Jubilant jaunty Jonathan


(Jonathan Williams, via New Directions Publishing Corporation)

In 1973, William Blissett, on a visit to the poet and painter David Jones, went with him through a list of queries about In Parenthesis, one of them ‘yon’s wick as Swale-side rat’. Yorkshire dialect, Jones told him, quick, alert, artful. He was surprised that the Oxford English Dictionary gave only ‘wicked’: that was ‘not what he meant at all.’ Blissett added: ‘He remembers a Yorkshireman in his unit who used to pass things to him, saying “’ere ye are, wick’un.”’[1]

That rang a bell with this Southerner and the ringing sound was traced to the fine collection of Portrait Photographs by Jonathan Williams, with a short preface by Hugh Kenner.[2] One of the photographs is of David Hockney and beside it Williams wrote: ‘I worry sometimes that La Grande Chic will gobble up David and turn him into High Society’s current stand-in for Cecil Beaton or Noel Coward. But, maybe that argument is neither nowt nor summat, as they say in the West Riding where he comes from. Our David is wick as a lop and still knows what’s what.’


(David Hockney by Jonathan Williams)

‘Wick as a lop’, yes, that was the phrase. Getting on for forty years later and Hockney still knows what’s what, is still working endlessly, exploring, experimenting, trying stuff out and giving pleasure. Not bad going.

Jonathan Williams (born 8 March 1929), was poet, publisher, photographer, essayist. He studied at Black Mountain College and, with David Ruff, founded The Jargon Society in 1951. It published an extraordinary range of writers, mainly poets, including Robert Duncan, Mina Loy, Louis Zukofsky, Paul Metcalf, Kenneth Patchen, Robert Creeley and Denise Levertov, though its all-time bestseller seems to have been White Trash Cooking. Following Williams’ death in March 2008, his long-time partner, the poet Thomas Meyer, took the decision to present The Jargon Society’s inventory and publication rights to the Black Mountain College Museum & Arts Center: see http://jargonbooks.com/


Charles Olson’s early Maximus volumes appeared from Jargon. So too did Lorine Niedecker’s beautiful T & G: The Collected Poems (1936-1966), printed by the Falcon Press in Philadelphia, in September 1969. Niedecker lived most of her life on Black Hawk Island, Wisconsin.

Black Hawk held: In reason
land cannot be sold,
only things to be carried away,
and I am old.

Young Lincoln’s general moved,
pawpaw in bloom,
and to this day, Black Hawk,
reason has small room.[3]

In the early 1960s, as Niedecker wrote to Louis Zukofsky, ‘Letter from Jonathan says he reads my poems to English audiences but tho the response was good, “very tentative. The English tend to want a lot of ‘profound talk’ in everything, and they are so non-sensual that they find it difficult to enjoy anything else. . .”’.[4] Williams was also given to ‘reading and slide-showing tours around the Republic in his Volkswagen, The Blue Rider’. He is, Guy Davenport wrote, ‘the iconographer of poets in our time, and of the places and graves of poets gone on to Elysium.’[5]

Williams’ own poems were written in the Pennine Dales and the Appalachian Mountains. Hugh Kenner’s observation that ‘Jonathan Williams is our Catullus and our Johnny Appleseed’ hints at the hybrid nature of the poetry.[6] It’s hugely various, veering from high modernism to folk art, exploratory, a little crazy, jaunty, ingenious, funny, often splendidly indecent. From two-line epigrams through acrostics, clerihews and what Williams calls ‘Meta-fours’, four words to a line, these and others often skirting the edge of nonsense, if not toppling over; there’s the fifty-page Mahler; and then many ‘found’ poems. They may be literally so, reshaped from newspaper reports or postcards or public notices; but the term could be applied more widely, to Williams looking and listening with close attention to ordinary lives in the Appalachians or in Cumbria. Guy Davenport quotes such a poem, suggesting that it demonstrates its author having learned from William Carlos Williams’ insistence that ‘the poet’s business is to let the world speak for itself’:


Mister Williams
lets youn me move
tother side the house

the woman
choppin wood’s
mite nigh the awkerdist thing
I seen.[7]

As with many of Marianne Moore’s poems or, for that matter, Ezra Pound’s ‘In a Station of the Metro’, the title is an integral part of the text of the poem. It contains twenty words; the poem itself, twenty-one.

Williams quotes with approval Bentley’s Milton clerihew:

The digestion of Milton
Was unequal to Stilton.

He was only feeling so-so
When he wrote Il Pensoroso.

