Tag Archives: simon jarvis

The Offside Rule and the unrelated(ish) Emily Dickinson Problem

I’m still in the process of updating, rewriting and polishing arduity. This week two problems have come to light that I thought I’d share.

Some time ago another site likened arduity to an attempt to explain the offside rule in soccer. To those who don’t know, the application of this rule causes immense amounts of angst and debate amongst fans but is a complete mystery to everyone else on the planet. I thought about this observation and decided that it wasn’t a bad analogy in that the mystification and the various nuances of technique are rough equivalents. I’d made pages on various tricks of the trade and had brief attempts at explaining the various isms but then decided that I’d rather illustrate various tropes rather than explaining them. Having reviewed the current content I think I’ve done this reasonably well but there isn’t a page that gives you an overview of the knowledge that might be useful. Some of the current links in the sidebar are misleading, the ‘difficult definitions’ link currently leads to a brilliantly incisive but completely unnecessary discussion of Heidegger, Hill and Derrida whereas what is needed is some examples of the difficult and the undifficult. I’ve decided to have a ‘nuts and bolts’ page that gives the briefest of overviews of a few key terms and suggesting some other resources that will provide more detail/context.

The selection of key terms is proving trickier than expected, I’m having problems with deciding whether to go back to basics (rhyme, meter, forms etc) or whether to deal instead with the things that are features of the difficult. In #1.5 I had thrown out most of the stuff that seemed superfluous and retained allusion, ambiguity, meaning, obscurity and the definition page. I’ve now decided to ‘do’ rhyme and meter as well but to link to Spenser and quote Jarvis as examples. I don’t think I need a definition for obscurity but can point these out when attending to particular poems. I also think that I should put a brief example in each definition and I dither between these two points. Frequently.

There’s also my personal concerns and interests. Following some comments about wrongness and readerly attention from Keston Sutherland, I seem to have developed these two into part of the writing that goes on here. It might therefore be as well to expand on these two a little more, especially as my idea of wrongness differs from Keston’s essay. There’s also the desire to say something about honesty as a quality that (in my view) not enough people think about when attending to the Poem. This would however involve giving examples of dishonesty which would involve writing about material that I actively dislike (later Eliot, most of Larkin, Burnside etc) which is something I try v hard not to do. The final element that I might need to develop is that of ‘clunkiness’ – this is usually part of a poem that either falls flat or doesn’t do what it’s trying to do.

We now come to the Emily Dickinson problem. This comes in two parts:

  1. I’m only just beginning to pay attention to the work;
  2. The poems don’t appear to ‘fit’ with the arduity remit;
  3. Dickinson appears to be admired by people that I don’t admire.

The last of these merely illustrates just how shallow this blog can be but I do have to acknowledge that this is more than a bit of a problem. As a further example, I don’t like the dishonesty at the heart of Sylvia Plath’s work but this is compounded by the nature and tone of her admirers.

The lack of ‘fit’ has shaken up my view of what difficult might be, I was prodded into looking at the work by Prynne’s comment from Difficulties in the Translation of “Difficult” poems:

It is worth pointing out that difficult ideas in poems are not always
expressed in language that is also difficult; for example, William Blake
in his Songs of Innocence and of Experience draws on language of almost
child-like simplicity and yet his thought is sometimes profound and
obscure. Emily Dickinson’s language is also mostly not difficult.

I’d decided many moons ago that I’m not going to tackle Blake but I’d decided to leave a decision on Dickinson until later. Whar spurred into attention was the strangeness of the last sentence and what we may be supposed to infer from ‘mostly not’. Thus prodded I went to the new Foyles and bought the Faber Complete. I haven’t as of yet done an end-to-end attentive reading but I’ve read enough to know that she may be the best ‘wrong’ poet in the language.

