Tag Archives: the anathemata

Stumbling over David Jones

I’m currently confused, this doesn’t often happen. During last summer I began a project for arduity which involved writing about Simon Jarvis’ Night Office, Keston Sutherland’s Odes to TL61P and David Jones’ The Anathemata. Things went reasonably well for a while, writing about the poems from the beginning and proceeding through at a leisurely pace until I hit a wall with The Anathemata. This took me by surprise because I’ve come to share Auden’s view of it as the finest long poem in English of the twentieth century. The nature of the wall was a passage where things start to get a little academic and I wasn’t keen because it feels like it’s trying too hard, with some of the notes displaying some of the worst traits of the self-taught, especially the desire for some kind of scholarly respectability instead of explaining what needs to be explained. This is usually something I can overlook but in this instance the tendency goes on for four pages and is also quite boring.

Of course, the sensible thing would be to mention my reaction and perhaps give a couple of examples and then move on but I didn’t, I decided to leave things alone for a while and come back to it later. I’ve been back to it twice since and each time I get the same sense of annoyance. I’m still of the view that The Anathemata is a staggeringly important poem and I am aware that it was written over a number of years and various bits were pushed together with varying degrees of success but I am genuinely taken aback by how much I dislike these four pages. What is equally puzzling is that I’ve read the poem several times over the last three years and this reaction hadn’t occurred, at all.

One of the reasons for this may be that I’m now reading with the specific intention of writing in some detail about the work and I’m doing this in an attempt to bring Jones’ work to a wider audience and this kind of reading may be different from my earlier incursions which didn’t have a fixed / specific objective. The other factor may be that I was previously more concerned with meaning and unravelling all the very many references and not enough on my readerly reaction.

Now, the secondary level of confusion occurs with whether reading in order to write is the best way for me to occupy my time. In 2011 I stopped blogging and writing about poetry for about 4 months because I felt this approach was taking away some of the pleasure I get from paying attention to this material. I’m also aware that things may be becoming a little too lit crit which is not what I want to do.

I’ll try to giv an example from the offending four pages, this is from the Rite and Fore-Time section of the poem:


                   For the phases and phase-groups
sway toward and fro within that belt of latitude.
There's where the world's a stage 
                   for transformed scenes
with metamorphosed properties 
                       for each shifted set.
Now naked as an imagined Belle Sauvage or as is the actual
Mirriam.

(The last sentence above is prose but I’ve matched the line ending from the 2010 Faber edition).

The note for this is:

The Mirriam are a people of the Shendam Division of the Plateau Province of Nigeria. The men of this tribe are not totally naked, but the women in general are, except for ornaments of bamboo pith. I am indebted for this information to Captain A.L. Milroy, MC, for many years an official in that area.

I stumble on two things, the first is the fact that we don’t need the Mirriam in the poem, it ‘reads’ badly and is superfluous to what’s being said and second is that the note doesn’t need Captain Milroy and his Military Cross. This annoys me because stating the obvious (there are still some people who go without clothes) for no good reason and the identification of the source and the status of that source is unnecessary. I freely admit that all of us auto-didacts do have some inherent anxiety about our absence of education but this particular example gets in the way of the poem.

I’m also of the view that if things are a chore to write then there is a greater danger that they are a chore to read. I’m therefore going to spend a period of time writing about things that crop up spontaneously rather than what I feel I ought to be attending to. Oddly, I don’t feel this way about the Annotated Trigons project which I’m working on with John Matthias and I think this is because it’s a bit of an adventure in that we’re experimenting with what the web can do and I’m also pushing my abilities (such as they are) in a new direction.

I’d like to conclude with something from The Anathemata that’s triggered something unexpected. Immediately after the offending section there is “For all WHOSE WORKS FOLLOW THEM which has a longish note, the second paragraph of which is:

The dictionary defines artefact as an artificial product, thus including the beaver’s dam and the wren’s nest. But here I confine my use of the word to both artefacts in which there is an element of the extra-utile and the gratuitous. If there is any existence of this kind of artefacture then the artefacturer or artifex should be regarded as participating directly in the benefits of the Passion because the extra-utile is the mark of man.

I’ve either missed or skimmed over this in the past but it does seem quite important in furthering my understanding of what might be going on. In his longish introduction, Jones claims that he is presenting the main elements of his own cultural background and history, the items and ideas that have significance for him, he also makes it clear that the central element for him is the Catholic Mass. What he doesn’t make clear is the direct connection that he makes here between Christ’s crucifixion and the act of artistic creation. Jones’ added emphasis on ‘direct’ makes it clear that he sees Christ’s death as much more than giving us the possibility of salvation but also enabling the creative process. I’m not reading this as God being immediately present in every creative act but it does seem to suggest that Passion in some way initiates each creative act.

I give this as an example of something that I wasn’t looking for and didn’t intend to write about but would give me more than a little pleasure to explore out loud the possible implications of and the rationale for the above. Next I think I’ll tackle Keston Sutherland’s dot problem….

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.

Beautiful poetry: Jarvis, Jones and Matthias

We’ll start with a couple of qualifiers. I used to know what Kant said about what made something aesthetically pleasing but I’ve since forgotten it. I hadn’t thought until very recently about the relationship between the beautiful and the poem so most of what follows has probably been said before. I have however noticed something that might be useful to share.

Regular readers may know that I’m in violent agreement with K Sutherland on the need to pay attention to serious work. In my experience as a reader, reading attentively is far more rewarding than reading the work as if it were a novel. Of course, I have to be interested enough in the first place in order to start being attentive but fortunately I find that I am interested in many (perhaps too many) different kind of poem. Material that challenges me with either it’s subject matter or its deployment of language usually gets some interest but beauty has never struck me as interesting enough to gain my attention.

With the annotated Trigons project with John Matthias and the ongoing experiments in reading I’ve been paying sustained attention over a number of weeks to The Anathemata, The Odes to TL61p, Night Office and Trigons. Oddly (at least to me) its seems like bits of beautiful poetry have crept up on me and caught me unawares. This was the first:

   Within the railed tumulus
       he sings high and he sings low.

    In a low voice
         as one who speaks
where a few are, gathered in high-room
    and one, gone out.

This refers to the Last Supper and is part of the announcement of Jones’ main theme. Before I started writing about it I thought it was one of the many pieces of sustained brilliance that run through the book but then I noticed within me a reluctant recognition that this was primarily a beautiful piece of poetry in itself. By this I think I mean that it isn’t describing anything that I might find attractive to the eye but that the combination of words (poems as poem) move me more than something I find visually inspiring. I’ve thought about analysing the above but the only guess that I’m prepared to venture relates to brevity and simplicity. Of course, the above does crop up in the most accomplished long poem of the 20th century so the poetic context may make a contribution.

