‘With just the touch of a sigh’: Ford Madox Ford 145 years on

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(Ezra Pound, John Quinn, Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce, Paris 1923)

‘Pray pardon my minute examination of such matters. That is my preoccupation in this world.’—Ford Madox Ford, ‘Literary Portraits – VII. Mr. Percival Gibbon and “The Second-Class Passenger”’, Outlook, XXXII (25 October 1913), 572.

Born on 17 December 1873, Ford Madox Ford grew very fond of decades, as markers and aids to memory. The Good Soldier had hatched within him for a decade before he wrote it, he said. In Provence, he remembered a snowstorm in Carcassonne, noting that snowstorms happened there ‘once every forty years or so. That was in 1913, when I was refreshing my memory as to the Albigeois martyrs of that city…’ Every forty years or so. Exactly the span of Ford’s life at that date. In the ‘Dedicatory Letter’ to The Good Soldier, he wrote: ‘I had always entertained the idea that…I at least should not be able to write a novel by which I should care to stand before reaching the age of forty…’ And again: ‘on the day I was forty I sat down to show what I could do—and The Good Soldier resulted’. In 1913, too, he published his fortieth book.

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Let me try some ten-year intervals. 1883 is the date that Ford’s biographer gives as the date of his ‘earliest surviving letter’, sent to his grandfather, the painter Ford Madox Brown: ‘We went on to the rocks yesterday & they were dotted over with sea anemones. We saw a lizard & I caught it & let it go after & then Harri & I lifted a stone up & we saw a snake which seemed to wake up in a strang[e] manner & then went lazily into some grass.’

In 1893, Ford—under the name of ‘Fenil Haig’—published his first book of poems, The Questions at the Well, dedicated to Elsie Martindale, with whom he would soon elope. In October, his beloved grandfather died. Ford would publish his biography of Ford Madox Brown three years later.

‘But now, at the ebb, the river’s flight
Seaward ceases, and in its might
The sea rushes on in smooth delight.
Spray-bright and sparkling from stem to prow
With dripping oars and heaving bow,
The boat holds on’.

1903 saw the publication of the most substantial of the three collaborative works Ford wrote with Joseph Conrad, Romance (Smith, Elder & Co., 6s.).

‘Before then I had not lived. I had only waited—for her and for what she stood for. It was in my blood, in my race, in my tradition, in my training. We, all of us for generations, had made for efficiency, for drill, for restraint. Our Romance was just this very Spanish contrast, this obliquity of vision, this slight tilt of the convex mirror that shaped the same world so differently to onlookers at different points of its circle.’

In 1913, following the trial of The Throne, edited by his friend René Byles, which had referred to Violet Hunt as ‘Mrs Ford Madox Hueffer’, prompting Ford’s wife Elsie (they were never divorced) to sue, Ford and Hunt roamed around the South of France: Montpellier, Carcassonne, Beaucaire, Las Tours, Tarascon, St. Rémy-de-Provence. They went to Corsica for a week. By the close of the year, Ford had begun writing a novel called ‘The Saddest Story’. It became The Good Soldier.

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(Elsie Martindale c. 1895 by Catherine Hueffer – Ford’s mother)

‘So I shall just imagine myself for a fortnight or so at one side of the fireplace of a country cottage, with a sympathetic soul opposite me. And I shall go on talking, in a low voice while the sea sounds in the distance and overhead the great black flood of wind polishes the bright stars. From time to time we shall get up and go to the door and look out at the great moon and say: “Why, it is nearly as bright as in Provence!” And then we shall come back to the fireside, with just the touch of a sigh because we are not in that Provence where even the saddest stories are gay.’

In 1923, he was in France with Stella Bowen, first at the Villa des Oliviers, St. Jean Cap Ferrat, at Ardèche, Saint-Agrève, Tarascon, and Paris. The American printer William Bird printed Ford’s Women & Men at the Three Mountains Press. By the end of that year, Ford had published The Marsden Case,  Mr Bosphorus and the Muses , was already well-advanced upon his great tetralogy, Parade’s End, and was launching the transatlantic review.

In the South the sombrero’d poet,
His harlot having gathered the scattered coins,
Rose slothfully and stretching out a hand
White but not overwashed beneath the benevolent moon,
Shouts out his indolent verse, accustomed rhymes
POUR for AMOUR and PURE to match AZURE
And a scratch on the guitar, a diamond flash
In the birchen shadow. Gesture with the hat
And so to bed beside his harlot. . . . Ah!
In the scented azure night.

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(Ford and Pound in Rapallo, c. 1932)

In 1933, now with Janice Biala, he published The Rash Act and one of his finest books, It Was the Nightingale.

‘A social system had crumbled. Recklessness had taken the place of insouciance. In the old days we had seemed to have ourselves and our destinies well in hand. Now we were drifting towards a weir . . . ’

By 1943, Ford was four years dead, one of four major modernists to die within the three years 1939-1941, together with Yeats, Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Sixty-five when he died, he’d published eighty books, several of them among the best the twentieth century has to show. He is buried in Deauville.

 

 

Last Post: one more parade

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We’ve just  launched Last Post: A Literary Journal from the Ford Madox Ford Society. So soon after the centenary of the Armistice, a paper signed in a railway carriage in Compiègne forest, we’ve been thinking about Ford in that context (among others).

“At the beginning of the war,” Tietjens said, “I had to look in on the War Office, and in a room I found a fellow What do you think he was doing what the hell do you think he was doing? He was devising the ceremonial for the disbanding of a Kitchener battalion. You can’t say we were not prepared in one matter at least. . . . Well, the end of the show was to be: the adjutant would stand the battalion at ease: the band would play Land of Hope and Glory, and then the adjutant would say: There will be no more parades. . . . Don’t you see how symbolical it was: the band playing Land of Hope and Glory, and then the adjutant saying There will be no more parades? For there won’t. There won’t, there damn well won’t. . . . No more Hope, no more Glory, no more parades for you and me any more. Nor for the country Nor for the world, I dare say None Gone Na poo, finny! No . . . more . . . parades!”[1]

In the midst of war, Christopher Tietjens looks back to a moment at the beginning of the war which looked forward to the end of the war. But that dizzying simultaneous backward and forward shift had occurred before the war in, fittingly, a book about moving through time. In Ford’s Ladies Whose Bright Eyes, published in 1911, the publisher William Sorrell is involved in a railway accident, from which he wakes, or seems to wake, in medieval England. ‘Supposing that his railway accident had really made him see something queer? Supposing that all these people were really just ghosts? He did not believe in ghosts. But, on the other hand, he was modern enough to know that in these days anything might happen, and suddenly he found himself saying to himself, that though he could not for the life of him say what he believed, he would not equally for the life of him say that he disbelieved any single thing.’ A little later, ‘he felt vaguely that if the ghosts from the past could come into the present, why in the world should not ghosts of the future be able to go back into the past?’[2] Is he himself a sort of ghost, he wonders?

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Parade’s End is, unsurprisingly, a haunted book, as was much of the literature that emerged from the conflict. ‘Ghosts were numerous in France at that time’, Robert Graves remembered, looking back to 1915. ‘Fall in, ghosts’, Edmund Blunden titled his essay on ‘a Battalion Reunion’.[3] Ford’s novel is haunted, in part, by the Armistice itself, peace after war, the first and third parts of A Man Could Stand Up— explicitly so, the reunion between Valentine Wannop and Christopher Tietjens taking place on Armistice Day, while all the main characters in Last Post recur obsessively to memories of Armistice Day or, for the most part, Armistice Night.