The poems are wrong because they don’t play by the rules, the don’t seem to bothered whether they work or not- and we haven’t yet got to the envelopes. Here’s all of Poem 599 in the Collected:

     There is a pain so - utter - 
     It swallows substance up -
     Then covers the Abyss with Trance-
     So Memory can step
     Around - across - upon it-
     As one within a Swoon - 
     Goes safely - where an open eye - 
     Would drop Him - Bone by Bone

The first two lines are very good indeed, the ‘utterness’ of pain that swallows up / megates all aspects of materiality but we then get to the Abyss which is one of the most loaded nouns that we have except that in this instance it gets subsumed by Trance which would appear to provide a distraction from the memory of this pain. The analogy is then made between ‘Swoon’ and ‘Trance’, the first of these providing some kind of safe passage whereas being awake would result in ‘Him’ being dropped into the abyss in a quite gruesome manner. None of this should work, it’s too disjointed, the use of capital letters seems unduly mannered and we’re left wondering whether ‘Him’ is Christ or just another hapless soul afflicted by this kind of pain. A ‘swoon’ is a fainting fit usually (in the 19th century) brough about by some excess of emotion. In the interest of a better understanding I’ve looked at the examples that the OED gives of and have discovered this from Elizabeth Barrett Browning from four or five years before 599 was composed: ” As one in swoon, To whom life creeps back in the form of death”.

There is a sense about the powers of the trance which has been used down the centuries as a way of making pain bearable. We’ve now discovered that our brains can obliterate memories of events of extreme trauma or pain. So there is some sense going on but there is also the last line which doesn’t seem to belong to what’s gone before. ‘Bone by Bone’ would seem to imply a body that has already been picked clean in some way but surely the noun is usually either ‘cast’ or ‘thrown’ or ‘flung’but not ‘dropped’ which seems much to casual for such an act

At this point I’d normally walk away but there is a tone that I find absolutely compelling (and wrong).

: “

The many faces of the innovative poem

I’m in the process of revamping the arduity project and thus far I’ve got a new header, a couple of page layouts and some idea of direction. Instead of focusing only on difficulty, I’ve decided to include what I consider to be innovative work being made now and those that were made in the distant past. Which has got me to try and decide what I think I mean by the ‘I’ word. My initial thought was to base the definition on Pound’s “make it new” but then I decided that newness is probably an even more ambivalent quality.

In a wider sense the attraction of the new is tied up with the notion of progess, with the Enlightenment march towards a better future. This has since been exploited by capital in persuading us to buy the latest, newest, cutting-edgiest thing. What’s different for poets now is that we have this interweb thing to play with that allows is to do new things and disseminate our work in new ways. What arduity might be about is sketching out the historical ‘trend’ and attending to those who are making it new in the now.

In order to invite an argument, here is my current list of innovators and innovations with some attempt at a rationale. Obviously this is subjective and only contains poets and work that I like, primarily because I only ever write about work that I admire:

William Langland

The wonderfully flawed Piers Plowman is attributed to Langland. Unlike Chaucer, Gower and Hoccleve we don’t know who Langlan was although that hasn’t stopped critics from making assumptions. This aside Piers is innovative because it is the leading work of the fourteenth century Alliterative Revival and because of its ambition. The poem covers the usual range of God-rlated concerns but also covers the social issues of the day: regatery (what we would call cornering the market); the undeserving poor and the mendicant problem are just a few of the debates that take place within the poem.

Thomas Hoccleve

Hoccleve isn’t innovative in terms of form and most of his poems and translations are reasonably conventional. I thought about Hocclev’s treatment of mental health in the first two poems of the Series sequence but have now (provisionally) decided that this isn’t enough to count. He’s on this list in case I change my mind.

John Skelton.

Skelton is probably the least likeable of all British poets but he was a major figure between 1480 and 1520 or thereabouts. He is included here because of the first half of his Speke Parrot which is either completely bonkers or our most innovative poem before Spenser. The relationship between the bonkers and the newly made is often quite fuzzy but in this instance Parrot embraces both qualities.

Edmund Spenser

Constantly seeking to ‘overgo’ his predecessors and his peers, Spenser’s Shephearde’s Calendar and The Faerie Queene are both massive innovative with pre-existent genres and themes. For FQ Spenser devised his own form of stanza and laid the foundations upon which Paradise Lost was built. The Mutabilities Cantos are the first poems to do serious philosophy properly.

