Beautiful poetry: Jarvis, Jones and Matthias

We’ll start with a couple of qualifiers. I used to know what Kant said about what made something aesthetically pleasing but I’ve since forgotten it. I hadn’t thought until very recently about the relationship between the beautiful and the poem so most of what follows has probably been said before. I have however noticed something that might be useful to share.

Regular readers may know that I’m in violent agreement with K Sutherland on the need to pay attention to serious work. In my experience as a reader, reading attentively is far more rewarding than reading the work as if it were a novel. Of course, I have to be interested enough in the first place in order to start being attentive but fortunately I find that I am interested in many (perhaps too many) different kind of poem. Material that challenges me with either it’s subject matter or its deployment of language usually gets some interest but beauty has never struck me as interesting enough to gain my attention.

With the annotated Trigons project with John Matthias and the ongoing experiments in reading I’ve been paying sustained attention over a number of weeks to The Anathemata, The Odes to TL61p, Night Office and Trigons. Oddly (at least to me) its seems like bits of beautiful poetry have crept up on me and caught me unawares. This was the first:

   Within the railed tumulus
       he sings high and he sings low.

    In a low voice
         as one who speaks
where a few are, gathered in high-room
    and one, gone out.

This refers to the Last Supper and is part of the announcement of Jones’ main theme. Before I started writing about it I thought it was one of the many pieces of sustained brilliance that run through the book but then I noticed within me a reluctant recognition that this was primarily a beautiful piece of poetry in itself. By this I think I mean that it isn’t describing anything that I might find attractive to the eye but that the combination of words (poems as poem) move me more than something I find visually inspiring. I’ve thought about analysing the above but the only guess that I’m prepared to venture relates to brevity and simplicity. Of course, the above does crop up in the most accomplished long poem of the 20th century so the poetic context may make a contribution.

However, I’m going with an unmediated almost physical response which I also get from this from the first poem in the Trigons sequence:

for such is fate Senor and yet
the alphabet was left us when alas ambrosia
turned to vin ordinaire and Icor
just poor plain red & human blood spilled & spilling
in the deserts mountains seas

and islands too, fit for Eucharist in world conflagration

(the first five lines are the last lines from section five, the last line is the beginning of section 6.

I’ve written before about over-reading the theme of this poem, of seeing in it a complex portrayal of the tragic nature of 20th century Greek politics. I’ve also written about John’s ability to make the very difficult look easy. The above is remarkably complex and works on a number of different levels but what makes it beautiful for me is the strength and clarity of the fourth line, especially “red & human” and “spilled & spilling” which seem to hold the whole thing together. I recognise that there is a religious element to this but it is only one of many threads that are interwoven in these few lines. So, brevity and simplicity, as with Jones, but also superb technique in terms of word choice and pacing being utilised to maximum effect. Perhaps even more than Jones, these lines stand by themselves, with or without context as a beautiful thing. It could be argued that ‘conflagration’ is too big a word to end with and that it isn’t sufficiently lyrical but the point is that it both punctuates and contrasts what has gone before.

The last of these is from Jarvis’ Night Office:

just in the corner of my eye the vast cathedral,
too large for its believers, and just now
dwarfing small clumps of them in polyhedral
splendours and gestures. Its bright sharpened bow
went sailing through the night, to put down evil
wherever it might surface, so that how 
this back of it disgorged the faithful, few
at this cold, minor, festival, and who

they were, could not be seen, but, from its gaps
immensities of music, and their wide
curves, flights and logics, rivets, knots and straps
let the machine preposterously ride
out into air, let open all its taps,

I’ve quoted this at length because most of it isn’t particularly beautiful and because there are bits that are Very Awkward Indeed but that does not prevent some inherent beauty leaking out. I’m not entirely sure but I think it’s the list and the splendours and gestures that transform this reasonably straightforward description into something quite wonderful. I readily acknowledge that I’m a sucker for lists, that there’s something about nouns next to each other that I find deeply satisfying. This is a particularly good list mainly because it has logic as an item. I know that there’s more than a little religion in this but I’m not religious and I can only speak as I find.

I think I need to contrast these examples with the apparent beauty and lyrical dexterity of some bits of The Four Quartets. I was captivated in my late teens by these until I worked out that almost all were cynical attempts to appear profound. These three, on the other hand, are not trying too hard, are not desperate to impress but do have more than a degree of honest depth and skill.


6 responses to “Beautiful poetry: Jarvis, Jones and Matthias

  1. It’s interesting that all your examples here are reasonably religious. Is that part of their beauty for you?

    • Yes, I think so even though I’m still of the view that there isn’t a God. I don’t think it’s exclusive, I find great beauty in Elizabeth Bishop’s work and in some of Neil Pattison’s political poetry. I think I first noticed this quality in religious themes when reading Prynne on George Herbert’s “Love III” but I’ve been enjoying God poetry since I was 14.

      • In a way it’s like God music, isn’t it? One doesn’t need to believe at all to “get” what Gd music can do. I’m thinking Bach, or Mozart’s Requiem … even that radical Beethoven wrote the Missa Solemnis. In another register altogether there are Tibetan chants … As to the comment below, re: the sonic qualities, yes, that’s part of beauty, too:

        The Laurel, Meed of mighty Conquerors,
        And Poets sage: The Fir that weepeth still,
        The Willow, worn of forlorn Paramours,
        The Ewe obedient to the Bender’s Will,
        The Birch for Shafts, the Sallow for the Mill,
        The Myrrh, sweet bleeding in the bitter Wound,
        The warlike Beech, the Ash for nothing ill,
        The fruitful Olive, and the Platane round,
        The Carver Holme, the Maple seldom inward sound.

      • John,

        You would pick one of those decisive stanzas in my reading life, I could go on for a very long time how much these nine lines mean to me but what I will say instead is that this G-d stuff is heavy / laden with the years and centuries back (at least) to Homer and Gilgamesh and encompasses most things of any significance. Sonic qualities are what work best- aren’t they?


  2. Is it possible that the beauty you perceive in these lines is also related to their aural qualities? I agree, for example, that the lines quoted from The Anathemata are beautiful, but for me their beauty also significantly depends on their ‘sound’ and elements, such as the chiastic repetition of ‘high’ and ‘low’. Similarly, I think the line from the Trigons sequence you emphasise in particular (‘just poor plain red & human blood spilled & spilling’) is beautiful, among others, because of the sequence of ‘s’-sound (of ‘just’) and the ‘p’-alliteration, which is echoed in ‘spilled & spilling’. Finally, this is only to speak of the sound pattern of these excerpts while their meters are also accomplished.

    • Yes, absolutely. For me the aural quality is probably paramount and I should have given it more detailed attention in the above. Thank you for bringing it back into focus.

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