‘Do you not find’, Ford wrote to Isabel Paterson, in Last Post’s dedicatory letter, ‘that, however it may be with the mass of humanity, in the case of certain dead people you cannot feel that they are indeed gone from this world? You can only know it, you can only believe it. That is, at any rate, the case with me—and in my case the world daily becomes more and more peopled with such revenants and less and less with those who still walk this earth.’[4]

In Return to Yesterday, published three years later, Ford wrote that the three people in whose deaths he had never been able to believe were Conrad, Arthur Marwood and Jane Wells, wife of H. G. In an essay published in 1927, he stated that he had just ‘suddenly realised’ that Conrad, Henry James and Stephen Crane were all dead. He began writing Last Post a month after the death of another friend, the painter Juan Gris, and around the time his mother died.[5] Less than six months later, his old friend Charles Masterman, the Liberal politician and author, died at the age of fifty-four. All these deaths, following that of W. H. Hudson in 1922 and Joseph Conrad in 1924, individual as they are, also form part of a vast, cumulative wave of human loss, in and around that vast waste of life strewn across four years, thousands of miles and millions of casualties. Ford the writer and Ford the soldier had known his fair share of them: ‘I remember when I went to have lunch with the officers of our 2nd Battalion—all dead, the officers I had lunch with!—in Albert’.[6]

The first issue of Last Post ranges pretty widely, dwelling, as it happens, on neither war nor death: the stories contained in Ford’s own library (now in the Berg Collection, New York), Ford as reader, as literary ghost, as commentator on Anglo-German relations, as writer of detective stories, as subject of research, as point of reference in today’s America, plus a few reviews. Members of the Ford Madox Ford Society will receive two issues a year.

http://www.fordmadoxfordsociety.org/

 
References

[1] Ford Madox Ford, No More Parades (1925; edited by Joseph Wiesenfarth, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2011), 27; see also the reconstruction of the previous volume’s original ending, the autograph fragment in Ford Madox Ford, Some Do Not. . . (1924; edited by Max Saunders, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2010), 412.

[2] Ford Madox Ford, Ladies Whose Bright Eyes: A Romance (London: Constable, 1911), 82-83, 100.

[3] Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That (1929 edition; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2014), 157; Edmund Blunden, Fall In, Ghosts: Selected War Prose, edited with an introduction by Robyn Marsack (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2014), 77-93.

[4] Ford Madox Ford, Last Post (1928; edited by Paul Skinner, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2011), 5.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, Return to Yesterday: Reminiscences 1894-1914 (London: Victor Gollancz, 1931), 371; Ford Madox Ford, New York Essays (New York: William Edwin Rudge, 1927), 24-25. Max Saunders remarks on the indication that ‘this most elegiac of his books was an oblique elegy for his mother’: Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life, two volumes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), II, 316.

[6] Ford Madox Ford, No Enemy (1929; edited by Paul Skinner Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2002), 134.

 

Blood, ghosts, Ezra Pound’s birthday

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Sitting at the kitchen table, I try to remember exactly when I first realised that one of the characters and situations in the novel by Sarah Moss that I’m reading recurs in another of her books that I read a few months ago: it wasn’t the name of the island that triggered the memory but the surname of a character sending letters home: Moberley.[1]

Outside, a magpie on the bird table is jabbing at a fat ball with rapid strokes of its lethal-looking beak. This reminds me of the recollection, in an essay by Guy Davenport, of a remark by Ezra Pound, breaking ‘hours and hours’ of the silence common to his public persona in the later years of his life: ‘“There’s a magpie in China can turn a hedgehog over and kill it.”’ Decoding this, Davenport recognises it as an acknowledgement that Pound has read the translation of Archilochos given to him by Davenport three days earlier, the fragment about the Hedgehog and the Fox.[2]

Ezra Pound was born in Hailey, Idaho, one hundred and thirty-three years ago today, and died in Venice on 1st November 1972. He wrote a great deal: Richard Sieburth’s Library of America edition of the Poems and Translations exceeds 1350 pages; The Cantos fill another 800, contributions of poetry and prose to periodicals almost a dozen volumes. I’ve lost track of the secondary literature over the years but it must amount to at least two hundred books and probably thousands of articles, reviews and theses by now.

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I sit down to read or reread Pound less often than I used to but I doubt if a day goes by without my coming across some mention or connection or quotation from his work in something I’m reading or looking at. Anything – a picture, a phrase overheard, a name – can remind me of a line of Pound’s poetry or prose. It’s hardly surprising since he’s become so much a part of my landscape, in a way that very few others have. But then I’ve been reading in and around his work, on and off, for forty years; and lines of communication and connection run to and fro between Pound and almost every writer that interests me in the modernist period. Apart from his own writing, I must have read around seventy books devoted wholly or largely to Pound, several of them more than once – but, again, not a fantastic number given such a length of time and the fact that I wrote a thesis largely about that writing.

Half the books on my desk at any one time suggest some affinity or family resemblance. Here are two translations of The Odyssey and a book about archaeology and modernism; the first volume of the Davenport-Kenner letters; and The Art of Language: Selected Essays by Kenneth Cox, recommended to me by Greg Gerke — I can recommend in turn his own fine recent piece on reading The Cantos: https://bigother.com/2018/09/24/reading-the-cantos/

Beginnings are tricky, both to negotiate and to recall. I know I read Noel Stock’s biography and Kenner’s The Pound Era pretty early on. But Pound himself? I have no recollection of learning about any modern poetry whatsoever at school – and I must have come across Pound’s own writing first in The Faber Book of Modern Verse, the 1965 Donald Hall revision. This anthology begins with Gerard Manley Hopkins, The Wreck of the Deutschland, just as Charles Tomlinson, a great admirer of Hopkins, used to begin the modern period with his students. Then Yeats – and every one of those twelve poems became lodged, partially or wholly, between my ears. Then T. E. Hulme, five poems, 33 lines in all. Then turn the page and find this:

You’d have men’s hearts up from the dust
And tell their secrets, Messire Cino,
Right enough? Then read between the lines of Uc St. Circ,
Solve me the riddle, for you know the tale.

The tale, the riddle. That crowding sense of a story behind all this that you need and want to know. The names, foreign and unfamiliar. The dash of colloquialism – ‘You’d’, ‘Right enough?’ The directness. A poem containing a speaker who advises someone else (‘Messire Cino’) to ‘read between the lines’ – of another text or another life. Then all the questions, the litany of more names – and the irresistible ‘End fact. Try fiction.’ Following this: ‘The Exile’s Letter’, a bit of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, a section of Homage to Sextus Propertius and two careful Cantos. Canto XIII has Kung (Confucius) walking with his disciples by the dynastic temple and out by the river; then ‘From Canto CXV’ is, apart perhaps from one or two words or names not immediately familiar, perfectly comprehensible to any casual passer-by (I find I still have this by heart).

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I owe a large debt to Donald Hall then (and am surely not alone in that): apart from the Thomases –Dylan and Edward – my acquaintance with practically every modern poet begins there, from The Waste Land to The Dream Songs.

