David Jones: The Overlooked War Poet?

This year being the anniversary of World War One’s outbreak, there is of course no end of books, exhibitions, television and radio programmes and the like devoted to it.

Inevitably people’s minds are also focussed more at the moment on those writers who wrote about the War. I suppose, being cynical about it, that the anniversary represents something of a commercial opportunity for a lot of publishers to release or re-release editions of Great War poetry or the many memoirs written by survivors.

Less cynically, I like to think that the reading public would have gravitated back to the works that came out the War anyway, since so many of them are part of the cultural landscape. Generations of Britons have studied poetry by the likes of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon in school. Books like  Goodbye to All That or All Quiet on the Western Front have also been widely read since publication and remain not only popular but classics of their kind.

However, there is one writer who took the War as the theme for one of his great long works, but who remains somewhat off radar as far as the general public is concerned, and is one mainly for the scholars. His name is David Jones. Jones was actually both a talented writer and artist. Born in 1895, a Londoner of mixed Welsh-English descent, he served on the Western Front between 1915 and 1918 in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His first major literary work to be published was In Parenthesis in 1937. It drew directly on his experiences as a soldier on the Front. Published by Faber and Faber, TS Eliot acknowledged it as a major work, and wrote an introduction to it. Hailed upon publication, it remains highly rated today and remains the work for which Jones is most well known.

It was followed by The Anathemata, another long poem, in 1952.

Jones probably isn’t more widely known because, to be frank about it, both of these poems on which his reputation rests are both very long, and quite difficult. I am currently reading The Anathemata, and while there are passages in it of great beauty, and phrases that leap out at me and strike a chord, more often than not I console myself with TS Eliot’s phrase (which always springs to mind when I encounter verse that defies me to make sense of it) that “a poem can communicate before it is understood.”

In Parenthesis  is less of a challenge in comparison to the later work, but remains a challenge nonetheless. Though his work is rooted in myth, religion and the ancient past, as a writer he is every inch the modernist, having much in common with poets like Eliot, Pound and Bunting. He is an experimenter, and challenges the reader. That said, although Jones weaves in all manner of historical, mythical and religious allusions into the text, it is most definitely about the War and his experience of War. There is, therefore, plenty to help the reader orientate him or herself when reading the poem. 

I’m in danger of making the work sound more inaccessible than it actually is. While not every single line might connect with its audience first time (and some may not at all), there are passages in the poem of great power. Jones’s visual art naturally informed his written work, and results in vivid images and passages that are easy to picture in the mind’s eye.

Here is a link to a Guardian Books podcast, where Robin  Robertson reads from the final part of Jones’s poem. https://audioboo.fm/boos/1276875-guardian-books-poetry-podcast-robin-robertson-reads-david-jones#t=2m14s

Recordings also exist of Jones in later life reading from the poem in a very evocative voice that is part drawl, part growl. If I find a link I’ll add it to a future post.

 

 

 

 

Robert Graves Pt. 3: Another reason why he defies simple categorisation.

copse

The Suicide in the Copse

The suicide, far from content,

Stared down at his own shattered skull:

Was this what he meant?

 

Had not his purpose been

To liberate himself from duns and dolts

By a change of scene?

 

From somewhere came a roll of laughter:

He had looked so on his wedding-day,

And the day after.

 

There was nowhere at all to go,

And no diversion now but to pursue

What literature the winds might blow

 

Into the copse where his body lay:

A year-old sheet of sporting news,

A crumpled schoolboy essay.

 

[Poem ends, blogger’s rant begins].

gravesathisdesk

To the Editor. Dear Sir, In a recent review your publication had the sheer brass neck to categorise me as just a…

So only the other night  I blogged in anger about an Economist review of the new Graves selected poems that tried to pigeon hole the writer as ‘just another’ war poet. Since then I’ve read another more positive review, but still rather tangled, in The Independent. Here the writer acknowledges that “Graves’s range is wide”. However, there is still some pigeon-holing evident because the critic asserts that Graves essentially “espoused a single subject”.

What was this subject? Here I have no option but to let the critic have his say.

“For Graves the imagination was not a framer of secondary worlds but an inhabitant of an underlying reality where a fundamental narrative, “one story and one story only”, was always in progress: the poet’s enchantment in the service of the White Goddess, in the worldly form of a Muse.”

What the critic does here is to take Graves’s own lead in asserting that “all true poetry” is in its way a representation of the poet’s relationship with The White Goddess, or of some aspect of her story. To explain exactly who the Goddess was, and what Graves’s Muse-based poetic system consisted of, is the subject of another blog to follow in due course.

