Tag Archives: in parenthesis

David Jones, In Parenthesis as Documentary..

What follows is a version of the brief paper I was going to give at the York University Jones conference in July 2016 The reason for putting it here is that heart surgery had prevented any long distance travel and various other normal activities a couple of months. I originally put this on my arduity site but it may well be of interest to readers here.

In Parenthesis is a heartbreakingly beautiful account of the days leading up to and including the first day of the Somme offensive on July 1st in 1916. According to our foremost military historian, Michael Howard, it is also one of the greatest ever accounts of warfare.

In 1938 IP won the then prestigious Hawthornden Prize, in his 1961 Note of Introduction T S Eliot describes it as a “work of genius” and places Jones in the same group as himself, Pound and Joyce.

Before beginning, I’d like to acknowledge Tom Dilworth’s account of the very close parallels between IP and David Jones’ personal experience of the war, a proximity I’ll return to more than once as we progress.

Regular readers will know that I’m a fan of the documentary poem but I’m suggesting that that this is more, that IP transcends this particular Poetry Mode and spills over into a thing both more specific and, at the same time, universal. I’m fully aware that this doesn’t make any kind of sense but (please) bear with me. As well as being a fan on the Poetry Mode, I’m also a devotee of the documentary film because great factual films bring with them a sense of immediacy and exactness that both moves and fascinates me.

In his Preface, Jones sets out his two main aims, the first being to memorialise his fallen comrades and the second to give an account of the period leading up to the mechanization of warfare that, as he saw it, coincided with the slaughter on the Somme:

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

The are the opening lines of Jones’ preface and I’m suggesting that it might be useful to take him at his word. It’s a writing that a specific period of time, not a written record, nor a memoir, nor an elegaic account but a having to do with and it’s this aspect that I’d like to pay some attention to here.

This writing proceeds by way of narrative, by telling the story of its protagonist, private John Ball, as he makes his way from the English parade ground to the first day of the battle. The focus is almost entirely on the internal relationships within Ball’s company, the men’s responses to each other and the events going on around them. In this way Jones’ captures and conveys a specific and personal kind of reality. Now, I know very little about the Great War, only a little more than the consensus cultural view of a senseless slaughter that didn’t achieve anything for either side. I am therefore in no position whatsoever to assess the accuracy or otherwise of this story. What I have done is noted how it has affected me and my perspective on these events. The first thing to be said is that this tired old cynic continues to be emotionally stirred up and that his view of the quotidian existence of these men has changed dramatically.

Because of the reported conversations and behaviours, I feel as if I know all of these characters and yet throughout the story I know that many of them are going to die. During the first reading i attempted to maintain some kind of manly distance from the characters but still managed to be heartbroken and emotionally mangled for them, as living and breathing individuals, as they fell. In terms of my perspective, that’s changed on both the event and on the priorities I give to historical trends and the bigger perspective in general.

In terms of the event, I now understand that WWI wasn’t four years of continuous and relentless hell, that there were periods of respite and recuperation to be had whilst behind the trenches, that the main thing that kept men going was their camaraderie and resolve, even though they didn’t hold the officer class in any great regard. The second is the importance of personal experience in the scheme of things, as in it is of little use knowing and understanding the causes of and the general progress of things without an at least equal understanding of the effect of these on individual lives.

I’ve written before about the physical awkwardness and effort involved in getting to and living in the front lines but here I want to think about this in terms of documentary, of this ‘having to do with’. This brief extract is from Part 3, Starlight Order which deals with the Company moving at night towards the forward positions:

And sleepy-eyed see Jimmy Grove’s irregular bundle-figure, totter upward labouringly, immediately next in front, his dark silhouette sways a moment above you – he drops away into the night – and your feet follow where he seemed to be. Each in turn labours over whatever it is – this piled brokenness – dragged over and a scared hurrying on, the slobber was ankle-deep where you found the road again.