And devises many of his own:

Why did Professor J. R. R. Tolkien
never really come clean

about the scientologists in cupboards
in the House of L. Ron Hubbard?

or (one of my favourites):

Gertrude Stein
arose at nine

and arose and arose
and arose.[8]


His acrostic on Guy Davenport’s name ends with the line, ‘To keep afloat the Ark of Culture in these dark and tacky times!’ His prefatory ‘A Greeting to the Reader’ mentioned that Davenport ‘has been reading the poems since the 1960s.’[9] The two writers had enjoyed a long and fertile friendship, apparently damaged by the publication of A Garden Carried in a Pocket: Letters 1964-1968, including material that Davenport had specifically asked Williams to omit.[10]

Jubilant Thicket appeared in 2005, the year of Davenport’s death. One of the last poems in it is for Lorine Niedecker:

she seined words
as others stars
or carp

laconic as
a pebble
in the Rock River

along the bank
where the peony flowers

her tall friend
the pine tree
is still there

to see[11]


Tremendous collection of photographs of Williams’ life here:

Jeffery Beam’s obituary here:



[1] William Blissett, The Long Conversation: A Memoir of David Jones (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 123; see David Jones, In Parenthesis, (1937; London: Faber, 1963), 114.

[2] Jonathan Williams, Portrait Photographs (London: Coracle Press, 1979): the Hockney portrait is Plate 22.

[3] Taken from Lorine Niedecker, Collected Works, edited by Jenny Penberthy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), 99.

[4] Letter of 3 February 1963, Jenny Penberthy, Niedecker and the Correspondence with Zukofsky, 1931-1970 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 328.

[5] Guy Davenport, ‘Ralph Eugene Meatyard’, in The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 368; ‘Jonathan Williams’, first published as introduction to Williams’ An Ear in Bartram’s Tree, then as a pamphlet from Jim Lowell’s Asphodel Bookshop; reprinted in The Geography of the Imagination, 180-189.

[6] Dust jacket blurb quoted by Willard Godwin, Hugh Kenner: A Bibliography (Albany, New York: Whitston, 2001), 402.

[7] Jonathan Williams, Jubilant Thicket: New & Selected Poems (Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 2005), 136.

[8] Jonathan Williams, Jubilant Thicket, 101, 102, 108.

[9] Jonathan Williams, Jubilant Thicket, 114, ix.

[10] W. C. Bamberger, editor, Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2007), 139n.

[11] Jonathan Williams, Jubilant Thicket, 273.

Odysseys: man—and woman—of many devices

Turner, Joseph Mallord William, 1775-1851; Ulysses deriding Polyphemus- Homer's Odyssey

(J. M. W. Turner, Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus
Photo credit: National Gallery)

Standing in the bright kitchen, darkness still pressing closely against the windows, waiting for the coffee to brew, I turn the pages of The Odyssey, the first published translation into English of Homer’s epic by a woman, Emily Wilson, (British) Professor of Classics at the University of Pennsylvania.

Thinking of the beginning of the poem in English, the phrase I usually have in my head is ‘Tell me, Muse, of the man of many devices’. I can’t now be sure of precisely where that came from. The closest is the old Loeb edition, translated by Murray, except that he seems to have ‘O Muse’. I thought it might be E. V. Rieu’s prose translation from 1946, the first-ever Penguin Classic, later revised by his son. That was certainly the first version I ever read but the copy I now have begins: ‘Tell me, Muse, the story of that resourceful man’.[1]

‘Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns’, Robert Fagles has it.[2] And Emily Wilson? ‘Tell me about a complicated man.’ The next line begins ‘Muse’—I’d thought at first the opening line ended with a comma but it doesn’t.

Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
and where he went, and who he met, the pain
he suffered in the storms at sea, and how
he worked to save his life and bring his men
back home.[3]

Not having the Greek for purposes of comparison, I go by ear as, I presume, the vast majority of readers must. Or I simply trust Guy Davenport, who did know Greek and translated Sappho, Herondas, Archilocos and Herakleitos, among others. In his essay ‘Another Odyssey’, he discusses translations by Richmond Lattimore (the ostensible occasion for the essay), Butcher and Lang, Robert Fitzgerald, William Cullen Bryant, William Morris, T. E. Lawrence, Chapman, Pope, Christopher Logue and Samuel Butler—opening with the poet Salvatore Quasimodo’s rendering of the opening lines of the third book of The Odyssey into Italian. Davenport mentions ‘the two most exciting translations from Homer in recent years’—Robert Fitzgerald’s and Christopher Logue’s—and quotes an extract from the nineteenth book of The Iliad as translated first by Lattimore, then by Logue. ‘We have all been taught,’ Davenport comments, ‘to prefer the former, out of a shy dread before Homer’s great original; we instinctively, if we have ever felt a line of poetry before, prefer the latter.’[4] Davenport was writing in 1968 and estimated that there had been at least fifty versions in English of Homer’s second epic poem. There have been around twenty since then, with three just in the past year (Emily Wilson, Peter Green and Anthony Verity).


