Tom Dilworth, David Jones and the form of the Anathemata.

Firstly, I have to thank Tom Dilworth for sending me a copy of his The Shape of Meaning in the Poetry of David Jones which was published in 1988 by the University of Toronto Press. It turns out that this is the sort of thing that there ought to be much more of because it focuses almost exclusively on the work, it's very well written and because it's challenging my well-established and fairly entrenched views on Jones' work.

Second, I have to reiterate the standard arduity view that David Jones is one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, to be reckoned alongside Eliot and Joyce in terms of both quality and innovation. Sir Michael Howard, our leading military historian is not wrong when he describes when he writes;" David Jones' In Parenthesis is the greatest poem to emerge from the First World War and indeed one of the greatest to emerge from any war". W H Auden was not wrong when he nominated The Anathemata as the greatest long poem of the twentieth century. Anyone who thinks otherwise is either a fool or hasn't read enough poetry.

Having written at some length about the 'shape' of TA a few weeks ago and in view of the lively response it generated on Bebrowed, I think it might be useful to attend to Chapter Five which focuses on various aspects of form in The Anathemata. There is a note of disagreement that needs to be gone over before things get too detailed. This is from p. 154:

That The Anathemata is thematically unified no responsible reader would question, but arguments for its formal unity have been vague and inadequate. The poet is partly to blame. In his preface he writes of 'the meanderings that comprise this book' and 'the sprawl of pattern, if pattern there is'. This I take to be David Jones' charcteristic reluctance to make claims for his own work. The poem's subtitle, Fragments of an attempted writing, also suggests disunity, though the poet explains his subtitle as referring to the genesis of the work, sections of it having originated in fragments of earlier manuscript material.

Now, what we have is a difference in emphasis and this springs from the difference between the scholar/critic and the rest of us. A scholar's take an undertsandable interest on what might be going on underneath the surface. With a work as complicated as this, I'm of the view that readers' should opt for what Jones' preface says and the noun used in the title. This isn't, by any means, to advocate a reader response, 'anything goes' approach but to suggest that Jones wanted his readers to think of his work as both fragmentary and sprawling in pattern. I try to avoid reading any kind of scholarship on a particular poet or work until I have become reasonably familiar with what the work says but I do pay close attention to how poets frame and annotate their own work. So, when David Jones uses words like 'fragment' and 'meandering' then that's how I read / have read him.

However, the points made here with regard to what might be going on have solidified and refined my understanding of the work. The first element here is that of meditation, with the work as a record of the poet meditating out loud. Up until now I have taken Jones' claim that TA is a description of his 'thing' or res, i.e. his cultural background which, in his case centres on his faith and the Catholic Mass. I'd like to quote some more from the paragraph (and the one that precedes it) that Tom alludes to above because I think they are quite important when thinking about form:

This leads direct to a further point. I have already referred to what this writing is "about"; but now I wish to add something rather more particularized and somewhat difficult to say.

In a sense the fragments that compose this book are about, or around and about, matters of all sorts which, by a kind of quasi-free association, are apt to stir in my mind at any time and as often as not 'at the time of the Mass'. The mental associations, liaisons, meanderings to and fro, 'ambivalences', thought- trains (or, some might reasonably say, trains of distraction and inadvertance) have been as often as not intially set in motion, shunter or buffered into near sidings or off to far destinations, by some action or word, something seen or heard, during the liturgy.

Initially, on the first couple of readings, long and difficult work feels to me like an extended improvised jazz number where the theme is first stated then broken down and extended in different ways before returning to the beginning. The poet as meditator, recording his meditation, implies a degree of focused attention that Jones denies. This metaphor, poem as riff, comes first because jazz improv was my first introduction to the world of grown up expression and it remains a bit of an anchor to this day. For those not familiar with the genre, I would recommend the documentary film of the Charles Mingus band tour of Europe in 1964. My point is that the main theme of TA centres around aspects of the Mass and the Eucharist which begins and ends the poem with an extended exploration of these two throughout human history. I agree with Tom that the poem is not a series of fitful 'meanderings' but I have a number of reservations about whether it retains the formal coherence of what I understand to be a meditation. He also views the poem as a series of circular orbits around the Eucharist with its meditative awareness moving inward to the centre. Whilst I'll readily admit that my metaphor is far too secular, I think this misses out on the importance of other aspects (imperialism, Wales, London, voyages) of the work.

