Tag Archives: the unconditional

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.

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.

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.

Simon Jarvis’ Night Office

‘Night Office’ is a poem in Simon Jarvis’ ‘Eighteen Poems’ which was published last year and it is part of a much (much) longer poem which Enitharmon will publish in the reasonably near future. This runs to 216 pages with four eight line stanzas on each page. This obviously makes it very long indeed – longer than ‘The Unconditional’ in terms of line count. The other headlines are that it is a religious poem and that it rhymes, using the same rhyming scheme throughout.

A couple of years ago I took readerly issue with the Jarvis view that poems that made use of rhyme and/or metre were best suited to dealing with philosophical themes and issues. I also took exception to the example of Pope’s ‘Essay on Man’ mainly because I don’t like the heroic couplet but also because I don’t see the ‘point’ of Pope’s work in general. I now have to acknowledge that I was wrong, that it is possible to write complex and beautiful poetry in a way that isn’t overwhelmed by the rhyme. I’m still trying to unpick how this has been achieved but the effect on me as a reader is remarkable.

Because others won’t have access to the longer poem in full, I’m going to concentrate what follows on the poem that is in ‘Eighteen Poems’ for the moment. I also need to point out,as ever, that what follows is entirely provisional, tentative and I reserve the right to change my mind.

We’ll start with subject matter, I’m much more comfortable with theology as theme rather than philosophy – I know that there is often a very thin and wavy line between the two but some of the finest poetry in the language is religious and there is a long and deep vein of this kind of poetry running through English culture. My own preference for this kind of material is odd because I’m one of those anti-Dawkins atheists who know there isn’t a God but don’t mind at all that other people think there might be.

As for the poem itself, it starts with this conceit:

Every last person in this poem 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.
Now in this blackness I begin to sing.
Invisible is every little thing:

This manages to be arresting/startling and complex at the same time. First of all we have to get used to this being a poem about the dead being told by the dead. Then readers are addressed in a very direct and (where I come from) quite an aggressive kind of way before the poet is introduced although the repeated ‘thanks to’ suggest that the relationship here may be more reciprocal than is usual. This is satisfyingly complex- the speaker needs the poem and the poet in order to be heard just as the poet needs the speaker in order to make the poem, to be a poet. Of course, the effect is that the reader is almost challenged from the outset to become involved. There’s also the implication that the speaker is representing the poet’s view in what follows.

A few things then happen, the speakers head shakes whilst the surrounding unspecified sounds diminish to a lasting (eternal?) silence enabling the speaker to rest- he begins to sing in ‘this’ blackness.

There aren’t many poets who can pull something like this off without sounding contrived. Of course, there is contrivance going on here but it’s expressed with a lyricism and a confidence that enables me to go along with things rather than fret about the manipulation. A stanza like this also undermines my argument that constraints like rhyme inevitably limit the rnge of things that can be said, that free verse liberates the full possibilities that language has to offer. I don’t get the impression that there’s too much limitation going on here and I’m not reading ahead of myself in order to see what the next rhyme will be- this has been my other main concern.

By the seventh stanza we’ve worked out that the dead speak through the speaker and in doing so escape “painfully from sweet relief” This is then developed further:

 
Each bears his rhythm like an inner star:
each is walked through by some one line of stree
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 softly 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.

I now have a punctuation query, when I was in primary school we were taught that the use of joining words meant that there was no need for a comma. Have I got this wrong and the above is simply using punctuation in accordance with the rules or is something else going on here? This apparent anomaly didn’t become visible to me until I typed these three stanzas but, glancing through this part of the poem, it does seem to be a bit of pattern. Given that fifty years or so have elapsed since learning this rule, I’m also happy to accept that I may have got hold of the wrong end of this particular stick.

Aside from this minor quibble, I hope I’m not alone in finding the above to be absolutely wonderful in terms of intense lyricism, formal skill and the delicacy with which things are said. It’s also very clever, both stanzs reuire more than a degree of thought and consideration:

  • what would it be like to carry your own rhythm like an inner star?
  • are we meant to read ‘bear’ as endure rather than carry?
  • is it the constraint of rhyme the pattern that is tested?
  • are we meant to read the shape shifting allusion into shifts shape and why?
  • curls?
  • why is the night a European night/

As with ‘The Unconditional’, I’m firmly of the view that Night Office must be read by anyone who claims to have more than a passing interest in what poetry might be able to do. Both are immensely rewarding and have removed at lest some of my well-worn modernist blinkers. They also open up much wider debate which I hope to begin to pursue in the coming weeks.

Simon Jarvis and the Bloke Thing

We’ll do the puppy dog enthusiasm first. Anyone with even a passing interest in English poetry in the 21st century needs to obtain a copy of Jarvis’ ‘Eighteen Poems’ which was published by Eyewear at the end of last year. This is because his work is important and exciting and more challenging than almost everything else that I’ve read in the last ten years. End of the tail-wagging thing.

One of the recurring themes in Jarvis’ very broad range of work is the plight of the middle aged bloke, one of the other themes/interests is the Great British road network. I’ve had a few problems with the bloke thing because it’s felt scratchy but never quite scratchy enough although there are elements of ‘The Unconditional’ that come close. The usual Jarvis angle on the Bloke Thing is the troubled issue of complicity with regard to cash and the extent to which we all have to play capital’s game. Many, many middle aged writers do this and most of it is an extended whinge about how difficult life is and how the ways of the world force us into new depths of melancholic sadness. The Jarvis take is usually more effective than this and the first poem in this collection raises the Bloke Thing to new heights of non-wallowing expression. These are the opening lines of ‘Lessons and Carols’

    The ring road rests, and frost settles over the meadow;
      down at the river the lights are strung out into faint
    points of attention and silence envelops the dark.
      Here I am standing again on the path on the edge of the city.
    Here I am set with a face looking up at the black
      exit from lighting, the place where the money runs out.

