Category Archives: philosophy

Prynne week: Biting the Air.

I’ve now decided to have a series of ‘weeks’ in the way that Radio Three has a composer of the week and some arthouse cinemas have a director’s season. I think I’m doing this because it gives me an opportunity to stay with one poet’s work over a number of posts rather than flitting from one to the other. This isn’t going to be easy because I am a lifelong flitter.

J H Prynne does however present a wide enough range of stuff to keep this tendency at bay and Biting the Air appears to be a good example of this. I will proceed with caution because Prynne’s work is generally tricky (technical term) but repays careful attention. Given the level of trickiness what follows is more than usually tentative, provisional and subject to radical change.

Biting the Air was published in 2003 and appears as the penultimate poem in the second edition and appears, in part at least, to have Big Pharma in its sights. I do know a little about the global pharmaceutical problem, I spent between 2004-10 writing about the inadequacies of the system of drug research, testing and marketing and remain of the view that producing misleading/false information that leads to death or premature death should be a criminal offence. Because I’m bipolar I’ll be taking drugs for the rest of my life so I also have an interest in how things are done.

This is a sequence of 12 poems, 11 of which have five four-line stanzas with the other one having a bit of variation in the middle. The epigraph is from Ockham- “Every property is the property of something, but it is not the property of just anything. This is the start of the first poem:

Pacify rag hands attachment in for muted
counter-march or locked up going to drainage
offer some, give, none ravine platter, tied up
to kin you would desire that. Even hand

bestowing pharmaceutical front to avoid. even
flatline signal glitz perfection, slide under be-
fore matter planning your treat advance infirm
in legal glowing stunt. Enough out of one hand

And this is the final three stanzas of the sixth poem:

told to you, root and branch slope management
at onrush unpaired and less compact, generic death
as possession on nil return. Which way the novice
points trail off, they say the same on the block

new level rib, spit your lips. Be quick, be
long to pump anger revivalism, percolate thick 
forest scarps dug yet deeper. Get a vaccine on
shipment perish thread your face why yours

if told more, stable on a tilted capital feed 
suspected more often. Give out a version amplified
with strings to obligate a boundary check, felt 
damp echo ethic manipulate its life exemption.

There’s gloriously complex things that appear to be going on here. Starting with the obvious ‘medical’ words: pharmaceutical, flatline, infirm, generic, rib, lips, vaccine and life exemption- I’m taking this to indicate that the poem is making direct comment on the issues that beset modern medicine rather than using this particular malaise to talk about something else. Of course, he may be doing both but I’m going to stick with medicine as medicine for the moment.

I’m now going to be very brave and launch into some kind of close reading of the above few lines in order to see if bits can be extracted and refined. The reason for choosing two separate passages is to test out what Prynne says in his Difficulties in the Translation of “Difficult” Poems essay published in the CLR in 2010:

But in certain types of “difficult” poetry this corridor of sense is much wider and more open, more like a network across the whole expanse of the text, with many loops and cross-links of semantic and referring activity which extend the boundaries of relevance, and of control by context, in many directions at once. If these many directions are developed so as to produce strong contradiction and self-dispute then the method may become a dialectic practice, in which poetic form and expression are brought into internal contest with themselves and with each other.

This and the rest of the essay strike me as invaluable aids in dealing with this kind of material but then there’s a doubt for me about how many readers will be bothered to read the essays and the critical work on Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Herbert which demonstrate how this particular poet ‘does’ poetry. I’ve read these because I was already intrigued by the material and wanted to know more, as has also been the case with Geoffrey Hill and Simon Jarvis. Is this what the charge of elitism is about? Should readers need just the words on the page to get the full picture? I don’t think this is necessarily exclusionary, a fan of Liverpool football club may read players’ autobiographies in order to get some context from what they pay to see. I don’t think that I’m unique in wanting to know more about what my favourite writers think about writing and I don’t feel that this is an elitist pursuit.

So, is there a “corridor of sense” running through the above? I think that there might be but it might be best to take things reasonably slowly.

Even hand bestowing pharmaceutical front to avoid. At first stare, ‘front’ is problematic because it’s difficult to see how it can be described as pharmaceutical. It took me a little while but it may be that ‘front’ may refer to a cover or disguise for something else- usually a criminal activity. In New York, the Mafia has used garbage collection to disguise its main lines of business. The OED reminds me that ‘pharmaceutical’ is a noun as well as an adjective and that this has been used since 1829 to indicate a “pharmaceutical preparation; a medicinal drug”. No, one of the many problems with the drug industry are the intertwined problems of neutrality and objectivity. Time after time the biggest drug companies have been fined for presenting skewed and partial information when selling there products. They’ve marketed anti-psychotics as a beneficial treatment for dementia without disclosing the very much increased risk of stroke and the average shortening of life by about five years. This is bolstered by the publication of clinical trial results that are hopelessly compromised by the fact that they are funded by the company producing the drug.

So ‘even hand’ might be read as ‘even handed’, fair, balanced, impartial and these qualities are used by drug companies as a front to disguise the complex and often contradictory realities of new therapies.

Even flatline glitz perfection. The OED fives glitz as “an extravagant but superficial display” which characterizes the way drug companies flog their wares. A flatline on a heart monitor would indicate that the heart has stopped beating but on other graphs and displays it indicates a stable or unchanging state with no variation. The Prynne ‘even’ always presents me with difficulties but on this occasion it may be the verb as in to make level or equal or to describe something that has these qualities. With regard to flatlining, drug companies are particularly good at selling products that don’t make a blind bit of difference. There is currently a bit of a furore in the UK because it has been noticed that £300 million was spent on tamiflu even though the evidence for its efficacy doesn’t exist.

Slope management. One of the very many joys of paying attention to Prynne and Hill is the amount of time that you get to spend with the OED. Looking at the ‘slope’ variations I’ve just come across its use as an adverb, deployed by Milton in PL as That bright beam, whose point now raisd Bore him slope downward to the Sun which is wonderful and is obviously in need of revivial. However, I don’t think that there’s any need to get too esoteric in this instance. I’m taking ‘slope’ as being the opposite of the flat line in the first poem and ‘management’ as a euphemism for manipulation. This works in both ways- drug companies produce results that emphasise the benefits whilst minimising the likely risks. Incidentally, I’m not of the view that Big Pharma is the incarnation of evil but I am concerned that our political masters simply fail to understand the issues involved from the nature of objective knowledge and the intertwined relationships between academic and commercial research and health providers. I’ll also admit to be morbidly fascinated by these folding and re-folding processes.

I’m happy to acknowledge that I might be wrong here, especially as I can’t get to grips with “at onrush unpaired and less compact” but I don’t have any better points of reference at the moment.

Felt damp echo ethic manipulate its life exemption. This might take a little while. I’m going to take ‘manupilate’ to have its common definition and worry instead about exemption. This particular noun refers to setting an individual or entity outside a particular rule or code. The most obvious example that springs into this small brain is the exemption of diplomats from parking tickets. So, a life exemption may be an exemption from something that lasts for life or an exemption from the rules that normally pertain to being alive. It seems, for example, that we are living much longer than any previous generation and that this may be credited to advances in medical practice and treatments. The other exemption from life that can be exercised is the ability of the individual to choose to curtail his or her existence. I’m not going to amplify the minefield signalled here by ‘ethic’ but wish to point out that medical ‘progress’ (loaded term) has prolonged life but in some cases has simply extended an already unbearable existence.

I hope the above points to how a ‘corridor of sense’ may be obtained. I know that this particular take may be very wide of the mark but at least it does begin to tease out some of those boundaries of relevance that Prynne refers to. In the rest of this week’s posts I hope to put more of his description to the test.

Information Quality: the Monstrous Poem

Continuing with my theme, I’d like to move on to monstrosity as one of those quality that often gets overlooked or misplaced. I need to say at the outset that the name of this particular quality is stolen from Keston Sutherland although the following elaboration is all mine. Given the response to all things gnarly, I think I need to make clear that these qualities aren’t indicators of worth, there are good monstrous poems in this world just as there are bad ones. There is also good gnarliness and bad gnarliness and sometimes these are in the same poem (Lycidas, Poly Olbion). As with the gnarly, many of the onstrous demand an almost physical engagement, a bit of a cognitive and often aesthetic struggle before they can be overcome.

Monstrosity: a definition.

A monstrous poem needs to be large and ranging in scope rather than in scale although scale can be an important factor. By scope I essentially mean the ‘range’ of subject matter although a range of perspectives on the same subject can contribute. There are some obvious candidates, Olson’s Maximus springs to mind but some others that are more nuanced and understated but nevertheless deal with a lot of Very Big Stuff. The following are tentative and provisional examples of what I’m trying to say.

Elizabeth Bishop’s In the Waiting Room.

Bishop was probably the most technically able poet of the 20th century and the above is one of her very best:

In Worcester, Massachusetts,
 I went with Aunt Consuelo
 to keep her dentist's appointment
 and sat and waited for her
 in the dentist's waiting room.
 It was winter. It got dark
 early. The waiting room 
 was full of grown-up people,
 arctics and overcoats,
 lamps and magazines. 
 My aunt was inside
 what seemed like a long time 
 and while I waited I read 
 the National Geographic
 (I could read) and carefully
 studied the photographs: 
 the inside of a volcano,
 black, and full of ashes;
 then it was spilling over
 in rivulets of fire.
 Osa and Martin Johnson
 dressed in riding breeches,
 laced boots, and pith helmets.
 A dead man slung on a pole
 --"Long Pig," the caption said.
 Babies with pointed heads 
 wound round and round with string;
 black, naked women with necks
 wound round and round with wire
 like the necks of light bulbs. 
 Their breasts were horrifying. 
 I read it right straight through.
 I was too shy to stop.
 And then I looked at the cover: 
 the yellow margins, the date. 
 Suddenly, from inside, 
 came an oh! of pain 
 --Aunt Consuelo's voice--
 not very loud or long.
 I wasn't at all surprised; 
 even then I knew she was
 a foolish, timid woman.
 I might have been embarrassed,
 but wasn't. What took me
 completely by surprise was
 that it was me: 
 my voice, in my mouth.
 Without thinking at all
 I was my foolish aunt,
 I--we--were falling, falling,
 our eyes glued to the cover
 of the National Geographic,
 February, 1918.

 I said to myself: three days
 and you'll be seven years old.
 I was saying it to stop the sensation of falling off
 the round, turning world. 
 into cold, blue-black space. 
 But I felt: you are an I,
 you are an Elizabeth,
 you are one of them.
 Why should you be one, too?
 I scarcely dared to look
 to see what it was I was.
 I gave a sidelong glance
 --I couldn't look any higher-- 
 at shadowy gray knees, 
 trousers and skirts and boots
 and different pairs of hands
 lying under the lamps.
 I knew that nothing stranger
 had ever happened, that nothing
 stranger could ever happen.