And this as the troops near their destination:

The night dilapidates over your head and scarlet lightning annihilates the nice adjustments of your vision, used now to, and cat-eyed for the shades. You stumble under this latest demonstration, white-hot nine-inch splinters hiss, water-tempered, or slice the cross-slats between his feet – you hurry in your panic, which hurrying gives you clumsy foothold, which falling angers you, and you are less afraid; you call them bastards – you laugh aloud.

Before we proceed, theere is a note to ‘Jimmy Grove’s’ but I don’t understand it (the notes don’t always ‘work’). Whatever this may refer to, I don’t think my ignorance in any way detracts from the jaw-dropping brilliance of the above. Incidentally ‘hedropsaway’ isn’t a typo, it’s how it appears in the 2010 Faber edition.

Reading part 4, I’m on this road with these men, I’m struggling with them, I’m aware of the immediacy of danger and equally scared by the annihilating lightning. I’m sucked in by the use of ‘you’ and carried along by the quicknesses of the rhythm and the exquisite use of language. All of these convey to me the most convincing ‘having to do with’ warfare that I have ever read. Of course, this is a subjective and personal view but I’m happy to argue for it against other contenders for the above reasons.

Jones’ is also keen to describe aspects of life behind the trenches and there is one passage concerning a local couple who run a bar serving the troops during their days of respite. This is from Part 5, Squat Garlands for White Knights:

   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 they were 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.

There are many conversations in IP but this is the only one between non-combatants and thus the only one that is likely to have be supposition rather than direct experience. The Preface addresses the issue of the authentic thus:

Each person and every event are free reflections of people and things remembered, or projected from intimately known possibilities.

I’d argue that this rationale and these components embody the very best documentary form in every genre from Lanzman’s Shoah to the accounts of Eamon Duffy and Vanessa Place. I’d also like to observe that, as a close and attentive Jones reader, I have yet to encounter any aspect of dishonesty, as in things done exclusively for effect, or artifice in his work.

To return to these two and their conversation, the perspective is new to me in that I haven’t read an account of those who lived in proximity to these horrors and went on as, best they could, with their ‘ordinary’ lives. What I find particularly efficacious here is the casual, almost incidental, discussion of what I would consider to be terrifying and murderously destructive events. Both the artillery barrage (described with vivid clarity by Jones elsewhere) and an ‘advance’ are given this everyday tone. Again, I don’t empirically know if this is accurate or not but it does seem to me to be as close a ‘projection’ of the real that we are going to get.

This is also achieved by the Pastoral joke, the stupidity argument and the general observation that the war was an economic opportunity for those who chose to stay near the fronts. People talk like this, conversation is generally good-humoured and the subject under discussion tends to jump around a bit.

There a couple of possible quibbles that spring to mind and the first of these relates to genre. It could be argued that IP is a memoir or a personal history rather than a documentary, that the events describe an aspect of Jones’ life or an account of that period immediately before the descent into mechanised ‘wholesale slaughter’. It might also be argued that poetry-wise that it’s an extended elegy for the first half of 1916. In response, I’ll quote again from the preface:

None of the characters in this writing are real persons, nor is any sequence of events historically accurate. There are, I expect minor anachronisms, e.g. the suggestion in Part 4 of a rather too fully developed gas-defence system for Christmas 1915. The mention of ‘toffee-apples’ (a type of trench-mortar bomb so shaped) at perhaps too early a date.

That appears to me to be a clear refutation of the history argument. There is the last part of the above where Jones indicates his awareness of two inaccuracies and provides these to show that he either is arguing for the history reading or he is indicating that this is not his primary task. Given the preceding disclaimer, I’d go for the second option. This extract follows on from the ‘intimately known possibilities’ quote provided above:

I have only tried to make a shape in words, using as data the complex of sights, sounds, fears, hopes, apprehensions, smells, things exterior and interior, the landscape and paraphernalia of that singular time and of those particular men.

I’d like to think that this diminishes the memoir argument as especially by the careful ‘using as data the complex’ which would seem to enhance my case as this again is an essential part of the documentarist’s task.