This sets the scene for an elegaic account of Bloke Things which seems to use metre to set up a kind of incantation effect. I’ll deal with this shortly but I think the most striking feature of the above lines are their lyrical strength- I’m particularly fond of ‘faint / points of attention’ and ‘the black / exit from lighting’ because both do clever and evocative things in a few words. The ‘points of attention’ manages to be both lyrical and complex without seeming to try.

I’m going to ignore the ringness of the resting road for the moment and talk a bit more about this Bloke Thing. There has always been a miserablist faction within the Bloke school of poets and this kind of self-lacerating exhibitionism has won more than a few plaudits and continues to do so. This is fair enough, there’s obviously a readership for what Drayton once call ‘ah, me’ verse but I find it inherently dishonest and reasonably loathsome so I approach the Jarvis forays into this territory with a degree of prejudice. It turns out here that he’s not pleading for sympathy but delivering a thesis that’s been one of his semi-formed bones of contention for a while. He’s also elaborating on the Bloke as Dad gizmo in a way that Doesn’t Quite Work.

We’ll continue with the retail problem, J H Prynne is more than a little scornful of the devices used to get us to buy things but Jarvis seems intent on taking this to a new level:


      Each knows, sees us. Although we can never believe it,
    under this laboured neutrality lurks a persisting
      terror of scorning them, terror of giving offence to them.
    We must by gifts; we must come to the store,
      leaving our monoglot offerings there at the checkout
    leaving with objects apparently filled up with life.
 

Most blokes will confess to disliking shopping (I’m banned from shopping because of my obvious desire to get the whole thing over as quickly as possible) but this is an analysis, description of how retail is supposed to work on our soul and make us feel inadequate if we don’t participate to the full. It’s very well done and sustained through most of the poem and I like it because it gives me something to test my own prejudices and phobias against- I’ve long been of the view that we can’t live on this planet without being compromised by the money machine and that retail does a reasonable job of pulling us in further by means of deception and guile but I’m not convinced that in the many Blokes there ‘lurks a persisting terror’ of ignoring the whole rigmarole. In fact I think most people are aware of the compromises involved and ‘succumb’ anyway- which is probably more worrying but akin to the feeling that the current austerity binge is somehow our fault.

I’m not sure that ‘apparently’ works on the last line but the rest is another example of Jarvis using metrical constraint to get his point across.

The road/driving motif is preserved with

    the telephone smooth as a baby, the shallow recessed
      hand-holds which welcome me into my family car,
    all are quite empty of thought or motive: all, all
      think nothing at all, think all that a stone thinks or less than it.
    All that I feel for them floats in an ether of foolish 
      half-waking conjecture, cutting the circuit short just
    where thought might become painful, might tell me how to wake up.

This is brilliant because it uses simple objects and our feelings about them to make a wider point. It doesn’t matter that the point has been made many times before- what matters here is the ery human elegance with which it is expressed. The ‘ether of foolish half-waking conjecture’ is wonderful and currently the subject of some debate in the Bebrowed household.

I’m not entirely clear that the dilemma of the Bloke as Dad theme works quite as well because it’s trying to do too many things and has this:


    just as a father wants to protect his dear children
      holds them against him, enfolds them in cuddles, for fear
    that his own strength will be too small to save them all, knowing
      he floats like a twig in a river of pitiless money

I am going to come back to this and the conclusion at a later date because I think it needs to be unpicked in the context of the Jarvis Project as a whole but for now I’d like to conclude that this is brilliantly expressed, thought-provoking stuff and that ‘cuddles’ really doesn’t work on any level. At all.

Writing the Nation now

I’ve been re-reading the wonderful Helen Cooper on Spenser and she categorises the Faerie Queene (FQ) as an exercise in ‘writing the nation’ and I started to think about contemporary poets who might, at least in part, be doing the same thing.

Let’s be clear first about the FQ project, he has this:

And thou, O fairest Princess under sky,
In this faire mirrhour maist behold thy face,
And thine own realmes in Lond of Faerie,
And in this antique Image thy great ancestry.

Readers will be delighted to know that I don’t intend to dwell on FQ for longer than I need to but I do want to work out whether much use is made of ‘faire mirrhours’ today. This particular device works for me when it strike a chord with the idea of England that’s in my head and when it expresses the things that I feel about this contradictory and ham-fisted land.

As ever, what follows is subjective and I reserve the right to change my mind. Having given this some thought, I’ve dismissed both Geoffrey Hill and J H Prynne because I don’t think that’s what they’re about. I’ve looked at Hill’s nature stuff again and it seems more about God than nation. I understand Hill’s brand of regretful patriotism but I don’t share it even if it does make me smile.

Simon Jarvis’ ‘The Unconditional’ speaks to me in terms of the road network, cars and the scratchy disintegration of the middle aged and middle class Englishman. I’m not entirely sure how much of the latter element is description or confession but it does contain the right quantity of quiet despair that seems to be prevalent in most of my peers. He’s also pretty good on complicity which seems to run through some of his more recent work too.

