marches and demonstrations may be seen as a precursor for plunder and pillage- this can perhaps be more starkly seen in the atrocities that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia.

It might also be that this ‘leasing’ refers to the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) approves drugs for prescription use in the UK- the high price of some of these could be said to be plundering the country’s finances.

‘Wash the novice wrist’ would seem to be fairly clear but not make a huge amount of sense in this context. Slightly more of a sense-thread is to be found if the verb is taken as an adjective to mean washy or weak or tender. So what we might infer is that this novice or new recruit has a weak wrist and is only capable of making things with screws and bolts so that they can be easily undone. This is probably an example of chronic overreading but it’s nevertheless worth some further thought.

The second hand (weak and almost accidental play on words) in the poem might refer to blessing bestowed or absolution (washing) that is given by the clergy. There has yet to be a thorough and independent examination of the role of elements of the Catholic and Presbyterian churches in terms of tacit support given to the respective armed factions. We speak of the guilty as having ‘blood on their hands’ and, according to the tenets of Catholicism this blood can be cleaned of by means of confession and penance. The equivalent in Protestant terms it to identify yourself as a sinner before the eyes of God although there is some disagreement as to what this might result in.

In both Ulster and the Balkans it is possible to see some of the main protagonists as proclaiming and undertaking a religious cause or duty- in this way the respective clergy can be seen as the religious ‘arm’ of the struggle on of whose roles is to provided a kind of moral justification for the violence.

Even as I write this I have doubts as to whether things can be this straightforward, especially as “in the mouth long-dated” seems better suited to a medical reading. This is further complicated if ‘dulcet’ is taken as an equivalent to a doucet which is a kind of musical pipe or flute, which brings us the the Orange marching season and how a cessation of the most provocative of these was seen as an important element of the peace process.

So, many more things to think about and I haven’t begun to look at the economic and financial terms that crop up through the sequence, which might help with the threads that seem to be present.

That’s enough of BTA for now, next I want to give some more attention to Prynne’s remarkable work on Herbert’s Love III which may demonstrate how much thought we need to put into our reading.

David Jones reads The Hunt

Thanks again to the generosity of Nathaniel Drake Carlson, below is a remarkable recording of Jones reading the above which was published in the Sleeping Lord, in 1974 but first appeared in Agenda in 1965. I’m of the view that it gives a clearer idea of Jones’ ‘range’ and additional exposure of his lesser known verse is never a bad thing.

I continue to feel the need to point out that Jones is one of the great poets of the twentieth century and one of the most ignored which obviously says more about us than it does about him. Some of his work isn’t the easiest to engage with but the effort is always repaid many times over.

This particular poem, as Jones says in his introduction, narrates a hunt for a great boar through the Welsh forests but it’s also a quite moving and profound meditation on kingship. There’s also a brief commentary on the feudal system and its many inequalities. I’d also like to draw attention to the occasional use of alliteration and of the repetition of ‘ride’ which brilliantly conveys the violent surge of these men through the trees.

With regard to kingship, we have this:


                       the speckled lord of Prydain
in his twice-embroidered coat
                       the bleeding man in the green
and if through the trellis of green
                       and between the trellis of the needlework
the whiteness of his body shone
                       so did his dark wounds glisten.

There’s also “(indeed was it he riding the forest-ride / or was the tangled forest riding?)” which is a much better line once you start to think about it.


David Jones reads from In Parenthesis

We’ll start with the obvious. In Parenthesis is the finest poem in English about WW1. This is not just my view, it is one shared by Sir Michael Howard, our foremost military historian:

David Jones’s In Parenthesis is the greatest poem to emerge from the First World War, and indeed one of the greatest to emerge from any war. It could have been written only by someone who had not only experienced the war in all its horror, but who was himself soaked in both poetry and history and for whom that war deepened his understanding of both.

What is perhaps most remarkable is the way in which Jones gives voice to a wide range of perspectives based on his own experience and those of his comrades. It is an account of one man’s progress from initial training in England until the assault on Mametz Wood as part of the Somme offensive in 1916. One of the most remarkable aspects of the poem is the interweaving of our cultural past into the present whilst not sacrificing the very real depiction of trench warfare.

