Evan Jones: Selected Poems

Wollongong: Grand Parade Poets, 2014, 208pp.

Evan Jones’s career has been a long one, beginning in the late fifties (his first book, Inside the Whale, was published in 1960) and continuing productively into the present (Heavens Above! appeared four years ago). It’s also one which raises a lot of interesting issues about how a poet should be represented in a late Selected Poems: but more of that later by way of a conclusion. At the broadest literary-historical level, Jones belongs to the second wave of “academic” poets after the generation of Hope and McAuley. The word, “academic”, really means only that they were able to find a financially secure home in University teaching rather than in journalism – as the pre-war poets had – but academic life meant that they probably found it easier to keep an eye on current developments in poetry overseas through conferences and journals as well as the kind of regular contact with equals that university life encourages. At the University of Melbourne, Jones was part of a group that we associate with Vincent Buckley and which includes figures like Chris Wallace-Crabbe, R.A. Simpson, Peter Steele and, the youngest, Andrew Taylor. Groups tend to want to clear a space for themselves and whereas Hope and McAuley weighed into the Angry Penguins group and the Jindyworobaks, the “Melbourne University Poets” found the poems of Douglas Stewart’s Bulletin to be lacking in intellect. Their influences seem to have been contemporary American poetry of the postwar period, generally of a highly formal cast.

The sense that one has of Evan Jones from this selection is likely to revolve around words like “wry”, “knowing” and “mildly defeatist”. With some reservations, these characteristics can be said to be there from the beginning. The best-known poem of Jones’s first book is “Noah’s Song”, a dramatic monologue that still puzzles and thus interests:

The animals are silent in the hold,
Only the lion coughing in the dark
As in my ageing arms once more I fold
My mistress and the mistress of the Ark.

That, the rain, and the lapping of the sea:
Too many years have brought me to this boat
Where days swim by with such monotony,
Days of the fox, the lion and the goat.

Her breathing and the slow beat of the clock
Accentuate the stillness of the room,
Whose walls and floor and ceiling seem to lock
Into a space as single as the tomb.

A single room set up against the night,
The hold of animals, and nothing more:
For any further world is out of sight - 
There are no people, and there is no shore.

True, time passes in unbroken peace:
To some, no doubt, this Ark would seem a haven.
But all that I can hope for is release.
Tomorrow I’ll send out the dove and raven.

If you have followed Australian poetry in the last thirty years or so, there is a good chance that this may be the only Evan Jones poem you will be familiar with. It was routinely anthologised, though a prickly comment about it in Hall and Shapcott’s influential anthology of 1968, New Impulses in Australian Poetry explaining that “the author restrained us” from including it doesn’t explain exactly why he did so. It is also a good example of those formal, quatrain poems of the fifties and sixties which I have spoken about elsewhere, often enough, on this site, and exploits rather than fights against the slightly attenuated, tired-and-yet-knowing air that these have – what else would Noah sound like? But it retains our interest not because of its skilful form but because of the questions it poses readers. Almost all worthwhile dramatic monologues bump up against a lyrical impulse so that we say: “Yes, that’s a fine recreation of a character from quattrocento Florence or Heian Japan (or wherever) but why did you do it? What’s your stake in the poem?” We can read “Noah’s Song” as a biblical dramatic monologue, something the consistent devotion to details seems to suggest we should do (though the ticking of the clock would be an anachronism) but we can also read it as a monologue by an elderly married and reclusive man using Noah as a kind of extended metaphor. And why is a poet not even thirty interested in the situation of an old man? Is he thinking of a friend, his father, grandfather or is he just prematurely middle-aged? The questions spin out along the dangerous but necessary path of biographical information.

Often interpretive advice comes from other poems and it’s no accident that both in this selection and in Inside the Whale “Noah’s Song” is followed by a dramatic monologue in which an elderly literary man, Samuel Johnson, looks at himself – an addresses himself with a fair amount of disgust – in the mirror. You could build, out of the interaction of these two poems an interpretation of “Noah’s Song” which saw it as a kind of pre-emptive vision of the later life of a comfortably set-up literary man gradually removed from engagement with the world to the four walls of his known room. As Johnson says to his face, at the end of the poem, “Nobody knows the paths you take to hell, / Except when we’re alone: I know too well”.

The issue that “Noah’s Song” raises – of incorporating the necessary component of a biographical impulse into any interpretation of the poem – is something that Jones thinks about and we have, as evidence, a poem, “Genre Painting”, from the 1984 book, Left at the Post. Here the first two stanzas describe a painting (probably from the nineteenth century) of a domestic scene containing a man and a woman. The poem’s mode is interpretive, entering into the scene before it is described:

“You know,” she seems sadly to be saying, “I never
mean what I say”; his head is bowed. They sit forever
in yellows deepening glumly through green to black
in front of a rain-swept window, her crimson frock
and the bowl of pink roses low in the right-hand corner,
subdued though they are, all that the gazer can garner
against the sheer gloom of a perfectly minor painting,
lachrymose, accomplished, faintly haunting.