In Pisa, Pound wrote (80/506):

before the world was given over to wars
Quand vous serez bien vieille
remember that I have remembered

This has always been one of the most resonant lines for me. It became the title of an essay on Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End by Hugh Kenner and, in the closing lines of The Pound Era, he wrote of Pound shouldering ‘the weariness of 85 years, his resource memory within memory within memory.’[3]

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(Pound in the Dispensary at the DTC, Pisa: via Wall Street Journal)

That last phrase neatly encapsulates, if not the effect of reading Pound, then perhaps the effect of having read him, especially if you take in much of the related literature as well. Pound, certainly in The Cantos, refers to so much, so many historical and contemporary figures (often obscure, often out of his own personal memories), as well as literature in several languages. The Cantos ‘refer but they do not present’, as Basil Bunting apparently told Pound.[4] Some books on The Cantos will foreground a particular aspect or avenue of approach: Pound’s use of time, the occult, particular images or motifs, the relation to Dante or Confucius or the epic tradition. But even they will often go over some of the same ground as more general surveys and recycle much of the same material. Then too, unsurprisingly, Pound himself will touch on the matter of The Cantos constantly, in essays and letters. How could he not? The net result is that, eventually, the ability to state with confidence precisely where one first came across this or that fact or allusion or echo recedes beyond recall, beyond recovery.

As to whom Pound’s ‘remember that I have remembered’ is directed – perhaps the reader but more, I think, the ghosts of that lost world, his ‘jeunesse’, London, 1908-1920. By the end of the First World War, Gaudier-Brzeska and T. E. Hulme were gone; by the end of the Second, all the ‘lordly men’ named in Canto 74 were gone too: Ford, Yeats, Joyce, Victor Plarr, Edgar Jepson, Maurice Hewlett and Henry Newbolt, all dead, and others from that era, if alive, often estranged from him.

‘Memory within memory within memory’. In the essay quoted earlier, Guy Davenport relates how, a few years after his return to Italy, despondent and fatigued though he had been, Pound sat down at his typewriter and began writing letters, the first for a while, ‘He mailed the letters himself. Within a week, they began to return. They were addressed to James Joyce, Ford Madox Ford, Wyndham Lewis, William B. Yeats.’[5]

In what eventually became Pound’s ‘Canto I’, behind which stands the eleventh book of Homer’s Odyssey, a sheep is sacrificed to Tiresias in Hades, as instructed by Circe, and ‘dark blood’ flows in the fosse, blood for the ghosts. Tiresias comes, and prophesies that ‘Odysseus / Shalt return through spiteful Neptune, over dark seas, / Lose all companions.’ So he does. ‘Blood for the ghosts’ – this enabled Pound to give voice to the many writers he translated, from Provençal, Greek, Latin, Chinese, French and Italian. But perhaps it runs both ways and ghosts—from Homer through Sigismondo Malatesta to Jefferson and Adams—provide the blood that runs in the fosse of The Cantos.

and for that Christmas at Maurie Hewlett’s
Going out from Southampton
they passed the car by the dozen
who would not have shown weight on a scale     (80/515)

 

References

[1] Sarah Moss, Night Walking (2011), set in the present day, incorporates material from the Victorian era in the form of letters home from May Moberley, one of the sisters in Bodies of Light (2014).

[2] Guy Davenport, ‘Ezra Pound 1885-1972’, in The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 170; Archilochos, ‘Fragment 183’, in Seven Greeks (New York: New Directions, 1995), 54.

[3] Hugh Kenner, ‘Remember That I Have Remembered’, in Gnomon: Essays on Contemporary Literature (New York: McDowell, Obolensky, 1958), 144-161; The Pound Era (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), 561.

[4] Kenneth Cox discusses this in ’Ezra Pound: The Composition of The Cantos’, The Art of Language: Selected Essays, edited by Jenny Penberthy (Chicago: Flood Editions, 2016), 51-52.

[5] Davenport, ‘Ezra Pound 1885-1972’, 175.

Jonathan Williams: The Lord of Orchards

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A little late to the party but hugely glad to finally arrive, I’ve been immersed in Jonathan Williams: The Lord of Orchards, edited by Jeffery Beam and Richard Owens.[1] This ‘memorial festschrift’ briefly brought to mind an earlier example, Madeira & Toasts for Basil Bunting’s 75th Birthday, edited by Williams himself, which gathered prose and poetry (and illustrations and music) from almost a hundred writers and artists, published by the Jargon Society and with a cover (a pastel portrait of Bunting) by R. B. Kitaj. But none of those contributions was more than three pages long and most were less than a page, whereas this book of ‘essays, images, and shouts’ (xiv) is not only a good deal heftier, not far short of 500 pages, but also includes substantial studies of several aspects of Williams’ life and work, and is thus perhaps more reminiscent of the ‘Person and Poet’ series of often ground-breaking volumes produced by the National Poetry Foundation (https://personandpoet.wordpress.com/ ).[2]

‘Heft’ is an apposite word, in fact, with its cluster of meanings, some obsolete or archaic, some dialect, ‘weight’, ‘ability or influence’—and one alternative reading ‘a number of sheets fastened together: an instalment of a serial publication.’ Apposite for Jonathan Williams, to be sure. Polumetis—‘many-minded’, versatile—was one of the stock epithets for Odysseus, which Ezra Pound took over and lavished also upon Sigismondo Malatesta; and Williams possessed, and displayed, that versatility in spades, a versatility not only of cultural activities and poetic forms but in his range of reference, from the Greek and Latin classics to Appalachian eavesdropping.

Divided into four sections—‘Remembering’, ‘Responding’, ‘Reviewing’ and ‘Recollecting’—and concluding with two invaluable checklists, of Jargon Society titles and of Williams’s own publications, this volume explores and celebrates that many-minded Williams in a rich array of prose, poetry and, appropriately, illustration—Williams was a superb photographer. There is an extraordinary gallery of images, both of and by Williams, some truly memorable (and also offering a splendid selection of Williams’ hats). A good number of the contributors to Williams’ festschrift for Bunting are represented here too, among them Robert Kelly, Ronald Johnson, Simon Cutts, Eric Mottram, Guy Davenport, Thomas Meyer and Bunting himself.

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The last three sections include extensive, thoroughly-researched essays: on Williams and Black Mountain; on Williams’ poetic practice and, more specifically, on ‘metafours’, the form that he invented, refined and extended through several books—‘Williams proves there is always something new under the sun. And that the new is usually found in the glory of the remaindered old’ (195)—and on Williams the photographer. Tom Patterson considers Williams’ long and dynamic engagement with the visual arts: he was a significant collector of folk or vernacular art and, in a talk transcribed here, says that a lot of his poetry of the last ten or fifteen years has been ‘involved with what they call these days, I guess, “outsider art” or “self-taught art” or “naïve art” or . . . Again, it’s essentially people who live in the country who make things’ (416). Patterson’s lengthy essay on this ‘involvement’ details Williams’ discovery of the potter Lanier Meaders and the wood sculptor Edgar Tolson, listing, at one point, nearly forty other ‘self-taught artists’ from Williams’ native region from whom he’d acquired pieces for his collection, not only buying from them but meeting and talking with them too. Much of this was field work connected with the Southern Visionary Folk Art Project though the resultant manuscript, Walks to the Paradise Garden, remained unpublished (338-339).