However, I’m going with an unmediated almost physical response which I also get from this from the first poem in the Trigons sequence:


for such is fate Senor and yet
the alphabet was left us when alas ambrosia
turned to vin ordinaire and Icor
just poor plain red & human blood spilled & spilling
in the deserts mountains seas

and islands too, fit for Eucharist in world conflagration

(the first five lines are the last lines from section five, the last line is the beginning of section 6.

I’ve written before about over-reading the theme of this poem, of seeing in it a complex portrayal of the tragic nature of 20th century Greek politics. I’ve also written about John’s ability to make the very difficult look easy. The above is remarkably complex and works on a number of different levels but what makes it beautiful for me is the strength and clarity of the fourth line, especially “red & human” and “spilled & spilling” which seem to hold the whole thing together. I recognise that there is a religious element to this but it is only one of many threads that are interwoven in these few lines. So, brevity and simplicity, as with Jones, but also superb technique in terms of word choice and pacing being utilised to maximum effect. Perhaps even more than Jones, these lines stand by themselves, with or without context as a beautiful thing. It could be argued that ‘conflagration’ is too big a word to end with and that it isn’t sufficiently lyrical but the point is that it both punctuates and contrasts what has gone before.

The last of these is from Jarvis’ Night Office:

just in the corner of my eye the vast cathedral,
too large for its believers, and just now
dwarfing small clumps of them in polyhedral
splendours and gestures. Its bright sharpened bow
went sailing through the night, to put down evil
wherever it might surface, so that how 
this back of it disgorged the faithful, few
at this cold, minor, festival, and who

they were, could not be seen, but, from its gaps
immensities of music, and their wide
curves, flights and logics, rivets, knots and straps
let the machine preposterously ride
out into air, let open all its taps,

I’ve quoted this at length because most of it isn’t particularly beautiful and because there are bits that are Very Awkward Indeed but that does not prevent some inherent beauty leaking out. I’m not entirely sure but I think it’s the list and the splendours and gestures that transform this reasonably straightforward description into something quite wonderful. I readily acknowledge that I’m a sucker for lists, that there’s something about nouns next to each other that I find deeply satisfying. This is a particularly good list mainly because it has logic as an item. I know that there’s more than a little religion in this but I’m not religious and I can only speak as I find.

I think I need to contrast these examples with the apparent beauty and lyrical dexterity of some bits of The Four Quartets. I was captivated in my late teens by these until I worked out that almost all were cynical attempts to appear profound. These three, on the other hand, are not trying too hard, are not desperate to impress but do have more than a degree of honest depth and skill.

Annotated Trigons update and further experiments in reading

For those that aren’t regulars, I’m currently collaborating with John Matthias on producing an on-line and annotated full text version of Trigons, his magnificent sequence which was published in 2010. Progress continues to be made, we now have the third section of “Islands, Inlands” (the first poem in the sequence) in a usable state together with notes to John’s headnote for the sequence as a whole. I like to think that I’m a bit clearer on the amount of information to provide and to try and rely on what I’m thinking of as primary sources (diaries, memoirs, letters, interviews etc) to expand on a theme because secondary sources dealing with Greece since 1945, for example, all seem to have a very sharp ideological axe to grind. There’s also issues of self control, I’m now of the view that the whole world should know more about Michael Ayrton and his “The Testament of Daedalus”. I could therefore write a few thousand enthusiastic words on this remarkable man but I’ve recognised that this would be serving my needs rather than those of the reader. So, Ayrton gets about the same as Miller, Seferis and Durrell.

I think I also need to say what a privilege it is to work with someone as generous and thoughtful as John on this marvellous piece of work.

Given the attention tht this project seems to be getting, I’ve had several long thoughts about arduity and have decided to cull a few of the sections (those relating to theory and lit crit etc etc) and to concentrate on poems and poets whilst retaining pages on ambiguity, meaning and allusion. The site is also in desperate need of a Big Polish in that it currently has two page formats based on completely different style sheets and I need to tweak some of my prose. In the mood for spring cleaning, I’ve now added disqus comment boxes at the bottom of the Matthias pages and will now carry this across the rest of the site. I’ve avoided the comments issue on arduity primarily because it’s technically beyond me and I’m too stubborn to use a wysiwyg editor but now I think it would be a Good Thing to have feedback at the foot of each page.

I’ve also recognised that arduity gets more traffic than this blog (4022 user sessions v 822 so far this month) and this means that the material that I think might have some value to others might be best “parked” on arduity. There are probably a number of reasons for this imbalance- people use blogs in different ways to sites with more visible navigation, the wordpress metatags aren’t very good even and this means arduity invariably beats berowed in search engine results.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that I’m going to write about poems and poets on arduity and use this to think out loud about poetry in a less specific way. The first development will be extended “experiments in reading” being placed on arduity so that they are more visible to google and the rest. Which brings me to a thought following on from John Dillon a fortnight ago about the relationship between the gloss and the text and in what way can a gloss be said to be part of the poem. I think I’m beginning to sort out an answer to that but the interweb gives us another dimension in that we now have comments on the gloss that the reader can chose to integrate into his or her reading.
I’ll try and give an example, the experiements in reading are an attempt to inject a greater sense of immediacy into my readings with a view to encouraging a wider readership and to get some feedback/help with regard to the tricky stuff.

By way of illustration, a week ago I posted an experiment re the first few pages of “The Anathemata” which drew this comment:

I just have a quick point about the opening prayer. The prayer is the Quam Oblationem. According to some theologians, it is an epiklesis whereby the celebrant prays that God will send down the Holy Spirit to change the bread and wine into the body and blood. One of the theologians who ascribed to that reading and who sees it as the actual beginning of the Consecration is Maurice de la Taille. In that sense, then, The Ana’s opening prayer acts as DJ’s invocation of the muse ( and quite a number of other things).

I’m of the view that this belongs in the body of my text as well at the bottom of the page because it enhances understanding and provides context that I don’t have. So, I will be asking permission to do incorporate this into the text in a way that acknowledges the source but is nevertheless part of the work.

This isn’t a clarion call for the “open” gloss whereby everybody can contribute what ever they want but it certainly does give another dimension that we should think about. The other dimesnion is where the speculation about meaning becomes part of the gloss. I’ve now written 2 x 1,000 word experiments on Keston Sutherland’s “The Odes” and there’s been a couple of enhanced speculations with regard to the depilated Janine:

Since we’re speculating … a (carefully circumscribed) internet search brought up adult film actress Janine Lindemulder. I’ll leave it to someone else to confirm her depilation, but the reference seems to fit with a recurring theme/trope of the poem; it also obviously adds another semantic valence to much of the quoted passage. Couldn’t decide if your ‘nagging’ doubt was about this line of inquiry, so I’ll tastelessly broach it for you.