The other supporting point is Jones’ sketch map of the relevant front lines that was included in the first Faber edition of 1937 but criminally excluded from the recent reprint. I only know about this object because I have a copy of John Matthias’ Selected Works of David Jones. I would reproduce it here but my scanning skills are less than brilliant and some of the names are faint and barely legible. However, there are two dates, ‘24.12.’15’ and ‘9.9.16’ , a scale (‘1.10000’) and no man’s land clearly marked out, together with the complex of trenches behind the front line.

I accept that these are by no means conclusive and that I may be making this argument because I want IP to be documentary. I’m less convinced by the argument that we shouldn’t take Jones’ Preface at face value. IP was 20 ye4ars in the making and our poet will have been fully aware of how an attentive of this frame would inform and perhaps direct readers’ approach- it certainly did for me.

In conclusion, I’m writing this on the morning of July 1st 2016, exactly a century since these men walked (walked) into that place of unnecessary slaughter. I’m not usually a fan of military commemoration for all sorts of reasons but I’d like to end with the fate of Mr. Jenkins, the 21 year old officer in charge of John Ball’s platoon:

Mr Jenkins half inclined his head to them - he walked just
barely in advance of his platoon and immediately to the left of 
Private Ball.
   He makes the conventional sign
and there is the deeply inw3ard effort of spent me who would
make response for him,
and take it at the double.
He sinks on one knee
and now on the other,
his upper body tilts in rigid inclination
this way and back;
weighted lanyard runs out to full tether,
                 swings like a pendulum
                 and the clock run down.
Lurched over, jerked iron saucer over tilted brow,
clamps unkindly over lip and chin
nor no ventaille to this darkening
         and marked face lifts to grope the air
and so disconsolate;
enfeebled fingering as a paltry strap - 
buckle holds,
holds him blind against the morning.
  Then stretch still where weeds pattern the chalk predella
-where it rises to his wire- and Sergeant T.Quilter takes
over.

This remarkable work is available second hand from Amazon at a mere 7 quid which is laughably cheap. There is no excuse not to get it and place yourself in the presence of greatness.

Soldiering with David Jones, the Grail Mass and In Parenthseis.

One of the more prominent aspects of Jones’ work in things military, especially when applied to the Roman Army at the time of the crucifixion and to the British troops at the Somme. In Parenthesis, his first long work, is an account of the experiences of British troops from the parade ground in England to the Somme offensive and the trenches at Mametz Wood in 1916. The Grail Mass has to do in large part with the Passion and the views of rank and file Roman troops are brought into focus.

David Jones was one of the finest poets in any language of the 20th century and this is in part because of what I can only think of as his exceptional humanity. What I think I mean by this is his clear compassion and sense of solidarity for and with others. In Jones’ case this is given voice in vibrant lines of verse. Jones deals with very big themes and these passages where the voice of ordinary people (us) is heard are remarkable for their strength and impact. I don’t subscribe to either Jones’ views or his beliefs but I am awed by his ability to give a clear voice to humanity.

What follows is a strictly non-technical but readerly working through of a couple of examples primarily so I can begin to work out how this is achieved from specific examples. The extracts I’ve chosen are lengthy but it does seem that it is the accumulation of words and phrases rather than short but pithy bursts that leave the biggest impression.

This is from In Parenthesis in the period just before the Somme offensive begins;

Well you couldn’t go far afield because of the stand-by but blokes came across from ‘A’ and the other companies to see their friends and people talked a good bit about what the Show was going to be like and were all agog but no-one seemed to know anything much as to anything and you got the same served up again garnished with a different twist and emphasis maybe and some would say such and such and others would say the matter stood quite otherwise and there would be a division among them and lily-livered blokes looked awfully unhappy, people you would never expect it of and the same the other way the oddest types seemed itching for a set-to quite genuine it would appear but after all who can read or search out the secret places you get a real eye-opener now and then and any subsequent revealing seldom conforms and you misconstrue his apparent noble bearing and grope about in continued misapprehension or can it by any manner of means be that everyone is as interiorly in as great misery and unstably set as you are and is the essential unity of mankind chiefly monstrated in this faint-heartness and breeze-right-up aptitude.