 Why should I be my aunt,
 or me, or anyone?
 What similarities--
 boots, hands, the family voice
 I felt in my throat, or even
 the National Geographic
 and those awful hanging breasts-- 
 held us all together
 or made us all just one?
 How--I didn't know any
 word for it--how "unlikely". . .
 How had I come to be here,
 like them, and overhear
 a cry of pain that could have
 got loud and worse but hadn't?

 The waiting room was bright
 and too hot. It was sliding
 beneath a big black wave, another,
 and another. Then I was back in it.

 The War was on. Outside,
 in Worcester, Massachusetts, 
 were night and slush and cold,
 and it was still the fifth 
 of February, 1918.

The beginnings of and nature of self-consciousness is a pretty big piece of ground but here we also have family, otherness and our prurient, arrogant interest in what was then thought of and depicted as the ‘savage’, World War One and what seven year old can see of others with a ‘sidelong glance’, and what time does.

I challenge anyone to find a single mite of clunk in any of the above but my point here is that huge subjects are covered in a way that feels conversational and completely unforced. The monstrosity arrives in full flow in the second and third stanzas which take us (whilst still in the waiting room) to a level of abstraction that requires several readings, some reflection / consideration before things become a bit clearer.

Paul Celan’s Aschenglorie.

I wasn’t going to do this because I probably write too much about Celan and about this poem in particular yet it does have that huge, sprawling scale but in a way that is completely different from Elizabeth Bishop. Like the above, it’s one of my favourite poems. Although Celan was a Holocaust survivor, it is a mistake to think of his work only in that context, as I hope to show:


ASHGLORY behind
your shaken-knotted
hands at the threeway.

Pontic erstwhile: here,
a drop,
on
the drowned rudder blade,
deep in the petrified oath,
it roars up.

(On the vertical
breathrope, in those days,
higher than above,
between two painknots, while
the glossy
Tatarmoon climbed up to us.
I dug myself into you and into you).

Ash-
glory behind
you threeway 
hands.

The east-in-front-of-you, from
the East, terrible.

Nobody
bears witness for the
witness.

Most of the writing on Celan’s later work is speculative and I certainly don’t intend to provide any kind of explanation for this piece of brilliance. For those who would like one, I’d suggest that Derrida’s Poetics and Politics of Witnessing is a better stab in the dark than most. I’d simply like to draw attention to the following subjects that may be being addressed here:

  • the current status/nature of those who died during the Holocaust;
  • language and the return from exile;
  • filial guilt;
  • Stalin and the displacement of ethnic groups;
  • suicide in the face of tyranny;
  • the problems facing/confronting the poet as memorialist.

What is brilliant about Celan is that he is able to pack so much into so few words. The first word, which is repeated further into the poem, brilliantly encapsulates the fate of victims but also the way in which they will continue- the image I have is of brightly burning wood beneath a light covering of ash, your hands will burn if you get too close. I like to think that Pontic erstwhile brings into focus the Greek speaking people of Pontus who lived on the Black Sea coast in what is now Turkey. Along with the Armenians they were subject to genocide at the hands of the Turks and then deported to Greece. It is said that the ‘native’ Greeks could not understand the type of Greek that these returnees spoke. The Tatar people were also moved en masse from their land in the Crimea by Stalin.

Of course, the implacable aridity and extreme ambiguity of Clean’s poem-making makes over-reading very, very likely but that should not stop any of us paying close attention to this almost magical body of work. My own sins in this regard read the ‘threeway’ as the meeting with the poet’s mother and father, both of whom were murdered by the Germans. The other big leap into speculation is the reported answer that Celan gave when asked what he did in labour camps during the war: “dug holes”. The last three lines are those that have caught the most critical attention, in his otherwise excellent essay, Derrida probably over-complicates this solitary, isolated act of witnessing and I’m never sure whether it’s a statement of fact or an anguished cry. The third bracketed stanza is gloriously complex and monstrous in itself and I hover between each of the eight or so readings that I have in my head, the breath rope may be a noose but it may also be the lines of bubbles rising from the mouth of some one (drowning) underwater, both possibilities cast the poem in a dramatically different way.

Sir Geoffrey Hill’s An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England.

This was published in the Tenebrae collection in 1968, following Mercian Hymns. The notes at the back of the original inform me that these thirteen sonnets were written for a number of contexts and this goes some way to explaining the monstrous scale of the sequence. The title is taken from Pugin- the leading proponent of the 19th century Gothic revival.

The sequence uses this to expand on England, colonial India, ruins, the English landscape and (as ever) martyrdom. Each of these are huge but the ‘thread’ running though them is one G Hill and his idiosyncratic ‘take’ on these things which, with the possible exception of India, have been lifelong concerns. I’ll give a few brief examples to try and show this scope. There are three sonnets entitled A Short History of British India, this is the second half of the second:

The flittering candles of the wayside shrines
melt into dawn. The sun surmounts the dust.
Krishna from Rhada lovingly entwines.

Lugging the earth, the oxen bow their heads.
The alien conscience of our days is lost
among the ruins and on endless roads.

Obviously, our imperial experiences in India are difficult to encapsulate in 42 lines but it would seem that Hill’s thesis is in part British arrogance and its resulting inability to understand or engage with the glorious complexity that is Indian culture. Whilst the critique is occasionally scathing, the tone is rueful and oddly elegaic.

The second sonnet is entitled Damon’s Lament for his Clorinda, Yorkshire 1654. I’m taking this to be a nod towards Marvell’s Damon and Clorinda which carries more than a nod in the direction of Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calendar. These are the first four lines:


November rips gold foil from the oak ridges.
Dour folk huddle in High Hoyland, Penistone.
The tributaries of the Sheaf and Don
bulge their dull spate, cramming the poor bridges.

And these are the last 3.5 lines:


................Why does the air grow cold

in the region of mirrors? And who is this clown
doffing his mask at the masked threshold
to selfless raptures that are all his own?

So this would seem to be perpetuating the distinctly English pastoral with a juxtaposition between the rural and the spiritual. The mysterious and allusive ending is in stark contrast with the clarity of the opening lines. This in itself is monstrously wrestleable. I also need to report that the recent Collected tells us that this particular sonnet is “an imitation of a sonnet by L. L. de Argensola” without specifying which sonnet. Of course, this information isn’t in the original edition. I don’t think this invalidates the Spenser-Marvell- Hill guess but it certainly throws something else into the pot.

Hill’s relationship with England has always been more than a little complex, he’s clearly a patriot and, as a red Tory, despairs of many elements of contemporary politics, especially our membership of the EU. He is also our best poet of the English landscape and his involvement with all things rural is unambivalent. This is the first part of The Laurel Axe which is the ninth sonnet in the sequence:

Autumn resumes the land, ruffles the woods
with smoky wings, entangles them. Trees shine
out from their leaves, rocks mildew to moss-green;
the avenues are spread with brittle floods.

Platonic England, house of solitudes,
rests in its laurels and its injured stone,
replete with complex fortunes that are gone,
beset by dynasties of moods and clouds

One of the epigraphs for An Apology is from Coleridge: “the spiritual Platonic old England” which adds another level of monstrosity to the sequence as a whole. Coleridge’s admiration for Plato is in itself unstraightforward but you don’t need to puzzle over this to appreciate the strength and brilliance of the above.

So, monstrosity of scale which seems more monstrous than the much longer Triumph of Love because so much is compressed into these 182 lines. I’m now going to spend a few days trying to subdue it into something more manageable.

<Simon Jarvis' The Unconditional.

I was going to use this as the example par excellence of monstrosity by means of digression and I was looking for a suitably digressive passages when I came across one of my v informative exclamation marks in the margin of page 179 and decided to use that instead, for reasons that will hopefully become clear as we proceed.

For those that don’t know, the Jarvis project is one of the most important of this century, his longer, formal work is a brilliant thumb in the eye at what we might think of as the literary establishment on both sides of the Atlantic for a number of different reasons. The above was published in 2005 and consists of a single poem containing about 235 pages of defiantly metrical verse. This is what caught my eye:

        Presuicidal choclatiera
coat morsels with a delicate agony
        for which their German reading long ago
was how the cost effective entrance fee
        ("In every line that Celan ever wrote
hovers a brooding ethical concern".
        poor penny dreadfuls of the critical sense
where the quotidian shopping carts unseen
        gather to give this hulking strut the lie
full of their viands for the evening pie.
        The worst that is thought and known in the world.
Precisely instead unriddable pleasures
        the poet gripped until he fathomed them wet.
(How precisely the joyful idiot is snubbed
        the couriers of singularity
can well arpeggiate as they now tread
        on underlings of idiotism who
know little of the sacrifices made
        by the sole selfers walking on their guts
(Tsk my resentimentful prosodist!
        Excellent rancour from the hilltop sire
When may we know what you yourself have lost
        or ever had to put up with in the rain?)))

This is horribly complex, at it’s heart it’s a rant at all things Continental but Derrida and co. (yet another technical term) in particular. Writing about the Holocaust is a huge subject as is writing about writing about the Holocaust as is the Adorno / Continental divide yet Jarvis takes these on together with a note of self-deprication at the end. I won’t argue with the notion that most of the critical writing on Celan is dire in the extreme but I don’t think that this is confined to one particular ‘sect’. I’ve gone on about this Adornian snobbery in the past and don’t intend to repeat myself. My point is that many many tomes have been written about writing about the Holocaust and many complexities have been examined yet Jarvis manages to encapsulate his fairly nuanced ‘position’ in one page and there’s a whole set of small monstrosities within.

So, I hope that I’ve demonstrated that this quality needs to be paid some attention. In writing the above I’v discovered a few other qualities (relentless monstrosity, monstrous ambiguity etc) which I’ll write about at a later date.

Marvell, Matthias, Sutherland and Information Quality

Not entirely sure where I’m going with this but I’ve come across the above notion which apparently is a growing field of study. It turns out that information quality is thought about in a matrix of different qualities and as soon as I saw these I thought it might be useful to think about The Odes to TL61P in these terms and see where we get to. I then had a closer look at these ‘metrics’ and decided that they wouldn’t fit this particular bill after all because they omit or confuse many of the aspects that I think about in poetry.

