Tag Archives: in parenthesis

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.

Geoffrey Hill and the Collected Problem(s)

I was given Broken Hierarchies for Xmas and this is an initial report having spent some time with knotted brow and the occasional moment of delight.

First of all, I must confess to having a chequered history with Collecteds, Lowell’s made me realise that I didn’t like any of his work after The Mills of the Kavanghs which was a shock, R S Thomas’ seemed much slighter and less majestic whole as did that of George Herbert, John Matthias’ otherwise fascinating three volumes commit the sin of omitting Trigons which he and I are currently annotating for the web. So it is with some unease that I’m approaching Hill’s Collected especially since I haven’t been overly impressed with the three (out of six) Daybooks sequences that I’ve read. The other anxiety is about how much has been changed/revised since the original publication and what this may mean for the poems that are already in my head.

First, there’s the new stuff, there is a lot of new stuff and some of it is intriguing and a lot of it does the half-rhyme thing which isn’t. There is one sequence of poems that are all set out (as with Clavics in the shape of what appears to be a key. Then there’s the revisions and expansions which have been applied to Hymns to our Lady of Chartres, Pindarics, and Clavics. This is okay because I’ve never been keen on the last two and I’ve never read any of the first. The other change that I’ve noticed thus far is that we now have headings in the index for the Offa sequence.

We’ll start with Hymns to our Lady of Chartres which is new to me although I understand from the interweb that it started life in 1984 or thereabouts as a sequence of three poems and then expanded to seven. The new version has twenty one poems each consisting of five quatrains which use half-rhymes. I’ve been giving some further thought to rhyme in general following the discussion between Rowan Williams and Simon Jarvis at the launch of Night Office when they both agreed that the ‘sense’ becomes subordinate to the form in that the poet is never sure where the rhyme is going to lead. Now, puzzling with furrowed brow over the rhymes that Hill deploys, which depend largely on word endings rather than vowel sounds, it occurred to me yesterday that this is a way of retaining more control over sense and direction rather than the full rhymes that Jarvis deploys.

Before we proceed with an example, I’d like to differentiate between two technical terms. The first of these is ‘clunky’ whereby the poem is well-intentioned but some lines are unduly awkward whereas ‘naff’ denotes poems that are so bad/inept that they shouldn’t have been started let alone published. This latter term is similar in many ways to John Matthias’ ‘gawdawful’.

This is poem 9:

A match crack-scuffs, a flame spurts in the fosse,
faces bow to cupped hands, a thing archaic,
a gesture proletarian and stoic;
Homeric, even, look at Odysseus,

who was of course a prince in his own country
champing on Gauloises; Hector of the taut
monocle, dragged helplessly by a foot.
Other manners, another century.

Herod was dire but he was not the Shoah.
What do you say, Vierge, to this Jewish child
fixed at your breast, in the great glass annealed,
Himself the threefold shattering of Chaos!

Another language, such as your Dai Greatcoat
unerringly presented: misadventure
for the machine gun's cunningly-loosed ceinture
binding in blood who late set out-

Jehova's time not ours. We might have given
the temple scroll for Peguy to repair,
indomitable, as an unsold Cahier,
mystique and politique there intershriven.

For those who still haven’t read him, Dai Greatcoat is David Jones and he is (probably) ‘your Dai Greatcoat’ because of the closing scene in In Parenthesis when the Lady of the Woods gathers the dead and dying to her at the end of a day’s fighting in Mametz WSood on the Somme. Now, I may be slow on the uptake but I am not aware of any other reference to Jones in Hill’s poetry. I know that some find the deliberate choice of the obscure word in preference to something more familiar (fosse instead of trench, ceinture instead of scope or range etc) but I’m fond of this particular quirk because there are words and meanings of words that should be kept breathing in the face of the current blandification that appears to becoming dominant. Having written that sentence I realise that I’m sounding as elitist as Hill but it’s something I can live with.

Of course, there is no connection that can be simply made between the biblical Slaughter of the Innocents and the Holocaust but it is certainly a startling line although I am concerned that it may be present just to startle- a tendency that seems to be on the increase lately.