Page 91 of ‘The Unconditional’ has this extended riff on how things probably are:

       And when it set again through burning clouds
    in certain knowledge that his enemy
       was sitting there in service station blue
    as when first rumour of a coming war
       from crevices to mute intelligence
    leaks to the avid wire or wireless beam
       a possible integer of probable
    risk or then hope dividing from the fold
       brushes against the oil price like two lips
    on the most sensitive no skin there is
       the slightest contact more than nothing will
    call up all spirits from their surfaces
       sending all shocks of terror or delight
    whether to eros or to thanatos 
       or operatives to keep their sleepy screens
    jerk on to power up the data field
       setting the eddying hammering of blood
    as a no wave on no field spends its flood 
       whose figures bear away a man's whole life
    by one dead jump into the real sea
       whilst they caress the exquisitely keen
    crest which falls off to pleasure or to pain.

This very long and incredibly digressive poem was published in 2006 and one of the many things it does is expose and dissect the New Labour faux managerial nonsense that the nation had been subject to since 1997 and passages like the above express how this felt to those of us with more than half a brain.

Regular readers will know that I’ve struggled in a fascinated kind of way with the difficulties that Jarvis presents but, after several reads, it does (with all its very many quirks) feel like the best/ most accurate mirrhour that we have of England at the start of the 21st century. I appreciate that the above may be primarily aimed at the criminal folly of our recent foreign adventures but the mindset is also present in the Blairite innovations in welfare spending which have been joyously extended by the current dismalities that rule over us- especially the ‘avid wire’ and the misuse of the data field to justify the ever increasing levels of deprivation.

Another poem that holds up the mirrhour to English politics in a way that I can recognise. The exception is Neil Pattison’s ‘Slow Light’ which set off a whole chain of immediate recognition in terms of what the current state of politics and the possibility of what political action might be about.

As with Neil’s earlier work, this is defiantly obdurate stuff but it’s initial strength comes from the careful modulation of the poetic ‘voice’ which is a very human voice rather than a tone. My recognition was immediate but also quite literally breathtaking as if I’d been grabbed in the chest. This happens to me about once every ten years and not usually with poetry, the last occasion was standing in front of one of those big Kiefers in about 2001. As I’ve said, the ‘meaning’ is by no means apparent so I’m still more or less at a loss as to why (apart from the voice) I should have this response but I’m certainly confident of my ability to extoll it’s worth as a ‘mirrhour’.

For example, there’s this from the middle of the poem:

    Gloze edging flouresces, accelerant centre fades :
    inside, the accurate flow to shell-gland, cored
    optic of pure courting is
                            To praise
    consumed in fit loops power, topic parabola
    recoiling : smoke feels, the reliquary a disclosure
    of this stratum, folded in its blastwave, that by
    furnace glossed art
                    coolant, exhales retinal
    clutch, feeding, ordinate, bracket, saline, aluminum,
    a baffling reach. The image smashed, hand formes
    kindling enrichment ; the footing centres exactly :

    as you went out,     becoming small       in the country
    speeding, glazed in : Pace ballots        on
                        mist
    into the entrails
              new white speed will index in her blood :

I’m not going to attempt a detailed analysis of the above but it might be useful to point out that poems epigraph is a quote from Philip Gaskell which describes a process that produces “a perfect image of the mould pattern and watermark in the paper but does not register the printing on the surface”, I also need to draw your attention to the brilliance inherent in both the phrasing and the use of language to create, for me at least, a quite forensic picture of how it is and what may or may not be done. I’m particularly blown away by ‘the accurate flow to shell-gland’ and the two line that begin with ‘as you went out’.

I’ve now realised that I have digressed some way from my initial intention which was to start with the ‘antique image’ and Leland’s remarkable ‘Itinerary’ and proceed via Drayton, Cobbett and Reznikoff to John Matthias with a glance at Olson and David Jones along the way. Hopefully I’ll be more disciplined next time.

Bad lines in Good poems.

I’ve just put a page on pt 5 of ‘In Parenthesis’ on arduity. As ever, any feedback would be much appreciated.

Whilst extolling the brilliance of this masterpiece, I came across a couple of lines that could be described as Not Very Good which was a bit of a shock because Jones (in my head) is almost perfect and this got me to thinking about other bad lines in brilliant poems. So, what follows is a compilation of those examples that most readily spring to mind. The bebrowed definition of Not Very Good in this context relates, I think, to a line or two that is out of place and jars with the rest of the poem, lines that sound dissonant when read aloud. I think there’s a difference between these and Keston Sutherland’s depiction of the wrong line because that would seem to be more about apparent banality or the non-poetic in a line which nevertheless works.

This selection is personal and subjective, I’ve chosen to concentrate on poems that I feel are excellent but nevertheless are let down by this small blemish.