So, I’d like to start with what my own headings might look like. I need to emphasise that these qualities appear to me to be the ones I ‘apply’ in my reading this week and is entirely provisional, tentative and obviously subjective. In order to do this properly, I’m going to pay attention to three very different extracts from three poems that I’m reasonably familiar with and see where we get to: Andrew Marvell’s Upon Appleton House, John Mathias’ Laundry Lists and Manifestoes and Keston Sutherland’s Odes to TL61P.

This is Marvell:


But most the hewel's wonders are
Who here has the holt-fester's care.
He walks still upright from the root,
Meas'ring the timber with his foot;
And all the way, to keep it clean,
Doth from the bark the woodmoths glean.
He, with his beak, examines well
Which fit to stand and which to fell.

The good he numbers up, and hacks;
As if he marked them with the axe
but where, tinkling with his beak,
Does find the hollow oak to speak,
That for his building he designs,
and through the tainted sign he mines.
Who could have thought the tallest oak
Should fall by such a feeble stroke!

Nor would it, had the tree not fed
A traitor worm, within it bred.
(As first our flesh corrupt within
Tempts ignorant and bashful Sin.)
And yet that worm triumphs not long
But serves to feed the hewel's young
While the oak seems to fall content,
Viewing the treason's punishment.

And this is Matthias:


           .....while on a promontory broken off
The screensaver image 0f an ancient SE10
Madame C's high cognates gather around boxes dropped
By Ever Afterlife Balloonists working on the script
Of Cargo Cults. They argue (the cognates) that a manifest
Attached to shipment listing all collaterals and cogs
Codes and codices for Mme's Nothing Else Cockaigne Machine
In fact are elegaic poems, that David sings for Jonathan,
Gilgamesh for Enkidu. They inscribe themselves as
Manifestoes which proclaim their faith in algorithms of an
Unkown field of force. They're cognizant and they can glow.
They're coeternal, and they rise to an occasion.
Although they tell no story of their lives,their little trumpets blow.

And this is Sutherland:


The west Irish had nothing but tiny scraps of land with
a cabin; a pig and potatoes; but Belfast and Dublin
had England. Love gets saner, stained into the glass.
All countries must work together toward a mutual
resolution of currency imbalances, or risk war, says the
governor of the Bank of England, tasked with making
the genital stage of Godzilla inevitable; but he is
right, it's the answer Jesus would give if pressed; the
severance will yet amount to minus sweet fuck all.
Your job is to be at that orgy and to experience
maximum anxiety, write, and see what happens; it's not
a joke to say that you learn from that, except you
decline. Synergized to social fact, surplus grout of the
myriad equivalents; at the source I is screaming or am;
prolegomenon to an epigram. Smoke that shit. Yes.
Passion swings both ways, unfixed to be enlarged,
hungry for the majority of the earth, Robert's penis is a
surprise. In my tent, it is more pink than I am. I am 
more red or purple or brown. I had guessed, startling
me, but I sucked it anyway, not to go back; I think it
was an excruciation to him and a probably morally
significant embarrassment, because he never used it
against me when I started punching his face in on the 
couch that my mother pissed herself on; get it back;
why did I do that, smacking around with childish 
fists, deepening our wishes, blunting life in him and
me; and smack that miniscule nameless boy who merely
explained to me that my fantasy car for sale to him
could be given wheels, when I wanted it to be flat and 
just glide? The Victorian English had their more
innocent Green Zones in India, from which to peroroate
on the superiority of peace for trade; indiscreet to go
slaughtering around all over the place like the Russians
via the French and in any case very likely more
overheads to redemption. If sex is the price for that,
be it what you may; after all sex disappears anyway.

Verbal skill.

This is a broad category but, in my view, one of the things that poets do is to make words to a variety of different things at the same time, the words chosen shouldn’t ‘jar’ on the ear, should be precise whilst at the same time carrying a number of different contexts. There’s also the skill of putting words together, in whatever form that enhances both the sound of sense of what’s being written.

Taking Appleton House first, it seems to me that the words are taking us, almost by stealth, from the world of the wood to the world of politics. Unlike the others, Marvell is constrained by both rhyme and meter yet the lines proceed without that sing-song playground effect that seems to be present in too many poems of his period. Tinkle might be thought of as problematic but this is helped a little by the discovery that it can also mean ‘tingle’, especially with regard to the nose. The other concern might be the are/care rhyme in the first quoted verse and long/young in the last. It may well be that these could be credibly made to rhyme in the 17th century ( long/yong) but it still strikes me as clunky.

John Matthias is a superb technician who hardly ever puts a verbal foot wrong. I know this because I’ve been working with him to produced an annotated on-line version of his Trigons and that entire sequence is remarkable for its absence, with one very small exception, of clunk. It could be argued that I’m biased but this mastery is something I’d written about before John got in touch. The poem above is the last from the Laundry Lists sequence and these are the first lines that had me punching the air with delight precisely because of the verbal brilliance of the last line and this uncanny ability to use ordinary/conversational language to do very complex and intelligent things. As well as being a sucker for the great phrase (their tiny trumpets blow) I’m also of the view that poetry, if it’s about anything, is about a ‘mix’ of compression and precision. I have gone on at length about the last 6 and a half lines that conclude the sequence but I still feel the need to emphasise in terms of word-choice, syntax and phrasing how the very difficult to do properly is made to feel relaxed and easy.

Keston Sutherland is the most exciting British poet writing today but he isn’t without his annoyances and the most irritating of these is his tendency to throw in the obscure word or phrase which has always struck me as less than democratic- ‘prolegomenon’ and ‘perorate’ being the only offenders here. This aside, the above is utterly brilliant in that it manages to create a verbal flow that effortlessly takes us from wider public issues to the deeply personal and back again and achieves this by being both precise and economic with the words that are used. The way in which the sophisticated political analysis is smashed to bits by the extraordinary account of Keston as a child sucking off differently-coloured Robert is breathtaking, in the Prynne sense, and profoundly disturbing atleast to this particular reader. In terms of words, those used here are straightforward and clear we are not left in any doubt what is being said although the small and nameless boy at the end might carry some ambiguity. Incidentally, I’ve checked and ‘prolegomenon’ is a classical term for a written preface and I have to wonder whether ‘preface to an epigram’ is more democratic. As far as I can tell, we can reasonably use ‘declaim’ instead of ‘perorate’ and the same argument applies. I don’t find myself feeling the same about Matthias’ cognates because I can’t think of a more accessible substitute.

Tone

One of the surprising things about thinking in this way is that I’ve discovered or refined what seems to be important to me. I used to think of this as ‘voice’ but I now realise that this musical term seems to cover this better. I also realise that, most of the time, I’m attracted to and impressed by a mix of the clever and the playful. I’ll try to use these three extracts to think a bit more about what I mean.

Starting with the woodpecker’s journey through the wood. The first verse reads as a description of this progress and plays with language to create an ostensibly simple and pleasant scene. Things become much more serious by the end of the third verse which makes the subject matter very clear. The language sounds like an attractive melody but (cleverly) carries more than a little ‘bite’ it also conveys a degree of ambiguity which I find satisfying. The creation of these twelve lines of complexity seems quite improvised and conversational yet the ‘message’ is very serious indeed and refreshingly different in its use of play from other poetic efforts of the time.

I now see that it was this combination was what drew me in to Matthias’ work, in his longer work he clearly plays with language and conveys to the reader the pleasure that he takes in this. More so than with Marvell The above is a demonstration of the playfully clever in this pleasure and the verbal exuberance of the opening lines. The concluding image does many things given that the sequence as a whole is about our relationship to a sense of order and the ways in which we struggle with that. I hesitate to say this but “their little trumpets blow” is about as playfully clever as it gets.

Since i first came across his work, I’ve thought of Sutherland as essentially experimental even though he probably views himself as essentially political. The good thing about these experiments is that they mostly work. The beginning of this particular paragraph reads like the beginning of an earlyish Jon Zorn Riff, leaping from target to target at a rapid pace. Then you come across Godzilla’s genital stage which injects some humour into this depiction of Capital and Empire. The one-liners ooze (technical term) with cleverness and there’s clearly more than a little fun with words being had along the way. The most cleverly playful aspect is the insertion of the childhood confessions which tackles the wider theme of how the breaking of secrets can be a powerful and liberating political weapon.

Subject Matter.

I’m against political poems mostly because I find them too ‘viewy’ in the E Pound sense and I have more than enough views of my own. All of these poems ‘do’ politics but accomplish other things as well. Upon Appleton House encompasses landscape and the effects of natural forces, celebrates the life and achievements of his employer, Thomas Fairfax (all-round Civil War good guy) and presents this front row view of one of the most turbulent times in British history. It also does all these things very well indeed. I’m not that interested in the political aspects of the Civil War because I think we continue to give them far too much importance but I am fascinated by how poets responded to those events on either side of the ‘fence’. I am however fascinated by the interplay between the forces of the state and individual agency. Fairfax was on of the most prominent figures on the Roundhead side of the fence yet he was firmly opposed to the trial of Charles I, indeed on the first day of the trial his wife heckled from the gallery. So what Marvell seems to be playing with, as in his An Horatian Ode is the complexities involved in any political strategy/

Laundry Lists and Manifestoes is less obviously political but nevertheless plays along the manifesto / manifest / list and the way in which we ‘lean’ on lists as a kind of prop to calm our various neuroses. It’s not that lists are meaningless and arbitrary collations (as with Perec) but that they are inherently faulty in many kinds of ways. One of the very many clevernesses is that the sequence can itself be read as a long and overlapping list of proper nouns, so it’s a list of listists about lists. Of course, manifestoes are a central part of political life and they have there own frailties between ideology and electoral success.

Keston Sutherland is determinedly political and The Odes present a more considered analysis of the dismal workings of the state than his previous work but also makes use of his personal biography to make a more general but astute point about secrets and the liberating effect of exposing secrets.

One of the ‘big’ secrets of contemporary life is that children are sexual beings with sexual feelings. This isn’t in any way a defence for paedophilia but unleashing this particular secret does cast a lot of adult assumptions about notions of innocence and purity out of the window. In The Odes Sutherland describes in quite graphic detail his own childhood sexual preferences and desires and contrasts these with the desire of his parents to both prevent these being acted upon and to keep them hidden from the world. As well as disliking political poetry, I have a distinct loathing of what we now think of as confessional work so I should really hate this particular mix but it is saved by the strength of the analysis and the wider implications of the confession. I think.

