Simon Jarvis and the ‘difficult’ poem.

In addition to this blog, I also run the arduity web site. When I say ‘run’ I mean that I have written most of the content, built all of the pages and try and fix things that go wrong. The site is intended to help readers to feel more confident in engaging with difficult or innovative poetry. Because I haven’t put any effort into promotion, it doesn’t get much traffic although the feedback has been positive and helpful.

Both George Steiner and J H Prynne have had a go at defining ‘difficult’ as it might apply to modernist poetry with Steiner putting more emphasis on allusion whilst Prynne emphasises both ambiguity and juxtaposition (this is a crude characterisation). Arduity provides information on types of difficulty and also looks at a number of ‘difficult’ poets including Prynne, Paul Celan, Keston Sutherlan and a number of others.

In the past I’ve been of the view that Simon Jarvis’ work exemplifies a particular kind of difficulty and the ‘The Unconditional is particularly difficult for reasons that don’t clearly fit with what Steiner and Prynne identify. This primarily relates to the frequency and length of digressive passages which are difficult to follow because they are very, very long.

I’ve written before about the digressive element and don’t intend to repeat myself, suffice it to say that this aspect of ‘The Unconditional’ more than qualifies Jarvis for inclusion in arduity.

So, up until the end of June, Simon Jarvis was in my head as being deliberately digressive and defiantly prosodic using both metre and rhyme to make his point. I then received ‘Dionysus Crucified’ and ‘F subscript zero’ followed in August. Both of these are in free verse and very, very different from the defiantly metrical ‘Unconditional’, ‘Erlkonig’ and ‘Dinner’.

Having spent some time with both, I’ve come to the conclusion that ‘F subscript zero’ is the more difficult of the two and I will now try and explain why. ‘Dionysus’ may have a page where the words are spread all over the place and a page where the words are printed over the outline of a cross but it does at least have the advantage of some proper names (Dionysus, Pentheus, Origen, Augustine, Ashley and Cheryl Cole etc) which might provide a number of footholds with which to begin. The only proper name in the first poem ‘F0’ is Paul Burrell together with a faily obvious reference to Princess Diana.

I wrote about ‘FO‘ a couple of weeks ago and drew attention to it as an example of Jarvis’ view that doing poetry is a good way of doing philosophy. Most people would consider philosophic poetry to be difficult enough but there are passages here which are very experimental in form too.

I’m using another extract from the first poem (‘ODE’) because it allows me to make more than one point:

   A filament burns in hours of effort continuously or with perenially reiterated force expelling daylight.
Eternal no instant!
Just as immeasurably you hop hopeless, heap up a big pile of nothing one on top of the
popped up these points, prop off at a dimensionless, totter off as a broke hand wud build
of water its imperishable palace of failure in floppies
of fire its terrible comfort blanket in cruel
of paper its inedible lunch in cash f memento is pool of solace i.e. oil outside L'pool
of leaf its fat bank account in the Caymans which I would love to have
of in
or and

To my mind, thse lines manage to pack in more difficulty than most poets manage in a career. Incidentally, for once, the formatting is reasonably accurate. The first thing to note is that things stop making grammatical sense in the third line until you realise that ther is a list that reads ‘of nothing’, ‘of water’, ‘of fire’ ‘of memento’ and ‘of leaf’ with the proviso that ‘of solace’ may also be included.

The next thing to note is that there are several different ways of saying ‘nothing’ and a missing ‘other’ and a missing ‘o’.

The missing ‘other’ occurs after “one on top of the” unless of course “on top of the / popped up these points” is meant to make sense. There’s also an apparent contradiction in a burning filament ‘expelling daylight’. If there is a missing other then I think we need to ask whether or not this is a philosophical other or an ordinary other just as we need to ask the same question about the repeated nothings. Given that other parts of the poem contain references to Derrida and Adorno, I think it’s safe to assume that there is some philosophical point lurking within these lines.

We now come to the issue of constraint. In his recent lecture Jarvis would appear to be arguing that the constraints of rhyme and metre were helpful in the writing of poetry with a philosophical theme, using the example of Alexander Pope to make his point. This particular poem is in free verse yet there is philosophy going on so this would seem to contradict the Jarvis thesis. However, I’d like to draw attention to the alliteration with the letter ‘p’ in the third and fourth lines and to the fact that ‘which I would love to have’ is so utterly naff that it seems to work against the lines that precede it.

I do have this half-formed theory that Jarvis is using poetry to subvert and dismantle what we currently think of as the contemporary poem and these very complex lines seem to bear this out. I might, of course, be completely wrong but it seems to be a worthwhile tread to pursue at this stage.

None of this is very helpful in preparing a page for arduity, I’m still concerned that a full description of what might be going on may deter rather than attract readers but I remain of the view that Jarvis’ work is important in its own right and has essential things to say about poetry that should not be ignored.