After re- reading the 'meditation' metaphor and poem-as meditator, I started to think about 'reverie' without knowing exactly what the noun meant. I've now checked and come across these two OED definitions which might be appropriate: " The fact or state of being lost in thought or daydreaming" and, in music: "An instrumental composition suggestive of a dreamlike or meditative state", which I might develop a bit further.

The notions of 'orbit' and Tom's references to simultaneity has kicked off for me a thought that's been loitering in the back of my mind for the past few months. This reates to the workings of time and all existence as a series of events rather than a collection of things/objects. It is very unlikely that Jones read Alfred North Whitehead's Process and Reality which elaborates this emphasis on process but there are a number of basic similarities. The first is the Eucharist existing in the past but also in the present and right back the formation of the planet. One of the implications of the primacy of events for Whitehead is that past, present and future occur simultaneously because each event carries its own potential. On this analogy, Jones' potential is the Eucharist moving backwards and fowards in its own omniscience.

The other aspect is that of the journey, TA contains several sea voyages and a voyage is a process, a collection of events.

Unusually, a diagram is provided which illustrates the 'orbit' schema, this consists of 10 concentric circles with this key, starting from the circle furthest from the centre. The numbers in brackets refer to page number in both the original and latest Faber editions:

elevation of the Eucharist (49-244)

questions dating paschal events (95-185

ship's arrival at phaleron (90-182)

Elen's calling her wares (125-168)

warning about winter (125-168)

catalogue of churches (127-161)

education by sea captains (135-159)

the Syro-Phoenician's stories (155-158)

redmption and the Eucharist (156-157)

Those familiar with sums will see that the length of extracts diminish from the outer to the inmost. Tom suggests that the smallest circle constitutes the centre of TA and I had intended to pay some attention to this as a way of getting to grips with the whole of the poem but I've decided to change tack. I'm happy with the idea of visualisation but these orbits are at variance with ut ongoing mental and cognitive image of the poem. This stems from Jones' description of his subject matter:

It is about one's own thing, which res is unavoidably part and parcel of the Western Christian res, as inherited by a person whose perceptions are totally conditioned and limited by and dependent upon his being a Londoner, of Welsh and English parentage, of Protestant upbringing, of Catholic subscription.

Now, my 'take' on this is that it's a bag full of stuff and that some of this stuff is quite lumpy and moves around so that the bag has irregular and shifting bulges. When I first read the above, some four years ago, the image of the bag made instinctive sense. Since then this has become further refined. This starts off with the fact that TA concerns things and Jones saw himself as a maker of things. I want to make the clear the line between the thing and what it might stand for or signify. The Mass, the Eucharist, the Passion are all real events that contain real people and objects, London and Wales are real places that contain the same and the land upon which they stand. The Roman Empire and its imperial army were made up of the same components. Sea voyages are a combination of ports, the sea, a ship and a crew. I am not denying the importance or relevance of the many abstractions that can be derived from these things, I'm just suggesting that this may be a useful preliminary way of thinking about this. I've also developed the nature of the bag and decided that it's a cloth made up of the Eucharist, the Mass and the Passion in a shifting order of rank. I'm fond of this because the fabric is soft and loose and can therefore be pushed in between and amongst the irregular shapes of the things that are inside.

I realise that this is a long way from the 'process' hypothesis outlined above and I'm currently making my brain hurt trying to reconcile both of these in a way that complements rather than replaces the 'orbits'.

With regard to fragments v a unified text, I'm on both sides. I don't think a collection of fragents is a bad or negative thing but I also see my 'bag of stuff' as a whole which, as most things do, may contain a number of components that, in isolation, might look like fragments. Which is a convoluted way of say that TA may contain fragments but is not fragmented.

So, in conclusion, I can't pretend to have Tom's perspicacity or scholarship but I am going to give his insights and my tentative, provisional responses to them much more thought.

Incidentally, Tom's David Jones in the Great War is reviwed in this week's TLS, which I'm now going to read.