John Milton and ‘Lycidas’

This has been called the greatest elegy in English literature, its subject is Edward King who was at Cambridge with Milton and who drowned in 1637. I’m of the view that Milton never does lines of the above sort, in fact I’ve never been able to locate a bad line in the entire length of ‘Paradise Lost’ but the fourth and fifth lines here do seem to be out of place:

Where your old bards, the famous Druids lie,
Nor on the shaggy top of Mona high,
Nor yet where Deva spreads her wizard streams
Ay me, I fondly dream!
Had ye been there.....for what could that have done?
How could the muse herself that Orpheus bore,
The muse herself for her enchanting son
Whom universal nature did lament,

I know that this is intended as a sudden cry of hearfelt anguish and is meant to be dissonant but it does need to be strong and well put together and neither ‘Ay me’ nor ‘and ‘what could that have done?’ are up to the task. It isn’t anguished enough nor lyrical enough to justify its presence. It might be argued that this lack of verbal skill is the ‘point’ that this interjection deliberately refuses to work so as to express the depth of human feeling but the fact remains that there is little anguish in ‘what could that have done’ and that it feels both gratuitous and inept. Perhaps Milton was trying to imitate the sudden outbursts in the work of George Herbert which was published a few years before but Herbert’s interjections are both strong and believable whereas this isn’t.

Simon Jarvis and ‘The Unconditional’.

I have said this before but the above is one of the most important publications of the last thirty years. It runs to 236 pages, it is brilliantly and infuriatingly digressive and defiantly metrical. It is also deeply subversive and I don’t understand why this fact isn’t more widely recognised. It isn’t an easy read but it is important and more than repays the attention that is paid to it. It was published in 2005 and is still available from Barque Press for a mere fifteen quid.

One aspect of the Jarvis thesis is that prosody is helpful when expressing complex or philosophical ideas and ‘The Unconditional’ is, among many other things, an example of this. However, there are a few lines where things go a bit awry and one of these serves to undermine a particularly brilliant passage:

        In that domain a buried A-road may
sometime by old pavilions of its shops
remind a hoarse commercial traveller
of the remediable loss of life
in undefended type face of a font
still mutely pleading for a shoppers loves
still wearily enduring falling sales
still waiting for authenticated close
or still abiding till a ripeness when
the properly intolerable come
and foreclose closure closing it by force.
=x. was ready to feel all that.
There or anywhere else.
But he was nowhere near the area.
The hue of the metallic colouring on
his complicit vehicle accompanying him
could barely properly be named as blue-
fantastically overpropertied as though blue left blue for a blue elsewhere
or settled only in the skull of an
acatastatical erotomane
whose dream then taking vehicle form
inflicts whatever violence it can
on any object-field whose lightest flinch
might intimate a rustable flaw beneath
with a pure undersong of "blue, blue, blue".
Serene irony fell into the wrong tax bracket.

I’ve quoted this at length to emphasis the damage that a line can do. On an initial reading I thought it was the last word in ‘But he was nowhere near the area’ that was wrong, that ‘area’ seemed so out of place in the lyrical brilliance of what precedes and follows it but I’ve now decided that it is the line itself that is the problem. Both the portrayal of the commercial traveller and the improvisation on the colour of the ‘complicit vehicle’ are sustained passage of lyrical invention and technical flair but both of these are let down by the presence of this one decidedly dull line. The other issue is that I don’t entirely understand what it is supposed to be doing, it doesn’t add greatly to the sense of what’s being said and even by page 19 most of us will have recognised that =x. is disposed to this kind of self-lacerating melancholia. it is therefore difficult to see what these three lines might add.

Whilst I’ve got the opportunity, I would like to draw your attention to the brilliance of “as though blue left blue for a blue elsewhere” which is almost as good as “on any object field whose lightest flinch / might intimate a rustable flaw beneath” which is obviously wonderful.

As with Milton, this kind of ineptitude is completely out of character for Jarvis and for ‘The Unconditional’ in particular, it may of course be that this is deliberately ‘wrong’ but this kind of knowing wink is absent from the rest of the poem and doesn’t occur in what Jarvis has published since. I’ve now read the poem four times and this remains the bit that is most strikingly bad, there are other sections and lines that are overly self-indulgent, obscure or badly expressed but this is the only line that seems to be irredeemably bad.

David Jones and ‘In Parenthesis’

Anyone who doesn’t think that David Jones was one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century either hasn’t read any of his work or is a complete fool. Tom Dilworth’s claim that ‘In Parenthesis’ is one of the five great war books that we have seems to me to be an altogether reasonable claim. Having spent the last ten days or so thinking and writing about it for arduity, I now have to report that it isn’t perfect and that there is at least a couple of lines that should have been cut.

The poem recounts Jones’ experience of his service in World Ward One leading up to and including the assault on Mametz Wood during the Somme offensive in July 1916. This is from Part Five and is a dialogue between two French civilians who run the bar that the troops frequent during rest periods away from the trenches:

        She bolted the door for the night
and when it was morning
Jacques said that the Englishman's guns had kept him awake.
She said that it was a pleasant morning, and the first in June.
He said it was time the English advanced, that there wera a
stupid race, anyhow.
She said they were not.
He would like to remind her of the Pastoral,
for which she laughed a long time.
with: Vah, vah,
and her head wagging
with: La - la la, and her finger pointed, with:
Tawny-tooth go watch the priest, and:
Bent-wit.
She said that the war was lucrative and chid him feed the
fowl, and smoothed her pinafore: sometimes the Siege Artil-
lery came in during the morning, if there wasn't a shoot on.

Jones glosses ‘Tawny-tooth…bent wit’ as “Cf. Skelton. I cannot find the passage I had in mind”- and neither can I, even with the assistance of the Adobe ‘find’ gizmo. In some notes Jones also explains why he is using a particular quotation but chooses not to do so here. I have a couple of concerns:

  • the two lines spoil the rest which is a reasonably straightforward account of a conversation that isn’t at all difficult to follow;,
  • if you are going to quote something then you should try and make sure of it’s accuracy;
  • if you know that the quote might be spurious and you are providing notes then you should explain (as you do elsewhere) what you were hoping to achieve.