There’s also the issue of wider appeal, we all live under the rule and by the rules of the state, we’re currently watching a couple of states looking increasingly fragile from internal strife and one that has gone beyond the point of self-destruction. We all make lists, nobody is free from the deep need to impose order on the world around us and this takes the form a list of nouns interspersed with a list of their ‘connectors’. We all have a personal manifesto which, whether conscious or not, guides our behaviour. Mine is poorly articulated notion of integrity that contains all of the qualities that I aspire to and it’s there because my previous behaviours have refined down those moral traits that make sense to me. There have been other lists, the clearest being the set of tasks that needed to be done in order to gain as much money in as short a time as possible. Everybody should think more about lists in a much more critical and sceptical manner- Matthias’s sequence prods us into doing that very thing. In a similar fashion we all need to confront our most hidden and awkward secrets and the lies that we tell ourselves about them. It now seems to me absurd that we deny in ourselves what we know to be true and incorporate that denial into our view of the world. Keston’s choice of secret is perhaps extreme but there are many, many others, the way that we deny our racism, our material greed and what Foucault almost described once as the fascist within.

Pointfulness

I read a lot of poetry and I’ve noticed a new demarcation in addition to honest / dishonest line and it’s to do with futility. It seems to me that the vast majority of published work on both sides of the Atlantic is utterly pointless, it makes no positive cultural contribution and is staggeringly complacent even as it glides into its own irrelevance. I’m not going to name names but it does take a lot for work to rise above this dismal morass. None of these three are complacent, the poets involved a clearly challenging themselves to produce work that challenges the staus quo and move things forward in a positive direction. I accept that Marvell’s being dead for a long, long time but nobody yet has picked up the gauntlet that he laid down.

In conclusion, I’m discovering a growing number of components that make up my idea of quality and it is making me read familiar work in new and fascinating eays. I wonder if others have their own readerly criteria…?

Simon Jarvis’ Night Office reviewed in the TLS. Sigh.

Oh dear. I’ve just caught up with last weeks British Book Comic and came across a review of ‘Night Office’. This is a rare event in that this prestigious rag rarely publishes anything on anybody (apart from Sir G Hill) that I read. I’ve been waiting for the mainstream to take some notice of this and of Keston Sutherland’s Odes because both are put out by Enitharmon, an established and respected publisher.

I think I’ve read all of Jarvis’ published work and some of his essays with a fair deal of attention. I remain of the view that he is unique and his work challenges the foundations of what passes for contemporary verse. This is not shared by William Wootten, the reviewer who starts with this:

When a devotee of the astringent “difficulty” of J.H. Prynne and de facto member of the Cambridge School publishes a 7,000 line Anglican in formal rhyming verse, it is safe that he has had something of a change of heart. Not total, perhaps. Simon Jarvis’s Night Office, the poem in question, alludes to Prynne and foregrounds the sort of Adorno-inspired theorizing Jarvis and others have used to justify Prynnian poetics. Even the way Jarvis writes as if no one had produced a rhyming pentameter since 1908 may be more a result of subscription to modernist orthodoxy than evidence of its renunciation. Still, there is no pretending Night Office is your standard Cambridge fare.

I’m going to leave aside the weak prose and worry about the sad fact that this appears to be an extended sneer. In a land that cherishes freedom of expression this is all very well provided that it is factually accurate. Starting at the beginning, the only occasion that I can recall Jarvis writing on Prynne was in the manner of complaint and impatience, complaint about having to read a poem as a crossword puzzle and not being that interested to do so. This is hardly the manifestation of a devotee- defined by the OED as “A person zealously devoted to a particular, cause, pursuit etc.”. This change of heart is also a bit of a mystery given the publication of the equally lengthy and formal The Unconditional in 2005 and the more recent religious themes in Dinner and Dionysus Crucified. We now come to the Adorno jibe, regular readers will know that I’m of the view that Adorno was mostly wrong (as in incorrect) but especially wrong about poetry. I readily concede that he looms large over some things Cambridge and over Jarvis’ academic work but I don’t think that Prynnian poetics can only justified in this way, I like to think that I’ve managed to locate an approach that has nothing whatsoever to do with Critical Theory.

I need to move on to what appears to be the main target dressed thinly as context, this strange beast known as the Cambridge School. If this name applies to the contributors to The English Intelligencer then this ceased circulation more than forty years ago. If we mean those poets who emulate Prynne, there aren’t any although some place Tony Lopez in that group. If we mean those of us who can see the point of Prynne and consider him to be Very Good indeed then I’m part of this School- which is ridiculous beyond words.

I haven’t got the space to pay the attention to ‘Anglican’ that it deserves other than to ask which particular brand of that broad church is the poem supposed to belong?

Now, how many readers of the poetry section of the TLS are going to be motivated to read the rest of the review? How many of these are going to approach what follows with an open mind? Is this kind of naked factionalism the main problem with the State of the Poem today? As I’ve said, polemic is fine but misrepresentation is not.

We now come to tactics, if you want to scare readers off you use the ‘P’ word as frequently as possible and throw in a German thinker that most won’t have read. You do not start by outlining the Jarvis thesis that verse constrained by rhyme and meter is the best way of making philosophical and theological work, you do not mention Alexander Pope but you do churn out the same 40 year old clichés because it’s easy.

For those who do persevere, Wootten makes some reasonably valid points, he acknowledges that the use of rhyme “seems well suited to Jarvis’s turn against poetic puritanism” but qualifies this by pointing out that some of the rhymes are ‘wince-inducing’. He also questions whether or not Night Office would be better in prose. These are both reasonable responses but the prose option completely misses the point. Perhaps I’m too familiar with the wince-inducing rhymes of Sir G Hill’s later work but I can’t recall being induced to wince.

The conclusion is condescending in the extreme:

Night Office may well be a transitional work from a writer at last discovering his true strengths. Since it is apparently the first of five such long poems, written or in prospect, there will be plenty of chance to find out.

The only response to this is that Jarvis’ strengths have been apparent to those of us who have read him since The Unconditional as have his weaknesses but this remarkable work is a progression that develops those strengths and I for one await the next with eager anticipation.

Rhyme: Simon Jarvis, Geoffrey Hill, Paul Muldoon

I seem to reading a lot of rhyme these days but I’m still trying to get my brain around why some of it ‘works’ and some falls flat on its face. This last category is perhaps best exemplified by Geoffrey Hill’s Oraclau whilst the most effective, to my ear at least is Simon Jarvis’ Night Office with Muldoon somewhere in between.

I’m not going to use Oraclau here but focus instead on Liber Illustrium Virorum, another of the Day Books because bits of it appear to rhyme and others seem to wave in the direction of rhyme but fall short. This isn’t a lit crit exercise, I haven’t re-read Jarvis on rhyme but I do recall what he and Rowan Williams said about it at the launch of Night Office last year. Paul Muldoon is included in this primarily because I think that he’s technically very gifted and he rhymes well, whatever that might mean.

We’ll start with Night Office:


I may know rest and let a sweet surrender
drug my light eyelids so I fall and drift
up to cool uplands where exhaustions tender
miraculous oblivions which sift
sharp pangs & terrors to the sink then render
each back to me allegorized, or lift
my worst thoughts up transfigured till I see them
like inaccessible retreats or flee them

to those cisalpine cantons whose hid peaks
for once escape clouds; yet their high pavilions
are just too distant to be clear : each speaks
in shepherd-emperors whose armed civilians
sing hymns from fields where chequered light's leaped freaks
sport, flit & glitter there; these equal millions
distribute needed bread with the champagne
to every citizen whose real pain

is salved & tended, & whose sorrows darken
just for one instant on the meadow, since
in this high kingdom every empress hearkens
to all her fellow-regents. I may rinse
in these long lakes whatever stain dishearten
my every gesture. To the east of Linz
there rise more ranges. Then I will wake up.
The milk, the tea, the table and the cup.

Now is probably a good time to recap on the Jarvis project which seems to be about demonstrating that constraints, like rhyme and metre, can enhance poems that ‘do’ philosophy. There is a lecture somewhere on the interweb where he uses Pope’s Essay on man to make this point. The relevant observation from the launch was Simon’s agreement with Rowan Williams that the rhyme constraint dictates the poem’s direction of travel.

As a reader of poetry I’ve spent most of the last forty years being against rhyme because:

  • I don’t see how it can be more effective than less restrictive forms at saying complex things;
  • I think the majority of rhyming verse is too close to song;
  • when a rhyme fails it fails really badly;
  • when I’m reading a poem that rhymes I’m more conscious of the rhyme rather than the sense;
  • deep down, against my new man instincts, I think rhyme is effeminate.

Obviously the last of these, which I’ve only just recognised, has no bearing on reality and is exclusively my problem. The other three however I can make a decent stab of defending / justifying. The first prejudice is now beginning to soften because Night Office does some very complex things indeed and because I recognise that the Spenserian stanza (which rhymes) does many complicated things, including an accomplished piece of philosophising.

With regard to the above, I’m of the view that it works, that it manages to avoid the proximity to song, there are no rhymes that fail and I am reading for the sense, even when reading aloud. What I think is also worth noting is that this is immensely readable, I don’t find myself becoming furrowed of brow when attending to Night Office because the syntax used is much closer to conversational speech than most works in the late modern vein.

I first realised that I may need to modify the rhyme position in 20o6 when reading Paul Muldoon’s The Old Country from his Horse Latitudes collection. I’ve always been intrigued by Muldoon’s work because it manages to enthrall and annoy me at the same time. The Old Country is a sequence of thirteen poems each with two four line stanzas followed by two with three lines. These two are from the middle of the sequence:


VI
    
Every slope was a slippery slope
Where every shave was a very close shave
and money was money for old rope
where every grave was a watery grave

now every boat was, again, a burned boat
Every dime-a-dozen rat a dime-a-dozen drowned rat
except for the whitrack or stoat,
which the very Norsemen had down pat

as a weasel word
though we know there speech was rather slurred.
Every time was time in the nick

just as every nick was a nick in time.
Every unsheathed sword was somehow sheathed in rime.
Every cut was a cut to the quick.

VII

Every cut was a cut to the quick
what with every feather a feather to ruffle
Every whitrack was a witterick.
Every one was ina right kerfuffle

when from his hob some hobbledehoy
would venture the witterick was a curlew.
Every wall was a wall of Troy
and every hunt a hunt in the purlieu

of a demesne so out of bounds
every hound might have been a hellhound.
At every lane end stood a milk churn

whose every dent was a sign of indenture
to some pig wormer or cattle drencher.
Every point was a point of no return.