Wilson’s version goes with a swing because she’s opted to use iambic pentameter, the traditional metre of English narrative poetry (she also matches the poems line by line). ‘The original’, she points out, ‘is written in a highly rhythmical form of verse. It reads nothing like prose and nothing like any spoken or nonpoetic kinds of discourse.’ The Odyssey, she argues, ‘needs to have a predictable and distinctive rhythm that can be easily heard when the text is read out loud.’[5] True enough; I can vouch for the efficacy of that rhythm, having begun reading her Odyssey aloud to the Librarian.

The beginning of the poem is a very obvious point of comparison: the address to the muse, which seems straightforward but is, apparently, not. As far as my fingertip decipherings in Liddell and Scott’s dictionary go, Odysseus could be described as ‘much-turned, i.e. much-travelled, wandering’, turning many ways, versatile, ingenious, changeful or manifold. Plenty of scope there, then.

(Emily Wilson discusses the decisions to be made about that single word, polytropos, here:
https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/02/magazine/the-first-woman-to-translate-the-odyssey-into-english.html )

I’m reminded of the debate over the ‘correct’ rendering of Camus’ ‘maman’ in the first line of The Outsider (or The Stranger, as it’s always been known to the far west of me). I always remember that line as ‘Mother died today’, probably from Stuart Gilbert’s 1946 translation, which was followed only after a long interval by Joseph Laredo’s version, then by translations from Kate Griffith, Matthew Ward and Sandra Smith. ‘Mother’ seems to have shifted only as far as ‘my mother’, with the exception of Ward’s reversion to maman.

It’s a question of relative formality (mother, mum, mummy, mom) but there are obvious cultural differences too, French retaining certain formalities or faint memories of a courtliness which English and American speakers have largely shed. The issue was discussed by Ryan Bloom in The New Yorker (11 May 2012), where, reviewing Camus’ opening sentence—‘Aujourd’hui, maman est morte’­—he concluded: ‘The ordering of words in Camus’s first sentence is no accident: today is interrupted by Maman’s death. The sentence, the one we have yet to see correctly rendered in an English translation of “L’Étranger,” should read: “Today, Maman died.”’
(See: https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/lost-in-translation-what-the-first-line-of-the-stranger-should-be )

‘He observed, that all works which describe manners, require notes in sixty or seventy years, or less’, Boswell remarks of Samuel Johnson.[6] Cultural habits, cultural assumptions, such things change constantly, in both small and fundamental ways. So do expectations of who might read a literary work: their gender, their social class, their level of education. But as to who might read this Odyssey, it’s pretty safe to venture ‘anyone at all’.


[1] Homer, The Odyssey, revised translation by D. C. H. Rieu, in consultation with Peter V. Jones (London: Penguin, 1991), 3.

[2] Homer, The Odyssey, translated by Robert Fagles (London: Penguin, 1997), 77.

[3] Homer, The Odyssey, translated by Emily Wilson (New York: Norton, 2017), 105. Caroline Alexander’s The Iliad: A New Translation (Vintage, 2016) is, apparently, the first published version in English of that poem by a woman. See A. E. Stallings’ review of Alexander in The Spectator (9 April 2016).

[4] Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 29-44; 36, 37.

[5] Wilson, ‘Translator’s Note’, 81, 82.

[6] James Boswell, Life of Johnson, edited by R. W. Chapman, revised by J. D. Fleeman, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 509.

A matter of fact, a matter of error

Evoe .

(‘Evoe’, Edmund Knox via Jot101: http://www.jot101.com/ )

On my way through the park, I pass four people, each accompanied by an average of 2.75 dogs. It seems a little excessive but the total is dominated by the woman gripping five leads, to each of which is attached to a dog of such slender proportions that, taken all together, they would barely comprise a single, ordinary-sized dog.

Perhaps I was taking refuge in such arithmetical precision because I’d been thinking of error, specifically of writers’ errors, even more specifically of novelists’ errors and wondering whether that was a contradiction in itself.


