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.


4 responses to “Simon Jarvis and the Bloke Thing

  1. These cheery approximations are inexpressibly painful to me. I’m not a ‘bloke’; I’m not in any essential sense even a Man. The Human is fourfold; the Sexual, threefold. SJ

    • Simon, let me say at the outset that it is never my intention to cause anyone inexpressible pain, least of all those who I hold in high esteem and I would therefore ask you to accept my heartfelt apology.
      My first reaction last night was to remove the piece and apologise to you directly and I may still do this but I thought I’d try and make some kind of coherent response here first. The first thing to say is that I have no idea whether you’re a bloke or not, the point that I was trying ineptly to make is that there are elements of your work that speak to the bloke in me. I didn’t do a good enough job of explaining what I mean by ‘Bloke’ but, and this is entirely subjective, there seems to be a distinct cultural figure that we use in quite complex ways that I think of as being a bloke.
      I’ll try and give an example, my partner and I went out for a reasonably up-market meal and wine tasting evening last week and I found myself sat next to a plumber and the way that he and I got along was by talking about bloke things: mobile phone bills; children and education; call centres; difficult parents and we expressed bloke solidarity by silently giggling about the pretensions of the wine merchant spiel. It could be argued that I’m more sensitive than most about this because there aren’t too many people on the Isle of Wight who share my interests so I usually find myself delving into my personal bloke repertoire.
      The other point is that there are common points of anxiety and unease that unsettle the cheery mask and I think that you work with these very well and that this is an important thing to do.
      We come now to my ‘cheery approximations’, I’m still in the process of working out what this space is about and why it remains important to me but the current hunch is that it is about my relationship with work that I want to pay attention to, a kind of provisional and less than coherent working through of this relationship as it is at any given point in time. I try not to do reviews, nor do I have any desire to spend too long with the trappings of lit crit but I do love writing about this material because it helps solidify some aspects of the relationship. I’m therefore comfortable with your description because I’m not aspiring to critical accuracy- whatever that might mean. I will confess that I contemplated providing examples of this trait from your earlier work and then decided that this was a bit too academic.
      Once again. I’m really sorry for the hurt that I’ve caused.


    • While I’m sympathetic (quite literally) to the pain of feeling oneself misread, I don’t think it works simply to object. As I think I’ve quoted here before, “the remedy to be applied is more speech”.

      • Think I’m of the view that to ‘simply to object’ is part and parcel of what might be going on here. I’d much rather have a simple objection than uncheery silence and this has given me cause to reflect which isn’t a bad thing.

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