Memory, though multitudinous & various, exists in each of us as a most intimate possession. Hume went so far as to suggest that it was “the source of personal identity.” But the conscious mind exists only in the present moment and taps only a fragment of memory. Somewhere within us, we presume, exists the entire body of memory — yet we can only recover it in bits and pieces. So the poet who takes himself for his subject is apprehensible only in fragments. Memory is, however, always “there” to be drawn on, and the poet may fondly dream that serious, systematic labor of recall (such as an autobiographical poem) might make it explicit in print. Perhaps Wordsworth hoped that The Prelude would be memory transposed to a concrete medium. And, if memory equals self, the finished work might claim to be more the poet than that flesh-and-blood creature who called himself Wordsworth. . . .
The provisional nature of the long poem becomes one of its hallmarks, even for those poets who did not rely so much on memory. Williams remarked, when he found it necessary to continue Paterson, “It called for poetry such as I did not know, it was my duty to discover or make such a context on the ‘thought.’” The context that might supply unity can hardly do so while still undiscovered or unmade. How can we know when we have uncovered all our important memories, and how do we shuffle them into a unity once we have?
Two poets of our century, David Jones and William Carlos Williams, tended to deemphasize the importance of unity. They seemed to consider it desirable, but hardly necessary. Of Paterson Williams remarked, “As I mulled the thing over in my mind, the composition began to assume a form which you see in the present poem, keeping, I fondly hope, a unity directly continuous with the Paterson of Pat. 1 to 4. Let’s hope I have succeeded in doing so.” His curious estrangement from the poem, suggested by “the composition began to assume a form,” bears a resemblance to Zukofsky’s withdrawal from full responsibility for his poem. Both men saw their work developing a life of its own, a life not necessarily amenable to unity imposed by the author.
Jones’s conception of unity in The Anathemata was even more nebulous. “What I have written has no plan, or at least is not planned. If it has a shape it is chiefly that it returns to its beginning. It has themes and a theme even if it wanders far. If it has a unity it is that what goes before conditions what comes after and vice versa.” For Jones, discovery is mostly a matter of collecting what is already at hand. Therefore the chief operation in The Anathemata is one of arrangement. To have started with a preestablished unity would have been to assume that the materials would sort themselves out according to a plan fashioned by Jones. But this is precisely what Jones wanted to escape.
Furthermore, Jones’s materials, like Wordsworth’s, are fundamentally mysterious. They can only be presented, not explained. The poet works to explore, elaborate, and celebrate them — not bring them down to his measure. Charles Olson once attempted to grapple with this process: “Energy is larger than man, but therefore, if he taps it as it is in himself, his uses of himself are EXTENSIBLE in human directions & degree not recently granted.” Since Wordsworth, poets have been seeking that “something” larger than man [sic], whether we call it memory, divinity, energy, the imagination, or paradise. Unity becomes a useful way of channeling that larger dimension into the poem. If the manifestations of that larger entity can only be perceived multiply, unity is fractured into a collection of unities. Pound, Williams, Jones, Olson, and Zukofsky were attuned to a wider spectrum than is tidily manageable.