John Milton

Paradise Lost doesn’t rhyme, God plays a major role in the narrative. God is quite grumpy. It’s very clever on timing and astronomy. The first realistic portrait of evil in any language. There can’t be any argument, can there?

Andrew Marvell

Marvell wasn’t on this list until I re-read Upon Appleton House which may contain the most abstract lines of the 17th century. An Horatian Ode can also be read as an innovative (as well as masterful) use of ambiguity.

Robert Browning.


Ezra Pound.

Infuriating, inconsistent, wilfully provocative and rabidly anti-semitic. All of these but without him we wouldn’t be doing most of the things we do now.

David Jones.

One of the finest poets of the 20th century, both In Parenthesis and The Anathemata make it radically new in terms of theme and ‘voice’.

Charles Olson.

I’ve only read The Maximus Letters and the letters to Creeley but I can confirm Maximus asa magnificent exploration of time and place and the many relationships therein. Some have disparaged Olson as ‘sub-Poundian’ but these are the ones who haven’t paid him sufficient attention.

Paul Celan.

Celan’s work after 1960 cut new ground as he continued to engage with the German language and his cultural past. A Holocaust survivor, Celan was constantly finding new ways to express what had happened to the Jewish People and to bear witness to the unimaginable trials of the dead.

Charles Reznikoff.

Nothing at all like him before or since. Testimony marks one of the great ruptures with the literary past.

Allen Ginsberg.

For writing the poem that defined a generation and a half. The political poem of the 20th century in a voice that was radically new and massively influential.

Geoffrey Hill.

A borderline case- see above. Am now in the process of re-reading in an attempt to decide on Mercian Hymns and Triumph. Will try not to dither.

J H Prynne

A constant innovator over the last forty years whilst (only just) managing to stay within the Late Modernist vein. Prynne’s uncompromising engagement with language has led others to denigrate his apparent obscurity. His work does resist a straightforward, conventional reading, but that’s partly the point.

Simon Jarvis

Just looking at a copy of Dionysus Crucified will give some hint as to Jarvis rejection of the norm and his intention to push the limits in quite surprising ways. Both The Unconditional and Night Office are defiantly metrical and the latter rhymes throughout. Some might complain that a revival of Pope’s intent and method isn’t making things anew but it certainly is in our current context/culture. Incidentally, his reading of Dionysus with Justin Katko is a stunning example of innovation with two voices.

John Bloomberg-Rissman.

The In the House of the Hangman project is a huge, dark mirror that speaks for the way that life is or appears be in the present. Bloomberg-Rissman’s daily furtle (technical term) through the interweb brings together an entirely new means of expression. It’s also quite monstrous in scope and ambition.

Vanessa Place.

Place is either staggeringly good or disappointingly average. Her Tragodia and her Full Audio Transcripts are an important and strategic intervention in the current malaise that is the Poetry Business. The work is like nothing before it and points to where the future might be.

Keston Sutherland.

Is an innovator for introducing Black Beauty into a very serious work about the murderously idiotic fiasco in Iraq and for writing with such disturbing honesty about his sexual desires and experiences as a child. I’m not entirely certain that these two make him an innovator per se but I’d never come across anything like either of the above before.

Jonty Tiplady

Some of us are of the view that Jonty represents/embodies the future of English poetry in his readiness to use other media and to take full advantage of the interweb in a complex dance of innovation and repression. Trillionaires.

The Allegory by the Pool.

John Kay started his piece in this morning’s FT by telling us he’d been having a break on a beach in a warmer clime and how this period of inactivity had caused him to try and work out why hotter countries tend to be poorer countries. I too have been away to a warmer place and intended to sip cocktails by the pool whilst spending much time with S Jarvis’ Night Office. This plan lasted until Day 2 when I had to concede that the contrast between the work and where I was lying was just too great. I did however have extensive backup on the variety of gizmos that accompanied us so all was not entirely lost.

Flicking through one of these I came across The Cambridge Companion to Allegory edited by Rita Copeland. Now, normally I hate the entire range of Companion / Handbook tomes that seem to proliferate these days but this one was in chronological order and I felt that an overview might be beneficial. In the past I’ve skirted around what Spenser called this ‘darke conceit’ because it appeared to be one of those lit crit terms that I try to avoid and because an initial bit of reading and reflection had led me to believe that things might be very complicated indeed.