I responded by suggesting that Alasdair Gray’s “Janine 1982″ was more likely. Here’s the response:

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Damn, I like yours better, and have another book to read to boot. How can something be “hereafter congenital” for said textual/sexual Janine, assuming all her kidding is prophylactically voided? I’m tempted to go ‘full Prynne’ and trace congenital back to its conquest of of ‘congenial.’ Now that’s what over-reading would look like.

I’m of the view that this exchange should occur just after I first mention the prospect of “tackling” Janine. Then yesterday something else was thrown into the mix:

You’ve got me thinking about ‘congenitally depilated’. The word ‘congenitally’ contains the word ‘genitally’, so this could partially resolve to ‘genitally depilated’. Genitals and the word and the word do crop up elsewhere in the poem. This would certainly fit with the porn star reading. That still leaves ‘congenitally’. In line with the poem’s larger (troubling? important? brave?) preoccupation with childhood sexuality, I read ‘congenitally’ as collapsing the state of nature at birth into the infantilising and fashionable aversion to pubic hair among adults (not just porn stars), but here the aversion is inverted and to depilation and it’s that that’s defective. This is somewhat troubling, or at least challenging. I would justify the apparent awkwardness/senselessness of ‘hearafter’ as picking up on this temporal confusion. It also strikes me that if ‘congenitally’ can become ‘con genitally’, maybe ‘hereafter’ can be taken as ‘here after’, but I don’t know how much that helps. If it’s congenital it’s congenital from birth but in a different, artificial way, “always already” congenital in adulthood?

I think reading both of the above, it is important that when people have put some thought into things and expressed those thoughts with such clarity that they should be given a more prominent/noticeable place in the gloss.

There’s also a more precise reading:

‘aboriginal mucus’ thought of as an original inhabitant; impeccable darkness as opposed to the mere absence of light.

My unscrewed head is like a bulb in the palm of my hand. Certain kinds of ‘truths burn out and fly away’ for as long as it’s not connected to a Ground⏚

Ground is where the ‘stack of basements’ are
elevated; inundated in impeccable darkness.

My freezer has a freezer light. It’s behind a ‘grainy
blank’. Blank is another word for a cover or a plate.
I wonder what it would be like if all the world were like the contents of my freezer and only ever seen under that light. A ‘prophylactic void…’?

The etymology of Janine is the same as it is for John, John, but to take the etymological truth of Janine as gospel would be like removing the hair at birth. Are burnt out truths like hairs pulled out of your head one at a time?

I think you are onto something John. Probably something to do with the intersection between carrying secrets and burning out.

Which I need to find a place for. Of course, this wholesale lifting needs to be agreed with the writer before I move it but I do think that it’s a dimension that’s woth pursuing.

The Anathemata, a further experiment in reading

This was going to be the start of another part of the book project which was going to alternate with ‘Night Office’ and “The Triumph of Love”. Again it’s an attempt to encourage a wider readership by writing something that’s bit more personal and immediate, a work in progress….

You’re daunted, you’re aware of its reputation with regard to readability and obscurity but you’ve just read ‘In Parenthesis’ which is the most heartbreakingly magnificent war poem/novel that you’ve ever read and it wasn’t too difficult but you’ve got the Auden quip in your head (been living with it for 10 years and still didn’t understand it- he also thought it was the best long poem of the 20th century) and you know this will take time. You’re relieved to find that Jones has provided a longish introduction which sets out what he’s aiming for. This seems to be a description of the important aspects of his cultural landscape of the last two thousand years. Of course ‘landscape’ is your noun, he uses ‘mythus’ and ‘sign’ and deposit’ and it’s clear that the Catholic liturgy is going to be a central focal point. As with ‘In Parenthesis’ there’s notes but these re t the bottom of the relevant page. You know that their are many different recommended ways to read the poem and you decide on a middle path of using the notes (where possible) to establish the ‘sense’ of the text.

You find yourself thinking about liturgy and realise that this is stuff you should really know a little more about because it’s been an expression of belief for the majority of people in the West for the last two millennia – even though there isn’t a God.

You re-read the introduction and come across four paragraphs that might be Quite Important:

“Or, to leave analogy and to speak plain: I believe that there is, in the principle that informs the poetic art, a something which cannot be disengaged from the mythus, deposits, materiere, ethos, whole res. of which the poet is himself product.

My guess is that we cannot answer the question ‘What is poetry?’ (meaning, What is the nature of poetry? cannot be answered without some mention of these same deposits.

We know – it goes without saying – that the question ‘What is the material of poetry?’ cannot be answered without some mention of these same deposits..

We know also, and even more certainly that this applies to the question ‘By what means or agency is poetry?’ For one of the efficient causes of which the effect called poetry is a dependant involves the employment of particular language or languages, and involves the employment of a particular language or languages, and involves the employment of a particular language or languages, and involves that employment at an especially heightened tension. The means or agent is a veritable torcular, squeezing every drain of evocation from the word-forms of that language or languages. And that involves a bagful of mythus before you’ve said Jack Robinson – or immediately after.

Now, you’ve spent more than a few years thinking about poetry, you have fairly well-formed views about what poetry can and can’t do. In particular you are of the view that poetry takes itself far too seriously and isn’t, in fact, all that special or privileged. The above does however seem to offer a key to at least part of the underlying rationale of the work even though you may not agree with it. What is also an immense relief is that you understand it. You’re not familiar with ‘torcular’ so you check the OED and find that it means ‘tourniquet’ but is also Latin for a wine or oil press which makes additional sense given Jones’ interest in imperial Rome.

You are deeply suspicious of the idea that poetry somehow makes use of ‘heightened’ language primarily because you don’t understand how this heightening works and think it my be a way of avoiding the fact that poets make use of a bagful of tricks which is more about adaptation than refinement. Still there’s something satisfying about the notion of poetry giving expression to these deposits. You start to think about your own mythos and now feel less daunted because you might now have a point of entry and a vague template of what is intended.

You begin and are immediately relieved that the beginning is comprehensible and in line with the introduction:

“We already and first of all discern him making this thing other.
 His groping syntax, if we attend, already shapes:
   ADSCRIPTAM, RATAM, RATIONABILEM... and by pre-
application and for them, under modes and patterns altogether
 theirs, the holy and venerable hands lift up an efficacious sign.”