It could be argued that this was an innovative and experimental work but there are elsewhere sustained pieces of experimental brilliance that do what they should whereas we will never know what this was meant to achieve, it serves simply to get in the way.

So, none of the above examples are essential to the poem and could be removed without too much difficulty and perhaps it’s this more than the poor quality that I find most difficult. None of these do serious damage to the rest of the poem and I would urge all readers to read the last two, you won’t be disappointed.

‘In Parenthesis’ is currently available from Amazon at just over twelve of your finest English pounds.

Simon Jarvis, Strong Poets and Hell

I was going to write something about the talking road but my eye has been caught by a passage three-quarters of the way through ‘The Unconditional’. For those few not yet familiar with this remarkable piece of work, it is a very long and very metrical poem. For those not familiar with the Jarvis thesis that poetry is Quite a Good Way of doing philosophy, please see previous posts on this blog and Tom Jones’ review which deals with the philosophy in a more structured way. On a personal note, I have a complex relationship with this poem, initially it took me more than a few attempts to get to the end of its 240 pages- normally I would have given up but it did appear to be doing something quite different and this kept on drawing me back in.

There are some bits, especially on music, that are too obscure for their own good and the shadow of Adorno does loom large and makes at least one brief appearance (under his birth name). This aside, I’m now on my fourth reading and am getting more out of it each time.

One of the main difficulties with this poem is the number and length of digressions, there are very many of these and they can go on for several pages.

The poem ostensibly narrates the story of a journey and contains a hero and a villain with a number of other characters in between. The villain is Agramant and this is the section that caught my eye:

         Every little thing's going to be all right.
So says the bottom of the glass in spades.
A glazing over yet to drone of screen
sees in an acreage of sponsored baize
Satan at matchplay bowls give hm one grin
coming as though straight out of the machine
inviting Agramant to notice well
how all made things wag gently round to hell.
Strong poets flopped around beside the pool
grimacing as the Weaker brought them drinks
(whose think-transporters would shed half their load
for one smile from the lips of Frank Kermode)
thus interrupting the important work
of strenuous clinamens sightlessly
performed by leaving out what most they loved
while turning deaf ears to all mere technique
preferring Theoria to the sleek
or roughened particles of letterage

In addition, at the right side of the page between ‘grimacing’ and ‘sightlessly’ there is this in a slightly smaller font:

How is it then, being
both the best general
and the best rhapsode
among us, that you
continually go about
Greece rhapsodizing
and never lead our
armies?

The odd thing is that on either the second or third readings I’ve made comments and underlined bits of the previous two pages but missed this altogether. However, I think it bears thinking about because of the way in which it appears to say a number of things. We need to get some stuff out of the way before proceeding. Frank Kermode was this country’s leading literary critic for many years until his death in 2010. The adjective ‘strong’ when applied to poetry is generally ascribed to Harold Bloom (a leading American critic) who also made use of ‘clinamen’ which we will return to. Agramant is derived from the character of the same name in Ariosto’s ‘Orlando Furioso’. Matchplay bowls is a game played in England both indoors and out, I’m taking it that the reference to baize refers here to the indoor version. Finally, Jarvis is against all flavours of the post-structural and what he views as its attendant relativism.

This first line is a straightforward quote from Bob Marley’s ‘Three Little Birds’, the preceding line is “Don’t worry about a thing”. The second line of world-weary cynicism/realism is one of the moods of the poem, Jarvis does male self-loathing and defeat in spades. The next line is the first of a six line sentence and doesn’t make grammatical sense, I accept that Jarvis adopts and moulds syntax as most poets do but I can only vaguely work out what he’s saying. I use the term to ‘glaze over’ as my response to something that I have to listen to that I find numbingly boring or (worse) self-evident and I assume we’re not just playing with glass / glazing / screen here but then again this just might be the case. I’m taking this to mean that Agramant that when Agramant begins to glaze over, Satan appears (as if in a dream because glazing over can lead to sleep) and is either playing or watching a game of bowls. It may or may note be important to note that it is the ‘baize’ that is sponsored rather than the match although “matchplay” sounds a bit corporate to me.

Agramant isn’t a stereotypical bad person in that he has both nuance and depth, there are hints that Doing Bad Things is more a result of a fractured (but clever personalitY) than any notion of evil. I’ve tried hard to reconcile my reading of Agramant with Jones’ ‘Spenserian’ tag but all of the villains in the Faerie Queene don’t do either depth or nuance and most are presented as being reasonably evil. I also need to note that Jarvis’ Agramant is much more likeable than Ariosto’s.

So, Agramant is given a single grin by Satan and this single grin is projected as if being expelled from ‘the’ machine and signifies the sad fact that all made things arrive (gently) in hell. ‘Wag’ is probably worthy of more attention, I’m not going to list all the definions that the OED gives for the verb but here are those the might be relevant:

  • to be in motion or activity; to stir, move. Now colloq. (chiefly in negative context), to stir, move one’s limbs;
  • to totter, stagger, be in danger of falling;
  • to oscillate, shake, or sway alternately in opposite directions, as something working on a pivot, fitting loosely in a socket, or the like. Of a boat or ship: To rock;
  • of leaves, corn, reeds, etc.: To waver, shake;
  • to waver, vacillate;
  • to dangle on the gallows, be hanged;
  • To move about from place to place; to wander. Also, to drift (in water);

Then there’s the proverbs, the most relevant of which would appear to be ’tis merry in hell when beards wag all’ but I can’t ties this in with the wagging of all manufactured or created (as opposed to ‘natural’) things. Unless of course ‘made’ is used in the sense of being a full member of the Mafia.