So, I started off with the Greeks and discover that initial pre-Socratic readings were concerned with symbol, under-meaning and enigma. These come together to produce what Copeland describes as “the encoded expression of a mystical or philosophical truth, a manifestation of transcendental meaning that is at once immediate and remote” at which point several bits in my head came together at once. I’ve long ranted against the view held by some that poetry is in a privileged relationship with truth, I’ve poked fun at Heidegger and others who hold this position and have been generally derisive, the term ‘errant nonsense’ has been used.

I would have been more sympathetic to this notion of privilege had I been aware of the background, that poetry preceded philosophy as a means of doing philosophy and that this quest for under-meanings was a search for some kind of inner truth. I read further and it transpires that Origen and Plotinus had more than a little to do with this vein of thought which is odd because I’m a fan of both and hadn’t put either of them together with under-reading and truth.

As an aside, my interests in these two have been to do with philosophy / theology rather than poetry. As with the Church of England 1590-1635, it’s an attraction that I can’t explain.

Moving on, the Jarvis Project of demonstrating that poetry is an appropriate and fitting way to do philosophy suddenly (in my head) becomes much less wide of the mark and my previous criticisms of the Faerie Queene as a failed allegory now seem a bit silly. It therefore seemed sensible to have a think (by the pool, Green Hawaii in hand) about how this might inform my reading.

This new insight doesn’t mean that I’m any clearer in understanding this conceit but it does give it a framework by which to think about the very many complexities. If I start with that which is closest to hand, having Night Office as a title more than hints that the room in which the poem’s protagonist sits might represent this aspect of monastic observance as well. I’d understood that fairly obvious conceit on hearing of the poem’s title and I’d also worked out the train / stations of the cross trope but my reading thus far had missed the references to fragments of light as being moments of revelation that might occur when reading allegorical work. With all of this in mind, I’m going to have to start the work again. Sigh.

On further reflection, I’ve discovered that I like allegory in that most poems that speak directly to me have an element of the allegorical. The Wedding reception scene in Keston Sutherland’s Stress Position is a very clear allegorical description of acute mental distress, his Under the Mattress is an equally brilliant representation of the current dismality that masquerades as politics in the UK.

Up until the pool moment, I hadn’t thought of David Jones’ The Anathemata as standing for anything other than an exploration of Jones’ personal cultural clutter but it now occurs to me that the voyage recounted in Middle-Sea and Lear-Sea might have more to do with the projection of faith, the cenacle and art into the world rather than a straightforward journey through time and space.

In order to get my brain around the Neo-Platonic aspects of this I’ve started to read E R Dodds’ edition of Proclus’ The Elements of Theology. In his introduction Dodds draws a directish line from Proclus’ thought to Nature’s rebuttal of Mutability in Spenser’s Two Cantos of Mutabitie at the end of the Faerie Queene;

I well consider all that ye have said,
And find that all things stedfastnesse do hate
And changed be: yet, being rightly wayd,
They are not changed from their first estate;
But by their change their being do dilate,
And turning to themselves at length againe,
Do work their owne perfection so by fate.

This isn’t glossed by the usually reliable Hamilton to either Proclus or the more recent Neo-Platonics and the allegorical element resides in the names of the characters more than in the narrative but it does provide further thought especially as others are of the view that there is a strong NP thread running through the work. The notion of things turning to themselves and thus acheiving perfection apparently comes from Proclus.

As a further aside, Proclus makes the claim that explaining a thing involves simply describing how came about, a proposal which seems reasonable until you try to apply it in the ‘real’ world.

Returning to the conceit, I’ve stated quite glibly that the allegorical aspect of the first book of the FQ doesn’t work in that Redcrosse (holiness) isn’t holy and his journey to this stage is not by degrees of learning and improvement, as we might expect, but by stupid mistake followed by even more stupid mistake which eventually leads to scourging and contemplative enlightenment. I’d now like to qualify this by saying that Book I is an incredibly and defiantly complex way of saying many things at once and that I obviously need to be more attentive to these potential under-readings before rushing to judgement. I’ve read the whole poem more than a few times and with a fair degree of attention but I’ve missed completely the less obvious, more hidden, aspects of the relationship between Redcrosse and Una, the damsel who guides and supports his mission.