There is a note to the Latin:
“See the Roman Mass, the Prayer of Consecration, beginning ‘Which oblation do thou… ascribe to, ratify, make reasonable…’
and a further note to ‘venerable hands:
‘Cf. the same ‘… in sanctas ac venerabiles, manus suas…’

At which point you know that that re-reading Eamon Duffy isn’t going to be enough so you look at the Catholic Encyclopaedia and decide that this is probably too much so you turn to Wikipedia and find ‘Text and Rubrics of the Roman Canon’ which provides the relevant texts in full. The first is “Be pleased, O God, we pray, to bless, acknowledge, and approve this offering in every respect: make it spiritual and acceptable so that it may become for us the Body and Blood of your most beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.” You note that this seems to be radically different translation of the same Latin words but you know that Jones was a staunch traditionalist and continued to adhere to the Tridentine Mass after it was superseded. Wikipedia also tells you tht it is Christ’s hands that are referred to and not (as you had assumed) those of the priest. You take the ‘efficacious sign’ to be the sign of the cross as this is made by the priest at this point in the Tridentine Mass. You think about the adjective and wonder about its choice. A little further rummaging about finds that the sign of the cross is used to bless the bread and the wine 25 times during the Tridentine Mass which seems a little excessive.

You then think about what it means to bless something and you recognise that things are blessed in order to endow them with some sort of spiritual or holy quality and you also remember something from ‘O’ level history about transubstantiation and the belief that the bread and wine became the flesh and blood of Christ and you think that this might be to do with the efficacy of the sign(s) of the cross.

There’s another couple of oddnesses: why should our discerning have already have occurred if this was ‘first of all’ and does this somehow tie in with ;pre-application in the second paragraph? Both of these seem to imply something that happened before the scene that is being described, then again Jones could be implying that the rituals and signs of the Mass have been with us since the Last Supper or he could be referring to the eternal presence of Christ amongst us. You decide to read on:

“These, at the sagging end and chapter.s close, standing
 humbly before the tables spread, in the apsidal houses, who
  intend life:
                   between the sterile ornaments
        under the paste-board baldachins
        as, in the young-time, in the sap-years
                   between the loving floriations
        under the leaping arches.
(Ossific, trussed with ferric rods, the failing numina
 of column and entablature, the genii of spire and triforium, 
like great rivals met when all is done, nod recognition across 
the cramped repeats of their dead selves.)”

This is a relief, we’re still in church and there’s kind of elegy for the early years of Christianity (young-time, sap-years) which are contrasted with today’s elderly congregations and it’s fake features. Then there is this remarkable bracketed paragraph which you have to read a few times before you understand what might be going on. The church is ossified and held together with iron trusses. The inspirational spirits behind (within?) the architectural features and flourishes acknowledge each other and what they once were.

You really are quite pleased with this, you know that things will get denser and more obdurate as you proceed but this is quite a gentle beginning. Because of your complete ignorance in these matters, you check out the less obvious architectural terms and note that ‘triforium’ has a slightly misleading background in that before the 19th century the term was only ever applied to features of Canterbury cathedral but has since become more general in application. You love little nuggets of obscurity like this and consider delving further but the rest of the poem awaits.

A little way in there’s a lengthy description / account of the Last Supper, you’re surprised by how poignant you find this passage to be even though you don’t believe that any of these events occurred. Not only does Jones believe this story, he also holds it to be the central event of human history- one that continues to exercise its power two thousand years later. You re-read and discover that it’s the understated that has this effect, the words that do no more than ‘point’ to what might be going on:


     “In a low voice
                as one who speaks
where a few are, gathered in high-room
     and one, gone out.”

You’re taking it that the one that has gone out is Judas Iscariot on his way to betray Jesus and you haven’t actually felt anything at all about this event until now, you’ve understood its significance in terms of Christianity and Western culture and you know the endless debates about what this final meal signifies.but all of this has been without emotion, you haven’t been moved by these events because you don’t think that they occurred. These four lines have evoked something in you – the only other religious verse to achieve this response is the middle bit of George Herbert’s ‘Love III’ which is in part about worthiness. The initial ‘low voice’ is that of the priest which then becomes (or is likened to) the voice of Christ. You wonder why ‘the’ or ‘a’ have been dropped from the place of this speaking and why there’s a hyphen. You’ve never fully understood the blame heaped on Judas Iscariot, if we are to understand that Christ’s execution was pre-ordained then it was Judas’ pre-ordained role to betray him. You don’t want to tax your brain too much but it would appear likely that Jones held to the ‘traditional’ view of free will or some variation of it, which may mean that Christ’s self-sacrifice was inevitable and that Judas was one of the instruments by which this was achieved. You don’t hold to the view that Judas was a political extremist who wanted Christ to be arrested so that He could reveal his identity and wreak havoc on his enemies. You then realise that you haven’t thought about any of this for many, many years and begin to see how much of ‘gap’ there is between those with faith and those without.

There is then a description of preparations for the meal which is heavy with sea faring phrases: “They set the thwart boards / and along”; “furbish with the green of the year the cross beams and the / gleaming board”; “The make all shipshape / for she must be trim / dressed and gaudeous / all Bristol fashion here / for: / Who d’you think is Master of her?” You’re aware that there is a strong nautical / seafaring strand to ‘The Anathemata” but you are surprised to find it given such emphasis here- you aren’t struck by the oddness of it but you do find it startling and recall something that Prynne wrote about modernist poetry seeking to surprise and thereby take your breath away. You also need to check on some of the terms, the OED gives this for ‘thwart’ as a noun: “a seat across a boat on which the rower sits, a rower’s bench” which makes sense but it also gives this etymology “ apparently a noun use (which came in after 1725) of thwart adv., thwart adj., having reference to the position of the rowing benches or seats athwart or across the boat. Whether its use was partly due to similarity of sound to thaught , thawt , or thought , previously applied to the same thing, is uncertain. Our latest contemporary instance of ‘thaught or thought ’ is of 1721, of thoat 1697, of thout 1725, while our first of ‘thaughts or thwarts ’ is of 1736, so that the appellations were continuous in use, as if the one had passed into the other. But, for the full determination of the relations between thoft , thought or thaught , and thwart , fuller evidence between 1500 and 1700 is needed” which strikes you as wonderful especially as it’s from the first edition and hasn’t suffered the inevitable update yet. In terms of meaning, you recall that some big ships were propelled by oarsmen who sat on benches that didn’t go all the way athwart the boat but you do like the idea of these boards going across the general run of things (bow-stern) being used as seats at the Last Supper because their purpose was to enable the ship to move forward. You now feel very pleased with yourself and decide to tell very many people about the ‘thaught – thwart’ conundrum and hope it is never resolved.

You decide to move on to ‘Bristol fashion’ even though you know what the phrase means and you come across the excellent Phrasefinder site which tells you that the term may have been derived from the fact that ships docking at Bristol had to be sturdy and in good condition because they would be beached when moored at low tide. The site adds that this is circumstantial reasoning but you do prefer it to the OED quote from the Sailor’s Word Book of 1867 which just equates it to Bristol’s commercial prime when all its shipping was in good order.