These twenty lines do cover a lot of ground, as well as Jones, we get the Iliad, Christ, the Virgin Mary, French and German stereotypes, Charles Peguy, Herod and the Holocaust. Whilst the whole seems reasonably coherent and has
some threads that run through Hill’s work, I’m not entirely clear that there’s a convincing coherence here. There isn’t, for example, a link between soldiers lighting cigarettes in the trenches of the Somme to the figure of Hector been dragged around behind Achilles’ horse. Peguy was a poet and essayist who edited the literary magazine Les Cahiers de la Quinzaine and in 1909 made the observation that “everything that begins in mysticism ends in politics” which makes much more sense of the last two lines, as does the fact that he was killed in battle in 1914.

We now come to the headings problem, each of the Mercian Hymn poems has been given a title or sub-heading in the index but not on the printed page. Many of the titles occur more than once and seem a bit superfluous, we now have three poems each on ‘Offa’s Laws’ and ‘The Crowning of Offa’ for example which we don’t really need, it’s always seemed self-evident to me what the poems are about. The other quibble is that if these are in the index as part of the title then shouldn’t they be at the top of the poem as well? The opposite problem occurs with Pindarics, there are twenty one of these in Without Title and each begins with a quote from Cesare Pavese and is a response to that quote. We now have 34 Pindarics and all the quotes have been removed. The order of the first twenty one has changed too so that Pindaric 21 has become Pindaric 5 and there have been two changes to the text. This is very puzzling for my small brain, does this now mean that we should forget about the quotes and read the poems as a response to the three sentences from Pavese that now serve as an epigraph? None of this matters much to me because I didn’t like these poems the first time around but I do wonder how less indifferent others may feel.

I do intend to address the new material once I’ve got my brain around it- Ludo and The Daybooks take up 330 page or one third of the collection. This may take some time.

Bad lines in Good poems.

I’ve just put a page on pt 5 of ‘In Parenthesis’ on arduity. As ever, any feedback would be much appreciated.

Whilst extolling the brilliance of this masterpiece, I came across a couple of lines that could be described as Not Very Good which was a bit of a shock because Jones (in my head) is almost perfect and this got me to thinking about other bad lines in brilliant poems. So, what follows is a compilation of those examples that most readily spring to mind. The bebrowed definition of Not Very Good in this context relates, I think, to a line or two that is out of place and jars with the rest of the poem, lines that sound dissonant when read aloud. I think there’s a difference between these and Keston Sutherland’s depiction of the wrong line because that would seem to be more about apparent banality or the non-poetic in a line which nevertheless works.

This selection is personal and subjective, I’ve chosen to concentrate on poems that I feel are excellent but nevertheless are let down by this small blemish.

John Milton and ‘Lycidas’

This has been called the greatest elegy in English literature, its subject is Edward King who was at Cambridge with Milton and who drowned in 1637. I’m of the view that Milton never does lines of the above sort, in fact I’ve never been able to locate a bad line in the entire length of ‘Paradise Lost’ but the fourth and fifth lines here do seem to be out of place:

Where your old bards, the famous Druids lie,
Nor on the shaggy top of Mona high,
Nor yet where Deva spreads her wizard streams
Ay me, I fondly dream!
Had ye been there.....for what could that have done?
How could the muse herself that Orpheus bore,
The muse herself for her enchanting son
Whom universal nature did lament,

I know that this is intended as a sudden cry of hearfelt anguish and is meant to be dissonant but it does need to be strong and well put together and neither ‘Ay me’ nor ‘and ‘what could that have done?’ are up to the task. It isn’t anguished enough nor lyrical enough to justify its presence. It might be argued that this lack of verbal skill is the ‘point’ that this interjection deliberately refuses to work so as to express the depth of human feeling but the fact remains that there is little anguish in ‘what could that have done’ and that it feels both gratuitous and inept. Perhaps Milton was trying to imitate the sudden outbursts in the work of George Herbert which was published a few years before but Herbert’s interjections are both strong and believable whereas this isn’t.

Simon Jarvis and ‘The Unconditional’.

I have said this before but the above is one of the most important publications of the last thirty years. It runs to 236 pages, it is brilliantly and infuriatingly digressive and defiantly metrical. It is also deeply subversive and I don’t understand why this fact isn’t more widely recognised. It isn’t an easy read but it is important and more than repays the attention that is paid to it. It was published in 2005 and is still available from Barque Press for a mere fifteen quid.

