Discovering In Parenthesis

A traveling fellowship had brought me after college to London. My roommate there, a young civil servant, son of a Cambridge don, and a reader of Persian literature in the original, suggested that I start paying attention to a British artist called David Jones, author of a long poem with the title of In Parenthesis. Despite having attended a good university in the U.S., I'd never even heard of Jones. Was this recommendation an act of aesthetic chauvinism?
Okay, so T.S. Eliot had called In Parenthesis "a work of genius." But Eliot was the book's acquiring editor at Faber. W.H. Auden had written that David Jones had given us "probably the finest long poem written in English in this century." But like the author Auden had grown up English (and was still living there). Perhaps, I wondered, he was somehow prejudiced in the poet's favor? Ezra Pound was neither the publisher nor a Brit. Pound had concluded: "it is one of the most important poems of our time." He called it "a masterpiece."
David Jones wrote about the Great War, in which he fought, and his style was influenced by, almost marinated in, Welsh culture and Arthurian legend or, as Jones called the culture he brought, "the matter of Britain." I read up a little about the poet and bought his work at Foyle's bookshop, an easy walk from my flat on Great Russell Street, across from where Karl Marx had written his famous manifesto and near the offices of the original publisher of In Parenthesis.
Jones was both a poet and painter. In fact, Kenneth Clark described him in the mid-1930s as "the most gifted of all the young British painters." Of course this combination immediately reminded people of William Blake, whose work, like that of Jones, has hung at the Tate.
When my English roommate invited me for a weekend at his family's holiday house in Herefordshire, near the Welsh border, I was happy for the opportunity to walk in the mountains. My roommate had already impressed me as a happy eccentric by bringing in the Times every morning and adding it to a stack of a year's worth of newspapers, then pulling out the bottom paper, with the same date but a year earlier, and taking it on the Underground to the office. He said it was restful to know how things had come out.
From the holiday house we walked to the nearby border of Wales and along a long ridge, looking down on a small settlement that he told me was called Capel-y-ffin (though I didn't know about the doubled "f" until later). I vaguely recognized the name. Yes, David Jones had lived there in the late 1920s, joining a community of artists led by Eric Gill. I'd heard that Gill had designed more than one typeface, including one inspired by signs in the London Underground, and now I learned that he worked extensively as an engraver in stone.
My friend and I decided to descend to Capel-y-ffin. As I recall, the run down was quite steep. For me it was like falling down the rabbit hole in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Of all the obscure settlements tucked into the Welsh hills, we had happened on one that had some meaning to me. Arriving on the valley floor, we met a family arriving to occupy holiday accommodations they'd rented. They invited us to join them for tea. Our hosts were as new to the place as my friend and I. As we looked around the rooms I was astonished to spot a mural by David Jones.
I recognized his style, having looked up some of his work as an engraver and watercolorist in the drawers of a London gallery. However, I'd been procrastinating over studying In Parenthesis, Jones' 1937 subtle, allusive, powerful book about the war that had ended almost two decades earlier.
I'd known the Great War was a disaster to many who fought. One whole wall of the cloister in an Oxford college was covered with the names of graduates who had died in that war. In those years they called the result of frequent nearby explosions "shell shock" or what we today term "post-traumatic stress disorder." Long incubated, In Parenthesis was one of David Jones' ways of living with PTSD, a way that, like his intricate, overlaid visual art, has become a gift to many others.
It was not until graduate school that I had an opportunity, in a seminar on "war poets," to write about David Jones. Both my fellow students and also the professor had never heard of him. The reputation of artists has always been fickle. Herman Melville was not celebrated for Moby Dick until the 20th century. As for painters, consider this passage from The Art of Rivalry: "They were modern artists in search of a public. It was a search fraught with risk and uncertain reward, as they knew from the stories of their immediate predecessors: the Impressionists, who struggled for so long in poverty; Manet, who was so relentlessly abused; van Gogh, who took his own life; and Cézanne, who labored his entire life in obscurity."
After the sojourn in Europe, my grad school years coincided with the Vietnam war and the anti-war movement that was especially strong on campuses. Of course the mechanics of war were different than those experienced by David Jones: helicopter gunships instead of rushes "over the top," napalm instead of mainly artillery shells and machine-guns, and so forth. But the experience of not knowing whether you'd be alive the next day, or minute, was similar. And it was not until half a century after Vietnam that the first effective treatments for PTSD were even the subject of research.
Poetry does not by itself heal PTSD, but it can at least express something of the experience of war, even if you read the poem in a campus easy chair. Veterans typically don't talk much about the war after returning home. At a party in the 1990s I met a World War II vet who, at that distance, standing around a swimming pool, surrounded by old friends, was willing to answer my eager questions about his experience as a young solider. He said he had not talked about his feelings for half a century, because who wanted to listen? I felt honored by his trust, as I had been moved by David Jones' generous, heartfelt, book-length poem.
In writing Gift of Darkness, a memoir about the adolescence of a Jewish friend who had grown up under Nazi rule in his native Amsterdam, I felt gratitude to him for being willing to revisit the trauma of those years and respond to my thousands of questions. In his poetry, what David Jones did was ask himself thousands of questions and hunt for words to express the truth of what he felt. That day in the Black Mountains of Wales, I could only imagine that peaceful Capel-y-ffin had helped him to get from the battlefield to In Parenthesis. (Which is now available from the reprints division of The New York Review of Books.)
The poem opens with the hero John Ball late for parade. "Private Ball's pack, ill adjusted and without form, hangs more heavily on his shoulder blades, a sense of ill-usage pervades him. He withdraws within himself to soothe himself--the iniquity of those in high places is forgotten." So it begins, the work of remembering what was immediate and timeless.