Everything is being prepared for Christ, the ‘Master’ but we are not told this but instead are asked this rhetorical question. You are reasonably certain that reams and reams have been written on the use of rhetoric in Big Poems and you may even have read some on Spenser and/or Milton in the past but you’ve forgotten all of it even though you think that rhetoric should still be taught in schools. So, you take note of the fact that this is the first time that you, the reader, are addressed and that the use of ‘her’ might suggest a parallel between the upper room and a ship.

Things then take a deeper turn:


“In the prepared high-room
he implements time inside time and late in time under forms in-
delibly marked by locale and incidence, deliberations made
out of time, before all oreogenesis

                 on this hill
    at a time’s turn
                 not on any hill
   but on this hill.”

You are about to make number of rash leaps in the dark but you need to get ‘oreogenesis’ out of the way first. It turns out that this isn’t in the OED but ‘orogenesis’ is. You then turn to google and come across this from “Pen and the Cross: Catholicism and English Literature 1850 – 2000” by Richard Griffiths:

“And now we come back to the priest, who, though imprisoned in time, is also performing a timeless act, an act that had been decided by the Word before the beginning of time, before the crearion of the earliest creatures (oreogenesis) and before the creation of time itself; and the timelessness of Christ’s sacrifice is shown by the fact that, ‘before all oreogenesis’, it was decided ‘on this hill’ (a clear reference to Calvary):”

He then quotes the above passage. You then have a brief run of the auto-didact panics before deciding that he’s both wrong and inept even though he’s written a book and it’s been published (this kind of anxiety is never far from the surface). It is fair to say that this remarkable passage only makes sense if we don’t go ‘back to the priest’ but recognise that it is Christ who is implementing inside time and if we don’t look for meaning the creation of time and we avoid cliches like ‘the timelessness of Christ’s sacrifice” becuase that’s the kind of thing that people say when they have nothing to say.

You, of course, want this passage to be (at least) a nod towards Whitehead’s “Process and Reality” and this needs to be kep in check. You’re also more than a little sceptical about stuff that sounds like it might be mystical mumbo-jumbo. You therefore go back to basics. The Catholic Mass is a re-enactment of the Last Supper and it is this ‘deposit’ that has persisted and endured in a very real form. ‘Implements’ will be a deliberate verb, in the sense of to make something happen or to put something into effect but also to provide with implements which may refer to the chalice and other paraphenalia but might also be the bread and wine.

You then notice (whilst looking for something else) that Jones expands on this in his introduction:

“So that, leaving aside much else, we could not have the bear and absolute essentials wherewith to bear the command ‘Do this for a recalling of me’, without artefacture. nd where artefacture is there is the muse and those cannot escape her presence who with whatever intention employ the signs of wine and bread. Something has to be made by us before it can become his sign who made us,. This point he settled in the upper room. No artefacture no Christian religion.”

Jones provides a note to ‘recalling’ which points to this from “The Shape of the Mass” by Gregory Dix:

“But in the scriptures of both the Old and New Testament anamnesis and the cognate verb have a sense of “recalling” or “re-presenting” before God an event in the past so that it becomes here and now operative by its effects”.

In spite of yourself you try to have another think at this, you find a copy of the Dix book on the interweb and read the relevant pages and are immediately disappointed- the underpinning argument does not even nod towards Whitehead but is a rather confused and ill-founded model built on the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament. You could resolve the problem by allowing yourself to think that Jones would have agreed with Whitehead on the primacy of the event but the sad fact is that he wouldn’t.

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.

David Jones and the shape of the Anathemata

I’m re-reading the above poem in conjunction with Rene Hague’s commentary and this has (together with a re-reading of Jones’ preface) added a bit more perspective on the rationale of this remarkable poem. Many months ago I wrote something speculating about why some parts of poems are in prose and others are in verse, with specific reference to Jones, Olson and Sutherland, I don’t think I made too much progress then but what Jones has to say about ‘shape’ does begin to clarfy things a little.

Hague quotes Jones as saying “I have tried to make a shape in words” and it is both the verb and the noun that strike me as important. In his preface Jones talks about the appearance of the poem in these terms:

I intend what I have written to be said. While, marks of punctuation, breaks of line, lengths of line, grouping of words or sentences and variations of spacing are visual contrivances they have here an aural and oral intention. You can’t get the intention unless you hear the sound and you observe the score; and pause-marks on a score are of particular importance.

This seems reasonable but these visual patterns are also the components of the poem’s shape and in this regard Hague has drawn my attention to Gregory Dix’ ‘The Shape of the Liturgy’ which Jones admired and gives this definition of liturgical shape:

If the whole eucharist is essentially one action, the service must have a logical development of one whole, a thrust towards that particular action’s fulfilment, and not merely a general purpose of edification. It must express clearly by the order and connection of its parts what the action is which it is about and where the service as a whole is ‘going’. It is this logical sequence of parts coherently fulfilling one complete action which I call the ‘Shape’ of the Liturgy.

We now come to the question of emphasis and the difference between what Jones and Hague have to say about schemes and themes. Hague is of the view that Maurice de la Taille’s interpretation of the Last Supper and Calvary forms the ‘very scheme upon which ‘The Anathemata’ is built. Jones, on the other hand says “What I have written has no plan or at least is not planned. If it has a shape it is chiefly that it returns to its beginning. It has themes and a theme even if it wanders far.” These would appear to be contradictory because there’ isn’t that much difference between ‘scheme’ and ‘plan’. I may be missing huge chunks of Hague’s reasoning but his claim doesn’t seem to hold up in various parts of the poem. Let’s start with de la Taille. I’m going to paraphrase the quote that Hague uses because it runs for two pages even though I may be accused of ripping material from its context.

The first point to be made is that the Last Supper and Crucifixion can be thought of as a ‘twofold immolation’. Before we go any further in this, I do need to say that I know that ‘immolation’ is a loaded term with a number of different connotations but that I’m going to take it on this occasion to stand for ‘sacrifice’. The second point is that these two acts should be thought of as one ‘complete sacrifice’. There then follows quite a bit about the role of the priest as victim but then Hague explains that all of this was important for Jones because it ‘insisted on the significant act contained in the Last Supper where the sign (the breaking of the bread, the drinking of the wine) made inevitable, in a sense created, what took place on Calvary.’

My initial, readerly response is that this deeply felt belief, doctrinal view, isn’t the overriding concern of the work and I would point to the most accessible section, ‘The Lady of the Pool’ for my evidence. I also need to acknowledge that Hague has far greater insight and personal knowledge about this material than I ever will so what follows should be seen as a tentative suggestion rather than an outright refutation. ‘The Lady of the Pool’ is mostly the soliloquy of a London lavender seller in the 15th or 16th centuries. It makes extensive use of John Stow’s late (ish) Tudor account of the city and its wards. It also mentions a number of dates in terms of feast days but there’s much more emphasis on place and on love / romance / relationships than there is on liturgy.