I’m taking it that this particular old country is Ulster and what is captured throughout this sequence is a portrait of and an oblique comment on a particularly grim mentality forged during the ‘Troubles’. That aside, i’m of the view that this is anexample of what rhyme can do to add another level of meaning to something that’s already complex. As a reader, I’m very aware of the rhyme and the rhyming scheme but I’m also wrapped up in the way that this seems to be an essential part of the meaning, an underpinning of the wry commentary on these stock phrases. In this sequence Muldoon manages to make the (very) difficult look and feel gloriously easy and this has the effect of drawing the reader in to a particular way of reading. It’s poems like this that enable me to tolerate some of his more glaring self-indulgences.

Speaking of which, we now come to the enigma that is the late work of Sir Geoffrey Hill. In The Daybooks he makes shape poems and he uses half-rhymes, some of which work and some of which don’t. At this juncture I have to point out the Bebrowed view that Hill can write anything that he wants of whatever quality simply because of Mercian Hymns and The Triumph of Love which are two of the towering works of the last fifty years. However, this does not mean that we should ignore the variations in quality that seem to run through these late works. As an illustration, this is the first poem in the Liber Illustrium Verborum sequence:

                         I
Medusas, basilisks, dragons in fens,
Eternal in their demands. Dragon's teeth
I have learned use of, with Coriolan's
Oliviousness also a plundered myth;
Determination of necessity;
Past recklessness in bruised misreckoning;
That blazed Yeatsian thing
Of savage joy.
The reed lake; wintering
Wild geese a-clang
Phenomenon darkens
The comprehension of its vanes,
Lividness in fettle. Something unclear
Scales the escarpment of this eightieth year,
Pray's the child's terrified
Comfort of bed.
Who is best able to
Choose whom to fable to,
Horse a way on a laugh,
Prance equity,
Appear both ends of the school photograph?

Given that all the poems in this sequence look the same, I’m taking them as shape poems in the shape (as with the first parts of the Clavics poems) of a key. Of course this is a tentative view taken without attending to most of the sequence but it will do for now. I also recognise that there’s a greater amount of verbal invention and dexterity than some of the already published Daybooks but we still have this odd mix of full rhymes and rhymes that rely on the sound of the final consonant. I’ve had several goes at reading this aloud and, to my ear, the constraints imposed on the first half get in the way of the sense rather than complementing it and this is only reversed in the last five lines of ‘full’ rhyme. This is a pity because the sense seems to mark out a more muscular and verbally clever poet.

In conclusion, I think this would seem to be an example of how constraint can hinder rather than enhance the experience of paying attention to the poem. Incidentally the full rhyme of the last five lines is not featured in the poems that follow.

What poetry does to philosophy.

I’ve been putting this off for weeks but have decided that now is the time. The berowed view that poetry and philosophy are incompatible has undergone some more waning but I’m now drawing a distinction between poetry that sets out as its main objective to ‘do’ philosophy and poetry that sets out to do Other Things that might have a philosophical component somewhere near the surface.

I’d like to consider first the nature of the poem and the nature of the philosophy tract. I accept that this is a very broad brush stroke but poetry is usually a compression whereas philosophy is usually an expansion. I’m making this distinction even though my reading of philosophy is quite sparse but it does seem that there’s a long windedness in terms of refuting all other philosophies before putting forward your own view.

Of course there are some poets, Lucretius, Pope and Jarvis spring to mind who are equally long-winded but most go the other way. Paul Celan and Edmund Spenser work by compression as does Charles Olson but in different ways and with different results. With regard to all of these, there is one element that I’d like to get out of the way before proceeding: the line between God and Truth aka between theology and philosophy. I’m taking Martin Buber, the Neo-platonics and Alfred Whitehead primarily as philosophers even though theologians have made extensive use of their work.

I’d like to start with Spenser’s Cantos of Mutabilitie Which Frank Kermode referred to as the best philosophical poem in English. As the title suggests, it has change and time as it’s subject and this is one of Spenser’s recurring themes especially in The Faerie Queene. Essentially ‘Change’ puts forward the arguments for the priority of mutability over fixity and then Nature demolishes this with:

   I well consider all that ye have said
      And find that all things steadfastnes do hate
      And changed be: and yet being rightly wayed
      They are not changed from their first estate;
      But by their change their being doe dilate:
      And turning to themselves at length againe,
      Doe worke their owne perfection so by fate:
      Then over them Change doth not rule and raigne;
   But they raigne over change, and doe their states maintaine.

   Cease therefore daughter further to aspire
      And be content thus to be rul'd by me:
      For thy decay thou seekst by thy desire,
      But time shall come that all shall changed bee,
      And from thenceforth, none so more change shall see.
      So was the Titanesse put downe and whist,
      And Iove confirm'd in his imperiall see.
      Then was that whole assembly quite dismist
  And Natur's self did vanish, whither no man wist.

As a long-standing Spenser fan, this makes me want to jump up and down with delight because it’s supremely accomplished as poetry yet also manages in eighteen lines to express a fundamental aspect of 16th century philosopphical ‘truth’. Each stanza has one crucial and brilliantly crafted line, the first hinges on ‘dilate’. Bert Hamilton glosses the line with:

i.e. expand as they fill their natures, showing that change is not random but purposeful (see N.Frye 1990b: 160-161) acting in accord with the Pauline concept of sowing a natural body to raise a spiritual body (1 Cor. 15. 36-44). It is not circular, then but spiral in returning creation to its beginning.

This may be the case but I can’t help reading Ficino on God’s dance of joy into ‘dilate’ primarily because it seems a more logical and less complicated ‘fit’. Anyway, it is at once both plain and gloriously compressed and serves as a counterpoint to Spenser’s view of the world in continuous and relentless decline.

I think I need to note the extensive and frequently tiresome critical debate about the relationship between these Cantos and the rest of The Faerie Queene which is an argument without any facts. I will however set out the subtitle from the first edition of Mutabilitie which was published in 1609

   Which, both for Forme and Matter, appeare
      to be parcell of fome following Booke of the
               FAERIE QUEENE,
             VNDER  THE  LEGEND
                     OF
                 Conftancie 
              Never before imprinted.

‘Appeare’ is the tell-tale verb and we should leave it at that because we will Never Know.

The next act of compression comes from Paul Celan:


   ILLEGIBILITY
   Of this world. All things twice over.

   The strong clocks justify
   the splitting hour,
   coarsely.

   You, clamped 
   into your deepest part,
   climb out of yourself,
   for ever.

I’d argue that what we have here is a struggle with philosophy, an incredibly dense working of the major strands of 20th century thought with it’s concerns about perception, temporality and personal responsibility in the shadow of the Holocaust. Of course, many argue that this is too dense, that the distillation is too great and falls into meaningless and psuedo-mystical babble but this seems to miss the point entirely. Throughout his writing Celan is concerned with very Big Things indeed and explores the challenges inherent in living any kind of purposeful life when surrounded by our many violences and absence of thought.

Many who do accept the brilliance of this material insist on imposing the work of Martin Heidegger as the main philosophical thread and equate the ‘mystical’ quality the poetry with Heidegger’s later work. This seems to overlook other influences far removed from and (in some cases) directly opposed to all things existential. Martin Buber’s concerns with the demands of and responsibility for the Other are also very much present in the above. As with Spenser, I don’t want to examine the acres of critical pondering on this but I would like simply to point out that poetical philosophy, in the hands of genius, can be a more profound and provocative exploration of Truth in all its manifestations.

I’d like to finish with Charles Olson’s frequent nods to Whitehead’s Process and Reality in his Maximus series. In the past I have expressed the view that the work in its entirety can be seen as a transcription of Whitehead into poetic form. I’d now like to amend that view, Process and Reality was clearly a central aspect of Olson’s view of the world and this is apparent in parts of the sequence but there is much more of Olson the man here than there is of philosophy, even his clearest expositions are made by using himself and his everyday experience to make the ‘point’.

So, the best poetry adds other dimensions to philosophy because it can distil and intensify. This does not mean that poetry is in any kind of privileged position with regard to Truth but it does mean that it can, on occasion, push the conversation a little bit further.

Simon Jarvis, Rowan Williams and complicity.

We’ll get to Pushkin later but first of all I want to report on my third book launch of the year which occurred last Thursday evening in darkest Marylebone and centred on the latest (unless you count the latest edition of The Claudius App) of what I’m increasingly thinking of as the Jarvis Project. The idea of this particular gig was that Simon should read from ‘Night Office’ and then Rowan (ex head of the C of E and Dostoevsky expert) should chat to him about it.

The reading was from the beginning and (I think) followed the course of the version in ‘Eighteen Poems’. I was a little disconcerted to hear the first few pages read in a voice that almost went out of its way to avoid the rhyme and metre before injecting some vigour with the remarkable description of the cathedral that I’ve written about before. The explanation for this approach came in the chat with Williams which I’ll think about below. The chat was far ranging and reasonably complex and I wish I’d taken notes because what was said was immensely helpful in enabling readers to get more directly to grips with the work. I outline below what I took to be the main ‘points’.

Complicity.

In response to a question from the floor Simon said that he was very aware that he was criticising our culture from a position within that culture and that this brought its own difficulties – Rowan made the same point about his position in the church. At this point I recalled Simon’s protest about ‘the bloke thing’ blog which I wrote earlier this year because that was an (albeit inept) attempt to illustrate how all of us are enmeshed in a system that many of us aren’t terribly keen on.

There is a complicity ‘thread’ in “Night Office” but I don’t think it’s as pervasive as or direct as it is in some of Simon’s earlier work but his point has got me thinking about the way in which Poetry in its widest sense might be equally complicit. There are the obvious facts, poetry is published and sold for money, poetry ‘events’ sometimes charge people to attend, students pay to go to college and a few are taught about poetry. Many people pay money to attend creative writing courses. We have a State Poet, we don’t have a State Novelist. Poems are used to sell products. So, as well as individuals who are complicit by virtue of their dependence on the current neo-liberal fallacy that underpins our lives, poetry is also caught up in this New Stupidity. I’m very (was going to write ‘painfully’) aware of my own surrender to aspects of s culture that I despise, I know that in terms of the basics (food and shelter) I’m up to my neck in market forces from property bubbles to commodity booms yet this hasn’t prevented me from, with varying degrees of intensity, trying to change things. The other thought took a bit longer to sink in and it has its basis in ‘The Unconditional’. I think it goes lie this, if you want to challenge the current poetry status quo and/or debate then you either write poetry that denies the poetic or you write poetry that embraces the poetic in a way that hasn’t been seen for about two hundred years. ‘The Unconditional’ is very long and very metrical, ‘Night Office’ is even longer, is the first in a series of five, rhymes and is equally metrical all of which puts it at odds with and subverts the current Poetic.

The Liturgy.