Paul Celan also calls for a more careful reading, if only to reject the view that all his work is allegorical. It still isn’t but it does do remarkable things with language, Todtnauberg is an account of a meeting between Heidegger and Celan that did take place but within it there are all kinds of metaphors and allusions that critics continue to argue about but it isn’t allegorical in there isn’t a set of equivalent conceits at work.Erblinde is a more likely candidate but, again, I can’t work out how the various images fit together so as to ‘stand’ for anything else than the words on the page.

I’m going to end as I started with Night Office and, on this occasion the role of the poet:

I will not say that I am a device.
The semicircle where my heavy lyre
gives up its hard notes: looks out over ice;
tall poplars to the right; one may admire
how in the distance that dome can entice
from its squat cupola to the entire
warehouse of print on which the state has fed
its house of authorships, its empty head.

Which is why I need to start from the beginning – again.

Claudius App Fortnight: Dionysus Crucified, Derivation and Noise

I may have to extend this particular fortnight by a week or so and then come back with some more during the summer, hadn’t realised how much there is that I want to write about.

I mentioned the derived traffic island as a problem for a listener without access to the text. I’ve been given some consideration as to what this strange description might involve. The relevant long lines are:

     I from a nylon jacket announce recombinance because it is unreasonable that my skin not also learn to survive in plastic consciousness of objecthood
So when I in congealed oil products may orange it to the top at the derived traffic island or at some other holy place as though some beacon were lit
    Then I precisely may not die and may not be killed but persist like toxins or persist like some unvanquishable god-component in e.g. chthonic

To those of us familiar with the Late Modern strain, this isn’t too tricky although it is convoluted. The only stumbling point is this piece of road accoutrement that is said to be derived. In the most commonly used sense, to be derived is to be based on or developed from something else which doesn’t make any kind of sense especially when the traffic island is described as a holy place which seems to bestow something along the way to immortality. Having alluded to this in the previous post I mulled it over and tried the usual bebrowed method of looking at the OED but nothing immediately clicked into place and then another possibility came to mind. The Situationists made use of ‘derive’ and Guy Debord defined it in 1958 as:

In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.

Psychogeography has since gone through a variety of phases, permutations and (in the UK) moves from being in vogue to relative obscurity every five years or so. Without wishing to overread too much and acknowledging that I do want the Jarvis Project to at least nod towards Debord, it is possible to see this traffic island a a fixed point on a geographical contour. This point also is a place of safety from being knocked down and holiness might spring from what some see as the ritual significance of ‘sight points’ in the landscape, hence the reference to lit beacons.

Of course this is more tentastive and provisional than usual but I’m going to have to look at the other road bits in the rest of the poems to see whether this hunch can be supported. This might be timely because I understand the next long poem is going to relate a series of journeys through the landscape.

We now come to noise and its relationship to sound. Last year I did four or five gigs involving multiple voices speaking simultaneously and made a couple of audio-visual pieces using the same technique. Having spent many hours mixing and layering what people say in interviews, I’ve come to the conclusion that two voices saying different things at the same time is reasonably intelligible (sound) whereas three voices isn’t (noise). Having already written about the first use of two overlaid voices, I want to pay some attention to the other three:

The first of these starts at about 21.30 on the track and is a rendition of what I think of as ‘the cross page’ because its central feature is the figure of a cross over most of the page with the text interspersed in and around it. This is another section where the two voices follow each other. Listeners with no previous knowledge/familiarty will need to make their own mind about coherence but I have trouble following what’s being said even when I have the text in front of me. It can be argued that this is due to the apparently random setting out of the lines but it is more likely due to the speed of the delivery and the very short gap between the voices. I accept that some of the lines are quite a challenge in themselves (Ive so you can rip / Girlyboy up now / Peeping Non / Mummy hates him too) but read this way doesn’t help, unless the intention is to make noise rather than ‘sense’.

