From David Jones' cover for 'In Parenthesis' (1937)

I was given a copy of a book by David Jones recently. Called ‘In Parenthesis’, it’s quite unlike anything else I’ve ever read: part poem, part novel, and brilliantly written. The person who gave it to me– my mum!– had seen Jones featured on a BBC Wales television program called ‘Framing Wales’. You can watch this program here, on BBC iPlayer (Jones’ life as a soldier and artist being mainly dealt with from 21.15 mins onwards [Apologies: my first link went to the wrong episode, now rectified]). The program also provides a description of the infamous battle of Mametz Wood, where 400 of Jones’ fellow Royal Welch fusiliers were killed: an attack which provided some inspiration for ‘In Parenthesis’.

David Jones is a unique figure in Great War poetry. In the first instance, as well as being a writer, Jones was a trained artist.

Now, this is also true of Isaac Rosenberg, of course. Yet it’s striking how much the methods and manner of the two artist-poets differ. Rosenberg’s poetry is brilliant, but was also in one sense quite traditional: the humane mysticism and striking imagery of the great Romantic poet William Blake, for example, seems to have been channeled through his work.

Jones, however, was a modernist.

What was modernism? Well, ‘Make it new!’ was the modernist’s cry. From around a hundred years ago onward, Modernists demanded a revolution in art, in response to the rapidly changing world of the early Twentieth Century. Think of Cubism, Surrealism and Dada in art; T.S. Eliot, James Joyce and Virginia Woolf in literature. They all looked to overturn what had become a cosy notion of what art and literature should look like. So, they embraced the new: while, at the same time, often searching the past for inspiration and roots, as if looking for an anchor to hold them safe in a scary new world of newspapers, processed meat and mass democracy. Modernism would also be a response to the horrors of the First World War and the technologies and culture that created it. Understanding this makes Jones an interesting figure in early twentieth century poetry.

Jones looked to write about his own wartime exeriences in a new way. ‘In Parenthesis’ is the remarkable result: and it remains a novel that is, remarkably, truly novel, or new. As with all experimenters in art, Jones divides critics: Paul Fussell, for example, doesn’t think much of him, while Jon Stallworthy thinks him excellent. We’ll get to study Jones in good time on ‘Move Him Into The Sun’, as we make our way through Stallworthy’s anthology– but enough here to have an introduction to the man and his art, courtesy of the Beeb. Enjoy.

‘Little Song of the Maimed’

Lend me your arm
To replace my leg
The rats ate it for me
At Verdun
At Verdun
I ate a lot of rats
But they didn’t give me back my leg
And that’s why I was given the Croix de Guerre
And a wooden leg
And a wooden leg

NOTES

This is a highly critical— and political poem. It uses the black humour and flippancy often found in popular soldier songs and folk songs to oppose the glorification of war. It insists on the obscenity of war and the injuries it causes: ‘Maimed’ is the key word here.

STRUCTURE NOTE: This is a little like a marching song, with subversive lyrics. The repetition mimics marching and is bluntly shocking.

Benjamin Peret: Peret, like Apollinaire, fought for France during the war. Later, he became a surrealist (after spending some time as a Dada artist, an avant-garde art movement that embraced the absurd). This accounts for some of the odd, comic gestures in the poem: the Surrealists and Dadaists believed that life was only to be understood by embracing the unconscious and the nonsensical.

Little Song of the Maimed: A child-like title for a grim subject matter: ironic, sardonic and pretending to be naïve.

“Lend me your arm / to replace my leg…”: the poem begins with a horrible, foolish request: it is meant to be funny, as if the logic of exchange in the daily world could be extended to parts of one’s own body. Of course, it can’t. Note the direct, second person address of this poem– it is intended to be discomfiting for the reader, even confrontational.

“The rats ate it for me / at Verdun.” A grim account of a lost leg being eaten by the ubiquitous rats of the front line. Verdun is to the French what the Somme was to the British: a catastrophic battle that led to tens of thousands of dead, for no appreciable gain.

“I ate lots of rats…”: The madness of the narrator’s perspective is revealed, and again he has a peculiar idea of equivalence: he thinks that if he eats rats like they ate his leg, he will somehow get his leg back. Again, the world plainly does not work according to this odd logic.

“And that’s why I was given the CROIX DE GUERRE: the absurdity extends to the reasoning for the injured man receiving a medal from the French government— as if the loss of a leg were somehow equivalent to being given a ‘Cross of War’. The very idea, this patriotic trade-off a leg for national honour, is portrayed as quite as mad as his previous rantings.

“and a wooden leg / and a wooden leg.”: the poem ends with that marching rhythm, which is now, ironically, pointless: who can march with a wooden leg?

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: The selection of these two famous surrealists adds a further international variety to the collection. Stallworthy plainly felt that it was important not only to have non-British voices but also avant-garde modernist works in his collection. The question is whether this adventurous, or more of a token gesture.]

NOTES

Perhaps the most surprising poem of the selection, ‘Calligram’ selects a famous French poet’s avant-garde poetry that uses calligrams to help describe the world at war. Calligrams are poems that use words and letters to create pictures that are related to the subject or theme of the poem.

STRUCTURE NOTE: This is an example of free verse. The poem is simple yet striking. Two couplets head the poem. The first couplet writes of the sky over all; the second couplet describes a shell flying over the poet’s head as he writes. Underneath these, there is first the calligram of a five pointed star, then underneath that, a calligram of an artillery gun. So the poem does, to a degree, recreate the scene of war in words and ink, on a page.

(Please note that I do not have a reproducible copy of the poem to head these notes. If anyone should find a such a version online, particularly in the original French, I’d greatly appreciate being pointed towards it.)

Guillame Apollinaire: Apollinaire was an early French surrealist— in fact, he coined the term, ‘surrealism’. He was an experimentalist in art and poetry. In combat in 1916, Apollinaire received a head injury which was operated on successfully (see illustration!). He survived the war, sadly to be one of the tens of millions who died in the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918.

Calligram, 15 May 1915: A precise date for the creation of the poem: Apollinaire was at this time in the French army.

“The sky’s as blue and black as ink…”: The opening simile is self-referential, referring to its means of composition— in ink. Parallels are being drawn between the written page and the world itself.

“My eyes drown in it…”: Again, the intensity of the sky, and the act of writing, are linked: his eyes drown in the sky, and also drown in ink.

“A shell whines over me”: This poem relates action on the Western Front.

“I write this under a willow tree…”: symbolism: the weeping willow symbolizes sadness.

“The evening star a punctual gem shines like a rajah’s diadem…”: The evening star is Venus, the planet of love. It is a timely (punctual) thing of beauty and value above this scene of war and misery, shining like a gem in an Indian King’s crown.

“or like the look some lovely she sends shining on our battery”: An ambiguous line. Does Venus (“some lovely she”) bless the artillerymen below, as a consolation for their part in war? Or is this blackly humorous? Is the Evening Star more like the explosion of a shell overhead (a truly “punctual gem”) that rains down fire on the artillerymen’s battery? (In which case the five pointed star in the calligram becomes more sinister and frightening.)

[ANTHOLOGY NOTE: This is the first of two poems by French writers, after the three by Americans— this section seems to be selected as to include voices other than British in the collection. Yeats’ three subsequent poems also mean that Irish voices are included in the collection.]