I’ve written at length about In Parenthesis both here and on arduity so I don’t intend to repeat myself any further. The reason for this post is that, due to the generosity on Nathaniel Drake Carlson, I am now in possession of a number of recordings taken from one of those prehistoric vinyl things of Jones reading his work. These two are from In Parenthesis, the first is from Starlight Order:


The second is from The Five Unmistakeable Marks:


I think both of these illustrate the strngth of the work and the fact that it is uncannily beautiful to listen to. In the first track a tedious and very dangerous task is made almost magical and this is enhanced by the care that Jones takes in his reading. In his introduction, Jones has this: “……for I think that day by day in the Waste Land the sudden violences and the long stillnesses, the sharp contours and unformed voids of that mysterious existence, profoundly affected the emotions of those who suffered it. It was a place of enchantment. It is perhaps best described in Malory, Book iv, chapter 15- that landscape spoke with ‘a grimly voice’.” Of course, the idea of enchantment on the front line in 1916 is more than somewhat at odds with our modern perception of what this particular hell may have been like but both the text and Jones’ reading of it here make a more than convincing case especially if you consider enchantment with a ‘grimly’ voice.

The second track describes the moment of the initial assault on Mametz Wood and again conveys the otherness of this experience, our protagonist is moving forward in his ‘own bright cloud’ which then clears so that he can see the landscape before him. Again, Jones’ careful modulation and cadence transposes the event from something horrifically violent and bewildering into something quite specific, quite detailed culled from a memory that must have been etched on to the inside of his skull.

Neither Sir Michael or I were present at the Somme so we can’t vouch for the absolute authenticity of what is described here but it does appear to have a kind of ‘truth’ that is sharper and clearer, at least to me, than other first-hand accounts.

I intend to continue with the rest of these recordings because I think they provide valuable context for the work and may even encourage more readers to buy the book and read it. Once again my heartfelt thanks to Nathaniel for his generosity.

The Annotated Trigons: a mid-term report.

Now that we’re more than halfway through with the above, I’ve decided that it may be useful to review progress thus far. The original aim was to create a form for the sequence that could be updated (the links used in the printed edition had died) and to see what the current advantages are to using the interweb as a platform for annotation. A further reason was the sad fact that Trigons is not included in the three volumes of John’s Collected and this was a way of compensating for that omission.

We set ourselves a couple of parameters, the first was to avoid overwhelming the text with too many notes and/or providing extraneous information that has no relevance to the poem. I think that early on we decided that we’d rather inform than explain. preferring to encourage the reader to work out ‘meaning’ whilst providing a degree of context to the characters and events that are mentioned in the work.

With regard to overwhelming, John suggested William Emspon as model to follow: ““There is no longer a reasonably small field which may be taken as general knowledge. It is impertinent to suggest that the reader ought to possess already any odd bit of information one may have picked up in a field where one is oneself ignorant; such a point may be explained in a note without trouble to anybody; and it does not require much fortitude to endure seeing what you already know in a note”. I’m not suggesting that we’ve got everything right in the amount of material that we’ve provided but I think that everything thus far that needs a note has got one.

This brings me some of the more abstract ramifications for this kind of project. At first glance, things seem reasonably clear, you put the sequence into a series of web pages and use a mixture of notes and links to external pages to provide Empson’s odd bits of information. However, links are changed, web pages are modified and updated, other more detailed / objective / better material may be postedso that a significant part of what is provided is very mobile and provisional indeed. It seems to my small brain that this has profound implications for all of us and it took me a couple of months on this project to realise that this is the case. I must stress that isn’t the concern that most of us had about the reliability of information on the interweb, this is about the fundamental nature of that information. I know that this is the case but I haven’t yet been able to fathom the direction that this is taking us.