(Penelope Fitzgerald via The Guardian)

Edmund Knox, later ‘Evoe’ of Punch and father of Penelope Fitzgerald, began his editorial career as a boy, taking charge of the family newspaper, The Bolliday Bango. His brothers, ‘Dilly’, classical scholar and later code breaker, Wilfred, priest and teacher, and Ronald, the celebrated Catholic theologian, translator and writer of detective stories, all contributed to the Bango’s production. One venture was the detection of ‘a number of inaccuracies, even downright contradictions, in the Sherlock Holmes stories’. They sent a list of these to Arthur Conan Doyle, ‘in an envelope with four dried orange pips, in allusion to the threatening letter in The Sign of Four’, but received no reply.

Later, in 1911, Ronnie Knox expanded that original letter into a paper given to the Gryphon Club in Trinity College, Oxford. ‘A satire on all higher scholarship, including his brother’s work on Herondas and his correspondence with German textual experts’, which entailed Ronnie’s invention of Professors Ratzegger and Sauwosch. ‘He set out to show, strictly from internal evidence, that the Return stories are clumsy inventions by Watson, who had taken to drink. This would account, for instance for his neglect of his practice, and the ludicrous errors he makes in the colour of Holmes’s dressing-gown.’


(Sherlock Holmes by Sidney Paget)

It also prompted a letter from Conan Doyle to Ronnie, expressing ‘the amusement – and also the amazement’ with which he had read the article, going on to explain ‘the vexed point’ about the bicycle tracks in ‘The Adventure of the Priory School’.[1]

Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes, the title under which it was published the following year and reprinted several times since, is widely credited with inaugurating Sherlockian studies, ‘The Game’, the world in which Holmes and Watson are real people and Conan Doyle a useful agent. Knox pointed out that the incident of Percy Trevor’s bulldog biting Holmes on his way down to chapel was ‘clearly untrue, since dogs are not allowed within the gates at either University’, while an Oxford scholarship paper including ‘only half a chapter of Thucydides’ was also absurdly improbable. ‘And, worst of all, the dummy in the Baker Street window is draped in the old mouse-coloured dressing-gown! As if we had forgotten that it was in a blue dressing-gown that Holmes smoked an ounce of shag tobacco at a sitting, while he unravelled the dark complication of The Man with the Twisted Lip![2]

A remarkable proportion of the annotations in Leslie Klinger’s edition of the Holmes canon are concerned with inconsistencies or contradictions while the majority of the ‘capsule’ entries on individual stories in Dick Riley and Pam McAllister’s compilation refer to ‘Oddities and Discrepancies’.[3]

There are degrees and types of ‘error’, of course: firstly, internal, those inconsistencies within the Holmes canon, a man writing prolifically and often hurriedly, over long periods of time and great stretches of material, with occasional lapses hardly surprising. An ‘error’ of a slightly different kind is in the opening passage of Samuel Beckett’s Murphy, where a man has tied himself to a rocking-chair with seven scarves: their positions are detailed but total only six. There are other practical improbabilities and impossibilities (how the last scarf was tied, for instance), concerning which Hugh Kenner remarks: ‘A novel, in short, is a novel, not a map of the familiar world, and Beckett’s novels differ from most in the consistency of their insistence upon this principle.’[4]


(Guy Davenport, ‘Murphy rocking: prior to inversion’. Drawing in Hugh Kenner’s The Stoic Comedians: Flaubert, Joyce, and Beckett, facing p. 98)

Indeed. But many novels, not excluding Joyce’s Ulysses, occupy a space so close to that familiar world that their breaths mingle. Joyce said he wanted ‘to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day disappeared from the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book.’[5] That implies a certain documentary accuracy, a topographical precision – even in a work whose hero is an advertising canvasser based on Homer’s ‘man of many devices’.

In Ford Madox Ford’s Some Do Not. . ., Christopher Tietjens, home on leave, proposes as spiritual adviser to their son the priest who has appeared earlier in the novel: ‘Sylvia stood up, her eyes blazing out of a pallid face of stone: “Father Consett,” she said, “was hung on the day they shot Casement. They dare not put it into the papers because he was a priest and all the witnesses Ulster witnesses. . . . And yet I may not say this is an accursed war.”’[6]


(Roger Casement via The Irish Post)

Roger Casement was hanged, not shot, in August 1916. A reviewer of Some Do Not. . . took Ford to task for his ‘inaccuracy’, as Ford noted in his dedicatory letter to the second volume in the sequence, No More Parades, where he discussed his reasons for referring to Casement’s being hanged, specifically his conversation with a woman who could not, she said, bear the thought that the English had hanged him.[7] In his Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance, also published in 1924, Ford wrote about Conrad’s encounter with Casement in Africa and remarked that it was ‘as unspeakably painful to him when later Casement, loathing the Belgians so much for their treatment of the natives on the Congo, took up arms against his own country and was, to our eternal discredit, hanged, rather than shot in the attempt to escape’.[8]

