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

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.


One response to “Simon Jarvis, Strong Poets and Hell

  1. I know that the verse form doesn’t appear to be identical, but this bit at least bears more than a passing resemblance in tone to Byron’s Don Juan (my copy is in the mail …).

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