One aspect of the Jarvis thesis is that prosody is helpful when expressing complex or philosophical ideas and ‘The Unconditional’ is, among many other things, an example of this. However, there are a few lines where things go a bit awry and one of these serves to undermine a particularly brilliant passage:

        In that domain a buried A-road may
sometime by old pavilions of its shops
remind a hoarse commercial traveller
of the remediable loss of life
in undefended type face of a font
still mutely pleading for a shoppers loves
still wearily enduring falling sales
still waiting for authenticated close
or still abiding till a ripeness when
the properly intolerable come
and foreclose closure closing it by force.
=x. was ready to feel all that.
There or anywhere else.
But he was nowhere near the area.
The hue of the metallic colouring on
his complicit vehicle accompanying him
could barely properly be named as blue-
fantastically overpropertied as though blue left blue for a blue elsewhere
or settled only in the skull of an
acatastatical erotomane
whose dream then taking vehicle form
inflicts whatever violence it can
on any object-field whose lightest flinch
might intimate a rustable flaw beneath
with a pure undersong of "blue, blue, blue".
Serene irony fell into the wrong tax bracket.

I’ve quoted this at length to emphasis the damage that a line can do. On an initial reading I thought it was the last word in ‘But he was nowhere near the area’ that was wrong, that ‘area’ seemed so out of place in the lyrical brilliance of what precedes and follows it but I’ve now decided that it is the line itself that is the problem. Both the portrayal of the commercial traveller and the improvisation on the colour of the ‘complicit vehicle’ are sustained passage of lyrical invention and technical flair but both of these are let down by the presence of this one decidedly dull line. The other issue is that I don’t entirely understand what it is supposed to be doing, it doesn’t add greatly to the sense of what’s being said and even by page 19 most of us will have recognised that =x. is disposed to this kind of self-lacerating melancholia. it is therefore difficult to see what these three lines might add.

Whilst I’ve got the opportunity, I would like to draw your attention to the brilliance of “as though blue left blue for a blue elsewhere” which is almost as good as “on any object field whose lightest flinch / might intimate a rustable flaw beneath” which is obviously wonderful.

As with Milton, this kind of ineptitude is completely out of character for Jarvis and for ‘The Unconditional’ in particular, it may of course be that this is deliberately ‘wrong’ but this kind of knowing wink is absent from the rest of the poem and doesn’t occur in what Jarvis has published since. I’ve now read the poem four times and this remains the bit that is most strikingly bad, there are other sections and lines that are overly self-indulgent, obscure or badly expressed but this is the only line that seems to be irredeemably bad.

David Jones and ‘In Parenthesis’

Anyone who doesn’t think that David Jones was one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century either hasn’t read any of his work or is a complete fool. Tom Dilworth’s claim that ‘In Parenthesis’ is one of the five great war books that we have seems to me to be an altogether reasonable claim. Having spent the last ten days or so thinking and writing about it for arduity, I now have to report that it isn’t perfect and that there is at least a couple of lines that should have been cut.

The poem recounts Jones’ experience of his service in World Ward One leading up to and including the assault on Mametz Wood during the Somme offensive in July 1916. This is from Part Five and is a dialogue between two French civilians who run the bar that the troops frequent during rest periods away from the trenches:

        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 there wera 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.

Jones glosses ‘Tawny-tooth…bent wit’ as “Cf. Skelton. I cannot find the passage I had in mind”- and neither can I, even with the assistance of the Adobe ‘find’ gizmo. In some notes Jones also explains why he is using a particular quotation but chooses not to do so here. I have a couple of concerns:

  • the two lines spoil the rest which is a reasonably straightforward account of a conversation that isn’t at all difficult to follow;,
  • if you are going to quote something then you should try and make sure of it’s accuracy;
  • if you know that the quote might be spurious and you are providing notes then you should explain (as you do elsewhere) what you were hoping to achieve.

It could be argued that this was an innovative and experimental work but there are elsewhere sustained pieces of experimental brilliance that do what they should whereas we will never know what this was meant to achieve, it serves simply to get in the way.