‘The essential thing in a poet is that he build us his world’, Ezra Pound wrote in 1915.[3] It’s striking just how often the word or the sense of that scope and reach arises in this book. In his introduction, Beam refers to ‘the Jonathan who collected the world and offered it to anyone willing and capable of responding’ (xiii). Guy Davenport points to ‘a long and distinguished history of poets who have balanced a love affair and a feud with the world’, and comments a little later: ‘A pattern of artists emerge—Blake, Ives, Nielsen, Samuel Palmer, Bruckner—and (if we have our eyes open) a whole world’ (118, 120). Kenneth Irby writes that Williams’ is ‘a contemplative poetry, attentive upon the entire world before the clear senses’ and further comments: ‘It is very much a poetry of what Ford Madox Ford called, in that neglected masterpiece, England and the English (1907), assoupissement, “a bathing in the visible world”’ (225).[4] The poet Thomas Meyer, Williams’ partner for forty years, remarks: ‘Here is a man for whom the world cannot be the world until it is palpable, until it can be handled. Or is itself a “handle”’ (247). ‘He has made a great motion in the world’, Vic Brand observes, ‘in his goings and comings, on foot and by car across America’ (278). And Williams himself, in the ‘Foreword’ to his beautiful collection of photographs and extended captions (or mini-essays) A Palpable Elysium, pronounced: ‘So, finally, what we have here is a “Home-Made World,” to use Hugh Kenner’s term.’[5]

The main impressions—either new or enhanced—that I take away from this remarkable collection are, firstly, the truly multifarious nature of Williams’ activities and enthusiasms. ‘His wide-ranging passions and interests were omnivorous. Literature, photography, hiking, food & wine, folk art, music were just a few of his serious preoccupations’ (Jonathan Greene, 202)—and he means serious: Williams’ knowledge of these things was deep and detailed. Jeffery Beam, friend and colleague of Williams for almost three decades, writes that ‘his work of more than half a century is such that no one activity or identity takes primacy over any other—seminal small press publisher of the Jargon Society; poet; book designer; editor; photographer; legendary correspondent; literary, art, and photography critic and collector; early collector and proselytizer of visionary folk art; cultural anthropologist and Juvenalian critic; curmudgeon; happy gardener; resolute walker; and keen and adroit raconteur and gourmand’ (xiii). That ‘resolute walker’ takes in the Appalachian Trail (close to 1500 miles, walked with poet Ronald Johnson over some four months) and later the fells and dales of Cumbria and Yorkshire, while the ‘legendary correspondent’ kept up an average of fifty letters a week for fifty years.

Secondly, I’d say, a much better grasp of Williams’ complex relationship with the Black Mountain poets (so many of whom he published and, often, launched), the subject of Ross Hair’s thirty-page essay: Williams’ strong admiration for Charles Olson coupled with his understanding that, ‘You ran a risk being a student of his of being kind of smothered’ (393). Hair is very good on the paradox of Black Mountain College’s being so liberal and advanced in many ways while still strikingly conservative in its gender politics and the prevailing view of the men as ‘shakers and makers’, while women ‘cooked the cornbread and made children and kept quiet’ (Williams, quoted, 138).

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Thirdly, the Jargon Society’s irrefutable importance in the history of American literature in the second half of the twentieth century: look at the authors of the first twenty Jargon titles, famous now but many or most of them far from famous then. Apart from Williams (volumes of his own poetry as well as his calligraphy and photographs deployed in several others), they include Oppenheimer, Patchen, Olson, Creeley, Zukofsky, Duncan, Levertov, McClure – and Henry Miller, Mina Loy and Paul Metcalf are just around the corner, as are introductions by William Carlos Williams and Kenneth Rexroth. Nor are we seeing only the names of writers: here are Robert Rauschenberg, Paul Ellsworth, Dan Rice, René Laubiès, Aaron Siskind – and drawings by Miller, Patchen and Fielding Dawson.

Fourthly, the extent of Williams’ enthusiasm for the chance encounter, the overheard remark, the glimpsed roadside sign, the ready-made. One of his favourite quotations (and one cited several times by other contributors here) is from John Clare: ‘I found these poems in the fields and only wrote them down.’ Jim Cory asserts that, more than any other poet in the postmodern schools descending from the Pound–William Carlos Williams line, Jonathan Williams ‘made the found poem central to his enterprise’, believing that ‘discovery was at least half the process of creation’ (197). As far back as the Black Mountain years, Hair points to Williams sharpening his ears on local speech at Ma Peak’s Tavern, three miles from the college: ‘The beer joint in Hicksville, USA should never be underestimated’ (Williams quoted, 156). Eric Mottram quotes Williams (in the London Times, 1970) saying that, ‘Poetry to me is a kind of field—a place in which things happen’ (187-188).[6] Their happening requires a democratic openness, a quickness of response and recording, a detailed memory—but, above all, attention. ‘It is the life of attention which is life itself for the Epicurean, the panoply of detail and experience’, Thomas Meyer writes. ‘Pay attention. Close attention. Is his credo. / For attention is the highest form of delight’ (250). As Williams himself said, ‘I don’t make much distinction. I like to find things, and then I like to make things. I don’t particularly like to make up things. I just like to make things, and they’re usually things that I’ve found—either signs or conversation or words out of some stranger’s mouth, which struck me as terrific’ (383).

JW-Palpable

Fifthly, the extent of his concern to commemorate and celebrate those—poets and others—who have gone on to Elysium. Gary Carden remembers that Williams ‘was fond of addressing his dead friends, saying things like, “If there is a flight out of the Elysian Fields tonight, old friend, I’ll pick you up at the airport.”’ (49). And Guy Davenport described Williams as not only ‘the iconographer of poets in our time’ but also ‘of the places and graves of poets gone on to Elysium’ (111).[7] Indeed, some of the most resonant photographs in A Palpable Elysium are of the many and varied graves: Jelly Roll Morton, Kenneth Grahame (‘who passed the river on the 6th of July 1932’), Erik Satie, Wallace Stevens, Rachmaninoff, Charlie Parker, Vincent and Theo Van Gogh in Auvers-sur-Oise, E. E. Cummings and H. P. Lovecraft, James Thurber, Edgar Tolson (‘the Woodcarver’) and the mausoleum of Walt Whitman.

Attention and death— they come together in Tom Meyer’s elegant and often intensely moving poem Kintsugi. Robert Kelly, in his foreword, notes that, ‘When we are that close, so close that the whole of one’s attention is given to that person who is going away, love means little more than paying attention’ (98). Meyer writes:

Walk into a room.
Not know where I am.
Once it was Love
had me so distracted.
Now it’s Death. (103)

As soon as I came across Jeffery Beam, in his introduction to this print edition, quoting a 1991 letter from Williams that starts by recommending Alan Judd’s fine biography of Ford Madox Ford, I knew that the omens were good, at least for this reader. And so it proved, to a greater extent than I’ve managed to outline here – and a sense of Williams’ real significance is brought into sharp relief by the extraordinary range and variety of the contributors gathered in The Lord of Orchards, to remember, bear witness, respond, review and celebrate the poet, the publisher, the photographer and the man.

In his 2007 interview with Beam’s co-editor, Richard Owens, Jonathan Williams remarked of Lorine Niedecker: ‘It’s hard to imagine people not being interested in her but most people do manage not to be interested and it continues on’ (367). Most people do so manage and it does continue on – but it’s at least as hard to imagine anybody with an interest in Jonathan Williams, or Charles Olson and the other Black Mountain poets, or small press publishing, or Anglo-American literature from the 1940s to now, not finding a great deal of intense and lasting interest—and enjoyment—here.

 
References

[1] Jonathan Williams: The Lord of Orchards, edited by Jeffery Beam and Richard Owens. ISBN 978-1-63226-087-1. Westport and New York: Prospecta Press, 2017. The title is taken from Williams’ ‘Symphony No. 2 in C Minor’, v (‘Scherzo tempo: all stops out’): ‘The Lord of Orchards/ selects his fruits/ in the Firmament’s/ breast’. See Jubilant Thicket: New & Selected Poems (Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 2005), 61. The book is an expansion of the feature on Williams which appeared in late 2009 in the online journal Jacket: http://jacketmagazine.com/38/index.shtml#jw

[2] Sensibly amalgamated from the earlier ‘Man and Poet’ (William Carlos Williams, Eliot, Bunting, Zukofsky, Bunting) and ‘Woman and Poet’ (Mina Loy, Lorine Niedecker, H. D., May Sarton, Marianne Moore).