I’ll concede that the section begins and ends with references to masses for the Passion but even here these do not seem to reflect the ‘two foldedness’ referred to above.

                               In all the white chapels
in Lud's town of megara
when we put up rejoicing candles bright
when we pay latria
to the Saving Wood.
About the turn of the year, captain, when he sings out loud
from his proper in ligno quoque vinceretur
twisting his cock's egg tongue round
the Vulgar lingua like any Trojan licentious of divinity.

Neither Jones’ notes nor Hague’s gloss make mention of the de la Taille interpretation as above, Jones is at pains to stress what the cross stands for and why paying ‘latria’ to it isn’t idolatrous whereas Hague glosses ‘he’, ‘cock’s egg tongue’ and the ‘Vlugar Lingua’.

When I first read ‘The Anathemata’, I grasped and held on to the notion that it was a representation (a making) of Jones’ personal cultural clutter or ‘res’. I therefore struggle a bit with Hague’s view of de la Taille forming the basis upon which the poem is structured because I think that there is much more going on than theology. I’m not suggesting that the liturgy isn’t important, I just think that it isn’t the only important / structuring element.

I’m not entirely sure that Jones’ musical score analogy is the only thing that is going on with the way that the poem looks, the above extract would also seem to draw the eye towards ‘the Saving Wood’ as being central in terms of Jones’ faith rather than the ‘sense’ of this part of the poem. What I do think is clear is that I need to pay more attention to the various shapes that Jones makes both on the page and the way in which the sections are structured and relate to each other. ‘The Lady of the Pool’, for example has a structuring device, a ‘frame’ and uses the layout of the London wards, at or about the time of John Stow, to tell a story. I’m also intrigued by the possibility that Dix’ notion of ‘shape’ as a sequence is reflected in how the whole poem ‘fits’ together.

Of course, Hague is probably correct but his is not the way that I read the poem – a range of emphases is better than no range at all. I also wonder if I’d read this poem differently if I had some kind of religious belief.

Rene Hague on ‘The Anathemata’

I have said this before but I will carry on saying until the current situation changes, David Jones is one of the five best modernist poets of the 20th century and ‘The Anathemata’ is his finest work. It is unfathomable to me that he should continue to be neglected when so many mediocre nonentities receive ardent critical attention. Anybody who affects to have an interest in what language can do must pay attention to this man’s work. I should go on but I’v just bought Rene Hague’s “A Commentary on the Anathemata” and it is a revelation.

I don’t normally read commentaries on modernist poems but Hague was Jones’ best friend and this particular commentary is clearly put together with enormous respect for the man and the work and I think I’m reading it more for context rather than for what things might ‘mean’.

For those who don’t know, Jones was an artist who served in the first world war and converted to Catholicism in his late twenties. His main poetic subjects are his faith and the Catholic liturgy, Welsh history and culture and the Roman Empire. ‘The Anathemata’ is a long poem (243 pages in the current Faber edition) and is accompanied by a preface and extensive footnotes provided by the poet. Auden described as the century’s best long poem and confessed that he had been reading it for ten years and still hadn’t got to grips with its meaning.

In his preface, Jones talks about the role of the poet in relation to power and of poems as a kind of gathering together of ‘signs’ or cultural artefacts and I have been reading ‘The Anathemata’ as a drawing-together of Jones’ personal and entirely subjective collection of Important Stuff. I can still make a case for this but Hague makes it clear that this Important Stuff is linked and underpinned in quite complex ways.

Before providing some examples of why the commentary is so effective, I think I need to address the Catholic and the Spengler Problems. Both Jones and Hague were ardent and traditional Catholics who deplored the introduction of the vernacular Mass after the Second Vatican Council. This is no longer as big an issue as it was in the sixties but I’m just about old enough to remember the storm it created at the time. The poem isn’t a Catholic Poem in that conservative (or any other kind) doctrine isn’t rammed down the readers’ throat but there is an emphasis on the ritual and liturgical aspects of the mass, as we shall see. Jones was a fan of Spengler’s analysis of how civilisations function, Spengler was ideologically Deeply Suspect (fascist) and all of his ideas have been discredited but, whilst the poem does deal with civilisations at different times and different places, it is not a blueprint nor an espousal of all things Spenglerian.

The other thing to note is that this is a commentary written out of friendship, out of the respect Hague clearly felt for the work and for the man, it doesn’t vaunt its erudition in the quest for academic prestige but tackles the areas that need clarification with warmth and respect.

‘The Anathemata’ starts with this piece of prose:

We already and first of all discern him making this thing
other. His groping syntax, if we attend, already shapes;

ADSCRIPTAM, RATAM, RATIONABLEM....... and by pre-
application and for them, under modes and patterns altogether
theirs, the holy and venerable hands, lift up an efficacious
sign.

Hague’s commentary on the first paragraph begins-

D. frequently, particularly when beginning a passage, uses ‘he’, ‘him’ or ‘his’ etc, to indicate that, while he has an individual in mind, that individual is to be regarded as typical. Only two of the eight sections of The Anathemata’ do not begin in this way, ‘Middle-Sea and Lear Sea’ and ‘Mabinog’s Liturgy’ – and the first of these is quick to introduce a named person as ‘him’.

The ‘him’ whom we discern in line 1 is (however far back we are looking into pre-history) a priest – or, if that is putting it too strongly, he is at least sacredotal in his intention; he is performing a ritual act and thereby making this thing ‘other’. The repetition of the verb ‘discern’ at the very end of the poem (p243, ‘discern the Child’, ‘discern a lord’s body) shows that here, too, it carries more than the meaning of ‘distinguish’, for it contains the Pauline sense of ‘recognise the true nature of’. We could paraphrase the poet’s words in this paragraph by saying that so soon as man makes that which is significant, which is a sign of something other and greater, we can already see that his act is of the same nature as the transubstantiation effected in the Mass by a representation of what was done at the Last Supper.

I’ve quoted this at length in order to show how Hague adds depth and context rather than simply elucidating meaning. It is entirely possible for the reader who has read Jones’ preface to work out what is meant in this paragraph but it is less likely that the ‘Pauline’ sense of ‘discern’ would have been grasped, nor is it clear that such a reader would have made all the connections involved in ‘making this thing other’- it certainly took Hague’s insight / knowledge for me to work out how all these elements (poem, sign, shape, Mass, Eucharist) function together.