I will be returning to this poem once I’ve given it some more attention. As a final observation, I’m usually fairly good at bearing in mind the context of the whole poem whilst working through difficult sections but this particular piece has thus far defeated my attempts to get hold of the bigger picture.

I also need to give more thought to the celebrity thread that recurs in ‘Dionysus Crucified’.


16 responses to “Simon Jarvis and the ‘difficult’ poem.

  1. That first line, despite paradox, seems to be about a light bulb, running on either direct or alternating current, and emitting photons. (Not daylight, true, but light.) And abstractions familiar from classical physics follow in the next line and return at the end — points, durationless, dimensionless, eternal no instant, the pile of nothing.

    The list in the middle is good but uneven I think. The attributes of memento and particularly water are brilliantly strange, the rest more familiar.

    • Do light bulbs expel daylight? There are a number of different possibilities for the ‘nothings’ but I don’t have sufficient science or philosophy to decide. The list is good but I can’t help thinking that it ends in a deliberately inept way.

      • The energy that goes into lightbulbs ultimately derives from the sun, whether the intermediates be solar panels and batteries, or plants transmuted into fossil fuels. So they can be seen as devices for the re-emission (notwithstanding inefficiency and other changes) of stored daylight.

      • I’m trying to fit this aspect into the rest of the poem but I still haven’t been able to get hold of the overall theme(s), if there are any. Perhaps I’m trying too hard and over-reading….

  2. I should just read the thing. I tried emailing, the address on the (suspiciously dead-looking) website of Equipage, and the mail bounced. Any further ideas? I suppose I could email Jarvis himself.

  3. nathaniel drake carlson

    I would very much like to know the answer to this myself (I also am in the US). I had the same experience awhile ago–i.e. email bounced back from Equipage, etc.

    • If you put
      Rod Mengham Cambridge University
      into google, one of the first few pages will give you his e-mail address

      I think Vance is in the process of contacting Rod and one of use will let you know the response he gets


      • Vance Maverick

        Mengham just responded asking for my snail-mail address — he’ll send me the book, trusting me to send back the equivalent in dollars of the cover price plus postage. (This is at the r.mengham at address.)

  4. A further thought prompted by George Herbert who refers scathingly to those who use lanterns to ‘seek the sunne’. The sunne is here referring to the Son of God. Might Jarvis be referring to our reliance on the scientific as opposed (expelling) the spiritual?

  5. well. 2 days into reading the unconditional & here i am trying to jot down my impressions- most certainly incoherent & not exactly erudite. what struck me when i started reading it was how easy/natural it felt! i was reading breathlessly. i can’t tell whether it is the rhythm at work or not, but i never thot reading the book would be so engrossing-i was ready for the reference search & the obscurity- i guess i was not ready for the lyric. & here i think reading all the reviews & essays helped-it gave me a background to start from –so the “object-field” of the poem or berkley’s “est” or the moebius strip or cartesian dualism & labels, pink slips & capital, the color problem & qualia for that matter -seemed to blend into the lyric. i think jarvis thinks-he really thinks thru this poem. i found myself skipping from thot to thot-traveling the entire spectrum from a deliberation on suicide & perception to… er… cheekiness.

    i got to thinking about yr post on the Hertfordshire bit. “But he was nowhere near the area” i found it a letdown too, but i guess what this means is that =x,” nothing but the absence of himself”, thundering down the road in his car is not ripe for the Hertfordshire experience. he has the mind to experience it but he is also the “erotomane” as we are told in the next few lines. & again we are told abt tht restlessness/recklessness that led =x up the stair ready “to push his willing teeth out” & then stumbling back.

    hm. i wanted to write down more stuff John, but i guess the first thing i need to do is read more of the poem & keep my enthusiasm in check.


    • arka,

      Really pleased that you’ve got a copy, you’ll need to be careful because it’s very absorbing and it filled my head up frequently to the exclusion of everything else. I think I can see a glimmer of sense in the Hertfordshire line but it’s (poetically) so inept after the sustained passage that precedes it.

  6. somewhere in the beginning he talks abt categories splitting into thousands of thots or something along these lines.

    much later when he’s kinda sidetracked into a meditation on poetry he says
    “-momentum written on no front of song/like motion trying to accelerate/until it reaches that particular speed/at which quantity to quality/retransubstantiates unnoticedly…” i thot this was a nice way to describe my reading experience (50 pp) tho perhaps jarvis is also talking abt quantitative meters (???) or at least measured verse transubstantiating into something approaching thot.

    • My reading experience went through several phases ranging from mind-bending exasperation to complete admiration. I’m starting on my second reading and it’s mostly the latter but there are still times when I think that,even for me, that it’s just too extreme.

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