Although it goes on to brush against the distinction between “high” and genre art – “Cezanne, El Greco, Breughel are far away” – the real interest at the end is in the painter’s stake in the picture:

                                       . . . nothing at all
prompts us to wonder or outrage. But walking away one small
question remains, as if for ever and ever: what belief
led to just such a dull meticulous rendering of grief?

The issue of how far to allegorise a poem in an autobiographical direction (so as to incorporate in any reading the author’s stake in the material) re-emerges in reading two poems from Jones’s second book, Understandings. “Boxing On” is, ostensibly, about an ageing boxer but since the phrase of the title is in more general use – where it means to continue some project in a mildly despairing way – we are tempted immediately to widen the significance away from mere pugilism:

When the bell rings you come out feeling wary,
Knowing yourself you lack that brilliant snap.
Things change: you’ve lost your old need to be lairy,
And when the opening comes you see a trap.

You’re mad with craft: even your slightest move
Has years of it, each step, each fainting lead
As smooth as when there’s weight behind the glove;
You box with shadows just to keep up speed . . . . .

It’s possibly a portrait of an ageing literary lion (as Johnson was in the earlier poem) arguing habitually but without any real conviction or the ability to land any serious punches. But that wonderful phrase, “mad with craft”, makes me – without any compelling evidence – want to read it as a poem aware that the obsessive craft-oriented formalism of the poetry of the fifties and early sixties (the sort that we associate, perhaps unfairly, with the Melbourne University poets) eventually becomes no more than a hollow reflex: you may be able (to switch metaphors) to construct cabinets full of concealed spaces with wood so beautifully handled that no-one can see the joins and hardly any pins or glue are needed but, in the end, all you have are cabinets – and poetry is much bigger than that.

And I’m tempted to read “Running War” in somewhat similar fashion. Superficially it deals with the opposition between guerrillas and a city-based garrison. The former are impossible to defeat because they are group of shifting membership and, in the long run, the holder of the citadel wishes he could fight in the same, unfair way, exploiting the lack of precisely defined territories and borders:

. . . . . 
Small squadrons of your uniform parade,
Clapping their heels, across a public square - 
All with the lucid order that has made
Almost an empire, almost; but elsewhere,

Those ragged volunteers that shift like mist
Across the broken ground of shifting war
Diced for their first disorders to enlist,
And fight to have less than they had before.

Rich in imbalance, your temptation grows
To change with the marauders on the hill:
To break their city to a waste of prose;
To ride without direction, and to kill.

All readers fear that, no matter how sincerely they are seeking the author’s stake, they may only be imposing their own obsessions when they allegorise meaning, but I’m convinced that this is a poem about conflicts between the formalists and the “free verse” poets of the sixties. While the former are huddled within a defensible city, the latter have no coherent position, are a loose confederation and will eventually win the running war by being in a position simply to ignore the walled city which will ultimately collapse under the weight of its own insignificance. Much of such a reading is going to derive from a tell-tale phrase like “waste of prose” but the clapping heels of the city soldiers does suggest metric feet. But even if this direction of reading is the right one, the poem’s actual “position” about the war is ambiguous: there is no evidence that the narrator’s attitude is the author’s.

Understandings concludes with a tour-de-force: a twenty-three page poem, “A Dream of Barricades” which is certainly not about poetry wars but about a “real” war, a revolution in an unnamed country seen from the perspective of a combatant who is there from the beginning. A protest grows into a standoff (“grows” suggests something organic but there is no doubt that sinister figures are, in contrast to the narrator, well ahead in understanding the possibilities of the situation) which grows into a firefight which grows into a bloody government response and so on all with a kind of nightmare logic. It represents a political element in Jones’s work which is consistent though not intrusive. It leads me to thoughts about the title of his first book. “Inside the Whale” is a phrase, familiar to most as the title of a review of Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (as well as of English poetry in the twenties and thirties) by George Orwell. Over the years at the back of my mind I’ve wondered whether this is the source of the title of Jones’s first book without ever having the energy to find out (by digging up early reviews, for example) whether or not this is the case. The trouble with being a critic remote from “the action” is that all such readings (as of “The Boxer” and “Running War”) are speculative but the advantage, of course, is that one’s readings are closer to those of Johnson’s “common reader”. At any rate, Orwell’s essay – which describes a literary/political position – sits resonantly alongside Jones’s poems. Whereas, Orwell says, the poets of the twenties turned to the ordered world of fascism (either literally, in Pound’s case, or through the Catholic church) and the writers of the thirties to the messianic world of communism, later writers like Miller avoided all ideology in the interests of experience: “In his books one gets right away from the ”˜political animal’ and back to a viewpoint not only individualistic but completely passive – the view-point of a man who believes the world-process to be outside his control and who, in any case hardly wishes to control it . . . . .Get inside the whale – or rather, admit that you are inside the whale (for you are, of course). Give yourself over to the world-process, stop fighting against it or pretending that you control it; simply accept it, endure it, record it.” Although Miller is a bit more assertively egocentric than Orwell makes out, this position, inflected by a kind of wry defeatism, might well be Jones’s response to the slightly hysterical cold-war activities in Melbourne documented in Vincent Buckley’s Cutting Green Hay.

