The infinite reward of 'The Anathemata'

In the New York Review of Books in the early sixties, W H Auden wrote a review of this poem which ended:

It is certainly true that no reader is going to be able to make Mr Jones' "nowness" his own without taking a great deal of trouble and many rereadings of Anathemata, and, if he says: "I'm sorry, Mr Jones is asking too much. I have neither the time nor the patience which he seems to expect me to bring to his poem". I do not know what argument one could use to convince him otherwise. I can only state my personal experience, namely, that I have found the time and trouble that I have taken with Anathemata infinfitely rewarding.

I'm quite nervous about writing this piece because I want to unpick what this 'infinite reward' means to me and I have only been reading this poem for the past two years (Auden had been living with it for ten before writing the above) and what follows is very much a provisional response to a staggeringly brilliant piece of work.

I'd also like to place on record my personal gratitude to John Matthias for prodding the Arduity project in David Jones' direction.

Starting with the basics, 'The Anathemata' is about David Jones' cutltural heritage (Londoner, Welsh Ancestry, Roman Catholic) and how this heritage lives and breathes and informs every aspect of Jones' life (hence the 'nowness' to which Auden refers). The poem comes with a longish introduction and is annotated by Jones. As a reader of poetry, the introduction has marked a bit of a turning point in my own understanding of how poetry 'works'. I'd always viewed the poetic practice of using quotations and figures from the past as a form of showing off but Jones writes:

Poetry is to be diagnosed as 'dangerous' becuase it evokes and recalls, is a kind of anamnesis of, i.e. is an effective recalling of, something loved. In that sense it is inevitably 'propaganda', in that any real formal expression propagands the reality which caused these forms and their content to be. There are also to be considered the contingent and more remote associations which these forms and their content may evoke.

Reading this, I realise that I'm going to have to revise my reading of Olson, Milton, Spenser and all the other poets that I hold dear in order to inorporate this particular insight.

Since publication, 'The Anathemata' has had a reputation for difficulty because of;

In response, I can only echo and endorse what Auden says about 'infinite reward' which implies that (as with all great work) greater attention of the part of the reader is repaid with both greater understanding of the poem and a deeper insight into our cultural past. Most poems with this kind of ambition reach a point of failure where the poet's ambition exceeds what is actually produced. This is not the case here.

I would also argue that 'The Anathemata' isn't difficult in the way that Celan or Prynne are difficult in that the themes are apparent and that there is a discernible structure (despite what Jones may say). The poem can be read in several different ways; straight through without reference to the notes; straight through with reference to the notes; line by line and checking out the references that aren't annotated; line by line and checking out both the references in the poem and the statements made in the notes. Jones advises that the reader 'when actually engaged upon the text' to just use the notes for help with pronunciation. I've tried all of the above methods and have to report that each strategy brings its own rewards but that the latter will eventually bring 'infinite reward'.

The notes to 'The Anathemata'

John Matthias tells me that the annotation issue is really complex but I think it's worth trying to say something about the way that Jones uses note. This is a quote from his introduction:

I have a last point that I wish to get clear. Although in the notes to the text and this apology I refer to or cite various authorities and sources, that does not mean that this book has any pretensions whatever of a didactic nature. I refer to these sources only to elucidate a background. As often as not I have no means of judging the relative accuracy of these data. I refer to them only as a traveller might, in making a song or story about a journey he has taken from his home through far places and back. He may have been impressed by the clarity of a waterfall here, by the courage and beauty of the inhabitants there, or by the note of a bird elsewhere. And these phenomena would be deployed throughout his song as providing part of the content and affecting part of that song. Such a person might choose to gloss what he was writing, or to break off from his narrative in order to tell his audience what the locals averred of the falling waters, or what the anthropologists had established with regard to the ancestry of those inhabitants, or how the orithologists had maintained that that birdsong was the song of no bird known to them. Such glosses might be made in order to explain some 'how' or 'why' of the relevant text.

Therefore the test is surely whether the notes do actually give some of the 'why or how' of the poem. They incorporate an incredible range of sources, from ancient texts, religious writings, liturgy, archaeological research to a 'Mrs Williams' and an 'inhabitant of Dumbarton'. They also contain more than a little of Jones' humanity which add to the depth of the work and refrain completely from the 'didactic' approach. I know that self-annotation comes in many different flavours and is probably as complex as Matthias suggests but, when compared with other approaches (Spenser, Eliot, Sutherland), Jones does seem to set the benchmark for others to follow. I'll give just one example to try and show what I mean. 'The Lady of the Pool' section contains this stanza:

Who'll try my sweet prime lavendula
I cry my introit in a
Come buy for summer's weeds, threnodic stalks
For in Jane's ditch Jack soon shall white his earliest rime

Jones' note for this reads:

When in August, lavender was cried in the street, my maternal grandmother was saddened by the call, because she said that it meant that summer was almost gone and that winter was again near. Cf. also the vulgar tradition which wrongly derived the district-name Shoreditch from Jane Shore who was believed to have died in, or been cast into, a ditch in that vicinity. It may have not been without relevance to note that lavender, though perhaps particularly associated with eighteenth and nineteenth-century London, was cultivated at Hitchin, Hertfordshire in the sixteenth century; also that it was used by the meddygon, in thirteenth-century tribal Wales. It was considered as efficacious for disorders of the brain and of the nervous system. It is said to please lions.

I defy anyone not to be intrigued and charmed by this. None of the difficult words are defined (introit, dirige, threnodic, white as a verb etc. but instead we get a personal anecdote, a refutation of a 'vulger tradition' (even though the correct derivation isn't given), a passing reference to 'tribal' Wales and that wonderful last sentence about pleasing lions. All of these throw the curious or intrigued reader into further avenues of enquiry and perhaps that's (also) the point. And how (exactly) do we know if a lion is pleased?

Reading the poem

The 'Anathemata' can and should be read on a number of different levels: as a modernist invocation of the cultural consciousness of one individual; as an example of how that background can be transposed into active engagement with the present; a highly idiosyncratic analysis of time and place; a detailed description of how various cultural relics 'fit' together in our heads. Its mixture of prose and verse, extensive use of proper nouns, references to obscure texts may be bewildering at first but 'The Anethemata' drags us willingly in to a compelling world.

My personal response alternates between fascination, amusement and an increasing awareness of my own ignorance. I'm fascinated because Jone's holds up a mirror to my own awareness of the past and I'm doing the 'compare and contrast' thing, I'm amused because of the variety of the different voices and the good-natured humanity of the work and I'm ashamed because I don't know enough about stuff that I should (Wales and the Welsh language, Malory, the Catholic liturgy, the history of London etc, etc).

I use the word 'drag' because the allusions make me hungry for more of the context and I now find myself leafing through Welsh-English dictionaries, checking out saints and liturgy on 'New Advent' site, and re-reading Stow on London whilst re-reading the poem. All of this gives me enormous pleasure, I also find the need to read it aloud because it is very lyrical.

The great tragedy is that this great work is virtually ignored, regardless of the praise heaped upon it by Auden (who called it the greatest long poem of the century) and Eliot who puts Jones in the same critical 'bracket as himself, Pound and Joyce. Faber have done the world an enormous favour by re-publishing this complete with the notes, illustrations and the introduction, all we have to do now is read it....