We now come to reliability and emphasis. The good news is that Wikipedia is becoming increasingly accurate and objective and (as a result) it is much easier to spot the hopelessly biased articles. We decided early on however not to rely on it but to use it as a pointer to other sources of information. The other good news is that more and more ‘established’ resources are putting all of the content on the interweb for free. The even better news is that the google machine has become even more efficient at delivering the pages that you’ve searched for. All of this means that even the most obscure characters, books and events now have a wealth of context and explication almost at the click of a mouse.

The less good news is that some reputable/established sources aren’t always as balanced as perhaps they should be. Some Dictionary of National Biography articles clearly have a very one-sided axe to grind which should either have been more rigorously edited or rejected. This isn’t an argument for he anodyne, just the old-fashioned idea that, with something that purports to be definitive, both sides of an argument need to be presented.

I now have to admit to falling into the ‘explanation’ trap on a couple of occasions. I think I’ve written about the first where, in the notes to Islands, Inlands I was very tempted indeed to present things in a way that pointed to the tragic nature of Greek politics in the 20th century as a major theme. In Hess/Hess I nearly wrote at great length about the rumour that the man imprisoned in Spandau was an impostor and the sightings of Marshall Ney in the United States many years after his death.

In terms of presentation, a friend from Southampton University provided us with the same pop-up gizmo that Wikipedia use. This avoids users having to click to the bottom of the page for each note, the note appears as you roll the cursor over the link. We’ve followed the basic rules of usability and accessibility in that the navigation is ‘clean’ and consistent, there are no tables and each page can be read by screen readers as well as browsers- clicking on the link still displays the note at the bottom of the page. Having just written that sentence I’ve now realised that I need to add many (many) ‘title’ tags to the anchored links. In true bebrowed fashion I designed a navigation scheme at the outset that managed to become cumbersome and confusing before the mid-point and thus had to spend a few days devising a new one which I’ll try not to change.

One of the challenges that we should have recognised at the outset is how often and under what circumstances is it best to rely only on a link to an external page rather than via a note. I can’t pretend that we now have a consistent and rational to this but a kind of pattern is beginning to take shape. In the most recent poem there is this line: “in the days John Denver sang Let us Begin and Russian healers”. We could have explained who John Denver was in a note and then linked to the YouTube clip where Denver explains the background to the song before it is played. The rationale is (probably) that the reader soesn’t need to know who John Denver was but may benefit from knowing something about the song and the clip does that better than a note could.

On a personal note, I’m now of the view that everybody should do this with poems that they like because the exercise gives you so much more pleasure and insight (even when it’s wrong) when you’re preparing something that others might find useful. I’m very fortunate and privileged to have John’s input and sage advice and I’d like to place on record my deep gratitude for both his generosity of spirit and commitment to getting this as right as we can. As a poet John is an exceptionally skilled technician who writes from the soul as well as from the mind and there have been times when my jaw has dropped when these two qualities have come together in an extraordinary and startling way.

The original print version of Trigons is available from Shearsman, at 9 quid there really is no excuse. John and I would like to express our thanks to Tony Frazer at Shearsman for his ongoing support.

Speech! Speech! Geoffrey Hill and celebrity

Speech! Speech! has always been a bit of a puzzle for me. It’s meant to be the middle part of a sequence that starts with The Triumph of Love and ends with The Orchards of Syon. I’m familiar with both of these but I’ve never been able to pay attention to the filling in the sandwich until the last week when I noticed that the blurb has “allowing us to glimpse the mythical in the insistently modern, the tender in the intensely savage, especially in the elegaic sections on the death of Princess Diana”. Obviously, being congenitally attracted to the odd, I immediately sought these out and was not disappointed.

First of all, a couple of clarifications. Hill isn’t terribly keen on the current state of our nation and is instead very keen on an England that never actually existed. Politically Hill would be most at home with UKIP because of a shared patriotism and a detestation of all things EU. Hill is not, however, stupid and his views should be seen as part of the long line of Tory paternalists that stretches back to the 18th century rather than the inanities of this current crop of patriots.