This is clearly the cornerstone of the work, Simon appears to be of the view that all of us continue to participate in various forms of ritual but that these have had the spiritual element removed. Both speakers were keen to express the crucial importance of liturgical practice and the need to in some way revive its central position in our lives.

Poetic structure and the wine bottle.

There was a lengthy exchange about rhyme and metre with both agreeing that the structure of the poem must come first when thinking about writing something with these constraints. Simon pointed out that, contrary to the established view, the metrical poem is not the wine held in place by the structure of the bottle but is the wine that is produced by the action of the wine press. I like this line of thought even though I’m still not convinced by the Jarvis Argument that poems that are thus constrained are more effective at expressing Big Thoughts. I am however prompted to re-read the ‘Prosody as cognition’ essay, which at first glance is ‘against’ the idea of prosody as some kind of measuring exercise.

Russian Poets and Russian prosody.

There are more than a few references to Russia in ‘Night Office’ and the occasional Russian phrase. During the discussion Simon mentioned that Russian had many similarities to English but that the Russians had given much more thought to prosody. He also mentioned with approval one or two of the Russian poets that are named in ‘Night Office’.

The conversational reading.

This explained the restrained nature of the reading, Simon feels that it is important for poetry not to make a fuss about itself but to be read in a conversational rather than a dramatic fashion, he used the examples of Wordsworth and Coleridge as opposing sides of this particular coin. Of course, anything that takes this floridity out of poetry is absolutely fine by me. The only point of disagreement between the two was when Simon likened Pushkin to Wordsworth. On the strength of this assertion I’ve looked at the first page of the Nabokov version of ‘Eugene Onegin’ and decided that I don’t like Pushkin either.

Joy.

This was a little odd, there’s a huge amount of painfulness in ‘Night Office’ and Simon was asked as to the whereabouts of joy. He replied that joy itself is a kind of pain in that it entails a complete loss of self-control. I’m now trying to get my brain around the possibility that the Jarvis worldview is unremittingly bleak. This may however be an extension of his view that Greek tragedy lies behind every aspect of European culture.

Gillian Rose.

Simon noted with complete approval the Gillian Rose thesis as expressed in her “Broken Middle” which is one of the Rose tomes that I haven’t read. Given that the late Ms Rose gets praise from both Hill and Prynne, there must surely be a phd or two on Gillian Rose and the Late Moderns.

So, additional perspectives on Night Office and on the body of work as a whole whereby a few things become much clearer whilst others become more complex than I first thought.

The Anathemata, a further experiment in reading

This was going to be the start of another part of the book project which was going to alternate with ‘Night Office’ and “The Triumph of Love”. Again it’s an attempt to encourage a wider readership by writing something that’s bit more personal and immediate, a work in progress….

You’re daunted, you’re aware of its reputation with regard to readability and obscurity but you’ve just read ‘In Parenthesis’ which is the most heartbreakingly magnificent war poem/novel that you’ve ever read and it wasn’t too difficult but you’ve got the Auden quip in your head (been living with it for 10 years and still didn’t understand it- he also thought it was the best long poem of the 20th century) and you know this will take time. You’re relieved to find that Jones has provided a longish introduction which sets out what he’s aiming for. This seems to be a description of the important aspects of his cultural landscape of the last two thousand years. Of course ‘landscape’ is your noun, he uses ‘mythus’ and ‘sign’ and deposit’ and it’s clear that the Catholic liturgy is going to be a central focal point. As with ‘In Parenthesis’ there’s notes but these re t the bottom of the relevant page. You know that their are many different recommended ways to read the poem and you decide on a middle path of using the notes (where possible) to establish the ‘sense’ of the text.

You find yourself thinking about liturgy and realise that this is stuff you should really know a little more about because it’s been an expression of belief for the majority of people in the West for the last two millennia – even though there isn’t a God.

You re-read the introduction and come across four paragraphs that might be Quite Important:

“Or, to leave analogy and to speak plain: I believe that there is, in the principle that informs the poetic art, a something which cannot be disengaged from the mythus, deposits, materiere, ethos, whole res. of which the poet is himself product.

My guess is that we cannot answer the question ‘What is poetry?’ (meaning, What is the nature of poetry? cannot be answered without some mention of these same deposits.

We know – it goes without saying – that the question ‘What is the material of poetry?’ cannot be answered without some mention of these same deposits..

We know also, and even more certainly that this applies to the question ‘By what means or agency is poetry?’ For one of the efficient causes of which the effect called poetry is a dependant involves the employment of particular language or languages, and involves the employment of a particular language or languages, and involves the employment of a particular language or languages, and involves that employment at an especially heightened tension. The means or agent is a veritable torcular, squeezing every drain of evocation from the word-forms of that language or languages. And that involves a bagful of mythus before you’ve said Jack Robinson – or immediately after.

Now, you’ve spent more than a few years thinking about poetry, you have fairly well-formed views about what poetry can and can’t do. In particular you are of the view that poetry takes itself far too seriously and isn’t, in fact, all that special or privileged. The above does however seem to offer a key to at least part of the underlying rationale of the work even though you may not agree with it. What is also an immense relief is that you understand it. You’re not familiar with ‘torcular’ so you check the OED and find that it means ‘tourniquet’ but is also Latin for a wine or oil press which makes additional sense given Jones’ interest in imperial Rome.

You are deeply suspicious of the idea that poetry somehow makes use of ‘heightened’ language primarily because you don’t understand how this heightening works and think it my be a way of avoiding the fact that poets make use of a bagful of tricks which is more about adaptation than refinement. Still there’s something satisfying about the notion of poetry giving expression to these deposits. You start to think about your own mythos and now feel less daunted because you might now have a point of entry and a vague template of what is intended.

You begin and are immediately relieved that the beginning is comprehensible and in line with the introduction:

“We already and first of all discern him making this thing other.
 His groping syntax, if we attend, already shapes:
   ADSCRIPTAM, RATAM, RATIONABILEM... and by pre-
application and for them, under modes and patterns altogether
 theirs, the holy and venerable hands lift up an efficacious sign.”

There is a note to the Latin:
“See the Roman Mass, the Prayer of Consecration, beginning ‘Which oblation do thou… ascribe to, ratify, make reasonable…’
and a further note to ‘venerable hands:
‘Cf. the same ‘… in sanctas ac venerabiles, manus suas…’

At which point you know that that re-reading Eamon Duffy isn’t going to be enough so you look at the Catholic Encyclopaedia and decide that this is probably too much so you turn to Wikipedia and find ‘Text and Rubrics of the Roman Canon’ which provides the relevant texts in full. The first is “Be pleased, O God, we pray, to bless, acknowledge, and approve this offering in every respect: make it spiritual and acceptable so that it may become for us the Body and Blood of your most beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.” You note that this seems to be radically different translation of the same Latin words but you know that Jones was a staunch traditionalist and continued to adhere to the Tridentine Mass after it was superseded. Wikipedia also tells you tht it is Christ’s hands that are referred to and not (as you had assumed) those of the priest. You take the ‘efficacious sign’ to be the sign of the cross as this is made by the priest at this point in the Tridentine Mass. You think about the adjective and wonder about its choice. A little further rummaging about finds that the sign of the cross is used to bless the bread and the wine 25 times during the Tridentine Mass which seems a little excessive.

You then think about what it means to bless something and you recognise that things are blessed in order to endow them with some sort of spiritual or holy quality and you also remember something from ‘O’ level history about transubstantiation and the belief that the bread and wine became the flesh and blood of Christ and you think that this might be to do with the efficacy of the sign(s) of the cross.

There’s another couple of oddnesses: why should our discerning have already have occurred if this was ‘first of all’ and does this somehow tie in with ;pre-application in the second paragraph? Both of these seem to imply something that happened before the scene that is being described, then again Jones could be implying that the rituals and signs of the Mass have been with us since the Last Supper or he could be referring to the eternal presence of Christ amongst us. You decide to read on:

“These, at the sagging end and chapter.s close, standing
 humbly before the tables spread, in the apsidal houses, who
  intend life:
                   between the sterile ornaments
        under the paste-board baldachins
        as, in the young-time, in the sap-years
                   between the loving floriations
        under the leaping arches.
(Ossific, trussed with ferric rods, the failing numina
 of column and entablature, the genii of spire and triforium, 
like great rivals met when all is done, nod recognition across 
the cramped repeats of their dead selves.)”

This is a relief, we’re still in church and there’s kind of elegy for the early years of Christianity (young-time, sap-years) which are contrasted with today’s elderly congregations and it’s fake features. Then there is this remarkable bracketed paragraph which you have to read a few times before you understand what might be going on. The church is ossified and held together with iron trusses. The inspirational spirits behind (within?) the architectural features and flourishes acknowledge each other and what they once were.

You really are quite pleased with this, you know that things will get denser and more obdurate as you proceed but this is quite a gentle beginning. Because of your complete ignorance in these matters, you check out the less obvious architectural terms and note that ‘triforium’ has a slightly misleading background in that before the 19th century the term was only ever applied to features of Canterbury cathedral but has since become more general in application. You love little nuggets of obscurity like this and consider delving further but the rest of the poem awaits.

A little way in there’s a lengthy description / account of the Last Supper, you’re surprised by how poignant you find this passage to be even though you don’t believe that any of these events occurred. Not only does Jones believe this story, he also holds it to be the central event of human history- one that continues to exercise its power two thousand years later. You re-read and discover that it’s the understated that has this effect, the words that do no more than ‘point’ to what might be going on:


     “In a low voice
                as one who speaks
where a few are, gathered in high-room
     and one, gone out.”

You’re taking it that the one that has gone out is Judas Iscariot on his way to betray Jesus and you haven’t actually felt anything at all about this event until now, you’ve understood its significance in terms of Christianity and Western culture and you know the endless debates about what this final meal signifies.but all of this has been without emotion, you haven’t been moved by these events because you don’t think that they occurred. These four lines have evoked something in you – the only other religious verse to achieve this response is the middle bit of George Herbert’s ‘Love III’ which is in part about worthiness. The initial ‘low voice’ is that of the priest which then becomes (or is likened to) the voice of Christ. You wonder why ‘the’ or ‘a’ have been dropped from the place of this speaking and why there’s a hyphen. You’ve never fully understood the blame heaped on Judas Iscariot, if we are to understand that Christ’s execution was pre-ordained then it was Judas’ pre-ordained role to betray him. You don’t want to tax your brain too much but it would appear likely that Jones held to the ‘traditional’ view of free will or some variation of it, which may mean that Christ’s self-sacrifice was inevitable and that Judas was one of the instruments by which this was achieved. You don’t hold to the view that Judas was a political extremist who wanted Christ to be arrested so that He could reveal his identity and wreak havoc on his enemies. You then realise that you haven’t thought about any of this for many, many years and begin to see how much of ‘gap’ there is between those with faith and those without.

