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.

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