The relationship between myth and the time of writing is one of the things that poetry has always done, what it hasn’t done with any great success is ‘deal’ with the problems of fame and celebrity. I’m interested in the figure of the celebrity in our culture because of what this says about us and the contents of our collective heads. I’m indifferent to the British Royal family and I was completely mystified by the extent and depth of national trauma brought about by that particular car crash. I saw Diana as a particularly vacuous member of her class who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and I still don’t think that she will have more than a fleeting effect on the rest of us. It transpires that Hill is not of this view, that he is firmly entrenched in the nation’s grief and has written about it.

We need to take a bit of a pause here, you have just published one of the finest poems of the last 30 years, a work that is a remarkable and innovative and wonderfully human meditation on the many traumas of our recent past and yet you choose to follow this up with a sequence that contains a number of mawkish sentimentalities about a product of the culture that you effect to despise.

This is the first Di-related stanza:

         22

Age of mass consent: go global with her.
Challenge satellite failure, the primal
violent day-star moody as Herod.
Forget nothing. Reprieve no-one. Exempt
only her bloodline's jus natalium.
Pledge to immoderacy the outraged 
hardly forgiven mourning of the PEOPLE,
inexorable, though in compliance,
media-conjured. Inscrutable I call
her spirit now on this island: memory
subsiding into darkness | nowhere
coming to rest.

(The vertical line between darkness and nowhere is the closest I can get to how it appears in print. There’s an acute accent above the o in ‘her spirit now’ which WordPress doesn’t (won’t) render)

There are a couple of typographical tics which we can reasonably avoid but the capitalised ‘people’ might require some attention. I’m taking the Latin as ‘birthright’ which would seem to make grammatical sense of the line and would suggest that those who are to be exempted are her two children. I’ve spent at least twenty minutes with the OED and what I know of Hill’s work and have come to the regrettable conclusion that “Pledge to immoderacy” doesn’t actually work, even allowing for Hill’s penchant for obscure words and secondary definitions. I think I know what he’s aiming for in his typically convoluted way but I think there are more precise ways of saying it. The rest is reasonably clear but I’m not sure that it’s accurate. My (admittedly dim) recollection of those strange few days is that the media were unprepared for the extent and depth of the collective grief. One of the things that interests me about celebrity is the mutual involvement of the media, the audience and the individual. Diana fed the media’s need to report this new and much trendier addition to the cast of dysfunctional misfits and the audience could take sides in the ‘narrative’ whilst the celebrity felt that she could manipulate sections of the media into supporting her ‘position’. I can’t explain this grief but I have to report that relatively sane friends of mine got caught up in it and were clearly feeling some pain. The last three lines are oddly mawkish and I wonder why Hill feels the need to say them unless, of course, it’s an example of the mythical in the present as advertised in the blurb.

Thirteen stanzas later we get these two:


    35

Say you dispute the audit - no offence
to her intended (or to her intended)-
pending the hierarchies so soon to be
remade | though not with her demotic splendour.
Fantastic, apocryphal, near fatalistic
love of one's country | bearing with it
always something over- or under-subscribed,
bound to its modicum of the outrageous,
cartoon animation: jovial, martial,
charwomen, their armour bristles and pails,
dancing - marching - in and out of tune
to Holst's JUPITER | as to JERUSALEM.

   36

Huntress? No, not that huntress but some
other creature of fable. And then for her|
like being hunted. Or inescapably
beholden (this should sound tired but not
emotional to excess). Half forgotten
in one lifetime the funeral sentences
instantly resurrected - how can they do it?
Whatever of our loves here lies apart:
whatever it is you look for in sleep:
simple bio-degradation, a slather 
of half-rotted black willow leaves
at the lake's edge.

(Again all the accents are missing).

This is much more to my taste, there’s the assertion of the patriot, the brief riff on the power of a Christian funeral – even if ‘resurrected’ might be going a little too far – there’s nothing clumsy here, the phrasing and word-choice seem to be adept and accomplished rather than mannered. The image of the charwomen speaks to me of a culture and a set of values that disappeared at about the time that the nation discovered sex (1963) and does so with exceptional skill and warmth. Some might argue that 36′s bracketed aside is both arrogant and out of place but I’m of the view that it’s a mark of the confidence of an able and accomplished craftsman who simply knows what he can get away with and does so.