The Melbourne University writers formed a group and poets’ relationships to groups are always interesting. They provide argument, an early audience and constructive engagement but a group identity seems alien to a writer’s personality: it’s no accident that Chris Wallace-Crabbe once described himself as “a compulsive non-joiner”. And all this happened so long ago that it’s difficult to find evidence for how the members of the group interacted. But, to an outsider, it does seem that almost all the members spent their maturity escaping from the poetry of Melbourne University in the early sixties. Of the two features that dominate one’s sense of Evan Jones from this selection – loyalty in friendship and a wry defeatism – there is a fair chance that the former derives from those university friendships. In Left at the Post more than half of the poems have dedications and “Drinking with Friends”, as well as being a celebration of friendship, also has a really appealing element of self-mockery in its first stanza:

We used to sit up until three or four
drinking whatever there was: the decor
was characteristically indiscriminate,
the company, those curious and articulate
about politics, art, psychology. It seemed
to me I stammered, others talked: I’m damned
if I can remember getting much of a hearing.
My friends remember me as domineering . . . . .

Recognitions finishes with a set of dedicated poems and a number are in the style of their dedicatee’s work: “For Peter Steele, S.J.”, for example, is a meditation about belief done in Steele’s involved syntax with alternate indented lines and “The Point” mimics R.A. Simpson’s way of letting the syntax of a long sentence fall through short lines. These certainly aren’t parodies and they aren’t entirely hommages: more likely wry engagements with old friends. Alex Skovron’s introduction to this selected poems does speak about the books but one is more likely to take from it a sense of the man as acquaintance and friend.

As to the “wry defeatism” it’s a complicated thing to describe. One could try to do it by comparison. The work of Geoff Page, for example, is wry but not really defeatist: it has a sharp quality that Jones’s work lacks. The best way to speak of it might be to point out that in Jones’s poems about children like “A Song to David” from Understandings and “To Catherine, aged 5 months” from Recognitions he almost instinctively moves towards the moment, many years in the future, when the child will leave : “What parents have to learn / is how to let their children go: / the learning might be hard and slow.”

This Selected Poems from Grand Parade Poets presents Jones extremely attractively but some complicated issues are involved. Some poets’ work seems, if not the same over a long career, then at least distinct and following a developmental path which a late selected poems can clearly trace. The poetry of Chris Wallace-Crabbe is a good example. But others whose work shows radical shifts and rejections – that of Buckley and Taylor, for example (to stay within the group that Evan Jones belongs to) – pose quite a problem. That important early poem which now seems unreadable: was it a bad poem or has poetic history taken a turn in the last half-century that has deposited it, temporarily, in a bin as a good example of what, at the moment, is considered to be a bad kind of poem? Jones’s first book, Inside the Whale, looked back at from a perspective of fifty-five years, focusses this nicely. It is selected from fairly ruthlessly in this selected and a whole facet of Jones’s career is thus unrepresented. “Noah’s Song”, “Dr Johnson to the Mirror” and “Sketches for a Death-Mask” are fine poems in 2015 as they were in 1960 but many of the other poems in that first book are hard to admire. “Lines at Nightfall”, for example, is an eighteen page terza rima meditation which begins:

Lady, in all sincerity I turn -
     Not in belief, and not with disbelief,
     But burning as the altar-candles burn,

A slow consuming, without joy or grief
     (Though in my heart remembering much of both) -
     And proffer you this poem. Should the thief

Who tore your ancient tapestry in wrath
     Make no small reparation; should the trees
     Which crown with blossom all their winter growth . . .

It was probably intended to sound like a cross between Wallace Stevens and Coleridge’s great ode but finishes up sounding more like Dornford Yates. If you read the whole of Inside the Whale after reading this selected, you will find it hard believe they are the productions of the same poet. It isn’t so much a matter of method, of formal obsessions, but rather that many of the poems aspire to a kind of chorale-like ecstatic stasis: far from any wry defeatism. Should a selected poems represent the whole range of an output that covers more than fifty years or should it select from the poems that present the best face for a contemporary audience? Perhaps the answer is to be found in the issue of how “high-profile” the poet is. In Jones’s case it is probably fair to say that he will be a scarcely known poet to most people picking up this book in the middle of the second decade of the twenty-first century and there would be little benefit in loyally including poems from a volume published fifty-five years ago that are so different from the overall image of a poet which the book is establishing. In these terms and with these qualifications, this Selected Poems is a fine introduction to the work of a long and fruitful, albeit slightly quirky, poetic career.