Simon Jarvis reconsidered

Regular readers may know that I’ve been struggling with ‘The Unconditional’ for almost a year and yet haven’t been able to walk away from it. Jarvis has also published a shorter poem (“Erlkonig”) which is much more manageable and user-friendly.
John Wilkinson has described ‘The Unconditional’ as being as peculiar as the infamous Roussel tome, with it’s infuriating digressions. I possess ‘Images of Africa’ and have never managed to read it because I find it too contrived and more than a little smug about its conceit. The Jarvis poem doesn’t annoy me but I do find it really difficult to follow and retain some of the metaphors to the very end and perhaps that’s the point but it isn’t a point that I’m keen on.
There are other ways of making things cognitively difficult for the reader- Sutherland does this to great effect. Relying on extreme length to ensure that the reader has forgotten what it is we’re digressing from is simply a barrier to actually finishing the book- or are we just meant to read the first fifty pages and then walk away? The reason that I haven’t walked away and am now on my sixth attempt is that some of the lines are very good indeed and that Jarvis seems to have a number of interesting points to make. What these points may be I have yet to work out with any degree of precision but there’s more than enough to hold my interest.
There’s also the ‘wrong’ poetry issue that I wrote about a while ago whereby something flat and banal is used to interrupt or damage the flow of the lyric. Again, I don’t know whether this is deliberate but Jarvis does-

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 the shoppers’ loves
still wearily enduring falling sales
still waiting for authenticated close
or still waiting 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.

(Starting with the first line, every other line should be indented.)

We then get a more lyrical discussion of the use of the colour blue in motor cars. From the extract above, it’s clear to me that the last three lines don’t “work” and go from the slightly naff “feel all that” to the completely inane “nowhere near the area”. Given that Jarvis can sustain lyrical passages in a suitably poetic manner for several pages, I would suggest that this is deliberate although I have no idea why. The other question is whether that third line of wrongness is simply too wrong. I also have to ask whether the fourth and fifth lines aren’t trying too hard- what feels like something quite clever on first reading starts to become a bit pretentious and superfluous on subsequent readings.
I will persist with “The Unconditional” and am resolved to get to at least page eighty on this attempt.
Turning to “Erlkonig”, there are several things that can be said-
1. It’s only thirteen pages in length
2. The digressions are much, much shorter
3. It rhymes
4. It’s more socio-political and less philosophical than “The Unconditional”
5. A lot of it is about a road (again)
The title and epigraph are both taken from Goethe’s poem which translates as the “Elf King”. With regard to content, it’s not easy to make political points without sounding like a rabid Trot or a fully paid up member of the chatterati and it’s even harder to do this with rhyme. Jarvis succeeds on both counts as this example demonstrates. This stanza is dealing with CCTV and the kind of malveillance that we in the UK are increasingly familiar with.

The one supposed to know, but not to care.
The one supposed to hold in trust the worst
in order that the public’ s better share
should be protected from the truly cursed.
The one supposed indifferently to stare
at image after image, only at the first
which could offend, to hunt offenders down —
then to remember nothing, with a frown:

The last line is very, very astute and makes a complex point without making any great fuss and I really admire that. I’m also going to have to review the Bebrowed line on rhyme (too restrictive unless you happen to be Elizabeth Bishop) which is always a good thing. I could have a small rant about the title and the epigraph but I won’t as “Erlkonig” is a poem that succeeds on several levels and has given me much to think about which is always a good thing.


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