I’m of the view that the use of wag here incorporates all of the above with the possible exception of the wavering corn.

We then have this drunken illusion of things working themselves out (incidentally, the original lyric seems to suggest that the birds on the doorstep started to sing after Bob had lit his first smoke of the day) and this inevitability of all inauthentic things ending up in hell. I also need to point out that I am completely indifferent to matchplay bowls providing I don’t have to watch it- perhaps that’s the point.

There now occurs what seems to be a huge leap to a swimming pool and these two groups of poets. I’m a bit wary of poems that are directly about the making of poems and especially when the point being made is best appreciated by poets of a certain tendency. All the same, we have these overt references to Harold Bloom and some fun being had at the Weaker poets’ abject desire for some recognition from Frank Kermode. I think it needs to be said that my jury is still out on the flamboyant Bloom who does seem to have a way with the grand gesture but avoids doin g the hard work. From memory, ‘strong’ poets are those whose work will stand the test of time and I believe that Bloom singled out one Geoffrey Hill as the strongest poet currently writing in English. Weak poetry won’t stand the test of time, hence the need of a kind word from our foremost critic.

Prior to a couple of weeks ago, I hadn’t given ‘clinamen’ any kind of thought until Pierre Joris suggested it as a Deleuzian alternative to Celan’s use of ‘the angle of inclination’ in ‘The Meridian’ but here it is again. Of course I’d like this clinamen to be an endorsement of Deleuze’s multiplicities- clinamen is defined as “the original determination of the direction of movement, the synthesis of movement and its direction which relates one atom to another” in ‘Difference and Repetition’ but I must confess that it is much, much more likely to be used in the way that Bloom used it to describe the way in which poets attempt to avoid the influence of those that have gone before. This was first propagated in ‘The Anxiety of Influence’ in 1973 but it didn’t provide a thorough / accurate analysis of what influence is and how it might work. I know this because I don’t understand any of this and read ‘Anxiety’ many years ago in the forlorn hope of some assistance.

I can only observe here that the Kermode joke isn’t very good and ask whether or not we are still in hell or in some other kind of dystopia. Of course, Jarvis can’t be accused of ignoring technique, nor of being enamoured of the latest (usually French) theories. What isn’t so well known is Jarvis interest in and advocacy of the ‘letterage’ used for British road signs particularly those designed by Jock Kinnear and Margaret Calvert from 1957-67. This would lead me to suppose that these poets are weak because they are writing material that is the opposite of ‘The Unconditional’.

There is a vague chance that the prose relates in some way to the Keats translation of Plato’s Ion and that the general / rhapsode divide might reflect the split between the teacher of poetry / prosody and the maker of this poem. I still have no idea why it occurs here nor its purpose, annotations are supposed to make things clearer- aren’t they? I’m also in the dark with regard to the strong poets’ grimace and the reason for the or in ‘sleek or roughened’ so I might return to this in the next few weeks. I hope this has given a flavour of this remarkable work and will encourage others in to paying it some attention.

‘The Unconditional’ is sold by Barque Press for £15 and is well worth every single penny.

Dipping into ‘The Unconditional’

Regular readers will know that I have a complex relationship with the above poem by Simon Jarvis which was published by Barque in 2005. This complexity has the following components:

  • the poem is 236 pages in length
  • I really like long poems
  • the poem is defiantly metrical and this may have something to do with the Jarvis view that philosophical poetry is best done within some kind of constraint;
  • the poem is almost obsessively digressive as if it wants to leave nothing out;
  • I really like digression but found the length of the digressions and the detail that they contain very difficult to carry in my small brain;
  • Jarvis is very good on traffic;
  • I think more serious poetry should be written about traffic;
  • it took me ten attempts and many months for me to read all of it;
  • I’ve read it again and am now of the view that it is an important and subversive piece of work that should be more widely read.

In the past I have considered it heretical to dip into long poems because there are so many things that will be missed if you only read a section. So, for many years I’ve read and re-read ‘The Faerie Queene’ and ‘Paradise Lost’ all the way through, except for the rivers and genealogy sections in FQ and have found this to be enjoyable even though there are bits of both that are quite tedious. Recently however, I’ve begun to just read sections or even parts of sections so as to give specific aspects more attention and this doesn’t seem to be problematic, in fact I’ve noticed more things this way than I would with an end-to-end reading.