This is a couple of days before the ‘Show’, the start of the Somme offensive which took many, many thousands of British lives, the first few days being particularly murderous. Because both my grandparents were injured in this wholesale butchery, I’ve read many accounts and this one is by far the most impressive. It captures the apprehensions and fears of those about to be sacrificed without over-dramatising their fate. In such circumstances it’s entirely normal to compare your mix of feelings with those around you and the tour-de-force for me is the contradictions in terms of expectations, especially with regard to the ‘oddest one’ and their apparent eagerness for conflict. This and the following paragraph are without punctuation and this Joycean ‘feel’ is used brilliantly to convey these differing reactions economically and with great affection. As a reader I feel that I’m with these men, I find myself thinking how I would feel and present myself in such a horrific plight. I wouldn’t want to appear scared even though I would be terrified and I would be observing comparing the others around me. The conclusion that is reached as to collective great misery and instability rather than fear and panic is especially real.

In his preface to In Parenthesis, Jones describes how this sense of togetherness and solidarity amongst the conscripts made the battlefield into “a place of enchantment. It is perhaps best described in Malory, book iv, chapter 15 -‘that landscape spoke with a grimly voice’.” The working through of this observation in the poem makes it one of the great achievements of the Modernist movement in any genre.

The Grail Mass, thanks to the exceptionally skillful philological work of Tom Goldpaugh and Jamie Callison contains an extended section to do with soldiers on the walls of Jerusalem on the night of Christ’s arrest. This theme was published in fragments in 1974 as part of the The Sleeping Lord but is here presented in a much more complete and coherent form, even though one of Jones’ manuscript sheets is still missing.

This is from On the traverse of the Wall I (The wall) and Private Oenomaus is ruminating thus:

      Fourteen more years of nights to
watch with skinned eyes, rigid along the staked
mound, until you think it's him whatever
small thing shifts outside the wire. To watch
from this dressed wall, but this arse-ways, kicking
onager, torsioned at the ready, & aligned
on Christ knows what- unless they reckon
keeping of new moons at the transit of
the god, the barley cakes, the mingled
sop, the libations, the lamb's flesh given
and the recitation of the Praise, can turn, twixt dusk
and dusk, these fellaheen that weep for
their dead baals, or sing their fabulous
deliverances at the vernal turn, into
something to be reckoned with - as tough
a proposition as the Belgae, or those
flax-headed bastards at the West Wall.
Not on your life. But still - they're right
enough to take no chances - plumb right.
That's what the old hands used to say - back
at me first station - I can hear 'em yet
puttin it over on the rookies:
         "remember, the army never takes any chances
the active ad-ministration - we won't speak of
'Q' department - seldom underestimates the
requirements. The gen'ral always first considers
if he be able with 15 maniples, or as they
say now, five cohorts, to meet him who with
half that personnel but with unknown
fire potential, comes against him - always
remember that - the big heads aren't such
greenhorns as you'ld suppose - it's not
out of love of yer body remember - if a 
balls up was advantageous - well they'd
arrange a balls-up - but they're not stiffs
not by a long journey and they know the
job - always remember that and thank your
stars you're in the Roman Army">

I’ve chosen this section not just because of its quality but also its blend of the personal and the public perspective of the ordinary soldier. Oenomaus is six years in to his 20 year stint in the Roman army and the first part is his consideration of the Passover and the people that participate in it. Jones’ first note on this tells us that an ‘onager’ was a small military catapult used by the Romans although Wikipedia gives its first recorded use being in 353 CE. our private speculates on the elements of the various local spring rituals and whether these will transform the ‘fellaheen’ (a much later Ottoman term for villagers and farmworkers) into a force that the may present a threat to the Roman occupation. When read aloud, this passage acquires a particularly lyrical feel with the contrast between the rituals and the strength of any Roman response to trouble. I’m taking ‘arse-ways’ to indicate that the catapult is aimed towards the city inside the walls rather than outwards, at ‘Christ knows what’. Given that this is the night of Christ’s arrest, it may well be that the Romans expected some protests from his followers.