Joyce went to enormous trouble to get the details of 1904 Dublin ‘right’. Ford too worried about factual accuracy in, particularly, the constituent parts of Parade’s End. He had always had ‘the greatest contempt’ for novels that were written with an obvious moral purpose. ‘But when I sat down to write that series of volumes, I sinned against my gods to the extent of saying that I was going—to the level of the light vouchsafed me—to write a work that should have for its purpose the obviating of all future wars.’ Given that intention, the rest followed: ‘So it was my duty to be sure of my details. For technical facts as facts I have no respect whatever. Normally I rather despise myself for playing for factual accuracy in a novel. It did no harm to Shakespeare not to know that Bohemia has no sea-coast or even to believe in the fabled virtues of the mandrake. I would just as gladly make such slips as not. But they give weapons to fools and if, in this case, I failed in factual correctness, I should betray the cause for which I was working.’[9]

One more. ‘It is my sense’, Guy Davenport wrote, ‘that I am always telling a story rather than projecting an illusory, fictional world. I am aware of the trap in argument whereby we can seem to square a story with reality, and I felt wonderfully helpless when various critics jumped on my “mistakes.” One brave Boston soul swore he was at that air show in Brescia, that Kafka wasn’t there (the crowd was estimated by La Sentinella Bresciana to be 50,000), and that Blériot did not look like my description. A Russian has written to know why I have Lenin speaking in a dialect he wouldn’t have used. And so on.’[10]

‘Wonderfully helpless’. Yes, in which world do you start? Or rather, when you’re standing up to your waist in water, in a strong current: which bank do you push for? A great many novelists now begin with ‘research’; some, alas, seem never to leave it, while the fiction is swept downstream.

As to facts, among other inhabitants of that borderland. . .

‘Facts do not find their way into the world in which our beliefs reside; they did not produce our beliefs; they do not destroy them; they may inflict on them the most constant refutations without weakening them.’[11]



[1] Penelope Fitzgerald, The Knox Brothers (London: Macmillan, 1977), 50, 105-106.

[2] Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes, reprinted in Blackfriars, I, 3 (June 1920), 156, 158, 159 – essay downloadable here: https://www.lib.umn.edu/pdf/holmes/Blackfriars_v1n3_1920_RA_Knox.pdf

[3] Arthur Conan Doyle, The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, 2 volumes, edited with notes by Leslie S. Klinger (New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company 2005); Dick Riley and Pam McAllister, The Bedside, Bathtub and Armchair Companion to Sherlock Holmes (New York: Continuum, 1999).

[4] Hugh Kenner, A Reader’s Guide to Samuel Beckett (1973; Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1996), 58.

[5] Frank Budgen, James Joyce and the Making of ‘Ulysses’ and other writings, enlarged edition (1934; London: Oxford University Press, 1972), 69.

[6] Ford Madox Ford, Some Do Not. . . (1924; edited by Max Saunders, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2010), 218.

[7] Ford Madox Ford, No More Parades (1925; edited by Joseph Wiesenfarth, Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2011), 5-6.

[8] Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad (London: Duckworth, 1924), 101, 129. All this and more elucidated by Max Saunders’ note in Some Do Not. . ., 218.

[9] Ford Madox Ford, It Was the Nightingale (London: Heinemann, 1934), 205, 206.

[10] Guy Davenport, ‘Ernst Machs Max Ernst’, The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 376.

[11] Marcel Proust, The Way by Swann’s, translated by Lydia Davis (London: Allen Lane, 2002), 149.


Slouching towards Bedlam


Joan Didion via The Paris Review. The Review‘s 1978 interview with Didion is available here: https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/3439/joan-didion-the-art-of-fiction-no-71-joan-didion

I was struck by an exchange in the recently printed Guardian interview with the BBC journalist and news presenter Clive Myrie:

You’ve worked all over the world. Which posting do you have the fondest memories of?
Being based in Los Angeles during the Clinton years. The USA, pre-9/11, was a much more carefree place and the Clinton White House was incredible to cover. Because I was based in Los Angeles, I wasn’t just covering hard news; I covered Central America, hurricanes in Honduras, the Oscars, three times, so there was a breadth of story-telling. Strangely enough, I would say America is the most alien place I have ever reported from. I think we have far more in common with northern Europeans than we will ever have with Americans.

Yes, that, ‘strangely enough’ and ‘the most alien place’. Recently, in the wake of President Trump’s offensive response to Theresa May’s characteristically restrained criticism of his irresponsible re-tweeting of extremist videos, a number of British politicians and commentators are finally interrogating the lazy platitudes surrounding ‘the special relationship’. It has dawned on some people that the relationship was always rather more ‘special’ in one direction than in the other.