There is then a description of preparations for the meal which is heavy with sea faring phrases: “They set the thwart boards / and along”; “furbish with the green of the year the cross beams and the / gleaming board”; “The make all shipshape / for she must be trim / dressed and gaudeous / all Bristol fashion here / for: / Who d’you think is Master of her?” You’re aware that there is a strong nautical / seafaring strand to ‘The Anathemata” but you are surprised to find it given such emphasis here- you aren’t struck by the oddness of it but you do find it startling and recall something that Prynne wrote about modernist poetry seeking to surprise and thereby take your breath away. You also need to check on some of the terms, the OED gives this for ‘thwart’ as a noun: “a seat across a boat on which the rower sits, a rower’s bench” which makes sense but it also gives this etymology “ apparently a noun use (which came in after 1725) of thwart adv., thwart adj., having reference to the position of the rowing benches or seats athwart or across the boat. Whether its use was partly due to similarity of sound to thaught , thawt , or thought , previously applied to the same thing, is uncertain. Our latest contemporary instance of ‘thaught or thought ’ is of 1721, of thoat 1697, of thout 1725, while our first of ‘thaughts or thwarts ’ is of 1736, so that the appellations were continuous in use, as if the one had passed into the other. But, for the full determination of the relations between thoft , thought or thaught , and thwart , fuller evidence between 1500 and 1700 is needed” which strikes you as wonderful especially as it’s from the first edition and hasn’t suffered the inevitable update yet. In terms of meaning, you recall that some big ships were propelled by oarsmen who sat on benches that didn’t go all the way athwart the boat but you do like the idea of these boards going across the general run of things (bow-stern) being used as seats at the Last Supper because their purpose was to enable the ship to move forward. You now feel very pleased with yourself and decide to tell very many people about the ‘thaught – thwart’ conundrum and hope it is never resolved.

You decide to move on to ‘Bristol fashion’ even though you know what the phrase means and you come across the excellent Phrasefinder site which tells you that the term may have been derived from the fact that ships docking at Bristol had to be sturdy and in good condition because they would be beached when moored at low tide. The site adds that this is circumstantial reasoning but you do prefer it to the OED quote from the Sailor’s Word Book of 1867 which just equates it to Bristol’s commercial prime when all its shipping was in good order.

Everything is being prepared for Christ, the ‘Master’ but we are not told this but instead are asked this rhetorical question. You are reasonably certain that reams and reams have been written on the use of rhetoric in Big Poems and you may even have read some on Spenser and/or Milton in the past but you’ve forgotten all of it even though you think that rhetoric should still be taught in schools. So, you take note of the fact that this is the first time that you, the reader, are addressed and that the use of ‘her’ might suggest a parallel between the upper room and a ship.

Things then take a deeper turn:


“In the prepared high-room
he implements time inside time and late in time under forms in-
delibly marked by locale and incidence, deliberations made
out of time, before all oreogenesis

                 on this hill
    at a time’s turn
                 not on any hill
   but on this hill.”

You are about to make number of rash leaps in the dark but you need to get ‘oreogenesis’ out of the way first. It turns out that this isn’t in the OED but ‘orogenesis’ is. You then turn to google and come across this from “Pen and the Cross: Catholicism and English Literature 1850 – 2000” by Richard Griffiths:

“And now we come back to the priest, who, though imprisoned in time, is also performing a timeless act, an act that had been decided by the Word before the beginning of time, before the crearion of the earliest creatures (oreogenesis) and before the creation of time itself; and the timelessness of Christ’s sacrifice is shown by the fact that, ‘before all oreogenesis’, it was decided ‘on this hill’ (a clear reference to Calvary):”

He then quotes the above passage. You then have a brief run of the auto-didact panics before deciding that he’s both wrong and inept even though he’s written a book and it’s been published (this kind of anxiety is never far from the surface). It is fair to say that this remarkable passage only makes sense if we don’t go ‘back to the priest’ but recognise that it is Christ who is implementing inside time and if we don’t look for meaning the creation of time and we avoid cliches like ‘the timelessness of Christ’s sacrifice” becuase that’s the kind of thing that people say when they have nothing to say.

You, of course, want this passage to be (at least) a nod towards Whitehead’s “Process and Reality” and this needs to be kep in check. You’re also more than a little sceptical about stuff that sounds like it might be mystical mumbo-jumbo. You therefore go back to basics. The Catholic Mass is a re-enactment of the Last Supper and it is this ‘deposit’ that has persisted and endured in a very real form. ‘Implements’ will be a deliberate verb, in the sense of to make something happen or to put something into effect but also to provide with implements which may refer to the chalice and other paraphenalia but might also be the bread and wine.

You then notice (whilst looking for something else) that Jones expands on this in his introduction:

“So that, leaving aside much else, we could not have the bear and absolute essentials wherewith to bear the command ‘Do this for a recalling of me’, without artefacture. nd where artefacture is there is the muse and those cannot escape her presence who with whatever intention employ the signs of wine and bread. Something has to be made by us before it can become his sign who made us,. This point he settled in the upper room. No artefacture no Christian religion.”

Jones provides a note to ‘recalling’ which points to this from “The Shape of the Mass” by Gregory Dix:

“But in the scriptures of both the Old and New Testament anamnesis and the cognate verb have a sense of “recalling” or “re-presenting” before God an event in the past so that it becomes here and now operative by its effects”.

In spite of yourself you try to have another think at this, you find a copy of the Dix book on the interweb and read the relevant pages and are immediately disappointed- the underpinning argument does not even nod towards Whitehead but is a rather confused and ill-founded model built on the animal sacrifices of the Old Testament. You could resolve the problem by allowing yourself to think that Jones would have agreed with Whitehead on the primacy of the event but the sad fact is that he wouldn’t.

The Odes to TL61P: another experiment in reading

You’ve been reading this in various drafts since 2010 and now you have the Real Thing and you’ve read it a couple of times and you went to the Dalston launch where Keston read bits of it gloriously out of sequence and you’ve blogged on the Odes / Stress Position debate and now it’s time to get to grips with it.

One of your better Sutherland-related observations is that his work makes reasonable sense until you read the actual words rather than let the words wash over you. The first couple of pages appear to bear this out and you’re not sure how you feel about this so you start slowly with the first few lines:


Each time you unscrew the head the truths burn out
and fly away above the stack of basements inundated
in aboriginal mucus, elevating the impeccable,
hereafter congenitally depilated Janine rescaled to a
grainy blank up on to the oblong top of the freezer 
whose shut white lid unhinged at the back alone
preserves a pyramid of rigid meat, budget pizzas,
devirginated arctic rolls, only ever kidding in a
prophylactic void torn into great crates of glittering
eye shadow, dowsing all its stickiness in dark empty 
swerves, for no-one is the radius of everything we 
are,  reinforced steel artery in the very integument

You acknowledge to yourself the energy and the thrust, you also like the confidence of ‘only kidding’ which you’ll come back to shortly but first you decided to think about this ‘head’ that is unscrewed. You recognise that this particular noun has many, many meanings from head of lettuce through to human head and on to the head of an oil well and this last might be appropriate given that this results in burning. The other thing you notice is ‘each’ which indicates, as there’s only one head involved, that the head is unscrewed, emits truths and is then screwed back down again. You know enough about the rest of the poem to gather that this may relate to the theme of the tyranny of secrets and the absolute need to break them but you may, as usual, be rushing ahead of yourself. These ‘truths’ are also a bit of a worry because Keston’s previous truths tend to have been coloured by his Marxian perspective and Stress Position makes fairly explicit his distaste with the/my relativist tendency. You don’t recall being conscious of this getting extended in your previous readings and hope that these kind of truths relate to secrets rather than some kind of universal positivism.

You can’t resist having a peek at the OED definitions for ‘head’ and are staggered by the number and by the fact that you’d forgotten or overlooked so many but it does appear that the well head / flare stack may be the best analogy. The ever-improving Wikipedia tells you that flare stacks are used to burn off the natural gas that comes to the surface (the head of the well) with the oil and that there are normally efficient valves that can stop and start the flow as required. You also recognise that there’s more than one meaning to ‘screw’. This could all be very wide of the mark especially if you take the next two lines into account but it might be significant that these truths burn there way out and then ‘fly away’. You start with the obvious, truths are abstract and completely incapable of either burning or flying. There is however, in the world of secrets, that the content of some truths is so dangerous and corrosive that it is exposed and then flies away. You now hate yourself because you’ve just leapt to Edward Snowden currently in the noplace of Moscow airport and to the slow burn of secrets locked away in Welsh care homes. You then re-read just to make sure that this is a track that you want to go down and realise that ‘burn out’ also has connotations of becoming exhausted, stressed, demoralised and no longer fit for the tsk that you have started. You try to bear this in mind as you come up against these stacked basements.

You don’t want to be too clever or overly poetic but you can’t resist clocking the proximity of basement to abasement and then decide that this is silly, the point is that these burning truths have flown away from their source and are now above these stacks which are flooded with this Very Early snot. This is where the absence of sense may start to kick in but you persevere. Of course, a stack of basements is difficult to envisage because a basement is the room usually at the bottom of the ‘stack’ of other rooms. So if another basement is placed on top of it then that basement becomes a room because it is no longer at the base of the stack.

You consider a different approach but first realise that this Welsh care home thing relates not just to institutional and political secrets but also the truth that an abusing adult will take enormous pains to conceal. You then move on to state secrets and the fact that many of these cover up various forms of abuse from torture through to eavesdropping and reading my e-mails. The different approach turns out to be the function of the basement.

Basements are hidden from view, rarely visited and (in movies at least) the scene of very many bad things. People are killed, bodies are dismembered, the ‘truth’ is extracted in the basement precisely because it is hidden from view, indeed it might even be metaphor for the underbelly of the modern state. We know, thank to the release of truths, that the US and UK arranged for torture to be carried out in basements all over the world and that the use of ‘stacks’ may simply mean ‘very many’.

The snot problem is in part resolved by the discovery that it is only nasal mucus that is snot and that the term is “viscous substance secreted by the mucous cells and glands of animals to provide protection, lubrication, etc” which ties in a bit more with the grisly business of inflicting pain on others.

You may now be wavering between the sense and non-sense positions but you still have your suspicions that this is as it is because it contains more than a touch of the absurd and you’ve just spent ninety minutes or so reading things into something that were never there. This nagging doubt is not at all helped by the prospect of the hairless Janine.