Given my interest in the man and his work, I’m intrigued by ‘apocryphal’ which, for the moment I’m taking to mean “of doubtful authenticity” rather than relating to the Apocrypha. Hill can be relied on to promote the patriotic cause and I’ve always got the impression that he saw this as something innate in him and in others so this puts a new light on things. It certainly adds another layer to an already complex and contradictory picture. It’s also very heartening to note the completely unfunny ‘intended’ jape and the use of ‘slather’ which the OED tells me is limited to Scotland and the North of England but is also one of the most expressive nouns in the language.

So, I’m now going to persevere with Speech! because it might have other really good bits and it may persuade me to like ‘Orchards’ a little more.

Langland and the (un)deserving poor.

One of the many joys of having a number of ‘spaces’ on the interweb is that you can decide where certain whimsies ought to be placed. There is currently a kind of master plan to incorporate all things Middle English into arduity as an example of poetry that might be difficult at first but which rewards serious attention tenfold. Unfortunately Other Things are filling up my arduity time at the moment so I’ve decided to share one of my more recent ME encounters here.

I’m reading the ‘C’ text of ‘Piers the Plowman’ and alternating this with the genius that is Thomas Hoccleve in order to get to grips with the language and to better understand the world at the end of the 14th century. In Another Guise I’ve been professionally implicated with the problem of the great unwashed for many years and have been of the view that the underclass has served a specific purpose since the early modern period or thereabouts.

Passus VIII of ‘Piers’ contains a dialogue between our hero and Hunger who he calls in to deal with the wastours (lovely term) who won’t work for their food. It would be crass to point out that our current governmental dismalities have a similar visceral need to punish those who won’t abide by the rules but this doesn’t stop me from pointing out in some detail what this might be about. At the heart of this particular anxiety is deception, the notion that some of the poor are faking some disadvantage in order to get a free ride on the backs of others.

This has particular resonance in the UK with the recent Tory claim to represent “hard working people” with the implication that the rest of us are somehow beyond redemption. Passus VIII recounts how Piers needs to plough his field before he sets off on pilgrimage and requests some help from his companions. In order to set the scene, we’ll start with the late feudal ‘deal’:

   'Sikerliche, sire Knyhte.' sayde Peris thenne  (indeed)
'Y shal swynke and swete and sowe for vs bothe     (work)
And labory for tho thowe louest al my lyf-time
In couenant that thow kepe holy kirke and mysulue
Fro wastores and fro wikkid men that this world struyen  (idlers)
And go hunte hardelyche to hares and to foxes            (boldly)
To bores and to bokkes that breketh adoune myn hegges     (bucks, hedges)
And afayte thy faucones wild foules to culle
For the cometh to my croft my corn to diffoule.'         (spoil)    

Incidentally, I’m using Derek Pearsall’s version of the ‘C’ text. I’ve used some of his glosses and one or two of mine.

So, by the time of writing (1380 ish) the above describes a relationship that was undergoing some changes and this notion of reciprocity was under more than a little strain. It does however set out what people may perhaps have felt nostalgic for, that the peasantry should feed the nobility in return for protection and some degree of pest control. In Langland’s present however the knight fails to protect against the first wastores that he comes across:

   Courteisliche the knyhte then, as his kynde wolde,
Warned Wastour and wissed him betere
'Or I shal bete thee by the lawe and bring the in stokkes.'
    'I was nat woned to worche,' quod Wastour, 'and now will I nat bygynne!' (accustomed)
And lete lyhte of the lawe and lasse of the knyhte
And sette Peres at a pes to playne whare he wolde.

Not only is the Knight ineffectual, the hard working paragon is himself treated with contempt- the last line being a challenge to go and complain anywhere he wishes but the recalcitrant wastoou is going to carry on with his idle ways. There’s also a bit of double edging going on, of course members of the nobility would be courteous as part of their code of behaviour but this is totally ineffective in getting these terrible people to change their ways. This is all too redolent of our current debate about welfare with both parties agreeing that there does need to be some coercion (sanctions, workfare, more sanctions) and only disagreeing on the most effective ways to be punitive. The bad old days of the welfare state are blamed, like the knight is here, for being far too soft on the poor.