So, none of the above examples are essential to the poem and could be removed without too much difficulty and perhaps it’s this more than the poor quality that I find most difficult. None of these do serious damage to the rest of the poem and I would urge all readers to read the last two, you won’t be disappointed.

‘In Parenthesis’ is currently available from Amazon at just over twelve of your finest English pounds.

Poetry and goodness

I need to start by expressing my gratitude to Michael Peverett, John Stevens and Steffen Hope for their feedback of the ‘Mercian Hymns’ page on arduity which has been invaluable and much appreciated. I’ve just added a longish page on the first four parts of ‘In Parenthesis’, any feedback on this would be much appreciated- either in the comments here or via e-mail- the address is at the bottom of each arduity page.

In his response to my recent thing on David Jones, Tom Dilworth expressed the view that “In IN PARENTHESIS the supreme value is not human life but goodness” which has set me thinking in a number of different directions. The first of these is that poetry is much better at badness than it is on the more positive aspects of the human race. The second is that those great poets who have tried to deal with goodness or virtue have clearly dealt with badness and vice with greater relish. The third thought is that there are those poets who exude goodness in their work and who approach their material with both empathy and compassion for the human condition.

In chronological order, I’m going to have to start with Book I of Spenser’s ‘Faerie Queene’ which describes the quest of the Red Cross knight in achieving holiness. I think it is reasonable to observe that the most interesting/absorbing/entertaining characters are irrevocably Bad and that the way in which they do Badness is much more convincing than the good characters who help the knight on his way. Archimago and Duessa are eminently believable and Despair is a brilliant portrayal of what might be described as early nihilism but the virtuous Fidessa and Contemplation have all the realism of cardboard. The knight is so inept that we can’t take his side whilst Una, the object of his love and devotion, has only one scene where she is allowed to display her real emotions, for the rest of the 12 cantos she remains simply a bland paradigm of virtue.

Book III is ostensibly ‘about’ chastity as embodied by Britomart who does act with compassion and generosity, who does appear to be keen on doing the Right Thing and is much more complex and involving than any of the other ‘good’ subjects of the poem.

Spenser doesn’t write with compassion, he writes as a poet who is keen to demonstrate his value and skill. I am and always will be a Spenserian but that doesn’t mean that I’m blind to the rampant egotism that runs through the work which really does get in the way of any sense of understanding of the reality of human talents and frailties. This self-regard is most obviously on display in the ‘Amoretti’ sequence but it also runs through the Faerie Queene- Spenser describes a great many fight scenes not because they are essential to his theme but because he’s very good at them even though the reader is weary after the first five or six.

George Herbert’s Love III deals with God’s love for mankind and the way in which salvation might work. I don’t want to re-visit Prynne’s detailed analysis but I do want to suggest that the poets displays a degree of goodness (in the sense of compassion and tenderness) as well as insight in the following lines. The poem uses the analogy of a guest and a meal that is offered:

Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack any thing.

A guest, I answered worthy to be here.
Love said, You shall be he.

This is probably an entirely personal response but this strikes me as more than a theological ‘point’ because it seems to encapsulate the struggle that most of us have with the notion of worthiness. I know than a few individuals who have dedicated their lives to some kind of public service as a way of reconciling or dealing with their own sense of unworthiness and the above exchange seems to explore this in a particularly accurate and humane way that is absent from most of the rest of great English verse.

This brings us to John Milton and his God problem. In Paradise Lost, Jesus has compassion for humanity and does all the right/good things from defeating the bad angels to undertaking to sacrifice himself in order to redeem mankind. God, on the other hand, is grumpy and complains a lot about man’s ingratitude and disobedience. Being omniscient, God knows about Adam’s disobedience before it occurs but also knows (because of Free Will) that there is nothing he can do to prevent it. This makes him far more compelling than either Satan or Christ because he confounds our expectation that God must be inherently good and kind and never, ever bad-tampered.

The other bits of goodness turn out to be rather tedious, I find myself becoming irritated by the unalloyed virtue of Adam and Eve in the idyllic garden prior to the Fall. Milton is our greatest poet but he’s also a streetfighter with a number of points to make and this doesn’t leave much space for an empathetic stance.

Charles Olson’s compassion for the people of Gloucester and the way in which he describes existence on the edge of the Atlantic is an example of warmth and his love for the place which is enunciated in detail throughout ‘Maximus’, drawing us in to a similar viewpoint.