The tone given is of a man who is weary of his lot and especially tired of night duty with ‘skinned’ eyes keeping a look out for anything that moves in the dark. Most soldiers throughout the ages have found the monotony of guard duty, especially at night, one of their most arduous and disagreeable tasks. The opening lines here cleverly convey that sense or torpor and ennui. I’m therefore convinced by this created mood and drawn into the detail of what’s being said. Putting myself in Oenomaus’ place, I don’t think I would be overly concerned with which particular sects and cults used which rites but I would be aware that these and others were practiced when winter turns to spring.

As a reader, then, I have some sympathy for this foot-soldier and his plight and am happily led on to the old hand’s monologue which is a fascinating demonstration of imperial strategy and confidence.

At this time (about 30 CE), the empire was still expanding but already controlled all of the Mediterranean and what is now France. There were skirmishes on the borders but no other power strong enough to threaten Roman Hegemony. The old hand’s remarks are an indication of an absolute confidence that springs from centuries of military and political expansion. He gives a specific example of the way in which Roman commanders ensured success on the battlefield by trying to ensure that the enemy was always outnumbered in manpower and armaments. His monologue is ostensibly to instill confidence into new recruits but there’s also a barb within. If it serves the purpose of a wider strategy that some men will be sacrificed then the required ‘balls-up’ will be arranged because the army prioritises victory and strength over the welfare of its troops.

I’ll return to the ‘place’ of both Romes in The Grail Mass in the near future but here I wanted to lay down a framework for the role of soldiery in Jones work as a whole.

David Jones Week: The Book of Balaam’s Ass

I’m mindful that the week is drawing to a close and, as with Prynne, there are so many things that I need / want to write about but I’ve just paid some attention to the version of the above which closes The Sleeping Lord which was published by Faber in 1974.

Thanks to the input of John Matthias and Tom Goldpaugh I’m now aware that there are three extant versions of The Book but I’m confining myself to this one for the moment primarily because of what Jones says about it in his introduction:

Anyway, for good or ill, these few pages from one section of the abandoned ‘Book of Balaam’s Ass’ were chosen as seeming to afford a link of sorts between the two widely separated books: ‘In Parenthesis’ and ‘The Anathemata’.

On a reasonably attentive reading of all 14 pages, I think I can see more than a few elements that may provide a closer understanding of the relationship (for the want of a better term) between the two longer poems and how the apparently wide gap between them isn’t as wide as I’ve thought. The subject matter is focused on the First World War but there is greater emphasis on myth and ritual together with the kind of incantation that is prominent in The Anathemata’. What I think strikes me most however is the elements which don’t appear to be part of this linkage. The first of these is a different kind of abstraction which seems out of place in Jones’ work. This is, of course a purely subjective response on my part and I haven’t been through the two longer poems to see if I’ve missed anything, no have I looked at either of the other versions to see if this particular tone/mode was extended there. I was however genuinely startled because what I was reading did not in any way tally with the David Jones that lives in my head. This is first part of the second paragraph with the same line breaks as the Sleeping Lord version:


     I know it bores you Cicily, and you too, Pamela/born/
between/the/sirens, but Bertie will corroborate what I'm saying,
and you ask poor Clayton. Willy and Captain Varley never
used any other analogies, and Belle Varley takes it like a lamb,
and even asks intelligent questions between her dropped stitches
-about all kinds of details about what the 5th did when Theodore
Vaughan-Herbert - ('Taffy' for short) caught a nasty one in the
abortive raid, east of Hulluch - O yes I was, I was with Taffy for
a while, only we differed in glory, but I expect he's know me.

In his brief introduction Jones describes The Book as “a harking back to conversations of the immediately post- 1914-18 period and to the later phases of the conflict itself”. The first few lines give an almost impressionist report of a kind of dialogue centring on three women who don’t make any further appearance in this particular fragment. It is not the presence of Cicily, Pamela and Belle that I find surprising but the tone of these few lines. I am aware that ‘ordinary’ real life conversation is often cryptic and haphazard but this ‘feels’ deliberately mannered, as though Jones had stepped outside his own cadences to make a particular point whilst leaving it more than a little mysterious.