There are also times when Hague disagrees with Jones’ notes. The first of these occurs with ‘Adscriptam’ which Jones glosses as ‘ascribe to’ and Hague comments- “The translation given is not very satisfactory, for God is not being asked to ‘ascribe to’ but to make it ‘ascribed’, i.e. enrolled as his own, made his own.” Hague then goes on to give the full Latin text of the prayer and indicates the points where the priest makes the sign of the cross in order to further explicate the further connotations involved in Jones’ use of ‘groping syntax’ before quoting an English translation which translates the word as ‘consecrated to thyself’ which seems (to this atheist) to be half-way between the two. There is then an extensive passage from a letter from Jones which gives more context, describes liturgy as ‘pure poesis’ as well as bemoaning “the awful havoc inflicted upon us by these blasted apostles of change”.

I hope I haven’t frightened too many people off by the above, I have tried to demonstrate how Hague enables a wider and more ‘complete’ reading even for those of us who are reasonably familiar with the poem and Jones’ rationale. Certainly it has prodded me into acquiring ‘The Shape of the Liturgy’ by Gregory Dix which Jones apparently admired. This isn’t because I’m on the verge of conversion (there still isn’t any kind of God) but it is because I’m intrigued by this link between verse and ritual and by how each inform the other.

‘The Anathemata’ isn’t just about faith, it has exceptional passages on the Roman Empire, London, seafaring and Wales as well as musings on the prehistoric. Next time I’ll discuss the Hague view of Jones’ London- his home town.

Reading ‘Difficult’ Poetry with Success. Prynne, Hill and David Jones.

“The discourses of modernism in Western poetics make steeper descents into sub-intelligibility; and in my own case
I am rather frequently accused of having more or less altogether taken leave of discernible sense. In fact I believe this accusation to be more or less true, and not to me alarmingly so, because what for 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.”

But this is an important aspect of the question
Which I am not ready to discuss, not ready at all to
This leaving out business. On it hinges the very importance
of what's novel.
Or autocratic, or dense, or silly. It is as well to call attention
To it by exaggeration, perhaps. But calling attention
Isn't the same thing as explaining, and as I said I am not
ready
To line phrases with the costly stuff of explanation, and shall
not,

The first of these is from J H Prynne’s ‘Mental Ears’ and the second is from John Ashbery’s ‘The Skaters’ which was published in ‘Rivers and Mountains’ in 1966 and both appear to be saying the same thing. So, if two of the most important poets of the last fifty years have this lack of interest in the quest for meaning, what might a successful reading look like?

For me, ‘successful’ relates to feeling satisfied by the act of reading and this usually involves giving attention to a poem or part of a poem. It is the way I feel about reading attentively that is the marker for me. There are some contemporary innovative poets who produce work that doesn’t involve me, that doesn’t (for a variety of reasons) retain either my interest or attention. This is not to suggest that this work is inferior – it’s just that I’m not interested in it.

The problem of meaning (which used to concern me) is only one aspect of readerly attention/involvement and working out meaning tends to be a by-product of doing other things and being involved in other ways. I’m going to use the above poets to try and illustrate what I mean by this and how ‘success’ can occur in other ways.

Prynne is a good place to start and I’m currently paying attention to ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ because it seems to mark a significant ‘turn’ in his output and because I find it compelling. The first reward that I get is in responding to the challenge which, for me, is altering the way that I absorb information. Prynne’s work demands a less linear (for the want of a better word) kind of attention and requires this adjustment to be made before reading rather than after. I like this because I can do it and I find doing it utterly absorbing. I’ve also found that I can apply this kind of attention to other things unrelated to either poetry or reading.

This is one of the shorter paragraphs from ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’:

                                       Can this be or was it moreover
for this incision in dropsy yes not ventral not assented sold OUT
in mere song-like retrieval, give way with no-name in appearance
decking as a whirling swarm of gnats is soft summer sun at the
edge of the outward forest, infolded not time after time still less
perpetual by false appearance which is the true-fast semblance of
falsity, indued and ever-doubtful. Our morning hymn this is, and
song at evening echo confuted by shared antagonism, implicit not
by next coming-to-be as the world is transformed in feature full
of folk saying what is it not, time-locked against spokes in the cycle
of saying so. Indicative ridiculous also, won't you come home
Bill Bailey before a toast and tea, scumbags! reptiles! the old folks
just better stay at home or lose their reason too, mine and yours
loaned against non-interest, souls implanted by necessity smooth
turning upon an axle you'd not know was not granted its near life
to be there, on-site in foam, I saw no less than these things
right up on the peremptory shore line.

I’ve quoted this at length because I can now show different kinds of involvement. The first of these is about identifying the individual phrases and working out what they might be doing. The first phrase asks a question which then appears to be answered with some qualification. This process is less arduous here than it is for most of the more recent Prynne, this seems to be making an effort towards greater coherence but there are still challenges – deciding what the Bill Bailey and old folks at home references are doing is something that would need a different kind of involvement (checking song lyrics) than the rest. For me, the most satisfying part is engaging with the way that some phrases point in a number of different directions at once and then trying to apply these to the whole. This passage contains these that are crying out for this kind of involvement;

  • incision in dropsy;
  • mere song-like retrieval;
  • appearance decking;
  • the outward forest;
  • true-fast semblance;
  • song at evening echo confuted;
  • spokes in the cycle of saying so;
  • souls implanted by necessity;
  • on-site in foam;
  • peremptory shore line.

Some of this involves looking at secondary word meanings and derivations, checking how each of these might relate to what’s going on around them and (in this work) bearing in mind the ‘reference cues’ printed at the end. All of this is absorbing and rewarding because it is possible to gain a sense of progress and some insight into other ways of thinking generally and doing poetry in particular. I must also mention the feeling of success that I get when I begin to grasp the structure and direction of the whole.

It is also important to stress that meaning comes way down on the list, I’m very comfortable in not knowing what ‘this’ and ‘it’ refer to in the first paragraph and accept that this will only be made clearer by the kind of attention that I’ve just described.

A successful reading of Geoffrey Hill doesn’t have the same qualities but it still requires attention and involvement. My first encounter with Hill was reading the first few pages of Comus on the bus on the way to work and realising that this was a poet who was confident in his abilities and quite precise in what he had to say. This gives the reader a feeling of security – as if she or he is in safe hands. Success with Hill works on two levels, responding to what he says and considering the way that he says it. I occasionally try to write poetry and therefore have an interest in the practice and technique of those that I admire. One element of success with Hill is evaluating his technique and assessing whether the poem is both technically efficient and beautiful- his criteria, not mine. Success comes when I feel that I’ve made a reasonable assessment. Some of this doesn’t take long, ‘Oraclau’ is obviously less than technically efficient and this gets in the way of what Hill might be trying to say. Other judgements are more nuanced, I wouldn’t have addressed my critics from within ‘The Triumph of Love’ but that doesn’t stop it from being a brilliant piece of work. I admire ‘Clavics’ more than I did when it was published but I’m still not sure about the use of patterns. So, successful reading as a practitioner in the case of Hill is wanting and being able to continue to think about technique and tactics.