The second is more conventional and ‘works’, it occurs in three places on the Messenger section of the poem, the first two lines are:

    Were screaming for Cheryl and Ashley to get back together or else for essential supplies of fresh water                     impaled on the fir
So hard I could hardly remember the theme tune that Pen had reminded me made up the keycode which opened                        in matchless pain

So, the long lines are read by Simon with Justin providing the brief interjections and this ‘works’ because the pace is easier and the voices don’t seem to be in competition with each other. This has the effect of drawing the audience in rather than the previous bombardment.

The last piece takes up almost all of the Canticle page and starts at about 28.15 on the track. This was completely unexpected because I recognised that the setting out of the lines was unusual but hadn’t worked out that this was written for a singing and a speaking voice using different lines from the text. I’m guessing that most listeners will find these last few minutes very challenging indeed but I think it’s brilliant and an example of what can be done of the sound / noise boundaries. It’s not so much that the reading of Canticle makes the lines discernible, it is the impression formed by listening that seems to be important here. I’m reminded here of the many discussions I’ve had with friends as to the merits of free jazz which treads the same kind of lines but is completely alien noise to most people.

To conclude, Dionysus Crucified is a brilliant poem and Claudius App have provided a valuable service for us all by hiding this recording in the recesses of their site. Listen to it with headphones, buy it from Critical Documents and read it- you won’t be disappointed.

Claudius App Fortnight: Dionysus Crucified, Part the First

Thanks to the innovative and eminently usable design of the App, I hadn’t realised that the above reading was part of issue five until last week which is a pity because Dionysus benefits from being listened to as well as read. I have a lot to say about this so will attempt a slice at a time rather than the whole lot in one go.

I’ve written about DC before when it was published in 2011 but in the past I’ve probably dwelt too much on the poem’s visual aspects and not enough about what the poem says. Dionysus is a multi-layered figure in myth and literature. He is primarily known now as the god of wine and is thus associated with all kinds of unbridled pleasure seeking. There are many Greek myths about him and a play. The Bacchae by Euripides which informs much of the poem.

In addition, more than a few scholars have noted have noted that there are some similarities with Christ and this is extended in DC. This multi-facected god occurs in a variety of guises throughout European literature, my personal favourite is as Comus in Milton’s A Masque Performed at Ludlow Castle which pits the god of revels and licentiousness against the figure of chastity.

One of the things that I did notice about the poem, from its format and subtitle (Choral Lyric for Two Soloists and a Messenger) was that it had the potential for being read by multiple voices and this recording confirms that but in surprising ways.

Dionysus returns to Thebes in order to gain revenge on behalf of his mother who the King (Pentheus) and the women of Thebes had refused to believe that she had been impregnated by Zeus. Needless to say, Pentheus meets a bloody end at the hands of the female followers of Dionysus, one of whom is the king’s own mother.

Before we get any further it’s important to say that DC is involved with contemporary concerns and problems rather than an ‘updated’ piece of Greek literature. The other item of interest is that, in print, these lines are very long indeed. After much internal debate, it has been decided that we’re going to retain line length at the expense of readerly ease so you will have to scroll to the right for some of what follows. Sorry.

After the sound effects (which are absent from the printed poem) things start with an introduction from Dionysus who wastes no time at all in announcing himself:

I to the land of THEBES DIONYSUS son of ZEUS have come have come and son of daughter of KADMOS SEMELE have come too borne of divine fire:
   I from a nylon jacket announce recombinance because it is unreasonable that my skin not also learn to survive in plastic consciousness of objecthood
So when I in congealed oil products may orange it to the top at the derived traffic island or at some other holy place as though some beacon were lit

Now, I’ve complained before about poems that are read indistinctly and or at too fast a pace but here the enunciation is clear and the pacing seems about right but there are still three words that the first or second time listener is going to have problems with: ‘recombinance’, ‘objecthood’ and ‘orange’- although the last of these is due to its use as a verb. Now, I think all poetry should (must) be read aloud to other people and spent most of last year doing that very thing to a variety of non-poetry audiences. The dilemma for me is how best to convey all the content of a poem without becoming Very Ponderous Indeed. I don’t know the answer to this but I do know that it’s a problem especially for first-time readers who don’t have the text and are simply scrolling through a number of sound files to locate anything of interest. It could be argued that this applies to most half-way decent work but the Jarvis Project is strategically important in all kinds of ways and needs to get the widest audience possible.