As with David Jones, one of Olson’s concerns is the relationship of the past to the present and the following fourteen lines explore this with great personal warmth;

A year that year
was new to men
the place had bred
in the mind of another

John White had seen it
in his eye
but fourteen men
of whom we know eleven

twenty two eyes
and the snow flew
where gulls now paper
the skies

where fishing continues
and my heart lies

I could go on for a very long time about how the archive and archival poetry brings the past into the immediate present a how Jones and Olson are two of our greatest poets (in part) because of this element in their practice. Instead, I just want to point to the love expressed and written in the above which to my mind is also an expression of Olson’s goodness.

Finally, Elizabeth Bishop is one of the very few poets who does goodness really well and I want to produce the closing lines of ‘Filling Station’ as an example of technical brilliance and a very human compassion:

Somebody embroidered the doily.
Somebody waters the plant,
or oils it, maybe. Somebody
arranges the rows of cans
so that they softly say:
ESSO-SO-SO-SO
to high-strung automobiles.
Somebody loves us all.

There is a lot going on here but the ‘point’ is beautifully and expertly made and it is these expressions of compassion and human worth, even in the mundane, that makes Bishop so very, very good. There’s a reported conversation in ‘Moose’ which is technically perfect but is also soaked through with this sense of innate value in the human race.

So, I need to thank Tom Dilworth again for enabling me to think about yet another aspect that I’ve taken too much for granted and will now pay much more attention to.

David Jones as (profound) chronicler.

I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Nathaniel Drake Carlson for pointing me in the direction of the Spring 1982 edition of Poetry Wales which contains two particularly fascinating pieces on ‘In Parenthesis’.

I know I should be reading all that Thomas Dilworth has written on Jones but I haven’t yet because I’m still having this internal debate with the insightful Rene Hague on ‘The Anathemata’ and because the person in charge of the Bebrowed accounts has gently pointed out that I should read the books I’ve acquired before buying any more, which is entirely reasonable.

In this particular issue of Poetry Wales there are articles by Dilworth and Joseph Cohen on aspects of ‘In Parenthesis’, the first deals with the poem as chronicle whereas Cohen considers the profundity of the work. Regular readers will know that I have a long standing interest in the archival / documentary / commemorative aspects of poetry and that I wrote a week ago about profundity and poetry which generated more than a little debate so I’ve read both with great interest.

Before we proceed I need to point out (again) that David Jones is one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century and I remain dismayed that his work isn’t better known. ‘In Parenthesis’ is a sequence of poems that recount Jones’ experience as a soldier from training in England to being wounded during the disastrous Somme offensive of 1916. It is a work of immense humanity and technical skill, in his piece Dilworth makes a claim for it being “one of the world’s four or five great war books. It is far better than any other work or collection of works on the Great War”, I don’t know enough about war books to support this claim but it is certainly the best book on conflict that I have ever read.

So, Dilworth concentrates on the poem as an authentic / accurate account of Jones’ experiences which in itself (for us devotees) is valuable in itself but I’m a bit concerned that this focus might be missing other aspects of what the poem might be about- and whether ‘chronicle’ is the right noun.

Jones’ dedication at the beginning of the poem is long and complex but it includes “especially Pte. R.A. Lewis- gunner from Newport Monmouthshire killed in action in the Boesinghe sector N.W. of Ypres some time in the winter 1916-17″ and his preface starts with “This writing has to do with some things I saw, felt, & was part of” which might indicate that this is more of a personal memoir which also commemorates a fallen comrade. There’s also a ‘political’ edge – Jones goes on to condemn the increasing mechanisation of the war which led to even more ‘wholesale slaughter’.

Dilworth is the expert on all things David Jones but it does seem to me that there are a couple of quibbles. He writes:

Such changes in chronology indicate that Jones is not recording history, but he is being over careful when he writes in his preface that no ‘sequence of events’ in the poem is ‘historically accurate’.

The full quote is “None of the characters in this writing are real persons, nor is any sequence of events historically accurate” – this may be an indication of being overly careful but it is also an indication that it isn’t his intention that the poem should be read as a historical account, in fact the preceding passage seems to indicate more of a memorialisation of a time and a way of soldiering ( “a certain amateurishness, and elbow-room for idiosyncrasy that connected one with a less exacting past”) that was obliterated in the Somme offensive of 1916- the end-point of Jones’ narrative.