My eye was also caught by Piers’ specification for the deserving poor:


But yf he be blinde or broke-legged or bolted with yren      (iron)
Suche pore' quod Peres 'shal parte with my godes,
Bothe of my corn and of my cloth to kepe hem fram defaute

All I can say is that this fierce 14th century social critic is more lenient in his outlook on disability than either of our political parties.

Before proceeding to Piers’ solution I think I need to point out that I’m usually of the view that the past is a very strange place indeed and comparisons between then and now are reasonably meaningless and this increasingly applies as the time gap increases. However, I’m also of the view that the underclass have always been with us and will always be with us regardless of any attempts at modification. The undeserving poor ( ie the generationally unemployed living on the edges of criminality and moving from one boisterous relationship to another) are the eternal moral panic and they perform a really important function- they keep the rest of us in place, playing by the rules of the game because we don’t want to be like them. I fully accept that Langland’s ire was also focused on certain groups of friars who sustained themselves by begging but it’s nice to see that the concerns of Hard Working People, the fear that someone else might be getting something for nothing, have remained fairly constant. I also think it’s telling that the wastores come before the wikkid men. Confronted by the failure of the Old Order Piers calls up Hunger (aka famine) to bring these idlers to their senses:


    Hunger in haste tho hente Wastour by the mawe
And wronge him so by the wombe that al watrede his yes.  (stomach, watered)
A boffated the Bretoner aboute the chekes                 (a Breton)
That a lokede like a lanterne al his life aftur,
And beet hem so bothe he barste ner her gottes           (nearly burst his guts)
Ne hadde Peres with a pese-loof preyed him bileye.
Haue mercy on hem, Hunger.' quod Peres, 'and lat me yeue hem benes,   (give them beans)
And that was bake for bayard hit may be here bote'                    (bay horse)
    Tho were faytours afered and flowen into Piers bernes
And flapton on with flayles fro morwen til euen          (threshed)
for a pot full of potage that Peres wyf made

So, extreme measures are called for to get these shirkers into the mainstream with the rest of us Hard Working types. First of all you starve them and then you hit them about the face and head before nearly killing them with blows to the stomach. Of course, dealing with the underclass doesn’t require the ‘normal’ set of principles because they just aren’t like us, at all….. It also helps if at least one of these idlers is a foreign idler- from Brittany in 1380 and from Romania / Bulgaria now.

Without getting into a lit crit tussle about the differences between the ‘B’ and ‘C’ texts, we know that Langland’s work was well-received and the figure of Piers was taken up by the leaders of the Peasants’ revolt. It would therefore appear that these quite brutal solutions tapped into a popular vein then pretty much as they still do now.

Of course it is still a mistake to over-identify with the past and ‘Piers’ drifts in and out of ‘reality’ enough to remind us that there is a lot that we don’t understand but it is remarkable how certain tunes do appear to echo down the centuries.

David Jones, John Matthias and what poetry might be for

This could be quite tricky, I want to put my finger on some elements of the poetic that I’v probably avoided. My usual response to questions about what poetry might be able to do is that to analyse such things is to spoil them and it’s therefore better to Leave Well Alone. Today however I have found myself writing “this is what you come to poetry for” with regard to a small part of Jones’ “The Anathemata” and thinking about whether to include my own keenly felt observations in the ‘Trgons’ annotation project. With regard to the latter I’ve decided to exclude them but to try and work out here why they mean so much to me.

Both the ‘experiments in reading’ and the ‘Trigons’ annotation project involve paying a different kind of readerly attention. With the former it’s about:

  • finding passages that strike a particular chord and
  • writing about whatever it is that does this and exploring how this striking ‘works’.