In the United Kingdom, we watch a great deal of American film and television; some of us read a lot of American literature; and the language we speak is, in some regards, broadly similar. And yes, apart from my US cultural consumption, I have American friends and acquaintances. I even follow, with increasingly appalled fascination, American politics. But I also never quite lose that sense of distance, of strangeness, of great stretches of material never touched on, better left aside and not embarked upon. Two continents separated by divergent categories of insupportable weirdness, perhaps.

I recall Guy Davenport recounting a visit to Ezra Pound, when the latter was confined in St Elizabeths Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Washington. Pound had given Davenport a book by Leo Frobenius and asked how he was travelling. Learning that he was returning home by train, Pound reversed the dust jacket so that the title would be invisible to those likely to be ‘driven to fury that learning was being freely transported about the Republic.’ Having himself been born in Anderson, South Carolina, Davenport merely commented that ‘Southerners take a certain amount of unhinged reality for granted’.[1] And ‘unhinged’, yes, seems to be le mot juste, a fracturing of defences, a throwing open of doors to disorder and worse—much worse, as we see now.

(Leo Frobenius; Ezra Pound)

I’ve unsettled myself in an American context several times this year—I mean, apart from reading or watching the news in stark disbelief that such behaviour and such pronouncements can be tolerated in a Western democracy. What else has unsettled me? The Raoul Peck documentary, centring on James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro, for one, mostly in the yawning space of time between now and then set against the—in many ways—pitiful progress made since the events that the film deals with. Then the ten-part documentary series on The Vietnam War, directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick: the political duplicity and deceitfulness, the casualness of the decision-making that doomed hundreds of thousands to unnecessary deaths, decisions in which the Vietnamese civilians weighed nothing at all, a blueprint for much that followed.


On the printed page, in various ways and to varying degrees: rereading Flannery O’Connor, though I note her comment that, ‘of course, I have found that anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.’[2] Catching up on other titles, I finally read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, which I was already embarked upon when O’Brien cropped up in the Burns/Novick series; and A. M. Homes’ Music for Torching. Of newer books, Mary Gaitskill’s book of stories, Don’t Cry, J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and, perhaps in particular, Gabriel Tallent’s risky, brave and disturbing novel, My Absolute Darling.

And then, noting that today is Joan Didion’s eighty-third birthday, I should mention South and West: From a Notebook, dating to the summer of 1970 and largely comprising material for a piece on the South that was never written. I’ve just read this book, and also watched the documentary, The Center Cannot Hold, directed by Didion’s nephew, Griffin Dunne, currently available on Netflix, a film which will, of course, send me back to reread Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album.

Didion has long been admired for her prose style and her ability to write the history of her time through the medium of the essay, as David Hare remarks in Dunne’s documentary. I know people who have always resisted her work, largely on political grounds—a child of conservative Republicans parents, she apparently voted for Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election but would subsequently describe, in Political Fictions, ‘the abduction of American democracy’.[3] The political pieces that she gravitated towards, with the encouragement of Robert Silvers at The New York Review of Books, including Salvador, ‘Sentimental Journeys’, about the notorious trial and conviction of the five black boys accused of the rape of a white woman jogging through Central Park, and ‘Cheney: The Fatal Touch’, complicate that picture.


There are details and comments in South and West that seem to connect with the present time with startling directness, as if by underground cable. In Biloxi, Didion noted: ‘[t]he isolation of these people from the currents of American life in 1970 was startling and bewildering to behold. All their information was fifth-hand, and mythicized in the handing down.’ And, ‘[i]t occurred to me almost constantly in the South that had I lived there I would have been an eccentric and full of anger, and I wondered what form the anger would have taken. Would I have taken up causes, or would I have simply knifed somebody?’[4]

In Alabama, she sees signs supporting George Wallace’s campaign: he would serve two consecutive terms as governor from 1971-1979. The thought occurs to Didion that ‘the reason Wallace has never troubled me is that he is a totally explicable phenomenon.’[5] That question of explicability came up several times in Naomi Klein’s recent book. Looking back at some of the destructive trends that she’d researched over many years, she observed that, as she began to research Donald Trump, ‘he started to seem like Frankenstein’s monster, sewn together out the body parts of all these and many other dangerous trends.’ She added that, though Trump ‘breaks the mold in some ways, his shock tactics follow a script, one familiar from other countries that have had rapid changes imposed under the cover of crisis.’[6]

Joan Didion was also struck by ‘[t]he time warp: the Civil War was yesterday, but 1960 is spoken of as if it were about three hundred years ago.’[7] As Nathaniel Rich observes, ‘An unquestioned premise among those who live in American cities with international airports has been, for more than half a century now, that Enlightenment values would in time become conventional wisdom. Some fought for this future to come sooner. Others waited patiently. But nobody seemed to believe that it would never arrive.’ In such a view, he adds, ‘the past’ can in many ways be relegated to the ‘aesthetic realm’.[8] But, evidently, it is not safely dead: in fact, a great many people have never left it.