As can be heard, Simon Jarvis does not ‘do’ straightforward points, the house style is much more of digression, as if to wring every last point out of a sentence and yet this recording doesn’t (somehow) require the level of attention that is needed for print. It still does need serious and sustained attention, not because of the subject matter but because of what it does to poetry as a ‘form’ by which I think I mean that DC is reasonably unique in what it does and it does it with aplomb.

Prynne talks of the ability of late modernist poetry to surprise and startle and this is at work here in the use of words and in the oddness that is the derived traffic island as well as the ‘classical’ opening line followed immediately by the nylon jacket and the congealed oil products. The use of ‘orange’ as a verb might tie in with the colour of the jacket but I don’t think listeners will have time to think this through in the course of a reading but giving a performed impression of the content may be what’s going on here.

Justin Katkow’s reading of the opening speech contains a few stumbles but also changes one of the words, the inner dish which first displayed it becomes the inner dish which first deployed it which significantly changes the meaning of the line. Therefore I, as a Jarvis completist, need to ask whether this is deliberate or accidental and, if the former, why was such a significant change made after publication?

Following the speech things move on with 4 verses from what I assume to be the choric element referred to in the subtitle. I need to declare a personal interest in this, I’ve been working creatively with multiple voice performances for the past couple of years and am therefore intrigued by how others do it.

I’m not trying to achieve what I think is being attempted in DC but I am concerned with the blurring of coherence and the power of repetition. I’m also playing with the plain speech / polyphony / cacophony continuum and the different ways in which these make ‘sense’ to an audience. In my reading of the poem, I hadn’t reckoned on these verses being read by two voices with a slight delay. This increases the power or strength of what’s being read but loses some of the clarity that one voice provides. If it was me I’d be tempted to double the delay interval and bring more of a contrast between the voices- probably with the use of a female voice as the ‘follower’. This is a minor quibble, for years I’ve been convinced that the use of multiple voices at the same time provides a much wider and more productive dimension to The Poem and this kind of example goes some way to vindicating that view.

I want to spend much more of the second part of this to the other uses of two voices in Dionysus so I won’t dwell on them here except to note that these four verses are far from simple and to perform them in this way is indicative of the ambition and absence of compromise in the Jarvis Project.

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:

your shaken-knotted
hands at the threeway.

Pontic erstwhile: here,
a drop,
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).

glory behind
you threeway 

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

bears witness for the

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.

Night Office and Spiritual Pain.

First of all, I have to report that the above has also received a measured and comprehensive review by Arabella Milbank in Issue 5 of The Cambridge Humanities Review. In contrast to the review in the TLS, this makes no spurious reference to either J H Prynne or the Cambridge School but concentrates on what the poem says and how it says it.

It is both erudite (ie it has words in it that I don’t understand) and focuses on the overriding religious theme rather than the structure of this startling work. What surprises me is that, as far as I can work out, Milbank does not discuss the issue of suffering and spiritual pain which, to this reader at least, appears to run a broad thread through all 227 pages. She does however have this:

Jarvis revoices tenets in some extraordinary ways, reminding us that he believes poetry is “no alibi for weak theology”. These can be very dark. Extraordinary sections in this wintry, Adventine poem cover much of the traditional ground of the Four Last Things, taking the poet down to hell and into Judgement. At one point this vigil is referred to the orthodox mesonyktikon, where the night office is particularly that of eschatologically awaiting wakefulness. Its troparion of the Bridegroom is taken up to paint these lucubrations as those of the faithful virgin. The possibility of properly negative, absolute judgement or damnation haunts, and is not refused, by the poem:

at which this sorry this this & this & this
meet you yourself as your beloved’s right
clear irreversible refusal, set
into that helpless falling out of love
with no past, future, forward, back, above