Dilworth rightly points to Jones’ technical brilliance and the ‘documentary’ feel of the sequence as a whole but also states that Jones doesn’t do anecdote. I’m struggling a bit with this observation because there is at least one (albeit loaded) innstance that seems to me to be anecdotal.

The OED’s primary definition of anecdote is “Secret, private, or hitherto unpublished narratives or details of history” and this seems to me that this (from part 2) might fit:

One day the Adjutant addressed them on the history of the regiment. Lectures by the Bombing Officer: he sat in the straw, a mild young man, who told them lightly of the efficacy of his trade; he predicted an important future for the new Mills Mk. IV grenade, just on the market; he discussed the improvised jam-tins of the veterans, of the bombs of after the Marne, grenades of Loos and Laventie – he compared these elementary, amateurish, inefficiencies with the compact and supremely satisfactory invention of this Mr Mills, to whom his country was so greatly indebted.

He took the names of all those men who professed efficiency on the cricket field – more particularly those who claimed to bowl effectively – and brushing away with his hand pieces of straw from his breeches, he sauntered off with his sections of grenades and fuses and explanatory diagrams of their mechanisms stuffed into the pockets of his raincoat, like a departing commercial traveller.

Ignoring the bitter sarcasm for the moment this strikes me as a previously unpublished detail of history. The Mills bomb was the first fragmentation grenade – a device which not only exploded but threw out shrapnel over the surrounding area and it would make sense for good bowlers to be recruited to throw these things far enough to prevent themselves being injured. This weapon was first introduced in 1915 and is one of the elements of mechanised brutality that Jones deplores so there is an additional ‘point’ being made in this particular passage which seems to me to be anecdotal.

I also accept that the sales rep device is particularly effective but it is entirely feasible that such an officer would do what he could to ‘sell’ this kind of innovation to the troops whilst providing explanation and context because that was part of his role.

Turning now to Joseph Cohen we find this:

In Parenthesis, if it is anything, is a profound work. It has unusual depth. It is a product of two complex cerebral functions: (1) reflection and the play of the imagination on the poet’s experience as an infantryman on the Western Front: an extreme condition, prolonged, marked by danger, suffering, privation and loss, unparalleled in history to that time; and (2) subsequent omnivorous reading and more reflection on the literature and history of individual and collective military experience reaching back to antiquity. Through this juxtaposition of the experience of the past with that of the present, Jones focuses out attention on the panoramic range of feelings human beings express in the throes of war. By comparing the past to the present, Jones emphasizes the supreme value of human life.

I don’t want to revisit the recent debate on the various elements of profundity but for me the above combination is not where this particular quality of ‘In Parenthesis’ lies- it is rather in the accuracy and honesty of what it was like to be in the midst of this senseless carnage and the sensitive portrayal of the human dynamics between officers, NCOs and the ‘ordinary’ rank and file. Once again, I accept that my definition of ‘profound’ is entirely subjective and (probably) subject to change but, as with Hill’s observation, there is this sense of insightful/useful humanity that makes ‘In Parenthesis’ so profound.

I also think Cohen misses the point about the past and the present which he sees as a juxtaposition- I’m of the view that all of Jones’ work is about the real existence of the past in the present, one of his many strengths is his ability to quietly insist on this in both ‘In Parenthesis’ and ‘The Anathemata’. I’m currently writing an extended page on the former for arduity and this seems clearer to me with each reading.

The Poet as Witness, Marvell’s ‘Last Instructions to a Painter’.

The above poem is a gloriously vicious account of the circumstances leading to the Second Dutch War which in 1667 saw the Dutch fleet sail up the Thames with impunity, steal our flag ship, set fire to a few towns and sail away without loss. This was going to be a ‘compare and contrast’ exercise with other primary sources (Pepys and the Calendar of State Papers) in an attempt to differentiate between the official, the personal and the poetic but then I got sidetracked into another line of enquiry which I should tackle first.