Not, of course, that such symptoms are confined to the United States. Alas.


[1] Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 174-175.

[2] Flannery O’Connor, ‘The Grotesque in Southern Fiction’, in Collected Works, edited by Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Library of America, 1988), 815.

[3] John Leonard, ‘Introduction’ to Joan Didion, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction (New York: Knopf, 2006), xv.

[4] Didion, South and West: From a Notebook, foreword by Nathaniel Rich (London: 4th Estate, 2017), 34, 55.

[5] South and West, 71.

[6] Naomi Klein, No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics (London: Allen Lane, 2017), 2.

[7] South and West, 104.

[8] Rich, ‘Foreword’, South and West, xviii.





Houses That Jack Built


This is the farmer sowing his corn,
That kept the cock that crowed in the morn,
That waked the priest all shaven and shorn,
That married the man all tattered and torn,
That kissed the maiden all forlorn,
That milked the cow with the crumpled horn,
That tossed the dog,
That worried the cat,
That killed the rat,
That ate the malt
That lay in the house that Jack built.

The accumulative rhyme, ‘The House That Jack Built’ was first published in a 1755 collection, Nurse Truelove’s New-Year’s-Gift: or, The Book of Books for Children. It has ‘probably been more parodied than any other nursery story’, in politics and advertising: but also in literature.[1]

In Canto XVII of Autumn Sequel (1954), Louis MacNeice writes: ‘The reasons and the rhymes/ Of Mother Church and Mother Goose have grown/ Equally useless since we have grown up/ And learnt to call our minds (if minds they are) our own’. Mother Goose might have found something oddly familiar in MacNeice’s later ‘Château Jackson’, included in The Burning Perch (1963) and beginning:

Where is the Jack that built the house
That housed the folk that tilled the field
That filled the bags that brimmed the mill
That ground the floor that browned the bread
That fed the serfs that scrubbed the floors
That wore the mats that kissed the feet
That bore the bums that raised the heads
That raised the eyes that eyed the glass
That sold the pass that linked the lands. . .[2]



Fifteen years earlier, Elizabeth Bishop had visited Ezra Pound in St Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, where Pound had been confined since being found unfit to plead on charges of treason. Bishop was introduced to Pound by Robert Lowell and later, when serving as poetry consultant to the Library of Congress, visited Pound—who called her ‘Liz Bish’, a name she much disliked—regularly.[3]

First published in 1956 but dated by Bishop as 1950, her remarkable poem ‘Visits to St Elizabeths’ begins with an instantly recognisable rhythm and form:

This is the house of Bedlam.

This is the man
that lies in the house of Bedlam.

Its final stanza—it’s a poem of 78 lines—runs:

This is the soldier home from the war.
These are the years and the walls and the door
that shut on a boy that pats the floor
to see if the world is round or flat.
This is a Jew in a newspaper hat
that dances carefully down the ward,
walking the plank of a coffin board
with the crazy sailor
that shows his watch that tells the time
of the wretched man
that lies in the house of Bedlam.[4]

Though Bishop referred to this more than once as her ‘Pound poem’,[5] she told Anne Stevenson that ‘the characters are based on the other inmates of St. E[lizabeth]’s [ . . . ] One boy used to show us his watch, another patted the floor, etc.—but naturally it’s a mixture of fact and fancy.’[6]

In the course of one of his most brilliant essays, ‘The House That Jack Built’, first given as a paper to inaugurate the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library’s Center for the Study of Ezra Pound and His Contemporaries on 30 October 1975 (it would have been Pound’s ninetieth birthday but he had died three years earlier), Guy Davenport begins by recreating John Ruskin’s writing of Letter XXIII of Fors Clavigera, almost exactly one hundred years before Pound’s death. The letter is indeed dated 24 October 1872.[7]