‘The unconditional’ is a long poem but it is also a poem that requires a degree of sustained concentration that I’ve found to be quite demanding even though the second reading was much less arduous than the first. I’ve therefore embarked on a series of dips and these have proved surprisingly fruitful. I’d like to use pp130-1 to show what I mean. One of the poem’s main characters is Jobless whose life has been crushed by the cruel realities of contemporary life. This is Jarvis on despair:

          Jobless too listlessly allowed his eye
to drift like unheld cursor to the top
whereas a thin strip of evening sky
3 inches long by one deep suddenly
glimmered a lit mass of illumined cloud
at corner of the screen but half concealed
by a corona off the anglepoise

Pausing here for a moment, there’s a couple of things that I only noticed when dipping. The first observation is that the words make sense in that there isn’t any of the distorted syntax so common in the modernist vein and that the words are everyday words. Closer reading would suggest that there’s a bit of a problem with ‘whereas’ which seems to be used to mean ‘where’ when its common definition is ‘on the other hand….’. I have tried the rest of the definitions in the OED and none of these make sense here either which leaves me with a sneaking suspicion that it is being used simply to keep up the syllable count for the sake of the metrical constraint. I may be completely wrong on this but I can’t think of any other reasonable explanation.

The next two items may be the result of over-reading or putting three and three together to make eleven but it seems to me that there are a couple of echoes from Wordsworth here. It may be that “three inches long by one deep” is an allusion to “‘Tis three feet long, and two feet wide.” from the original version of ‘The Thorn’. I only know about this because it features in Keston Sutherland’s essay on ‘Wrong Poetry’ which uses the line as the epitome of wrongness. The final item is this glimmering lit mass mularkey which seems to be the way the sky is described in bits of ‘The Prelude’ although I haven’t sought out particular lines/phrases and may therefore be completely wrong. In my defence, Jarvis does know his Wordsworth, having written ‘Wordsworth’s Philosophic Song’ which I still haven’t read (it’s very long, I won’t agree with it, life’s too short etc).

The poem continues with:

hitting the screen too mirrorwise to see
could none the less not blank out every note
of the four letters which his anxious eye
made out from several dot of cathode ray
causing a painful tightening at the chest
or then a lurch up from the lower spine
pushing the head out with its brace of eyes
to stare down at the flooring which he then
just as the blood arrested in his vein
slowly began at that to understand
or feel as though he understood that this
widely disparaged carpet was a map
of every message which he had to get

In the above we aren’t given any hint of what those four letters may be even though looking at them seems to bring on some kind of cardiac event. In this poem and several others Jarvis pays close attention to aspects of male self-loathing and here we have an astute description of where such feelings can lead. I particularly like the lurch from the spine which cause the head and its eyes to jut forward as if to some kind of attention.

Other aspects of this are a bit laboured- ‘too mirrorwise’ is probably trying too hard and either one of ‘to understand’ or ‘feel as though he understood’ is superfluous as we all only feel as if we understand- don’t we?

I’m taking ‘dot’ as a typo for ‘dots’ but I don’t understand why “or then a lurch….” is used instead of ‘and then’ because ‘or’ doesn’t make sense because I’m reading this as a sequence- chest tightening- lurching up- blood arresting until we get to the carpet.

The penultimate section of the brilliant ‘Dionysus Crucified’ has a carpet which causes some distress/consternation and is described in detail but it isn’t a map. Now, Jarvis is a committed late modernist but there is something oddly continental about other things acting as maps but it is Jobless that’s having this delusion and not our poet. Nevertheless, the poem proceeds:

          the next ten years or seconds of his life
nothing outside the textile ever spoke
more forcibly of this than clementine
or muck skip ochres fading to a brown
then zipped to primrose at occasional
points of most import like the words of Christ
printed in rubric for the hard of mind
in presentation copies of the word
distributed at prizegivings but here
shrilling alone a sheer bright lemon thrill

I read Jarvis because he makes passages like this, he can devise the idea of nothing being external to the fabric of the carpet and make it both credible and startling, he can come up with phrases like the ‘hard of mind’ that cause me to think about what exactly that might mean or refer to and why it isn’t in common usage. Most of all, this kind of thing is easy to do badly, to get carried away with the delusional and thus lose that which is believable and he manages to avoid this by staying just on the right side of bizarre and the last line is stunning.

I completely missed about 80% of the above in the first two readings, so perhaps ‘dipping’ isn’t so heretical after all…

The New Clever and Late Modernism

I’m going to try very hard not to display too many personal foibles in this but it does seem to me that the last six months (ish) have seen a disproportionate amount of clever/intelligent/cerebral material emerging on both sides of the Atlantic. It may well be that this degree of intelligence may have been around for some time and I’ve missed it but I’m about to make a case for the arrival of a new aesthetic which seems to be growing out of and away from the late modernist ‘thread’. I’m also aware that North America has a whole range of movements and labels apart from late modern but a number of developments there would suggest to me that the clever is on the increase.

I think that I need here to explain the ‘c’ word. This denotes both a demonstrable level of ‘inate’ intelligence that is communicated through the writing together with technical prowess in the doing of poetry and (this is key) a demonstrated understanding of what poetry can and should do. This is a working definition that avoids notions of theme or form simply because the New Clever does not ‘fit’ into those kinds of boxes. Before I give examples, I need to acknowledge that I’m attracted to cleverness in most things, I admire clever people with clever ideas so my enthusiasm may be a little warped. In my defence I have to observe that it is generally the clever material that has lasted and is revered rather than that which is efficient and/or beautiful but not very intelligent.

The fate of late modernism does seem tied up with the New Clever and this is best exemplified by our best practitioners, both of whom have recently published material which marks a significant departure in their respective careers and is wilfully and fiercely clever.

I’ve said before the The Claudius App is (after only two issues) the best poetry site on the web and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of the poets mentioned below have also featured there.

Some New Clever Poets/Poems

This is provisional, subjective and intended to be argued with- I also reserve the right to change my mind.