[3] Pound, ‘Hark to Sturge Moore’, Poetry, VI, 3 (June 1915), 140. The line was used as epigraph to ‘Part One’ of Ezra Pound, Selected Prose 1909-1965, edited by William Cookson (London: Faber and Faber, 1973), 19.

[4] Indeed he does, in The Soul of London (1905): see England and the English, edited by Sara Haslam (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2003), 75.

[5] Jonathan Williams, A Palpable Elysium: Portraits of Genius and Solitude, introduction by Guy Davenport (Boston: David R. Godine, 2002), 10. The Hugh Kenner book referred to is A Homemade World: The American Modernist Writers (1975).

[6] This may recall William Carlos Williams’ ‘The Poem as a Field of Action’ (1948) – ‘we here must listen to the language for the discoveries we hope to make’: Selected Essays (New York: New Directions, 1969), 290.

[7] In his ‘Introduction’ to A Palpable Elysium, Davenport notes of Williams: ‘It is his opinion (in conversation) that lots of people who think they are alive are actually dead’ (11).

 

‘Now it is time’ – revisiting Rilke

rilke-clara-1906
(Rilke and Clara, 1906)
http://fondationrilke.ch/rainer-maria-rilke/

‘Where to begin? And am I the one to give the Elegies their proper explanation? They pass infinitely beyond me.’[1] Yes, I’ve been revisiting Rilke, having read a good deal of his work decades ago, and always in translation, but nothing at all recently. In that long interval, though, I often noticed his name cropping up in all sorts of contexts in other books I was reading. Here was Lewis Hyde, writing about Rilke on art as a way of life, referring to his ‘wise blindness’.[2] Then W. H. Auden explaining to Alan Ansen that he wouldn’t mind Yeats’s ‘crazy mythology if he took it more seriously’, or, conversely, tipped a wink at the end to say the whole thing was a hoax; adding: ‘I like really crazy people like Rilke, yes, and D. H. Lawrence.’[3]

There are four versions of Rilke poems in Robert Lowell’s Imitations and, in History, a poem called ‘Rilke Self-Portrait’.[4] In Vernon Watkins’s poem, ‘Discoveries’, ‘Rilke bears all, thinks like a tree, believes,/ Sinks in the hand that bears the falling leaves.’ In the early summer of 1941, Watkins stayed with Dylan Thomas in Laugharne. ‘We had read Rilke’s Duino Elegies to each other in the look-out of Laugharne Castle perched on the wall over the estuary. The poems excited Dylan deeply, though he called Rilke “a very odd boy indeed”.’[5]

Here is Ted Hughes writing to Anne Stevenson in the autumn of 1986, pointing out the very wide range of Sylvia Plath’s reading in modern poetry, particularly European poets. ‘She was saturated with Rilke, of course’, Hughes notes, ‘she was perpetually studying German and used Rilke as a text. She regarded Rilke and [Zbigniew] Herbert as much more her “fellow-countrymen” than other US poets.’[6]

There are almost twenty Rilke translations in Randall Jarrell’s published work:

‘One star in the dark pass of the houses,
Shines as if it were a sign
Set there to point the way to—
But more beautiful, somehow, than what it points to,
So that no one has ever gone on beyond
Except those who could not see it, and went on
To what it pointed to, and could not see that either.’[7]

And then—Guy Davenport. Discussing Eliot’s Four Quartets, he suggests that they are, ‘in one sense Eliot’s emulation, and rivalry, of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies [1923]. Both are the greatest poems of our century about time, mortality, and our tragic incomprehension of existence. Both negate time for an eternal present containing the past and the future.’[8]

Schloss-Duino

In his essay on Ezra Pound published a few months after the poet’s death, Davenport recalled, on a visit to Venice, learning that Pound was then reading aloud to Olga Rudge Jean Paul Sartre’s recently published Les Mots. ‘A book less likely to interest Pound cannot be imagined’, Davenport observes, ‘and yet he was always capable of surprising our notions of what he did and didn’t like. His last journey was by yacht to the Schloss Duino. Rilke! Who could have foreseen that act of homage?’[9]

This finds its echo or enlargement in an August 1972 letter from Davenport to Hugh Kenner, in the wonderful edition of their correspondence forthcoming from Counterpoint Press next month: ‘Last report is that Ezra, Olga, and some well-heeled friend with a yacht are off to the Schloss Duino to inspect the ramparts from which Rilke, gazing into the storm, heard the angel cry, or shriek, or whistle. It is news to me that Ezra Pound ever looked into a copy of the Duineser Elegien.’ Edward Burns’ note informs us that Davenport is thinking of ‘the opening of the first elegy’, which Davenport translates as ‘“What eye among the rungs and hordes / of angelkind would turn and find / my long call through the storm of time?”’[10]

J. B. Leishman begins his translation of that first elegy like this:

Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic
orders? And even if one of them suddenly
pressed me against his heart, I should fade in the strength of his
stronger existence. For Beauty’s nothing
but beginning of Terror we’re still just able to bear,
and why we adore it so is because it serenely
disdains to destroy us. Every angel is terrible.[11]

I think, though, that what really jolted me back to Rilke was happening across this translation by Michael Hamburger of a poem, dated ‘October, 1925’, that begins, ‘Jetzt wär es Zeit, daß Götter träten aus / bewohnten Dingen…’

Now it is time that gods came walking out
of things inhabited. . .
And then demolished every wall inside
my house. New page. For nothing but the wind
that would be raised by such a wind in turning
could turn the air as shovel turns a sod:
a brand-new field of air. O gods, you gods,
the often come, who are asleep in things,
cheerfully rise, at wells that we conjecture
wash wide awake their faces and their necks
and add their restedness to that which seems
full as it is, our lives already full.
Another morning make your morning, gods!
We’re the repeaters, only you the source.
Your rising is the world’s, beginning shines
from every crack within our patched-up failure. . . .[12]

An extraordinary poem, an extraordinary translation and, surely, both. All those gods! And angels! Yet, referring to the scepticism of Nietzsche, Charles Tomlinson remarks that it was ‘a disbelief that found its most lasting poetic embodiments in the Duino Elegies of Rainer Maria Rilke’.[13] And Rilke himself wrote, in the letter first quoted, ‘The angel of the Elegies has nothing to do with the angel of the Christian heaven (rather with the angelic figures of Islam. . . .) The angel of the Elegies is that Being in whom the transmutation of the Visible into the Invisible, which we seek to achieve, is consummated.’

PMB-Rilke

(Paula Modersohn-Becker, Rainer Maria Rilke, 1906)

Drusilla Modjeska Stravinsky’s Lunch, largely devoted to the study of two Australian women painters— Grace Cossington-Smith and Stella Bowen, one of the most important people in the life of Ford Madox Ford—briefly traces in the early pages the life and career of Paula Modersohn-Becker, who painted most of her significant pictures, and eighty in all, in one year, 1906-1907, the year in which she died at the early age of thirty-one. Modjeska mentions that Modersohn-Becker sold only one painting in her lifetime (in fact, it seems to have been three) and that one to her friend Rilke. She was a close friend of the artist Clara Westhoff, who did in fact marry Rilke.[14] After Modersohn-Becker’s death, Rilke wrote a long, remarkable ‘Requiem for a Friend’, though without naming her.

