‘My “method” is merely to arse around with such words as are available to me until the passage in question takes on something of the shape I think it requires & evokes the image I want. I find, or I think I find, the process almost identical to what one tries to do in paintin’ or drawin’” [Letter from David Jones to Desmond Chute, 29 December 1952].
After many years as a marginal figure at the edges of modernism, this conference offered scholars and enthusiasts the opportunity to ‘shape’ a new image of the Anglo-Welsh poet and painter, David Jones, for the coming generation. As the comment from the letter indicates, Jones thought of himself as a multimedia artist; he employed the same ‘method’ – the scare quotation marks suggesting a scepticism as to whether his approach could be construed as a methodology – in the poetic arts as in the visual arts. The conference itself reflected Jones’s status as a multichannel and interdisciplinary artist and included: an exhibition of visual works by Jones and other artists, curated by Noel White; a screening of the documentary ‘David Jones: Between the Wars: The Years of Achievement’ by Derek Shiel and Adam Alive; an introduction to the upcoming adaption of In Parenthesis by the Welsh National Opera; and a communal viewing of little-seen archival footage of David Jones and the Welsh Nationalist and poet, Saunders Lewis, unearthed by Exeter PhD student, Jasmine Evans.
While the richness and the depth of the insights into Jones’s work throughout the conference is impossible to capture in a single post, four key themes arose across the keynotes and panels. First, the relationship between Jones’s visual art and poetry was a major interest. Anna Johnson, for instance, used examples from Jones’s poetic practice to elucidate the imagery of his great watercolour, ‘Aphrodite in Aulis’. Keynotes by both Dr Anne Pryce-Owen and Dr Alison Milbank offered reflections on Jones’s ‘Flora in Calix Light’; the former outlining her personal struggles with the implications of the visual imagery and the latter offering Jones’s painting as an example of the theological technique of defamiliarization that, Dr Milbank argued, is a helpful way of considering Jones’s oeuvre as a contribution to theological discussion.
Secondly, theological considerations were at the forefront of a number of talks. In addition to Dr Milbank’s talk, Professor Paul Fiddes, in his key note, offered Jones’s Maritain-inspired notion of sacrament as an opportunity for redefining the relationship between modernism and the post-modern. As a supplement to Professor Fiddes’s theoretical perspective and selection of Maritain as a source of theological insight in and for Jones, panel talks by Jamie Callison and Freddie Everett offered historically-informed considerations of the way in which another of Jones’s chief theological influences – Maurice de la Taille – influenced his sacramental thought and the ramifications of this for repositioning Jones in relation to cultural modernism.
Thirdly, Jones’s specifically literary achievements were also well-represented. The conference opened with a lecture from a practising poet, Micheal O’Siadhail, who drew attention to the, not untroubled, relationship between Jones as a poet and his readers. Various panel sessions responded to this with talks by Dr Matthew Sperling and Professor Steve Matthews reviewing the role of David Jones’s late work in the context of British small poetry presses and the influence that the Agenda editions of his work had upon avant-garde poetry in Britain. One particularly keen reader of David Jones, in this context, was the poet Geoffrey Hill; a writer whose work testifies to the vitality of Jones’s legacy and the nature of the Hill-Jones relationship was considered by Dr Paul Robichaud and Dr Johnathan Wooding in the final panel of the conference. Earlier in proceedings, Dr Hester Jones had offered a fascinating insight into an alternative trajectory for Jones’s poetry, citing the influence of readings of The Anathemata on a tradition of British spiritual or religious verse taken up in the work of Elizabeth Jennings and Peter Levi, among others.
These approaches look forward to Jones’s ongoing influence on British poetry but the fourth and final key theme of the conference placed Jones firmly within the historical and literarycritical context of the first half of the twentieth century. Professor Tom Dilworth – whose forthcoming biography of Jones is keenly anticipated by all scholars of this remarkable creative artist – illuminated the elusive figure of the early David Jones through reference to the topics of discussions he enjoyed with a close circle of friends in 1930s; a number of these insights were illuminative for not only Jones scholarship but also the work of the ‘Modernism and Christianity’ project more widely. While Professor Tom Dilworth offered much needed historical context, Dr Erik Tonning set out a re-conceptualization of David Jones as a cultural modernist that both drew on and enriched existing critical paradigms.
These four key themes: the relationship between visual and poetic art, the intersections between religion and literature with particular reference to the sacramental, the poetic traditions inspired by Jones’s work, and the place of his contribution within existing historical and critical paradigms provide important areas for future exploration within David Jones studies. It is hoped that a volume of critical essays based on the work shared at this conference will provide a firm point of reference for future Jones scholars.