Simon Jarvis

I don’t think that anybody could argue that Jarvis’ work isn’t clever. ‘The Unconditional’ is one of the bravest and most challenging interventions to be made since the early seventies and ‘Dionysus Crucified’ is bursting with intellectual energy and formal experiment. In fact, it could be argued that these two very different works embody the New Clever in action. Both tackle complex ideas in ways that manage to both honour and subvert the last three thousand years of poetry whilst producing flurries of verbal brilliance:

Later in Services formica teemed.
Nonsemiotic grapefruit-eating all about
extended its impossible ideal.
Lay your knife and your fork across your plate.
Against all furious effort the slack face
still with each globful let some wet sign slip
to sit with meaning on the grating chin
while if de minimis a muscle there
could give no serviceable twitch that did
not paint a message in the vacant air
causing nonsemiosis to migrate
from off this world's bad grapefruit to some skies
of uninhabitable scientistic loss.
Agramant tucked into his bacon.

What’s clever about this (over and above the philosophical/ideological point that it makes) is that it could very easily have failed, it could have overstated the case and turned out yet another slice of poetic self-indulgence but Jarvis chooses to underplay his case and retain the ‘point’ within a comically banal frame. Agramant is the villain of the piece in this very long poem (240 pages) which is defiantly metrical throughout. He takes his name from one of the chief villains in Orlando Furioso- another very long poem. It’s verbally inventive and the point concludes brilliantly-”some skies / of uninhabitable scientistic loss”. I don’t agree with what Jarvis says but I am utterly won over by the way that he says it.

This, on the other hand is from ‘Dionysus Crucified’-

  And there they were, there on the verdigris sofa, Pen and the stranger, sitting bolt upright next to each other. Neither was saying a word,
Staring down into their Kenco while in the air all around us I noticed as soon as I sat down myself there was some kind of fusion jazz playing so quiet
That you could not really here it, could not really make out the notes, or the notes were as though they could not really bear to be notes, could not
Really will to be heard, but at each point where into the ear some decided concertion of sound might have brought its own message home, instead of this
The lost hum of saxophone dither would disappear into the airlessness, seem to become a prosthesis attaching the stranger therre to his comfortable
Sofa, although for the truth of it he didn't seem to be comfortable, sat on the edge of it just as if it were about to fades in the west as crimson
Devour him or kill in a single and swift suffocation his kin and his gods, his ancestors, with all his loving descendants, just as though all these were
shortly to vanish there into that armchair.

(The gap between ‘if it were about to’ and ‘fades in the west’ denotes that the latter is part of another poem that descends intermittently down the right side of the page.)

Pen is about to meet a sticky end- Pen being short for Pentheus who meets a horrible end in the Euripides play around which large amounts of the poem revolve. In terms of clever, I’d just like to point out that, once again, Jarvis demonstrates narrative skill whilst making a series of points in amongst the appalling colour scheme and sinister furniture.

Daniel Poppick

I know very little about Poppicks work but ‘Sneaky Freeze’ strikes me as an ideal candidate for the New Clever in that it makes startling use of language and seems at the same time against the boundaries of what it can do. This may sound hopelessly pretentious but listening to Poppick’s reading indicates to me a kind of sprint along the edge of coherence which manages to express things whilst undermining any sense of reliability. It’s very, very clever.

Amy De’Ath

“Cuteness is a Landscape” is another example of what De’Ath is doing with poetry, there’s the nods towards technique and convention, the exquisite word choice and an incredible sense of involvement that drags the reader in. I think this extract makes my point-

Your teeth are made of platinum
good for skating upside down
across the Cute, Zany & Interesting:

on Clink Street a floating
bookcase regurgitates
wonderlust. And a lesser soul am I for that

I’m going to ignore the presence of furniture and point instead to the image set up at the beginning, the presence of ‘the’ in line three and the play on wonder/wander together with the ‘straight’ poetry of the final phrase. Compelling, original and very aware of what poetry might be about.

Neil Pattison

Neil has produced some incredibly powerful work over the last few years and can be thought of as being in the vanguard of the New Clever because of his acute awareness of what words can do but also because of an absence of compromise. This is from ‘Slow Light’:

		Statuary, black stinted, oily pressure
floods analogue, dial into red : graphic fluctuation
wired-in, the pasture seized in tarry drift, ejected
measuring the iris backflow, airlift, break unscratched.

Gloze edging flouresces, accelerant centre fades :
inside, the accurate flow to shell-gland, cored
optic of pure courting is

I might be the only person on the planet who finds this stuff completely mesmerising but I don’t care. ‘Gloze edging flouresces’ is significantly brilliant by itself but placed in amongst this marvellous density shows a very intelligent process pushing against the edges of the form to say what must (must) be said. Neil is also a leading light in what I’m currently thinking of as the ‘New Witholders’ who have much more going on around the poem than inside it. Other members include Francesca Lisette and Joe Luna.

J H Prynne, Geoffrey Hill and the New Clever.

Both of the above seem to be pushing themselves in new directions, ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ certainly signifies a move away from the late modern and Hill’s ongoing engagement with pattern together with the level of learned abstraction in ‘Odi Barbare’ also signals a different way of doing clever.

So, I think I’m arguing for thinking about poems in a different way that seems more suited to what’s currently being written. Other New Clever poets would include Sarah Kelly, Reithat Pattison, Purdey Krieden and Jonny Liron but I’ll return to these in the next week or so….