‘Are you still there? Still hiding in some corner? —
You knew so much of all that I’ve been saying,
and could so much too, for you passed through life
open to all things, like a breaking day.
Women suffer: loving means being lonely,
and artists feel at times within their work
the need, where most they love, for transmutation.’[15]

B opener Moderson-BeckerSelfPortrait.jpg

(Paula Modersohn-Becker, Self-Portrait on the 6th Wedding Day, 1906)

Naturally, I became interested in Modersohn-Becker: the recent fine biography of her by Marie Darrieussecq—‘And, through all these gaps, I in turn am writing this story, which is not Paula M. Becker’s life as she lived it, but my sense of it a century later. A trace’—was largely responsible for the major retrospective of Paula Modersohn-Becker’s work at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris in 2016, for which Darrieussecq wrote the catalogue texts.[16]

Rilke arrives in Worpswede in Northern Germany in September 1900, initially to visit his friend, the painter Heinrich Vogeler. ‘Rilke thinks that painters know how to live, always. They depict anxiety. In hospital, Van Gogh paints his hospital room. The bodies of painters and sculptors are active. Their work is given over to this movement. He, the poet, doesn’t know what to do with his hands. He doesn’t know how to be alive.’ Then: a painter and a sculptor. Rilke ‘is in two minds. Paula, Clara. His heart is torn. He has a preference for threesomes, which will continue his whole life’ (Being Here 27, 28). In 1901, in preparation for her marriage to Otto Modersohn, Paula Becker is sent to Berlin, to take a cookery course. Rilke is also there and they meet. ‘As soon as she leaves, he writes to her again. It is midnight under his green lamp; he doesn’t touch a thing, in order to retain her presence’ (Being Here 49). They have dinner together for the last time in Paris, 27 July 1906. She dies of an embolism in November 1907: she is thirty-one years old. A year after her death, Rilke will write the ‘Requiem for a Friend’ over ‘three haunted nights in Paris’, at the Hotel Biron, 77 rue de Varenne, ‘a building Clara located for him and which will become the Musée Rodin.’ (Being Here 136).

‘Do not return. If you can bear it, stay
dead with the dead. The dead are occupied.
But help me, as you may without distraction,
as the most distant sometimes helps: in me.’[17]

So yes—intrigued, baffled, astonished, bemused, exhilarated—I am reading Rilke.

 

References

[1] Rainer Maria Rilke, Selected Letters of Rainer Maria Rilke, 1902-1926, translated by R. F. C. Hull (London: Macmillan, 1946), 392.

[2] Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (New York: Vintage, 1983), 150.

[3] Alan Ansen, The Table Talk of W. H Auden, edited by Nicholas Jenkins (London: Faber and Faber, 1991), 72.

[4] Robert Lowell, Collected Poems, edited by Frank Bidart and David Gewanter (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 273-279, 497.

[5] Vernon Watkins, ‘Discoveries’. Selected Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1967), 8; Dylan Thomas, Letters to Vernon Watkins, edited by Vernon Watkins (London: J. M. Dent and Sons and Faber and Faber, 1957), 105.

[6] Letters of Ted Hughes, selected and edited by Christopher Reid (London: Faber and Faber, 2007), 516-517.

[7] Randall Jarrell, ‘The Evening Star’, The Complete Poems (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1969), 485.

[8] Guy Davenport, ‘Civilization and its Opposite in the 1940s’, The Hunter Gracchus and Other Papers on Literature and Art (Washington: Counterpoint, 1996), 80: Davenport had the date as 1921 but appears to have been two years out.

[9] Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 171.

[10] Questioning Minds: The Letters of Guy Davenport and Hugh Kenner, edited by Edward Burns (Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 2018), II, 1413; 1447, n.105.

[11] Rainer Maria Rilke, Selected Works. Volume II: Poetry, translated by J. B. Leishman (London: The Hogarth Press, 1980), 225.

[12] German Poetry, 1910-1975, an Anthology translated and edited by Michael Hamburger (Manchester: Carcanet New Press, 1977), 22-23.

[13] Charles Tomlinson, American Essays: Making It New (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2001), 59.

[14] Drusilla Modjeska, Stravinsky’s Lunch (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000), 6-13.

[15] Rilke, Poetry, 204.

[16] Marie Darrieussecq, Being Here: The Life of Paula Modersohn-Becker, translated by Penny Hueston (Melbourne, Australia: Text Publishing, 2017), 44, 154, n.34.

[17] Rilke, Poetry, 205.

 

Taking some lines for a walk: Ford, Conrad, Novalis

(Ford by Hoppé; Conrad via New York Public Library)

On this day in 1913, Ford Madox Ford published an essay in The New Freewoman, the middle incarnation of three journals edited wholly or in part by the suffragist and radical activist Dora Marsden. She started The Freewoman: A Weekly Feminist Review (1911-1912) with her friend Mary Gawthorpe; in the latter half of 1913, she edited what had become The New Freewoman – Rebecca West (who had got her start in The Freewoman) was literary editor; finally, it became The Egoist, with Harriet Weaver as editor (and primary financial backer) and Marsden as contributing editor, running from January 1914 to December 1919 and famously publishing some key modernist texts (by Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, Pound and Eliot).[1]

Dora-Marsden

Dora Marsden apparently necessitating the attention of several big strong men:
http://spartacus-educational.com/WmarsdenD.htm

Ford’s essay, ‘The Poet’s Eye’, unsurprisingly bore a strong resemblance to the ‘Preface’ to his Collected Poems, published towards the end of that year. Much of it discussed his view of the differences between poetry and prose, the first being for him quite uncontrollable, ‘words in verse form’ coming into his head from time to time and being written down ‘quite powerlessly and without much interest, under the stress of certain emotions.’ With prose, ‘that conscious and workable medium’, it was ‘a perfectly different matter.’

Ford is actually arguing that the ‘literary jargon’ to which English poetry is wedded, together with the narrow assumptions of what constitutes the suitable material of poetry, renders it incapable of dealing with modern life, ‘so extraordinary, so hazy, so tenuous with, still, such definite and concrete spots in it’. Poetry in English was, of course, on the cusp of extraordinary change: Pound’s Ripostes the previous year had included ‘The Return’ and T. E. Hulme’s poems; Des Imagistes would follow in 1914, as would W. B. Yeats’s Responsibilities; Cathay and Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ in 1915. But, at the time of his writing, there was still a strong and widespread adherence to what Ford termed ‘the sure cards of the poetic pack’.

‘I may really say’, Ford asserted, ‘that for a quarter of a century I have kept before me one unflinching aim—to register my own times in terms of my own time, and still more to urge those who are better poets and better prose writers than myself to have the same aim. I suppose I have been pretty well ignored; I find no signs of my being taken seriously. It is certain that my conviction would gain immensely as soon as another soul could be found to share it. But for a man mad about writing this is a solitary world, and writing—you cannot write about writing without using foreign words—is a métier de chien.’[2]

Ford was precocious—but perhaps not to quite that degree: a literal ‘quarter of a century’ would have made him fourteen. His first book was published shortly before his eighteenth birthday. But there are some splendidly recurrent phrases here, I mean ones that resonate in minds that have grazed in Fordian fields. I remember Donald Davie writing about a phalanx of details in Pound’s Canto 80, pausing to remark that ‘Anyone is free to decide that life is too short for such unriddlings; others (I speak from experience) may develop a taste for them.’[3] This is not such an unriddling but certainly a related pleasure—or vice.