I’ve said before that I don’t have any kind of faith and that Hill and I occupy opposite ends of the political spectrum. I don’t feel challenged by his high Anglicanism nor by his odd brand of ‘hierarchical’ Toryism because both are wrong in the sense of being factually incorrect so success here is not about being challenged about my beliefs and prejudices but is more about what poetry can and should do. In general terms I agree with Hill about poetry and about literature and I like the way that he reads. Success here is about being able to place myself in the hands of a fellow traveller who knows far more than I about the things that interest me.

The sense of success that I get from reading Hill comes from this complex sense of identification and/or comparison which usually leads to other things. To give a recent example, reading ‘Clavics’ and Hill’s identification with Yeats has led me to look again at his work.

I’ve written before about the challenges presented by ‘The Anathemata’ and success here is more about throwing yourself into what’s been said and trying to get hold of the extent of Jones’ ambition. As with the work of Prynne, engagement is more about the way in which language is used and the variations in those techniques issues of meaning take a secondary place. In his introduction Jones indicates his intention to set out his personal cultural background and interests in poetic form so we have the Roman Catholic faith, Welshness, London, the Roman empire, prehistory and seafaring as well as material from various chronicles and romances.

Success with Jones works on two levels, the ability to immerse yourself in what is being said and the extent of your willingness to explore further some of the issues and subjects covered. I like to think that I succeed by the first criterion in that I can now, with the help of the notes, follow the flow of the poetry and visualise most of what is described. I have however ‘failed’ on the second standard in that after the first couple of readings I resolved to know more about Catholic liturgy as well as Welshness. I have the books sitting on my hard drive but have yet to look at any of them.

I think what I’m trying to say about all three of these ‘difficult’ practitioners is that successful reading starts with a degree of acceptance of them on their own terms and being interested in how those terms are involved in the poetry making rather than being primarily concerned with either meaning or intention.

Technical Prowess in ‘The Anathemata’

This is in response to Michael Peverell’s recent comment on the ‘Dead End’ post. Initially I was going to make some pithy observation in the thread but then I got to thinking that my idea of technical worth might require a bit of explanation.

I don’t think what Geoffrey Hill describes as technical efficiency should be confined to rhyme and meter but should also include a range of techniques, foibles and slights of hand. These can vary from word choice, phrasing, cadence, enjambment through to subject matter and ‘message’.

In the technical department extra marks are given for disguising the means by which effects are achieved and additional points are awarded when these effects carry important or profound material. Elizabeth Bishop is a good example of a great poet who put enormous effort in to achieving technical perfection so that the reader wouldn’t notice the devices used along the way. John Matthias’ ‘Kedging in Time’ has the same effect on me in that I know what effect the poem has but I don’t know how this effect is achieved.

David Jones is not as technically accomplished as Bishop but ‘The Anathemata’ is full of little flurries of technique that assist the reader in getting to grips with this incredibly ambitious work. Auden called it the best long poem of the 20th century and confessed that he had been reading it for ten years and still didn’t grasp all its levels of meaning so readers of this might understand when I say that after 18 months of paying attention I’m still on the nursery slopes in terms of understanding but I think I can recognise skilled verse even when I don’t fully understand it.

I find ‘The Lady of the Pool’ to be the most amenable section of the poem because I’m reasonably familiar with one of its themes (the history of London) and because it uses a number of established techniques to good effect. I make no apology whatsoever for the length of what follows because it really does illustrate why more people should pay this poem some attention;

              From the two sticks an' a' Apple to Bride o'
the Shandies' Well over the Fleet; from Hallows-on-Wall to
the keel-haws; from the ditch without the Vicinal Gate to
Lud's hill; within and extra the fending circuit both banks
the wide and demarking middle-brook that waters, from the
midst of the street of it, our twin-hilled Urbs. At Martin
miles in the Pomarary (where the Roman pippins grow) at
winged Marmor miles, gilt-lorica'd on his wheat hill stick-
ing the Laidly Worm as threats to coil us all.
At the Lady-at-Hill
above Romeland's wharf-lanes
at the Great Mother's newer chapelle
at New Heva's Old Crepel.
(Chthonic matres under the croft:
springan a Maye's Aves to clerestories.
Delphi in sub-crypt:
luce flowers to steeple.)
At Paul's
and faith under Paul
where
so Iuppiter me succour!
they do garland them with Roman roses and do have stitched
on their zoomorphic apparels and vest 'em gay for Artemis.
When is brought in her stag to be pierced,
when is bowed his meek head between the porch and the
altar, when is blowed his sweet death at the great door, on the
day before the calends o' Quintilis.
At the tunicled martyr's
from where prills the seeding under-stream. At Mary of the Birth
by her long bourn of sweet water.
In where she mothers
her painters an' limners.
In Pellipar's
where she's virgo inter virgines for the skinner's boys an budge-dressers.
In all the memorials
of her buxom will
(what brought us ransom, captain!)
as do renown our city.

Michael will be pleased to know that I have proof-read this with some care from the Faber 2010 edition (I don’t have access to the original) and that I have preserved the line breaks in the prose sections as they occur in that edition.

The other good news is that this is one of the most densely annotated passages in the poem but I’ve chosen it for the way that it throws the reader into a specific place (London) whilst moving across a number of different time-frames. I’d like to point out the use of repetition in a complex act of invocation, the rhetorical tropes involved in situating both the work and the person reading / participating in it. There’s also the supreme skill involved in making a list both poetic and the point of what is being listed. Those of us who love long poems know that even the best of these will occasionally resort to the list, Milton’s description of the fallen angels in hell is gloriously digressive but it is still a list, as is his initial description of Eden, Spenser’s chronology and rivers are both examples of lists getting in the way of the poem but here the poem is in part about what you do with this cultural clutter, this conglomeration of signs and symbols. I would argue for a very long time that the above is the one of the most accomplished examples of modernist technique which is deeply rooted in the classical tradition.

In his introduction Jones refers to the difficulties he encountered in gaining some control over his material but his success is demonstrated by the fact that on the page the struggle is transformed into something both elegant and effortlessly profound.

I’m of the view that Ezra Pound was technically brilliant well before 1920 and that ‘The Cantos’ are a fascinating and gloriously erratic use of that brilliance to extremely ambitious ends (‘the whole shooting match’) but he couldn’t thrust the reader into a place or a time as effectively as Jones although it is possible to read the development of a variety of techniques from Pound to Jones – the use of the demotic to say complex things being the most obvious.

So, Jones’ prowess lies not so much in meter or rhyme but in the ability to use repetition and a range of rhetorical devices to thrust the reader into the cultural detritus that we all carry with us. We can argue with the components of Jones’ clutter (Catholicism, Wales, London, the Roman Empire etc) but we do have to acknowledge the skill with which he brings these to our attention.