Re-reading the ‘Instructions’, I came across Henry Jermyn, Earl of St Albans, who is one of the first political figures to fall under Marvell’s scrutiny. In the poem he is portrayed as a kind of seventeenth century sex machine and pointedly crude reference is made to his alleged affair with Henrietta Maria, Charles I’s queen. Being struck by the severity of Marvell’s gaze I (in the interests of balance) decided to look at Jermyn’s entry in the Dictionary of National Biography. The DNB article on Jermyn contains a reasonably objective account of Jermyn’s life in terms of posts held and the ‘close’ relationship with Henrietta Maria. Dealing with Jermyn’s role after 1660, we get this-

” Andrew Marvell’s great satire on the conduct of the war, ‘Last Instructions to a Painter’, attacked St Albans’s alleged lack of ability, his appearance, and his overindulgence in the pleasures of the court:
Paint then St Albans full of soup and gold,
The new court’s pattern, stallion of the old.
Him neither wit nor courage did exalt,
But Fortune chose him for her pleasure salt.
Paint him with drayman’s shoulders, butcher’s mien,
Member’d like mules, with elephantine chine.
Well he the title of St Alban’s bore,
For Bacon never studied nature more
But age, allaying now that youthful heat,
Fits him in France to play at cards and treat.”

So, poet as witness becomes poet as ‘official’ recorder. The Jermyn article is written by his only recent biographer and yet he chooses to include part of Marvell’s diatribe as part of the objective record which wasn’t part of Marvell’s intention. The poem portrays a high degree of political incompetence and corruption but Marvell was no innocent bystander, he had been MP for Hull since 1659 and was therefore part of the dismal political malaise that infected British public life during the 1660s and beyond. As an act of polemic, the poem needs to be considered as part of a series of ‘advice’ poems penned by Marvell and others and should perhaps be read both as testimony and as a demonstration of poetic skill.

There is a ‘point to this dismal tale and that is that the King, who is addressed directly in the poem’s closing lines, should pay more heed to the advice of the landed gentry rather than his courtiers and their parliamentary supporters. The primary reason given is that the gentry have substantial and enduring wealth and are not dependent on royal patronage and the corruption that this entails.

As well as being a scathing account of contemporary events and a polemic against the corrupt and sexually charged culture of the court, ‘Instructions’ contains a memorialisation in oddly erotic terms of Archibald Douglas who chose to stay aboard his burning ship whilst the rest of the crew fled. In a subsequent poem, ‘The Loyal Scot’, Marvell uses Douglas’ heroic example to suggest that national distinctions shouldn’t be given prominence in political debate.

So, poem that bears witness to a national disaster by recording both the circumstances and the disaster itself, a poem that acts as polemic against contemporary incompetence and corruption, that provides pithy descriptions of a range of powerful characters and, in the process, presents a vivid portrait of the culture and concerns of the ruling elite.

Incidentally, both Milton and Marvell eulogise characters who chose to stay on board sinking ships. Milton’s ‘Lycidas’ is an elegy for Edward King who drowned in 1637 after deciding to pray on deck rather than try to escape. It strikes me that we wouldn’t think of either of these deaths as in anyway heroic now (stupid, but not especially brave) yet this does seem to have been an act worthy of praise in the 17th century.

I’d like to conclude by means of comparison with a more recent piece of witnessing. David Jones’ ‘In Parenthesis’ memorialises the Somme offensive, that great British disaster of WWI but for other reasons. Jones does not seek to berate the dismal incompetence of the generals that sent so many men into this carnage, his stated aim is to mark the turning point in the British army with the arrival of new-fangled technologies that reduced much of the good natured camaraderie of the first two years of the war. Notwithstanding Jones’ aim the poem is a first hand account of soldiers moving up to the front and the initial suicidal assault on Mametz Wood. Jones resists polemic and even the scenes of death and dying are handled in a lyrical and moving way which is far removed from the anger so evident in many other war poets.

It can be argued that all poetry bears witness but Marvell’s ‘Last Instructions’ seems to cover most forms of testimony, apart from the eye-witness account, and also makes a significant contribution to the wider cultural landscape of his time. For those who are interested, it is especially rewarding to follow Pepys’ account of the same period (as well as having some responsibility for the naval fiasco, he read the poem in manuscript form) and the official records which show a government immobilised by panic.

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-
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
immolations
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.