Wednesday, November 6, 2013

'To Be Incarnational' by Tom Sleigh: David Jones, WIlfrid Owen, political poems and how to see

To Be Incarnational

In an article which explores and celebrates David Jones as a model for writing about anything, though the  focus is on war, Sleigh writes:

'I’m not sure how far I want to press this next point. It goes past Jones and Owen, though it’s more closely related to Jones’s understanding of how to represent, not war so much, as what Seamus Heaney once called “the music of what happens.” Jones said that he didn’t intend In Parenthesis to be a “War Book”only that it “happens to be concerned with war.” That distinction seems essential
when he says, “We find ourselves privates in foot regiments. We search how we may see formal goodness in a life singularly inimical, hateful, to us,” he is stating a basic human problemhow to find formal goodness in a hateful life. So he isn’t setting up shop as a war poet, or a political poet, or any kind of poet. He isn’t motivated by Justice, his poem doesn’t require sponsorship by any of the “Monumental certainties that go perpetually by, perpetually on time,” to quote Randall Jarrell. Which can’t be said of a lot of the poetry being written today about politically charged abstractions, like war, poverty, racism, and other forms of injustice.
About seven years ago I became restless with my own use of these abstractionsand began doing journalism in places where everything’s all right until it’s not all right and then it’s too lateand discovered that this kind of risk, the taking of calculated chances, settled me down. I want to say this tentatively now, but one reason why 
I was attracted to poetry is because I’ve always wanted more than just my own dailiness. And I’ve always gone to art, and now my experiences as a journalist, to find that something more. But if the pursuit of justice has become part of that search, it’s a secondary pursuit that I’ve learned along the way, not something that I started out with.
However, as a contradictory part of that pursuit, I’ve found that my politics and biases in writing about politically charged subject matter are fairly useless in writing poetry. If I’m dealing with such material, I want to discover my subject as I write, and not have it arise from some prefab stance, or hell of opinions that I simply populate with more opinions. Jones’s use of clashing vocabularies and tones, melding of Welsh myth with the everyday concerns of the infantryman, his elided categories, like pastoral combined with detailed observation of barbwire, achieves a music that can express the difference between what you ought to feel and what you do feelnot iron smashing against iron, but the difference between exploring a political emotion, say, rather than a political conviction. A political conviction weaves no web, traps no chaotically buzzing fliesit’s hygienic, and easily put aside when the moment of outrage or conversational animus has passed. A political emotion is recalcitrant, contradictory, and involves you with silver wrappers and nutritional biscuits with odd names like Plumpy’Nut. And that involvement with the material world weaves an ever more responsive web of circumstance and contingency. 

To be faithful to a political emotion you have to keep yourself open to lots of different frequencies so that whatever ethical statement you arrive at comes as part of the texture of whatever form is driving your language forward. And it’s this language as it arrives that relieves you of having to stand guard over your own opinions and convictions, and gives you access to reaches of thought and feeling you might not otherwise imagine. Which is risky, unpredictable, and not always easy to reconcile with your day-to-day political, emotional, or intellectual entanglements.'
It's a fine article and the comparison of Jones with Owen as witnesses is particularly good. 

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