Novalis

(Friedrich von Hardenberg: Novalis)

‘It is certain that my conviction would gain immensely as soon as another soul could be found to share it.’ Yes, ‘recurrent’ is an apt word here. In 1900, William Blackwood published Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad, its epigraph reading: ‘“It is certain my conviction gains infinitely, the moment another soul will believe in it.”—Novalis.’ Cedric Watts’ note points out that in the German original, the word means ‘opinion’ rather than ‘conviction’, that Conrad was probably using the translation by Thomas Carlyle in On Heroes, Hero-Worship and the Heroic in History, and that an alternative version appears in another Carlyle book, Sartor Resartus, which Conrad has his character Marlow read in his novella Youth. Watts also notes that Conrad quotes Novalis’ aphorism again in A Personal Record.[4]

Lord Jim was published during the intense period of collaboration between Ford and Conrad which eventually produced The Inheritors (1901), Romance (1903) and The Nature of a Crime (1909; 1924). It was in the September of 1898 that the two men met and , in the following month, Conrad and his family moved into Pent Farm, Postling, Kent, sublet to them by Ford. A quarter of a century later, Ford recalled of that time: ‘Conrad’s conviction restored life to the fainting Pent: it breathed once more: the cat jumped off the window sill; the clock struck four’: this immediately preceding the arrival of W. H. Hudson—their first meeting—who would be of immense importance to Ford, though in less immediately evident ways than Conrad.[5]

Use what’s at hand: ‘pent’, wonderful. Ford’s fictional ambitions were both fired and freed in the course of the collaboration, while ‘the bulk of [Conrad’s] greatest fiction—the completed Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness, Nostromo, and The Secret Agent—was written while collaborating with Ford.’[6]

In 1915, in the second of Ford’s propaganda books, he notes in the ‘Preface’, ‘It is certain that my conviction gains immensely as soon as another soul can be found to share it.’[7] The following year, writing to Conrad from a Red Cross hospital in Rouen, he commented, ‘Since I have been out here this time I have not had one letter from one living soul. So one’s conviction does not get much from wh[ich]. to gain anything!’ By 1921, when Ford was writing to Harriet Monroe to acknowledge the Poetry prize awarded to him for A House (1921), the quote from Novalis (not named here) had become ‘the immortal dictum: “It is certain that my conviction gains immensely as soon as another soul can be found to share it”’[8] and the precise wording recurs in a 1927 essay about Ford’s memories of New York.[9]

One clear implication of these instances is that, while Ford—at least trilingual—could have read, and translated for himself, the lines from Novalis, he didn’t: though perhaps, even if he’d done so, he might have persisted with the version he associated with Conrad. But it’s also very striking, and surely poignant, that Ford, editor as well as writer, closely connected with so many groups of writers and artists, from the late 1890s through the English Review crowd, Imagism, Vorticism, Paris in the 1920s, New York and Tennessee in the 1930s, had that constant need for another soul to share his conviction. ‘He needed more reassurance than anyone I have ever met’, Stella Bowen remembered.[10] ‘Until the arrival of such “uncomfortables” as Wyndham Lewis, the distressful D. H. Lawrence, D. Goldring, G. Cannan, etc., I think Ford had no one to play with’, Ezra Pound wrote—an oddly selected cast but with a grain of truth, nevertheless.[11]

Hokusai

Those phrases, ‘a man mad about writing’ and ‘a métier de chien’ in Ford’s essay also have their histories. Describing himself as ‘an old man mad about writing’, Ford pointed to the artist Hokusai who called himself ‘an old man mad about painting’: he used the phrase or variations on it several times.[12] That ‘métier de chien’ is, again, associated particularly with Conrad: ‘For Conrad hated writing more than he hated the sea. . . . Le vrai métier de chien. . . . ’ but employed and alluded to in various contexts.[13] Then later references to the Shepherd’s Bush Exhibition and that phrase, ‘We are the heirs of all the ages’. . . But no, the comments on the essay would threaten to rival, in length at least, the essay itself. Perhaps another time, another walk, another conviction. ‘Taking a line for a walk’ – that was Paul Klee, I think. Another kind of line but the phrase would probably serve: taking a few Fordian lines for a walk. Yes, why not?

 
References

[1] Detailed on the indispensable Modernist Journals Project website: http://modjourn.org/index.html

[2] Ford Madox Ford, ‘The Poet’s Eye’, New Freewoman, I, 6 (1 September 1913), 107-110.

[3] Donald Davie, ‘Ezra Pound Abandons the English’ (1975), reprinted in Studies in Ezra Pound (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 1991), 236.

[4] Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim, edited by Robert Hampson with an introduction and notes by Cedric Watts (London: Penguin Books, 1989), 41, 353; see also Ian Watt, Conrad in the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979), 40 and n.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance (London: Duckworth, 1924), 155.

[6] Max Saunders, Ford Madox Ford: A Dual Life, two volumes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), I, 117. Alan Judd observes that, ‘Most of Conrad’s best work was written during periods of their intimacy’: Ford Madox Ford (London: Collins, 1990), 63.

[7] Ford Madox Ford, Between St. Dennis and St. George: A Sketch of Three Civilisations (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1915), vi.

[8] Ford Madox Ford, Letters of Ford Madox Ford, edited by Richard M. Ludwig (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 80, 136. E. M. Forster was at it too, quoting the same aphorism of an unnamed ‘mystic’: Howards End (1910; edited by Oliver Stallybrass, London: Penguin Books, 1989).

[9] Ford Madox Ford, New York Is Not America (London: Duckworth, 1927), 91.

[10] Stella Bowen, Drawn From Life (London: Collins, 1941), 80.

[11] Ezra Pound, ‘Ford Madox (Hueffer) Ford; Obit’, in Selected Prose 1909-1965, edited by William Cookson (London: Faber and Faber, 1973), 433.

[12] Ford Madox Ford, The March of Literature: From Confucius to Modern Times (London: Allen & Unwin, 1939), vi: Conrad is named on the last page (850) of the text. Nicholas Delbanco’s essay on this book is titled ‘An Old Man Mad about Writing’: Joseph Wiesenfarth, History and Representation in Ford Madox Ford’s Writings (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2004), 219-231. In A Mirror to France (London: Duckworth, 1926), for instance, Ford is ‘an old man mad about Provence’ (208).

[13] Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad, 113, 255; Thus to Revisit (London: Chapman & Hall, 1921), 57; Return to Yesterday: Reminiscences 1894-1914 (London: Victor Gollancz, 1931), 292; The Simple Life Limited by ‘Daniel Chaucer’ (John Lane, 1911), 73.

 

As easy as pie – sometimes

Basil

‘Basil returned with the two pies. He was wearing the expression of a man who has laid hands on a symbol of his boyhood: it made him look somewhat ponderous.’[1] This seems a pretty straightforward example of a symbol (pie = boyhood), though the passive construction of those verbs (‘He was wearing’ and ‘it made him look’) must be seen a little warily in the context of ‘Basil’ being the ‘great actor’, Sir Basil Hunter, come back from England to Australia to ease his dying mother into an old folks’ home, secure as much of the loot as he can, and play whatever roles are required.

EyeOfTheStorm.jpg

In the opening paragraph of her second novel, Penelope Fitzgerald writes of her central character, Florence Green: ‘She had once seen a heron flying across the estuary and trying, while it was on the wing, to swallow an eel which it had caught. The eel, in turn, was struggling to escape from the gullet of the heron and appeared a quarter, a half, or occasionally three-quarters of the way out. The indecision expressed by both creatures was pitiable. They had taken on too much.’ Bracketing this description, there are passages of studied ambiguity: it is one of the nights when Florence is ‘not absolutely sure whether she had slept or not’; and ‘Florence felt that if she hadn’t slept at all – and people often say this when they mean nothing of the kind – she must have been kept awake by thinking of the heron.’

