[Informal and Imprecise: Ford Madox Ford] [10.8.07]

Basil Bunting, in his preface to Ford Madox Ford’s Selected Poems, praises the poet’s efforts to maintain “Wordsworth’s precept of a vocabulary taken from everyday speech” [1] and “Yeats’ further precept of everyday syntax,” otherwise much neglected by Ford’s contemporaries. His poems mimic a conversational tone, uncommon in the wake of the pre-Raphaelites and the Victorian era of lavish, sometimes cloying, ornament. “That was rare in 1910,” writes Bunting, “almost unknown.” Just as in unrehearsed speech, with its digressions preventing exactitude except by accretion, Bunting also observes the poet “playing hide-and-seek with the precise word.”

The critic contends that to keep to that style of writing, as one might speak, means to tend toward an imprecise depiction of the world. This imprecision, the tendency to meander in the vicinity of the heart of the matter rather than to face it head-on is really only a kind of obscuring and sentimentalizing mechanism employed by Ford so that he can write about the things he has experienced. He has written a good deal about his time fighting in what Bunting names “the first German war” (vii). In “Antwerp” [2] the British Ford asks of perhaps all Belgian soldiers:

What the devil will he gain by it?
Digging a hole in the mud and standing all day in the rain by it
Waiting his doom,
The sharp blow, the swift outpouring of blood,
Till the trench of grey mud
Is turned to a brown purple drain by it. (32-7)

This is a fine instance of what Bunting calls “a prettification, an attempt, maybe unconscious, to dodge hard facts” (viii) He concedes the validity of such a defense in allowing that “some vagueness is inherent in [Ford’s] subjects; words – and ears – flinch from some precisions.” In a small way encouraging inconclusiveness, Ford plays with three different meanings of the word “by,” connecting three usages of the word in three triple-syllable instances of a single rhyme.

George Szirtes writes in a recent essay that “plain speech, if such a thing truly exists, is fine for instrumental and moral purposes but is of little use in registering experience as such.”[3] He writes that poetry relies on the “disruptive, multi-dimensional metaphor,” and not the sequential, expository nature of prose. Thus, “the eye did not travel fast towards an end, but hung on lines in open spaces.” He goes on: “The truths the poem deals with are not evidentiary truths…not in the form of falsifiable statements such as science or law demands…their truths refer to the real life inside the poem.” Compare this to Bunting’s qualification of Ford’s style: “Yet nebulosities and imprecisions are much of our landscape without or within, and worth reproducing.”

Ford’s indirect approach to his external subject is a matter of protecting his internal sanity; this arrangement due in large part no doubt to the troubling subject matter itself. His description above of the death of the Belgian soldier is nearly devoid of gory detail, or emotion, relying instead on a sudden shock of red, that diffuses quickly into a landscape of grey and brown and purple, to urge reaction through impression rather than straight-on contemplation. His words cut closer to the bone in “One Day’s List”:

The mine thunders
Upwards – and branches of trees, mud, and stone,
Skulls, limbs, rats, thistles, the clips
Of Cartridges, beef tins and wire
Belch
To the heavens in fire
From the lips
Of the crater where doubtless you died…. (26-32)

Even though this is not terribly gory, Ford has now supplied details of the action, describing what could be the frozen frame of a film, an explosion delivered in words as an entity thrust violently upwards, devouring all that lived in the spaces that it has claimed and then crassly belching away the shattered remains. Here a metaphor, for the ravenous waste and appetite of war, survives by the hesitance of the poet for the explicit, which in turn helps the poet survive, even when reliving the terror of the battlefield.

The real strength of Ford’s poetry is the stark and informal way in which he presents powerful imagery. And it was a subdued style that would prove influential, and lucrative, for one who would later besmirch his character in his book, A Moveable Feast, namely Ernest Hemingway. “I dare not maintain that Ford Madox Ford was a great poet or even a very good one,” begins Bunting’s Preface, but, he continues, “nevertheless in a few years before and after the first German war he did write some excellent poems which had a far wider influence than anybody has acknowledged except Ezra Pound, and which might have more.”

[1] Bunting, Basil. Preface. Selected Poems. By Ford Madox Ford. Cambridge, MA: Pym-Randall, 1971.
[2] Ford, Ford Madox. Selected Poems. Cambridge, MA: Pym-Randall, 1971.
[3] Szirtes, George. “Missing Dates/Sleeve Notes.” Poetry Oct. 2007: 35-43.

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