Being not all that erudite, I’ve spent some time with the interweb and have discovered that the mesonyktikon is the mdinight office of the Orthodox Church and a troparion is a type of Orthodox hymn and the Services of the Bridegroom are held every evvening from Palm Sunday until Holy Tuesday and that the name is taken from the parable of the Ten Virgins. ‘Lucubrations’ are defined by the OED as ” The product of nocturnal study and meditation; hence, a literary work showing signs of careful elaboration. Now somewhat derisive or playful, suggesting the notion of something pedantic or over-elaborate”. I’ll glide over the exclusionary nature of the above and move on to my theme which is that this figure is beset by suffering, by a complex anguish in his relationship (or the absence of it) with God.

Rather than dive into a series of examples to demonstrate my contention, it may be useful to add a personal note with regard to anguish. I have no experience whatsoever of the spiritual / religious aspects of existence because I don’t believe in God and view those that do as fundamentally mistaken. It is therefore difficult for me to fully appreciate what this figure may be going through. As regular readers will know I am prone to bouts of severe depression which, together with a reasonably ropey psychology, gives me some in sight into what non-physical pain is like and the sensibilities that come with it.

I also have some readerly experience in poetic spiritual pain and one of the problems that I have is that of sincerity rather than manipulation. I’ve had lingering doubts about the sudden cries of emotion that leap from some of George Herbert’s lines since reading his manual for priests, A Priest to the Temple where he advocates the occasional exclamatory outpouring to intensify the faith of the congregation. There’s a different kind of problem with R S Thomas whose religious doubts and sufferings seem to be much more about the poet (as poet) than they are about the experience itself. I don’t have any doubts at all about the sincerity embedded in the later work of Paul Celan whose agonised struggles with faith and the You are almost unbearable to read:

SEWN UNDER THE SKIN of my hands:
your name 
that hands comforted

When I knead the 
lump of air, our nourishment,
it is soured by
the letter effulgence from
the dementedly open

With regard to the Jarvis project, one of the many honesties from The Unconditional onwards is this sense of personal vulnerability, a willingness to expose and explore this fragility without resorting to the confessional ‘ah me’. This is at some distance from the interspersed rants about the ways in which capitalism ensnares us, a much more personal meditation on a suffering that is keenly felt:

These chimes and echoes form the long relay 
postponing that intolerable minute
when I should not be able to delay
sight of my face and all the crimes hid in it:
so the quick rhapsode stitches up all
fact-calques and formulas, where who would bin it
must stare down that total knowledge of his error,
continuous inobviable terror.

I’m taking (tentatively, provisionally) ‘rhapsode’ as someone who reads poetry aloud to others, a ‘fact-calque’ to be a premise or supposition that is loaned and eventually adopted by a foreign culture and ‘inobviable’ to be that which cannot be obviated or circumvented.

Severe depression has these characteristics and they hurt a great deal. The extent of the self-loathing is such that staring into a mirror is exceptionally difficult not just because of the hidden crimes but also because of the shame that the acute knowledge of these brings about. Continuous terror is a bit more tricky in that I experience a continuous and nagging fearfulness but this isn’t related to my perceived crimes. I can however just about appreciate how difficult this combination might be to bear.

I think it might be worthwhile as well to consider the use of ‘crime’ rather than ‘sin’, is this because the former carry a degree of forethought/intent whereas a sin can be because of some personal trait.

Of course, with such a lengthy poem, it may reasonable to suggest that I have selected the above purely to make my case and that it isn’t, in fact, representative of the whole. This may well have some truth in it but I’m trying to describe what came across most clearly to me on an initial reading as a devotee of poetry. I’ve acknowledged that I don’t share the beliefs described here and have obviously missed out on many of the theological and liturgical ‘points’ but I do continue to read the poem for its honesty and its strength.

Incidentally, the review refers to Night Office a “great religious poem”, the ‘g’ word is a very big word indeed and not one to be idly thrown about. In my head there are very, very few great poems, religious or not and I don’t think this is one of these even if it is both compelling and exceptionally addictive. Perhaps we may need to wait for the next four poems in the sequence to make a decision on ‘g’ ness.