The challenge then for the artist – in both theory and praxis – is how to create (or, perhaps, reveal) new meanings using the material objects (the tools of the artist – words, paint, a symphony orchestra; the things of the world which may be used – a bowl of fruit, a life story, a shipwreck). For the twentieth century poet, let alone the twenty-first, this process has been made more difficult by the rapidity of change, and a culture of forgetting that strips words of (shared) meaning. If, notes Jones
the poet writes ‘wood’, what are the chances that the wood of the Cross will be evoked? Should the answer be ‘None’, then it would seem that an impoverishment of some sort has to be admitted. It would mean that the particular word could no longer one used in confidence to implement, to call up, or to set in motion a whole world of content belonging to a special sense of a mythus of a particular culture and of concepts and realities belonging to mankind as such. This would be true regardless of our beliefs and disbeliefs.
As Jones makes clear this is no special pleading on behalf of Christianity. He is identifying a central problem that modernism grapples with. The world has changed its forms more rapidly than in any other epoch. ‘That our culture,’ he writes,
has accelerated every line of advance into the territory of physical science is well appreciated – but not so well understood are the unseen subsidiary effects of this achievement. We stroke cats, pluck flowers, tie ribands, assist at the manual acts of religion, make some kind of love, write poems, paint pictures, are generally at one with that creaturely world inherited from our remote beginnings … [but also] respond to increasingly exacting mechanical devices, some fascinating and compelling, some sinister in the extreme, all requiring a new and strange direction of the mind, a new sensitivity mainly, but at a considerable cost.
For Jones the painter, this problem found its manifestation in the split between ‘abstract’ and ‘representational’ art. While accepting that abstract art could be beautiful, could reveal meaning, for Jones all art is abstract – it is not the thing iteslf, after all, but is an abstraction from it (again, a re-presentation), using a mode (or implement) of creation. Hogarth’s Shrimp Girl, to use Jones’ own example, is not the shrimp girl herself, but one painted in a particular time by a particular artist, who had particular skills and beliefs (conscious and unconscious) and who painted her in a particular way. It is an abstraction. What we call ‘abstract art’ is, in some sense, an admission that the things around us in the world have lost their signifying power.
In his poetry he sought to reinvest words with this power, by re-locating them back into the set of cultural references which informed him, a particular man, creating a particular work, at a particular time. He was determined to attempt a new sacramental act. It cost him another break down, but produced one of the masterpieces of twentieth century art.
‘We already and first of all discern him making this thing other … This man, so late in time, curiously surviving, shows courtesy to the objects as he moves along …’
From its opening, which combines the humble with the incantatory, The Anathemata is both the product of, and the thinking through, of Jones’s challenge to himself. Drawing on his own cultural heritages (London, Wales, Catholicism and so on) and the myths and practices that inform them (and therefore him), Jones is exploring the ‘nowness’ of his being in an even more radical way. In a review of Herbert Read’s Poetry and Anarchism, Jones speaks of the need to ‘keep our vanishing points outside Time’. It is a formal tactic in this poem, in order to engage with what is, and what has been.
It is customary to refer to David Jones as a neglected poet, in need of reappraisal. Yet for many of the most influential poets of our own time he remains a touchstone, particularly among those who, in turn, seek to make the sacred from the quotidian, and to use mythic forms to ennoble in some sense the experience of ‘being here now’. One thinks of the Geoffrey Hill, Fiona Sampson, Derek Walcott, Louise Gluck, John Burnside and Mahmoud Darwish, each working outside the prevailing tradition of poetic subjectivity, and looking to create work that takes up the challenge laid down by Jones, to create something both ‘every day’ and numinous.
Dilworth puts forward the case that The Anathemata is Eucharistic in form, but there are as many explanations of the structure as there are studies of it. Jones himself claims, in the preface to have advanced by motifs, and there is a sense in which to impose anything more formal would be to reduce the work. Jones admitted the influence of Finnegans Wake on his own rhetorical devices and way of going on – while The Anathemata does not work across languages in the same way that Joyce does, it works on a level of the mythopoetic every bit as complex as its model.
Th poem is, as conceived by Jones, a collection of things (‘dedicated to the gods’ he will write elsewhere), imbued with meaning, which enter into a symbolic relationship with each other, and which form the unique being who is making the poem. Nothing enters or leaves the poem without sacral transformation. It is a masterpiece of reclamation – of bringing forth those things which are forgotten, or at least occluded, in our general way of going on.