Interview with Simon Jarvis

A few days ago I had the idea of asking Simon for an interview and he has taken the time to respond to my questions. I think I should make it clear that the questions relate to issues that interest me as a reasonably attentive reader of Simon’s work and are therefore personal to me but I hpe that they are of some interest to other readers.

1. What is it that attracts you to poetry rather than to other forms of expression?

Poetry is not really a ‘form of expression’. The question imagines a situation in which I know what I want to express, and then look around for the best ‘form’ for it. To the young aspirant the choice of life may appear to be an arbitrary restriction. Why may I not paint in the morning, compose sonatas in the afternoon, and write verse in the evening? Well, just make sure that someone will be bringing dinner along later.

2. Much of your work appears to be concerned with the true and the authentic, one of the things that’s beginning to strike me is this ‘poem as truth’ and ‘poem as real/genuine/unmediated’- how conscious are you of poems as cutlural objects?

This question is rather approximately formulated, if I may say so. I think it’s fairly evident from my published scholarly work what I think about these topics, and I don’t want to repeat myself.

3. Keston Sutherland has described his work as containing a ‘superabundance of language’ whereas I experience your poems as a superabundance of thought- is this a conscious demonstration of what poetry can do?

If you can tell me how much thought, or how much language, is enough, then I can tell you where and how far I superabound.

4. ‘The Unconditional’ does music really well and ‘Dionysus’ can be thought of as a musical performance. Do you intend to further develop both of these elements?


5. I have to ask- why do you choose to write in such loving detail about the British road network?

‘I love a public road’. It’s sometimes asserted that our society is unprecedentedly chaotic; it is, in fact, unprecedentedly organized. As Durkheim pointed out, the developing intensification of divisions of labour produces an ‘organic solidarity’, one in which I depend on others at every turn of my life, and trust completely that their services will continue. Part of the cost of this is that perfect wonders of co-ordinated labour-such as the British road network-are just shrugged at, as though they had been there since the Flood. The road network, like the rail network, is a picture of the tender care which we all have and can have for one another. Its sound is these obsolete place names, names which have just been handed down to us, without our consent, but which we accept and learn to live in. Ever since I was a child, I have found road signs, with their names of towns and regions, their numerical computations of distances, and their letter forms, oblate to this purpose and no other, to be the mystical image of a nation which could even now be brought into existence. Road signs are the opposite of tax evasion.

6. If I were to identify a unifying theme to your work, I think I would talk about the conscious use of traditional techniques and motifs to do something utterly new? Would this seem reasonable?

Only death is ‘utterly’ new. For twenty years I knew that it was my duty to renounce metre. Then, suddenly, I knew that it wasn’t.

7. Are you conscious of the strategic (for the want of a better word) impact that ‘The Unconditional’ and ‘Dionysus Crucified’ have had and will continue to exert on the business of making serious poetry?


8. You seem to have cut down on the use of foreign words and phrases since ‘The Unconditional’- are there any particular reasons for this?

I’m sorry to hear it, and not sure that I believe it. If you’re right, I’ll try to raise my game.

9. ‘Dionysus’ appears in a number of ways to say something about the poem as a performance, about the words on the page assuming a performative aspect. Is there an expectation that readers should approach it in this way? I’m not just thinking about the appearance of the text but of the nature and tone of the dialogues between Dionysus and Pentheus.

The printed text of this work is in my opinion its definitive realization. It wants to provoke its readers into auditory hallucinations : of antiphons, canticles, tragedies or operas. But those which I happen to produce, with Timothy Thornton and with Justin Katko-with others, perhaps, in the future- have in my view no special authority.


6 responses to “Interview with Simon Jarvis

  1. Wow, I was sure he was going to give you brusque non-answers all the way through, but then your question #5 jolted him into quite a sweet apostrophe.

    • I’m quite happy with brusque and may have to qualify / elaborate on some of the questions. I’m particularly gratified about the status of the printed version of ‘Dionysus’ as canticle / antiphon etc. Think that signage as the mystical image of the nation is wonderful- I seem to have struck a chord with this one. And I am going to do a foreign phrase count….
      The superabundance of thought thing was kicked off by re-reading passages from The Unconditional and Dionysus for arduity but I do need to be clearer, I know what I mean….

  2. ‘The road network, like the rail network, is a picture of the tender care which we all have and can have for one another.’ — I find this hard to understand. These networks are built and maintained largely by people who are paid to do so, not people who voluntarily offer their time and effort for our communal good. In the planning, management & construction of these networks, personal/business interests predominate; it is the fear of losing a job, failing to be promoted, litigation etc which prevents shoddy work. The duty of care which these networks feel towards their users is thus the very minimum possible in order to serve self-interest effectively.

    Whilst we shouldn’t pretend that self-interest can ever be separated from altruism, cognitively or otherwise (as Jarvis argues in ‘Soteriology and Reciprocity’, we need to be able to think gift and exchange in the same breath), my experience of the road/rail system is that of a construction largely indifferent to my wellbeing. Conversely, I see ‘tender care’ when people offer kindness to one another to help each other survive these indifferent systems. Isn’t someone who misses their own train, in helping a disabled person board a train (because there is never assistance available), a better image of a ‘possible nation’ than a system geared towards profit?

    • If the only kind of “co-ordinated labour” you can admire is one in which each separate act is altruistic considered on its own, you’ll be looking a long time. “Tender care” is hyperbolic, perhaps, but many public goods, though achieved through complex means including legislation, taxation and work for pay, amount to collective care.

    • I’m not in the business of defending any of the Jarvis positions but I think he has a point. The transport network functions, millions of people move around with a minimum of fuss and it works so well that we don’t notice the bits that make it work. I live with someone who has also maintained since childhood an interest in signage and she tells me that the Jarvis position may very well be definitive. Isn’t indifference the ‘point’ of such a system?

  3. Pingback: Superabundant thought, an open letter to Simon Jarvis | Bebrowed’s Blog

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