Tuesday, March 29, 2005

David Jones and Biography

Prompted by Josh Corey’s Williams musing, I’m once again thinking biography. I’ve just finished Keith Alldritt’s David Jones: Writer and Artist (Constable, 2003), which I ordered from Amazon and then had to wait six weeks or so until they shipped it over from the U. K. There’s a good reason this book wasn’t published in the U. S. (aside from the fact that there are probably only a hundred or so serious readers of Jones on this side of the Atlantic): it’s perfectly dreadful, a slapdash, sloppily-written hasty skim over the life of one of the two or three most important British poets of the first modernist generation. And astonishingly, it’s the only biography of Jones available. The man deserves his own Richard Ellmann; instead he gets the equivalent of one of those rush-job pop star bios, the kind of thing you’d expect to read about Justin Timberlake or Jewel. Let the buyer beware.

I’m a little less hasty in dismissing Alldritt’s The Poet as Spy: The Life and Wild Times of Basil Bunting (Aurum, 1998) – another book which didn’t make the transatlantic voyage – but only because it has a few racy anecdotes, and because Bunting hasn’t yet attracted nearly the critical attention Jones, born five years earlier, has. It will come. New Directions has recently reprinted Bloodaxe’s handsome edition of Bunting’s Complete Poems (itself a cleaned-up version of Oxford’s 1994 edition, beautifully edited by the late Ric Caddel). (I now have no fewer that five versions of the collected Bunting shelved or stacked.) And Bunting is simply easier of access than Jones: Briggflatts is an intense hour’s read, perhaps best accomplished following Bunting himself on one of the fine recordings he made of the poem. Jones, on the other hand, is at his best in his two book-length works, In Parenthesis and The Anathemata, both of which I think suffer from being excerpted. They’re works which rely upon an overall architecture – like Finnegans Wake or To the Lighthouse – and while you can cull out five- or ten-page passages which are quite stunning, each of the books (it’s hard to know what to call In Parenthesis, the work Jones based on his experience of the Battle of the Somme – some call it a prose memoir, I’m inclined to call it as much poetry as the more thoroughly lineated Anathemata) really depends on the weight and momentum of the work taken entire.

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