Photo credit: David Driscoll: http://beinecke.library.yale.edu/collections

Davenport describes Fors as ‘a kind of Victorian prose Cantos’, but his interest in that particular letter is indicated by Ruskin’s title: ‘The Labyrinth’ and perhaps the footnote, which reads: ‘A rejected title for this letter was “The House that Jack Built”’. Ruskin writes about ‘the great Athenian squire’, Theseus, among much else, before reaching the cathedral door at Lucca, on which are engraved several Latin sentences, many centuries old, which Ruskin translates as: ‘This is the labyrinth which the Cretan Dedalus built, out of which nobody could get who was inside, except Theseus: nor could he have done it, unless he had been helped with a thread by Adriane, all for love’. And that statement, ‘This is the labyrinth which the Cretan Dedalus built’, can, Ruskin says, be reduced from medieval sublimity to the rather more popular ‘This is the House that Jack Built’. He analyses the symbols, considers coins, justice and other matter ‘until he can triumphantly identify the Minotaur with greed, lust, and usury’. At one point, Davenport observes that Ruskin ‘is just getting warmed up’.[8]

The same might be said of Davenport, who will, in the course of the remainder of the essay, range over Olson, Joyce, Ovid, William Carlos Williams, Pavel Tchelitchew, Zukofsky, Leonardo da Vinci, Henri Rousseau, Picasso, Apollinaire, Brancusi, Michael Ayrton (maker of labyrinths), Wilbur Wright and others: but mainly Ezra Pound. Davenport is one of the most acute readers of Pound. One of the others, Hugh Kenner, concluded his magisterial The Pound Era with the statement that ‘Thought is a labyrinth.’[9] Indeed.


(Guy Davenport by Jonathan Williams, via Jacket magazine:

A labyrinth is certainly one in which we may be hopelessly and helplessly lost, sometimes unsure of whether we have passed this way before or even repeatedly – unless we have a thread. ‘All for love.’ Love is a good thread, undoubtedly. And there are others.

Davenport writes at one point of the frescoes in the Palazzo Schifanoia, painted for the Este family. Yeats once recalled Pound’s telling him that the frescoes had  provided a basic outline for the scheme of his epic poem. Davenport continues: ‘The Cantos do indeed follow the triumphs, the seasons, and the activities of the seasons. To know the triumphs we must know the past, which is told in many tongues in many places; to know the past we descend, like Odysseus, into the House of Hades and give the blood of our attention (as translators, historians, poets) so that the dead may speak. To know the seasons we must understand metamorphosis, for things are never still, and never wear the same mask from age to age. The contemporary is without meaning while it is happening: it is a vortex, a whirlpool of action. It is a labyrinth.’ And he concludes that ‘The clue to this labyrinth, Pound knew, was history.’[10]

‘Labyrinthine’ might mean complex or endless, perhaps needlessly convoluted. Coleridge referred to De Quincey’s mind as ‘at once systematic and labyrinthine’.[11] Yeats wrote that : ‘A man in his own secret meditation / Is lost among the labyrinth that he has made / In art or politics’.[12] But it can be a point of focus, a positive necessity. The novelist Nicholas Mosley writes: ‘The idea that to make sense of one’s life one has to tell of the bad things as well as the good at least to oneself is at the back of much of this story: without a recognition of darkness as well as light there is no pattern; without pattern there is no chance of glimpsing a path through the maze. And without this what is the point of life, what is its wonder?’[13]



[1] See The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, edited by Iona and Peter Opie (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 229-232.

[2] Louis MacNeice, Collected Poems, edited by Peter McDonald (London: Faber and Faber, 2007), 448-449, 580.

[3] Brett C. Millier, Elizabeth Bishop: Life and the Memory of It (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 199, 220.

[4] Elizabeth Bishop, Poems, Prose, and Letters, edited by Robert Giroux and Lloyd Schwartz (New York: Library of America, 2008), 127-129.

[5] Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, edited by Thomas Travisano with Saskia Hamilton (London: Faber and Faber, 2008), 201, 345.

[6] Bishop, Poems, Prose, and Letters, 853.

[7] ‘Letter 23. The Labyrinth’: Fors Clavigera, II, 394. The Ruskin Library and Research Centre at Lancaster University has digitized and made generally available the monumental 39-volume Cook and Wedderburn edition (1903-1912) of the Works of John Ruskin. A stupendous project, wonderfully achieved: http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/depts/ruskinlib/Pages/Works.html

[8] Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination (London: Picador, 1984), 45-47.

[9] Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (London: Faber, 1972), 561.

[10] Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination, 56.

[11] Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, III: 1807-1814, edited by E. L. Griggs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959), 205, quoted by Alethea Hayter, Opium and the Romantic Imagination (London: Faber and Faber, 1971), 234.

[12] W. B. Yeats, ‘Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen’, Collected Poems, second edition (London: Macmillan, 1950), 235.

[13] Nicholas Mosley, Efforts at Truth: An Autobiography (London: Minerva, 1996), 187.