In the meantime it’s worth pointing out that Graves’s Goddess system, expounded in book form in 1948 (The White Goddess) had been some years in the making. But once set down in print it gradually came to inform the bulk of his verse. Hence his later poetic phase where love is perhaps the dominant theme, and his working method whereby he felt he could only really write true poetry if he was in thrall to a real muse (i.e. an attractive, much younger woman, assumed to be the living invocation of the Goddess at a given point in time).

From my point of view, if you really want to add an extra level to your understanding Graves’s verse, you really need to have a basic knowledge of what the Goddess mythos consisted of. It’s worth mentioning, however, that even after he’d developed his Goddess mythos, his poetry continued to reflect the wide range of his lively and enquiring mind. Though the Goddess took over to some extent, he was by no means as love-struck or muse-fixated as the critic seeks to assert above. (I’ve written before about Graves’s immensely varied output: https://alliread.wordpress.com/2013/08/04/robert-graves-part-one-never-mind-goodbye-to-all-that-try-saying-hello-to-all-his-other-writing/)

As I also wrote the other day (https://alliread.wordpress.com/2013/09/11/robert-graves-part-two-try-to-pin-this-writer-down-at-your-own-risk/) you can’t blithely state that Graves is a war poet and leave it at that. And neither can you just maintain the critical assumption that he is a muse-driven love poet (even if Graves did more than most to give that impression!).

For me, one of the reasons that Graves remains one of the greats is because he defies simple categorisation. Look through any edition of his verse and you will find gems like the one I chose at random above (it was written in the late ’30’s). Have a look at it again and, if you’ve time, have a think about what the poem means to you. The Great War and the Goddess might somehow be factored into some people’s reading of the poem at some stage. No doubt, though,  this will occur far later than a host of other themes will have become apparent.

Robert Graves Part Two: Try to pin this writer down at your own risk.

 

 

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“Just a war poet am I? Step outside sunshine…”

 

So first the good news. There’s a new Selected Poems of Robert Graves out, published by Faber and Faber. The bad news is that some reviews might not succeed in inspiring people to actually check out the book.

I don’t mean that the reviews of the poems themselves are bad. I mean that the reviews are actually badly written. Chief among them has to be this review from The Economist magazine (a journal not really noted for its insight into the arts, however hard they try. Stick to money, lads). This review is probably the worst review of anything by anyone since the A and R man at Decca records thought to himself “Those Beatles. Just haven’t got it have they?”

See how uninspired the review is for yourself here: http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21583612-timely-reminder-overlooked-war-poet-after-trenches

Where to begin. The subheading for a start: “A timely reminder of an overlooked war poet”. War poet? Robert Graves? Well yes he wrote about war, but pigeon holing him thus is like trying to claim Ted Hughes is ‘just’ a nature poet, or Byron wrote only of doomed and sorrowful young men. See my other blog post on Graves’s poetry, where I try to give a flavour of the sheer range of his poetic interests.

While I’m at it I’ll have a go at the first sentence of this review. “Robert Graves is not remembered for his poetry”.

“Not remembered?” What a complete load of bollocks. As my own post of a few weeks ago, as well as a steady stream of other posts on WordPress and other sites attest, many people know and love Robert Graves’s poetry.

And so to counter the lazy cliches of British reviewers everywhere, I’d like to end by quoting Graves’s own poem “Flying Crooked”. In it Graves compares himself to a butterfly. While they appear to flit from place to place, surely few creatures get to know their territory so well or cover so much varied ground.  In like manner, here is a writer whose career progression and range of subjects may seem random and haphazard to some, but who certainly  can never be pigeon holed into one category.

 

The butterfly, a cabbage white,

(His honest idiocy of flight)

Will never now, it is too late,

Master the art of flying straight,

Yes has- who knows so well as I?-

A just sense of how not to fly:

He lurches here and here by guess

And God and hope and hopelessness.

Even the aerobatic swift

Has not his flying-crooked gift.

 

 

 

Robert Graves. Part One: Never mind “Goodbye To All That”. Try saying hello to all his other writing.

Almost thirty years since his death, the english poet and writer Robert Graves remains well known. However most people, if they read him at all, read his justly celebrated World War One memoir cum general autobiography Goodbye To All That, and his entertaining novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God. They remain well worth reading and remain steady earners for the Graves estate.

Classics as they are, however, there is far, far more to Graves than these two works.  He is by no means a ‘forgotten’ writer, and there are enough devotees and academics to ensure that he doesn’t fade entirely from view (there’s an active and well-organised Robert Graves Society for example). However, I do think that he’s in danger of fading from view, or at best being seen as a ‘two-trick pony’,  as far as the non-specialist, general reader is concerned.