A little later, we read that, ‘The weather was curious, and reminded her of the day she saw the flying heron trying to swallow the eel.’ One more reference, a dozen pages further on, seems to emphasise dreaming rather than thinking in that first instance: ‘Completely tired out by the time she went to bed, she no longer dreamed of the heron and the eel, or, so far as she knew, of anything else.’[2]

Some fifteen years later, in an essay on the voices of fictional characters, Fitzgerald quoted from that opening and commented, ‘I now think this was a mistake, because dreams in fiction are just as tedious as people’s dreams in real life.’[3] True enough: but the reference to the form rather than the content seems a little disingenuous – or am I oversimplifying by seeing the heron and the eel as a symbolic conjunction relevant to Fitzgerald’s entire corpus? One of her critics, enlarging on this ‘remarkable, predatory image’, remarks that, ‘As if borrowed from the sphere of sleep’s hauntings, the image, Darwinian and predacious, will be recalled more than once in the course of the novel, and it sets up, right at the start, the theme of survival—and the challenges that make survival, especially for the less fit and self-assertive, a chancy matter.’[4]

Blue-Heron-via-Telegraph

(Blue heron, via The Telegraph)

Yes, just before the second reference to the heron and eel, we find: ‘She blinded herself, in short, by pretending for a while that human beings are not divided into exterminators and exterminatees, with the former, at any given moment, predominating.’ And elsewhere, reflecting on V. S. Pritchett’s warning against writing one’s life away, Fitzgerald wrote: ‘This is a warning that has to be taken seriously. I can only say that however close I’ve come, by this time, to nothingness, I have remained true to my deepest convictions – I mean to the courage of those who are born to be defeated, the weaknesses of the strong, and the tragedy of misunderstandings and missed opportunities which I have done my best to treat as a comedy, for otherwise how can we manage to bear it?’[5]

The heron and the eel—together—comprise then an image, and surely a symbol, of the battle that life entails for a certain kind of person, with that particular balance of courage and confidence, who will never triumph yet will never quite give up either. How conscious, how deliberate must the use of a symbol be to qualify as a symbol? It seems absurdly patronising to suggest that so accomplished a writer wouldn’t have been perfectly aware of what she was doing. Nevertheless, I wonder if some writers—having produced such images, or symbols, capable of such strong and varied interpretations—hold them at a distance, play down their ownership with its implied rights of sustained control, concerned to allow those images room to breathe, to expand and flower in their readers’ minds.

‘I think you are playing a dangerous game,’ Patrick White wrote to Manfred Mackenzie in 1963, ‘fascinating to the player, no doubt – in all this symbol-chasing. Most of the time, I’m afraid, it leads up the wrong tree!’ He added, ‘I am sorry not to be able to confess to most of the influences you suggest. I may have arrived at certain conclusions via other writers who had read those you mention. Otherwise I suppose symbols can pop out of the collective unconscious.’ Two years earlier, replying to James Stern’s queries about his religious development, White replied: ‘Certainly in my own case I did not return to orthodox Anglicanism, but the Anglican church is a feeble organisation compared with the Jewish faith. I made the attempt, found that Churches destroy the mystery of God, and had to evolve symbols of my own through which to worship.’[6]

White did sometimes use symbols quite deliberately, often foregrounding them, as with the mandala that becomes part of the title of one of his novels, though circles and other figures of wholeness are everywhere in his books (as are roses). Linked to this, a sense of the wholeness of the world, certainly the artist’s world, perhaps not rationally apprehended but felt, sensed, known, is conveyed by the figure of the dance: Arthur Brown dancing the mandala for Mrs Poulter, or the young musician when she first enters Hurtle Duffield’s house: ‘As she continued turning within the conservatory’s narrow limits, she began also to hum. A golden tinsel of light hung around her lithe, mackerel body; while out of the dislodged tiles and shambles of broken glass her shuffling feet produced discordancies, but appropriate ones: Kathy Volkov would probably never teeter over into sweetness.’[7] William Butler Yeats, mindful of the interconnectedness of every part of both a tree and a work of art, famously asked at the end of ‘Among School Children’, ‘How can we know the dancer from the dance?’[8] And the novelist Richard Hughes, in his introduction to an edition of a William Faulkner novel, mentioned the story told of ‘a celebrated Russian dancer, who was asked by someone what she meant by a certain dance. She answered with some exasperation, “If I could say it in so many words, do you think I should take the very great trouble of dancing it?”’[9] It occurs to me that the title of Poussin’s painting that Anthony Powell adopted for his novel-sequence, A Dance to the Music of Time, could hardly have comprised three terms more mysterious and more difficult to grasp with confidence and conviction.

Dance_to_the_music_of_time

(Nicolas Poussin, A Dance to the Music of Time: Wallace Collection)

The gap that uncertainty—as to whether a literary image or motif is deliberately designed to perform a more substantial symbolic function—allows can carry a good deal of force. I’ve reflected more than once on Ford Madox Ford’s multiple references to cooking and gardening. They are almost always, in the first instance, actual cooking and actual gardening—both arts that Ford practised and regarded as hugely important. But, of course, they also offer extraordinary scope for symbolic interpretation. Ford uses more explicitly symbolic images too, which occur less often but with a more focused aim. So Christopher Tietjens characterises his wife and his lover thus: ‘If you wanted something killed you’d go to Sylvia Tietjens in the sure faith that she would kill it: emotion: hope: ideal: kill it quick and sure. If you wanted something kept alive you’d go to Valentine: she’d find something to do for it . . . The two types of mind: remorseless enemy: sure screen: dagger . . . sheath!’ Later, the suffragette and pacifist Valentine Wannop will acknowledge her ‘automatic feeling that all manly men were lust-filled devils, desiring nothing better than to stride over battlefields, stabbing the wounded with long daggers in frenzies of sadism.’[10]

For literary critics, psychoanalysts and many others, the world is a seething mass of symbols—in the index to my Penguin edition of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, ‘symbol’ runs into three columns, offering no end of joyous examples: asparagus, burglar, nail-file, zeppelin—but they would probably be the first to agree that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, a pipe a pipe, a rose a rose. And surely sometimes a pie is just a pie.

 

 

References

[1] Patrick White, The Eye of the Storm (London: Penguin Books, 1975), 452.

[2] Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bookshop (1978; London: Everyman, 2001), 5, 29, 40.

[3] Penelope Fitzgerald, ‘Hearing Them Speak’ (1993), in A House of Air: Selected Writings, edited by Terence Dooley with Mandy Kirkby and Chris Carduff (London: Harper Perennial, 2005), 499-500.

[4] Christopher J. Knight, ‘The Second Saddest Story: Despair, Belief, and Moral Perseverance in Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop’, Journal of Narrative Theory, 42, 1 (Spring 2012), 70, 71.

[5] Fitzgerald, ‘Curriculum Vitae’, in A House of Air, 480.

[6] Patrick White, Letters, edited by David Marr (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994), 216, 217, 196.

[7] See Patrick White, The Solid Mandala ( Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1969), 265-267; The Vivisector (London: Jonathan Cape, 1970), 443-444.

[8] W. B. Yeats, Collected Poems, second edition (London: Macmillan, 1950), 245.

[9] Hughes, ‘Introduction’ to William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (London: Chatto and Windus, 1966), vii.

[10] Ford Madox Ford, Some Do Not. . . (1924; edited by Max Saunders, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2010), 160, 284. Related images occur in many of Ford’s other works.