Night Office – an experiment in reading

Simon Jarvis’ remarkable new poem is now published and for sale at Enitharmon. I’m about to try something which may benefit from an explanation. I’m of the view that this is a work which deserves the widest possible readership and I am concerned that some readers will be deterred by the length of the poem and by the density of its subject matter. I therefore thought about writing one of those old-fashioned book things with the view of encouraging readers to engage with this and a few other equally complex works (The Odes, Slow Light, Kazoo Dreamboats, Casebook sprang immediately to mind). It could be argued that this is, in part, what this blog is ‘about’ but I wanted a greater sense of immediacy and a more realistic sketch of my readerly experience. I’ve therefore made a start with a few poems and what follows is the very early stages of my involvement with ‘Night Office’. As usual this is a provisional, subjective but hopefully honest account of paying attention to the first few pages of the poem:

You open it, it’s over 200 pages of rhyming 8-line stanzas. You put it down. You consider yourself to be a Jarvis completist and congratulate yourself (frequently) that you’ve read all of his even longer ‘The Unconditional’. Twice. This wasn’t an easy experience but you persevered through the endless digressions because you recognised that something important was going on and you liked what it did to your head.

The prospect of a few months of obsessive reading and re-reading isn’t that appealing, you know that your concentration will be tested and that much coffee will be drunk, you worry that you’ve stopped smoking since ‘The Unconditional’ and that staying mentally alert enough may be more of a problem. It’s not a complete leap in the dark, you’ve read the extract published in Jarvis’ ‘Eighteen Poems’ and you’re therefore aware of the initial premise and the fact that there’s a level of lyrical beauty that’s quite spellbinding. You pick it up again and flick through the pages and are pleased to find that this tone seems to be sustained. You begin to read:


Every last person in this book is dead,-
including me. I'm talking to you, yes,
thanks to my poet: he, thanks to me; my head
shakes and reverberates, while, less and less,
the waves of sound diminish, and instead,
a lasting silence fills me and I rest.

You smile because there appears to be some satisfying complexity going on that’s reasonably audacious and doesn’t involve digression. The direct address to the reader is normally a device that you find heavy handed and contrived but this is done with an aggression that’s quite startling, the sort of thing that’s said prior to fight in the local pub. In the first three lines it is established that we are among the dead and it is these beings that will be brought to ‘life’ by the interaction between this speaker and his poet. All of this you find intriguing and now look forward to see how this is maintained over two hundred pages. This is also where you start to have harder thoughts concerning this reciprocity between a writer and his subject, You consider the accuracy of the view that characters take on a life of their own. You’ve had a few half-hearted attempts to write novels and some of your characters do seem to acquire some kind of separate existence in your head and there’s characters in ‘The Faerie Queene’ that seem to be especially real (Britomart, Arthur, Artegall). You wonder whether ‘my poet’ is going to be referred to again. Of course the effect of this address is to remind you that what follows is a fabrication. that you’re not expected to immerse yourself in the world of the poem but to remain a bit removed from it even though you may have to accept the premise that the dead may speak to us.

Most of the above is reasonably clear but then you notice the semi-colon problem. Things would be much easier if there was a full stop after ‘thanks to me’ but there isn’t and you’re left wondering how the shaking of the head is connected to the relationship that’s just been alluded to / described. You then decide that you’re probably thinking too hard and read on.

It’s snowing, it transpires that our dead talker is in a block of empty flats and it is snowing outside. This event is described with such care that you think that it may well allude to something else, that the action of the snow may have something to do with our mortality:


Then, just as surely, these determined blacks
are filled by flake and flake, until the light
unthinking action of the snow conceals
every last record and the gazer lacks
all means to know their having been. The night
welcomes and hides them: what each thinks or feels

is as obliterated as a name
drawn in the soft sand when repeated waves
delete at one stroke its uncertain fame,
leaving these empty flats. The corner where one shaves
is still invisible. The mirror in its frame
glimmers more darkly, where its pool just saves 
the snow’s dim lights into its silver, and 
they fall more slowly over by the stand.

So, the snow is obliterating the ground, the surface of the earth and the initial flakes create a pattern of white and black patches. These ‘blacks’ are said to be ‘determined’ which may or may not be referring to baseline theology on whether or not we have complete freedom of action our our fate is predetermined by God. The snow covers everything up and in doing so obliterates all trace/memory of their existence. In the ‘ordinary’ world things don’t happen like this, traces are left, things and people are remembered so this snow must be especially destructive because it can effortlessly wipe out this fame or memory. What is being described however is not a blizzard but something that falls ‘flake by flake’ which doesn’t have those notions of hazard and destruction.

‘Mirrors’ and ‘darkly’ immediately produce the quote from Corinthians 1 in your head even if you’ve never fully understood it: “For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part, but then shall I know even as I also am known.” Of course, it’s even less certain that this possible ‘connection’ is the right one but it’s something that can be tested and revised as you go through the poem.

Then you think some more about snow, as in real snow, and you realise that a thin layer of snow does not obliterate all trace of what’s underneath- a flat surface like this black ground might change colour and texture but it will still be recognisably flat just as a slope will still be discernible. The other significant property of snow is that it eventually melts revealing what lies beneath. You read this again and notice that what is obliterated is not the blacks themselves but what they think or feel. This really doesn’t help, neither does the odd observation that the ‘snow’s dim lights’ appear to change the rate of fall depending on where they are.

Of course, there’s the possibility that you are already over-reading, that you’re trying to find things that aren’t actually there, that you should accept the fact that there’s this dead person inside this empty block of flats and that it’s gently snowing outside.

You then realise that the use of rhyme appears to be ‘working’ in that it isn’t getting in the way of your reading and does appear to add an injection of ‘flow’ to each stanza. This is odd because you normally get annoyed by the rhyme constraint as it invariably feels both contrived and (technical term) clunky. You remind yourself to read the Jarvis ‘Why Rhymes Pleases’ essay because you remember arguing with it at the time. You also admonish yourself for deriding the Jarvis view that formal constraint can enhance Big Thought Poetry.

You proceed slowly, you know from his previous work that Jarvis rewards attention to every aspect of what is going on. You enjoy this level of concentration, reading and re-reading a few lines at a time until things become apparent but this use of rhyme does, surprisingly, seem to make things more evocative and more beautiful. You think about this for a while and realise that beauty is a rare event in your reading of poetry, you can only recall brief moments of beauty in Celan, Hill and David Jones and none of these are bound by any kind of formal constraint. You then start to think about poems that describe beautiful things and those that deal with love and this isn’t the kind of beauty that you’re thinking of, it is a group of words or lines that are beautiful in themselves regardless of subject matter. You’re beginning to think / hope that ‘Night Office’ might be beautiful.

From the snow and its effects, things move onto the dead and three stanzas that seem to set out the ‘frame’ of what is to follow:



“Dead, every one, and gone beneath the snow.
I search the past for them, but miss their faces.
They are where all the happy dead must go.
Only, in this dark room, I cannot know
their quietness, their sleep; my head replaces
each one precisely in his life, and so 
they walk again from lungs to teeth,
escaping painfully from sweet relief.

Each bears his rhythm like an inner star:
each is walked through by some one line of stress
not chosen or invented, though they are
not accidental either, since they test,
for each imprinted pattern, where the bar
is lightly crossed, or halted at. My chest
rises and falls beneath my shirt, as each
treads slowly through me his peculiar speech,

sending me soft dumbnesses, impressions
left in the surface of my slow tongue, which
shifts shape a little each time. Dreams, depressions,
pass through my face from inside. In this rich,
yet monochrome, design, these curls, recessions,
vaults and returns speak, soundlessly, dip, pitch
their friendly spirit voices through my sight
and out into the European Night,

So things start to get a bit odder, the dead person who is still talking to us is the mouthpiece of these friendly spirits who are already where the ‘happy dead must go’. You’re not keen on this turn of events, your failure to believe in a god also entails rejecting any notion of the after- life. You also view the ide that the dead use living people to speak on their behalf one of the most cruel forms of quackery. Of course, this may not be what Jarvis means but you cn’t immediately think of another reading of “as each / treads slowly through me his peculiar speech”. Whether this is the case or not there are a few questions that need to be answered:

  • Does searching the past simply mean ‘trying to remember’ or does it mean that the past is a physical thing, like an archive, that can be searched?
  • Do all the happy dead go to heaven or is this referring to some other state / place?
  • Are the happy dead happy because they’re in heaven or were they happy before they got there?
  • Why is being dead described as ‘sweet relief’?
  • Is the ‘not chosen, invented nor accidental’ conundrum a riff on theological understandings of free will and determinism or is some other kind of paradox been alluded to?
  • Why are impressions left in the tongue rather than on the tongue?
  • How, exactly, are these spirit voices pitched through his sight?
  • Why is the night specifically European?

You hope that some of these will be resolved as you move through the rest of the poem but there is niggling doubt that some of this might be clever for the sake of being clever. It may be that ‘my slow tongue’ refers to language or speech rather than the physical object and that ‘in’ would make a little more sense, but not much.

The other worry is whether or not the chosen / invented rigmarole is overly contrived leading to a degree of clunkiness. If it does refer to God’s foreknowledge then why not be a little less oblique? If it refers to something else then it simply sounds portentous without meaning very much- this is one of the most common poetic mistakes but it’s not one that Jarvis usually makes.

Then you decide to look at ‘curls, recessions, / vaults, and returns’ that ‘speak soundlessly’. The first thing that strikes you is church architecture with regard to the first three and a kind of roundedness that can be applied to vaults and curls and then you get hung up on the discovery that a recession is also a feature of the church service “the withdrawing procession of the clergy and choir to the vestry at the close of the service” together with ‘return’ as a noun can also mean ‘paroussia’ which apparently is the Second Coming or ‘an event comparable to the Second Coming; a Messianic of apocalyptic appearance’. At this point your brain starts to hurt because the primary ‘sense’ is the dead, these “friendly spirits” are going to speak through our narrator – who is also dead. Things become complex when you start to think about things withdrawing or turning in on themselves or being covered by round arches or by returning as part of the End of Time. You don’t think for one second that any such return at any time is at all possible and that this cynicism may be preventing a clearer understanding.

You’re also struck by things that “pass through my face from the inside” and you decide to think about this some more. Is this inside the contents of the skull or is it the fleshy structure of the face itself? You are going for the former because this is where dreams and depressions lurk. This passing through implies that these ‘states’ are on there way to somewhere else or is this just a clever way of saying that these things leave their mark or trace on their way out into the world?

As ever, any kind of feedback- especially with regard to the way things are said – would be very much appreciated.