Annotating ‘Trigons’ requires a different kind of attention in that we need to identify those lines or phrases that may benefit from some additional information in terms of context and then working out the best way to provide this given the vast resources of the interweb. This has required me to invent an ideal reader who is intelligent and literate but may need some help with some of the characters and references.

As an example we’ve just finished the Hess / Hess poem and I’m still not sure that we’ve given enough information about Myra Hess and Clara Schumann and whether I’ve chosen the most appropriate links for the neuroscience terms. The work is immensely rewarding for the insights about technique and how long poems work but also for providing me with another thing that poems can do.

In the past I’ve written about how poems are particularly good at both portraying and becoming part of our cultural landscape. I think I now want to amend that, I’m discovering that poems can also bring to mind things that we already know but are no longer ‘present’ to us and I’m finding the effect of these ‘prompts’ to be fascinating. I think that I need to make a distinction here from the more straightforward ‘jogging’ of memory and what might be going on here. This seems to add an emotional dimension to remembering because there are two instances where I can recall how I felt about what I knew. In my current adult way of thinking I would not of said that either of these facts were in any way significant but two of John’s images have changed that view.

The first concerns the German invasion of Crete during WWII. As quite a serious child in the sixties I watched a ty programme called ‘All Our Yesterdays’ which spent half an hour each week recounting events that had occurred 25 years before. So, sometime in 1966 I learned that the invasion of Crete was undertaken exclusively by paratroopers and that this was the first time that this had occurred. Accompanying this fact there was footage of white parachutes opening in a clear blue sky- it transpires that I still have this image in my head which has caused me to think what that might be about. I was eleven and about to leave primary school, I was interested in technology and progress and therefore impressed by ‘firsts’ but my mother’s family had been decimated by two world wars and we were (generally) ‘against’ any kind of armed conflict even though we knew the Germans were horrid because of the Holocaust.

So, I’m impressed by the audacity of this invasion even though I’m a bit of a pacifist. I do have this very specific associated image that wasn’t particularly dramatic or impressive yet clearly formed part of who I was becoming- someone with a strong interest in history and how wars are made / done. It is very unlikely that any of this, including my (current) grudging admiration for shiny killing machines without paying close attention to ‘Trigons’.

The other ‘jog’ concerns the figure of Rudolf Hess in Spandau. It turns out that somewhere in my brain there is this fuzzy image of a wraith-like shape in a military wandering through the grounds of the prison. Unlike Crete, I have no idea where this came from but I do recall (now) having a slightly morbid interest into this odd German with his even odder story and the circumstances of his incarceration. I think this interest ran alongside the fact of Hess’ high rank in all things Nazi and his consequent involvement in the worst kind of evil. I knew about Nuremberg, I also knew the rumours about high-ranking Nazis hiding out in South America and I knew that Speer was also incarcerated but I don’t have an image of him as I do of Hess. I’m quite disturbed about this, it’s like carrying around a ghost that you didn’t know was there.

So, as well as reminding us of our cultural past, it would seem that some poetry can bring to life personal memories about that landscape that we didn’t know that we had. I may be wrong but novels (even very good ones) don’t do this for me, neither does painting.

I’ve written recently about beauty in poetry and some time ago about how some lines address me directly. This isn’t because they imitate or match my response but it is (I think) that they prompt a re-evaluation and a re-framing of the way that I think and feel. A recent example that has led to a clearer understanding of what might be going on comes from David Jones’ ‘The Anathemata’ and is written in reference to the ‘Willendorf Venus’:


                 But he's already at it
the form-making proto-maker
busy at the fecund image of her.

That’s it, three lines. What it has done is prod me into thinking differently about how I ‘do’ creativity. The brilliant “already at” and “busy at” give this sense of enthusiastic and eager urgency that I know that I still feel but I seem to have buried under concerns about technique and form and about the end result rather than the doing which should be the absolute joy that it was when I was 14. Of course, Jones is making a much wider point about the role of the form-maker but what he also does is encapsulate in a very simple way a spontaneity that most of us overlook and/or bury as the contingencies of adulthood kick in. Incidentally, I don’t think I would have been as affected by this if I hadn’t had to type it out.