Over the course of a long and busy writing life, Graves showed himself to be a superb all-rounder, producing fiction, literary criticism and other scholarly works, and many superb poems. Personally I think it’ll be these poems on which his reputation will ultimately rest. Certainly Graves himself thought so, and he considered himself to be a poet first and prose writer second. Prose, Graves often said, was a necessary part of his writing life and it certainly paid the bills. But it was poetry that was his first love, and his true calling. I’ve been reading Graves for a number of years now, and I’ve always thought that he is at his best in his poetry. Certainly the poems do the most to get you to the heart of what this constantly intriguing and incisive writer is all about. Hardly any other poet I’ve read has provided me with so consistently an unexpected and original way of perceiving things.

He wrote many poems in his life, and was also something of a vicious editor of his own work. Fortunately a one-volume “Complete Poems” is available. It prints everything he published during his lifetime, and proves how right he was to heed his poetic calling time and again.

What is his work like? For me, Graves is the most complete poet I can think of. To use that term again, he’s a great all-rounder and very much his own man. If twentieth century poetry is a literature of movements, then I’m not really sure you  can categorise Graves. In his early years he had poems published in the Georgian anthologies. In the 20’s and 30’s he was loosely allied with the Modern movement (he even publish a book entitled “A Survey of Modernist Poetry” with former lover, muse and collaborator Laura Riding). But from the 40’s you could argue he was pretty much on his own, his work defined by his own particular voice and thematic concerns.

Stylistically he wasn’t really an innovator, but he was a superb and unshowy technician (the merciless drafting and redrafting of almost every poem on offer here made sure his ideas and feelings received their clearest expression, couched in their most fitting form). But if the form of his verse holds no major surprises, in terms of subject matter I can’t think of another poet who covers so many bases so convincingly. He is rightly hailed as one of the finest love and lyric poets in the language. Indeed, many of these poems were inspired by his (in)famous devotion to the notion of the muse and to his muses. But to categorise him as ‘just’ a love poet- noble calling as it is- is to do him as much a disservice as to see him as ‘just’ a First World War poet. He ranges far wider. Indeed, Graves’s concerns and interests must have been incredibly wide to judge by the subjects touched on in this collection: religion, mythology, fatherhood, loss, desire, obsession, politics, society, language, the writing of poetry, the poetic impulse, domestic life… I could go on.

Here’s an example.  This poem, called “Under the Pot”, displays Graves’s gift of providing an unexpected take on things, but doing it with an authority that can leave you thinking ‘I never thought of that. He has a point’:

 

Sulkily the sticks burn, and though they crackle

With scorn under the bubbling pot, or spout

Magnanimous jets of flame against the smoke,

At each heel end a dirty sap breaks out.

Confess, creatures, how sulkily ourselves

We hiss with doom, fuel of a sodden age-

Not rapt up roaring to the chimney stack

On incandescent clouds of spirit or rage.

 
This illustrates two of his chief poetic virtues which are brevity and incisiveness. He hardly wrote any long poems and most of his verses are straight to the point. He also had the gift not only of being able to turn a memorable phrase, but also of adopting a fresh perspective on things. Some of his best poems (masterpeices such as “To Juan at the WInter Solstice” or “The Cool Web”) made a big impression on me when I first read them, and yet they have a knack of yielding up something new each time I return to them.

In my opinion Graves’s Collected Poems has all the charm and merit of Thomas Hardy’s or WB Yeats’s respective Collected Poems: that is to say that they all contain absolute classics that you keep coming back to, but they’re all great for dipping into, since there’s so much on offer that you’re bound to find a new gem that you weren’t aware of before or had overlooked. So whether it’s just for browsing or for digging deep, the main thing is about such great volumes of poetry is that you keep reading them, and consequently they will remain on your bookshelf for life.

Just a word of warning if you’re buying a book of Graves’s poetry. As mentioned above he had a habit of editing out of the canon works of his he no longer liked or thought rang true.  If you have one of the numerous ‘Collected Poems’ published during his lifetime, you won’t have all the poems.  The ‘Complete Poems’ reverses that decision. As for the poems themselves, I’ve indicated above how in my view he’s right up there with the greats, but how he’s also a complete original. Other poets might be better, but I think very few range wider. Like other great poets though he  distilling his own poetic voice.

You’ll hear that voice so clearly in his verse, a heady mix of the practical and the inspirational. It’s a voice of authority, rather clipped and formal at times, with a touch of the army officer about it (he never could get over the war in more ways than one). But it’s mixed with a tremendous sense of awe and wonder about the world. It’s rather like being in the presence of a great teacher who constantly beckons you on, showing you things you’ve never seen before, or pointing out different ways of seeing familiar things. You may learn from him. You may disagree with him. But he’ll make you think. And you’ll never be bored.

In part two (to be posted whenever I can get round to it!) I’ll write about some of his other prose works that I think you’ll like.