‘Night Office’ is a poem in Simon Jarvis’ ‘Eighteen Poems’ which was published last year and it is part of a much (much) longer poem which Enitharmon will publish in the reasonably near future. This runs to 216 pages with four eight line stanzas on each page. This obviously makes it very long indeed – longer than ‘The Unconditional’ in terms of line count. The other headlines are that it is a religious poem and that it rhymes, using the same rhyming scheme throughout.
A couple of years ago I took readerly issue with the Jarvis view that poems that made use of rhyme and/or metre were best suited to dealing with philosophical themes and issues. I also took exception to the example of Pope’s ‘Essay on Man’ mainly because I don’t like the heroic couplet but also because I don’t see the ‘point’ of Pope’s work in general. I now have to acknowledge that I was wrong, that it is possible to write complex and beautiful poetry in a way that isn’t overwhelmed by the rhyme. I’m still trying to unpick how this has been achieved but the effect on me as a reader is remarkable.
Because others won’t have access to the longer poem in full, I’m going to concentrate what follows on the poem that is in ‘Eighteen Poems’ for the moment. I also need to point out,as ever, that what follows is entirely provisional, tentative and I reserve the right to change my mind.
We’ll start with subject matter, I’m much more comfortable with theology as theme rather than philosophy – I know that there is often a very thin and wavy line between the two but some of the finest poetry in the language is religious and there is a long and deep vein of this kind of poetry running through English culture. My own preference for this kind of material is odd because I’m one of those anti-Dawkins atheists who know there isn’t a God but don’t mind at all that other people think there might be.
As for the poem itself, it starts with this conceit:
Every last person in this poem is dead,- including me. I'm talking to you, yes, thanks to my poet; he, thanks to me; my head shakes and reverberates, while, less and less, the waves of sound diminish, and, instead, a lasting silence fills me and I rest. Now in this blackness I begin to sing. Invisible is every little thing:
This manages to be arresting/startling and complex at the same time. First of all we have to get used to this being a poem about the dead being told by the dead. Then readers are addressed in a very direct and (where I come from) quite an aggressive kind of way before the poet is introduced although the repeated ‘thanks to’ suggest that the relationship here may be more reciprocal than is usual. This is satisfyingly complex- the speaker needs the poem and the poet in order to be heard just as the poet needs the speaker in order to make the poem, to be a poet. Of course, the effect is that the reader is almost challenged from the outset to become involved. There’s also the implication that the speaker is representing the poet’s view in what follows.
A few things then happen, the speakers head shakes whilst the surrounding unspecified sounds diminish to a lasting (eternal?) silence enabling the speaker to rest- he begins to sing in ‘this’ blackness.
There aren’t many poets who can pull something like this off without sounding contrived. Of course, there is contrivance going on here but it’s expressed with a lyricism and a confidence that enables me to go along with things rather than fret about the manipulation. A stanza like this also undermines my argument that constraints like rhyme inevitably limit the rnge of things that can be said, that free verse liberates the full possibilities that language has to offer. I don’t get the impression that there’s too much limitation going on here and I’m not reading ahead of myself in order to see what the next rhyme will be- this has been my other main concern.
By the seventh stanza we’ve worked out that the dead speak through the speaker and in doing so escape “painfully from sweet relief” This is then developed further:
Each bears his rhythm like an inner star: each is walked through by some one line of stree not chosen or invented, though they are not accidental either, since they test, for each imprinted pattern, where the bar is lightly crossed, or halted at. My chest rises and falls beneath my shirt, as each treads slowly through me his peculiar speech, sending me softly dumbnesses, impressions left in the surface of my slow tongue, which shifts shape a little each time. Dreams, depressions, pass through my face from inside. In this rich, yet monochrome, design, these curls, recessions, vaults and returns speak, soundlessly, dip, pitch their friendly spirit voices through my sight and out into the European night.
I now have a punctuation query, when I was in primary school we were taught that the use of joining words meant that there was no need for a comma. Have I got this wrong and the above is simply using punctuation in accordance with the rules or is something else going on here? This apparent anomaly didn’t become visible to me until I typed these three stanzas but, glancing through this part of the poem, it does seem to be a bit of pattern. Given that fifty years or so have elapsed since learning this rule, I’m also happy to accept that I may have got hold of the wrong end of this particular stick.
Aside from this minor quibble, I hope I’m not alone in finding the above to be absolutely wonderful in terms of intense lyricism, formal skill and the delicacy with which things are said. It’s also very clever, both stanzs reuire more than a degree of thought and consideration:
- what would it be like to carry your own rhythm like an inner star?
- are we meant to read ‘bear’ as endure rather than carry?
- is it the constraint of rhyme the pattern that is tested?
- are we meant to read the shape shifting allusion into shifts shape and why?
- why is the night a European night/
As with ‘The Unconditional’, I’m firmly of the view that Night Office must be read by anyone who claims to have more than a passing interest in what poetry might be able to do. Both are immensely rewarding and have removed at lest some of my well-worn modernist blinkers. They also open up much wider debate which I hope to begin to pursue in the coming weeks.