This is all the order because I shouldn’t be this surprised, it’s to be expected that a modernist hailed by both Eliot and Auden should experiment with this particular idiom and I didn’t notice this on my first reading of the Book. It then occurs to me that I may be experiencing an example of the ‘dirty eyes’ syndrome that, as social workers, we were supposed to be wary of. This consists of having a fairly rigid and world-weary set of expectations as to how things will work out. Boys born into the underclass will truant, become involved in petty crime, receive a number of custodial sentences and ‘work’ in the black economy with only a few being ‘saved’ at the age of 23 or so by the love of a good woman. Girls who have experienced any kind of abuse will self-harm, develop eating disorders and seek out destructive relationships.

All of this points to a kind of poetry complacency, ‘David Jones writes long poems in his own distinctive voice without any of the more mannered modernist fripperies’ seems to have buried its way into the skin when I wasn’t looking, along with the view that Jones didn’t write anything of significance other than IP and TA. My only excuse for the second of these has been the initial shock of being introduced these two works and finding enough in both to occupy me for more than a few years. However the placing of Jones in this particular cognitive ‘box’ does nothing for the open-minded, eclectic and generally unprejudiced reader that I thought I was. Enough of the morbid introspection, on with the second surprising element.

There exists throughout human history the myth of the soldier who can’t be killed, the one who is always left standing when everyone else is dead. Jones introduces this into the latter part of The Book after an account of a disastrous raid on a windmill:


.......................................................And three
men only returned from this diversion, and they were called:
Private Lucifer
Private Shenkin
Private Austin
and the reason for there vulnerability was this:................

This is followed by a description of Pte. Lucifer’s “agility, subtlety and lightness’ in avoiding enemy fire that the Gremans considered him to be invulnerable to their efforts: “That Tommy, sir, is but an Anointed Cherub’. At the other end of the spectrum, Pte. Shenkin is said to be awkward and clumsy and stumbles into a shell hole about half over no-man’s land. Lying prone there he gets tangled up in his kit and lies there until nightfall. There is a beautiful and compelling account of the voices of the dying and the dead that he hears from his protected position before crwaling back to the safety of the assembly trench.

Following this piece of heartbreaking brilliance, we come to Pte. Austin:

The invulnerability of Pte. Austin was by reason of the suff-
rages of his mother who served God hidden in a suburb, and
because of her the sons of the women in that suburb were believed
to be spared bodily death at that time, because she was believed
to be appointed mediatrix there. And it was urged by some that
Mrs Austin conditioned and made acceptable in some round-
about way the tomfoolery of the G.O.C. in C. Anyway it was
by reason of her suffrages that Private Austin was called one of
the three who escaped from the diversion before the Mill.

This is surprising because, to my ear, it doesn’t work and it fails on more than one level. Both the previous survivors are given characters and attributes that convey their humanity and the accounts of their escape are vividly told in ways that I can envisage. Here we are given nothing of Pte. Austin and only a little bit more about his mum. I fully appreciate the sincerity and depth of Jones’ faith and I acknowledge the purported strength of intercessory prayers but surely every mother would be making such prayers at the time. In addition I don’t understand the equivocation in ‘were believed’ and ‘was believed’ unless it is ham-fistedly making a point about the power of faith This paragraph seems weak and not well thought through which is astonishing given the description of the Queen of the Woods in IP.

The fragment closes with Mrs Austen which is a pity because it’s by far the least satisfactory bit. I guess the section for me that most clearly marks for me a link between to two long poems is the description of the voices heard by Private Shenkin in his place of shelter. This obviously retains the setting of IP but takes the density of allusion and reference much further.

I was on the verge of forgiving my ignoring of the fragments because life may be too short and then I realised that I ‘like’ Jones’ work more than that of Sir Geoffrey Hill and I have most of Hill’s material in duplicate and his collection of essays. Will now go and order The Roman Quarry.

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.