This is the second attempt to do some kind of justice to “Lessons and Carols” from the recent ‘Eighteen Poems’ collection. In view of the response to the first attempt, I think I should reiterate that what follows is entirely provisional and that I am likely to change my mind as time goes by.
This particular poem is ‘about’ many things but one of the centralish threads would seem to be that we participate in the current ways of doing even though we deplore them and, in turn, deplore ourselves for knowing this and continuing to participate. Before taking this any further, I think that I should present some evidence for this bold assertion:
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.
The ‘them’ refers to the gifts that we buy for family members at Xmas and I’m currently reading these as a kind of metaphor for all the products of the free marketplace- a place that lulls us into this kind of anaesthetized thoughtless folly. This is accomplished stuff in that it covers a lot of ground in just three lines and carries a couple of deft phrases. This ‘half-waking conjecture’ in which feelings float is effective but I’m not entirely sure that it can be described as ‘foolish’ – the point for me is that my participation in this bauble-driven world is anything but foolish, I am fully aware of the compromises that I make and tell myself all kinds of stories (at least I’m doing something, I try to live an honest and decent life etc etc) to make this reasonably bearable.
Just after writing the above paragraph I fell across (in a big book about Gerhard Richter) a quote from Adorno which may inform some part of this theme:
Whilst thought has forgotten how to think itself, it has at the same time become its own watchdog. Thinking no longer means anything more than checking at each moment whether one can indeed think….The socialization of mind keeps it boxed in, isolated in a glass case, as long as society is itself imprisoned.
Jarvis is probably this country’s strongest Adorno advocate, his ‘Critical Introduction’ is an incisive endorsement of all aspects of the Adorno project. Coupling this with Jarvis’ view that poetry can ‘do’ philosophy really well and it is possible to read ‘Lessons and Carols’ as a working through of what Richard Haidu describes as Adorno’s ‘testy pessimism’.
I don’t share this pessimism although I can see that the analysis behind it has some merit. I’m more convinced by the gauntlet that Bourdieu throws down in ‘Distinction’ which points out that all forms of creative expression are fundamentally tied to the prevailing economic order. I’d like to think that most of my adult life has been spent finding ways to act/intervene that make small but incremental changes to this dynamic. If I didn’t do this then I’d probably remain in the Slough of Despond for a Very Long Time.
So, this poem offers both an ideological and personal challenge that asks questions about the current Bebrowed strategy for changing the world. It also further undermines my view that poetry and ideology don’t mix. Jarvis’ work over recent years has moved me closer to a grudging acknowledgement that poetry that ‘does’ ideology can be successful in both arenas.
This is an accomplished and adept poem but it sometimes goes over the top in making its point. The second ‘might’ on the third line quoted above is an example of (to my ear) too much emphasis being given so that the ‘message’ is diluted.
The other aspect that springs to mind is the use of the first person to make the wider point- he presents his own situation as being compromised by ordinary things and thus gently suggests that the reader should consider the extent of compromise in his/her own life. This is of course well worn device but Jarvis gives it a final twist:
May the bereft state continue its care for our welfare there in the dark, where its artless security shines! I shall go walking back home, while these measures and lines borrow some part of their tune from the fictional spirits.
I’m not usually a fan of the self referential in poetry. There was a time when I thought it was clever and daring but now I find most of it to be too knowing and mannered for its own good and this is probably a reasonable example. The theme has already been spelled out with some aplomb but is somewhat undermined by this ending which seems to say that only ‘some part’ of the poem is bound up with society’s imprisonment whilst Adorno and Bourdieu would both say that all of creative expression is thus fettered.
I also need to confess that I don’t understand the exclamation mark which seems simply inept but Jarvis is too accomplished to succumb to this level of naffness.
This is a provisional reading that’s in some kind of progress, on the next occasion I want to tackle the more complex nature of the spirits and the gifts.
I thought you might be interested to know that I posted a portion of this poem on my Facebook page a couple weeks ago including the section you quoted at the end. It went over very well it seems as the general reaction from those who responded to it was a kind of hushed awe. I assume that what they were responding to (since no one elaborated and I didn’t pursue it) was the directness and strength of that ending. I think it’s pretty powerful myself but I do see your point. Still, it’s rare to see this position expressed with such boldness but also with such obvious eloquence (it takes little to be an “angry poet”). I do think that you’re definitely on to something interesting in regards to the whole “some part” issue. But this may have a lot to do with how you interpret the idea of the “spirits”, something which I confess I found challenging as no position or definition seems to be consistent throughout and that dexterity of language would obviously appear to be fully intentional. It does make any kind of clear message much more difficult to ascertain however. I suppose that is as it should be. I look forward to your further analysis and consideration.
Thank you for this, I think I’m getting there with the spirits, do you find it’s got an elegaic quality?
Oh yes, very much so. My difficulty with the spirits is that while the different attitudes Jarvis appears to display toward them throughout the poem makes a fundamental kind of sense, the idea of what they fundamentally are (in other words what exactly is being alluded to ) is frustratingly hard to parse out. There are some obvious assumptions that we can make but it really does become (at least for me) an almost cryptic exercise in that each of those possible meanings and each of his presumed attitudes, accepted as sincere or ironically critical, can be shifted out at reader’s will. That may be a great accomplishment as poetry but it would seem to make any final assessment virtually impossible.
Don’t think it’s so much about his different attitudes but the cultural and economic double binds that reinforce each other- think the gifts as ‘counter fictions’ might be a useful (if Gramscian) way in…
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