n 1985, Ted Hughes unveiled a new memorial at the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey. The memorial was intended for poets of the First World War, accompanied by an inscription from the most recognized among them, Wilfred Owen: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.” Critics refer to the group colloquially as the War Poets, and included among them is David Jones—a little-known Welsh poet, noted among writers of his time for his dense, allusive, and lengthy writing. When Jones was commemorated at Westminster Abbey his reputation was ensured. But was this decision appropriate? Or, more importantly, was it accurate?
This question is aimed less at Jones’s commemoration and more at its justification. In other words: is Jones really a War Poet? For students and aspiring writers the question takes on a different form, or, rather, is raised by something else altogether—not memorials, but anthologies. Just as with the Poets’ Corner, in most anthologies Jones is recognized by his first work—the book-length In Parenthesis—and little else. Why does this matter? Well, for one, it brings to light one of the most important side effects of compiling anthologies: categorization.
It may seem facile to mention that editors charged with the task of creating anthologies must choose where an author belongs—usually according to period, movement, or gender—but the consequences of each choice can be immense. Editors must, in effect, label an author by reducing his or her work to a few biographical or stylistic details; thus Charlotte Turner Smith becomes a woman poet, Robert Lowell a confessional poet, and Derek Walcott a postcolonial poet. The appellations can be helpful for learning, but are essentially reductive. Editors know this, and make note of it. Anthologies are meant to be comprehensive but in no way exhaustive. But this won’t prevent a reader’s surprise when opening, for instance, a copy of Lowell’s History (or Lord Weary’s Castle, or The Mills of the Kavanaughs, or Imitations) and discovering just how little confessional poetry there is.
But let’s return to Jones. In Parenthesis, the work by which he’s known and anthologized, is about World War I in the same way that Ulysses is about Dublin—which is to say, it’s about much more than just the battles. Jones, who was a post-Impressionist painter in addition to being a poet, was concerned above all with form: how a poem is written, rather than its subject. He was not interested in depicting brutalities in a gruesome or ironic way, or protesting the incompetence of governments and officials (all hallmarks of the other War Poets), but in demonstrating how poetry can order, and reflect the order of, our lives.
Calling him a War Poet is tricky business, and that’s just when considering In Parenthesis. (Jones also wrote The Anathemata—which Auden called one of the greatest long poems in English of the twentieth cent
ury—The Sleeping Lord, Wedding Poems, and a host of essays, none of which are about the First World War.) So what’s the problem with giving him this label? Well, for one, it limits his accessibility—which is exactly what an anthology is not supposed to do. Readers coming across his work are likely to find it difficult, especially if they’re looking for something offered by the likes of Owen and Sassoon. And, what’s more, when looking for the High Modernist, experimental poetry of the mid-twentieth century—a more appropriate placement—readers won’t find him.
It would be too much to call Jones a victim, but his work—as complex and multifaceted as the work of any serious writer—has been subject to something commonplace in today’s world: the drive to fit authors and thinkers into digestible forms. It’s hard to point fingers since access to information almost demands this kind of packaging. But we must be careful, editors and readers alike, not to be reduced to name-calling, not to lose sight that an author is a person and not a type, or a movement, or a style. If we’re not, we might miss some exciting moments, perhaps the most exciting moments: when a writer does something that’s unexpected.