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Simon Jarvis’ Night Office reviewed in the TLS. Sigh.

Oh dear. I’ve just caught up with last weeks British Book Comic and came across a review of ‘Night Office’. This is a rare event in that this prestigious rag rarely publishes anything on anybody (apart from Sir G Hill) that I read. I’ve been waiting for the mainstream to take some notice of this and of Keston Sutherland’s Odes because both are put out by Enitharmon, an established and respected publisher.

I think I’ve read all of Jarvis’ published work and some of his essays with a fair deal of attention. I remain of the view that he is unique and his work challenges the foundations of what passes for contemporary verse. This is not shared by William Wootten, the reviewer who starts with this:

When a devotee of the astringent “difficulty” of J.H. Prynne and de facto member of the Cambridge School publishes a 7,000 line Anglican in formal rhyming verse, it is safe that he has had something of a change of heart. Not total, perhaps. Simon Jarvis’s Night Office, the poem in question, alludes to Prynne and foregrounds the sort of Adorno-inspired theorizing Jarvis and others have used to justify Prynnian poetics. Even the way Jarvis writes as if no one had produced a rhyming pentameter since 1908 may be more a result of subscription to modernist orthodoxy than evidence of its renunciation. Still, there is no pretending Night Office is your standard Cambridge fare.

I’m going to leave aside the weak prose and worry about the sad fact that this appears to be an extended sneer. In a land that cherishes freedom of expression this is all very well provided that it is factually accurate. Starting at the beginning, the only occasion that I can recall Jarvis writing on Prynne was in the manner of complaint and impatience, complaint about having to read a poem as a crossword puzzle and not being that interested to do so. This is hardly the manifestation of a devotee- defined by the OED as “A person zealously devoted to a particular, cause, pursuit etc.”. This change of heart is also a bit of a mystery given the publication of the equally lengthy and formal The Unconditional in 2005 and the more recent religious themes in Dinner and Dionysus Crucified. We now come to the Adorno jibe, regular readers will know that I’m of the view that Adorno was mostly wrong (as in incorrect) but especially wrong about poetry. I readily concede that he looms large over some things Cambridge and over Jarvis’ academic work but I don’t think that Prynnian poetics can only justified in this way, I like to think that I’ve managed to locate an approach that has nothing whatsoever to do with Critical Theory.

I need to move on to what appears to be the main target dressed thinly as context, this strange beast known as the Cambridge School. If this name applies to the contributors to The English Intelligencer then this ceased circulation more than forty years ago. If we mean those poets who emulate Prynne, there aren’t any although some place Tony Lopez in that group. If we mean those of us who can see the point of Prynne and consider him to be Very Good indeed then I’m part of this School- which is ridiculous beyond words.

I haven’t got the space to pay the attention to ‘Anglican’ that it deserves other than to ask which particular brand of that broad church is the poem supposed to belong?

Now, how many readers of the poetry section of the TLS are going to be motivated to read the rest of the review? How many of these are going to approach what follows with an open mind? Is this kind of naked factionalism the main problem with the State of the Poem today? As I’ve said, polemic is fine but misrepresentation is not.

We now come to tactics, if you want to scare readers off you use the ‘P’ word as frequently as possible and throw in a German thinker that most won’t have read. You do not start by outlining the Jarvis thesis that verse constrained by rhyme and meter is the best way of making philosophical and theological work, you do not mention Alexander Pope but you do churn out the same 40 year old clichés because it’s easy.

For those who do persevere, Wootten makes some reasonably valid points, he acknowledges that the use of rhyme “seems well suited to Jarvis’s turn against poetic puritanism” but qualifies this by pointing out that some of the rhymes are ‘wince-inducing’. He also questions whether or not Night Office would be better in prose. These are both reasonable responses but the prose option completely misses the point. Perhaps I’m too familiar with the wince-inducing rhymes of Sir G Hill’s later work but I can’t recall being induced to wince.

The conclusion is condescending in the extreme:

Night Office may well be a transitional work from a writer at last discovering his true strengths. Since it is apparently the first of five such long poems, written or in prospect, there will be plenty of chance to find out.

The only response to this is that Jarvis’ strengths have been apparent to those of us who have read him since The Unconditional as have his weaknesses but this remarkable work is a progression that develops those strengths and I for one await the next with eager anticipation.

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Night Office – an experiment in reading

Simon Jarvis’ remarkable new poem is now published and for sale at Enitharmon. I’m about to try something which may benefit from an explanation. I’m of the view that this is a work which deserves the widest possible readership and I am concerned that some readers will be deterred by the length of the poem and by the density of its subject matter. I therefore thought about writing one of those old-fashioned book things with the view of encouraging readers to engage with this and a few other equally complex works (The Odes, Slow Light, Kazoo Dreamboats, Casebook sprang immediately to mind). It could be argued that this is, in part, what this blog is ‘about’ but I wanted a greater sense of immediacy and a more realistic sketch of my readerly experience. I’ve therefore made a start with a few poems and what follows is the very early stages of my involvement with ‘Night Office’. As usual this is a provisional, subjective but hopefully honest account of paying attention to the first few pages of the poem:

You open it, it’s over 200 pages of rhyming 8-line stanzas. You put it down. You consider yourself to be a Jarvis completist and congratulate yourself (frequently) that you’ve read all of his even longer ‘The Unconditional’. Twice. This wasn’t an easy experience but you persevered through the endless digressions because you recognised that something important was going on and you liked what it did to your head.

The prospect of a few months of obsessive reading and re-reading isn’t that appealing, you know that your concentration will be tested and that much coffee will be drunk, you worry that you’ve stopped smoking since ‘The Unconditional’ and that staying mentally alert enough may be more of a problem. It’s not a complete leap in the dark, you’ve read the extract published in Jarvis’ ‘Eighteen Poems’ and you’re therefore aware of the initial premise and the fact that there’s a level of lyrical beauty that’s quite spellbinding. You pick it up again and flick through the pages and are pleased to find that this tone seems to be sustained. You begin to read:


Every last person in this book 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.

You smile because there appears to be some satisfying complexity going on that’s reasonably audacious and doesn’t involve digression. The direct address to the reader is normally a device that you find heavy handed and contrived but this is done with an aggression that’s quite startling, the sort of thing that’s said prior to fight in the local pub. In the first three lines it is established that we are among the dead and it is these beings that will be brought to ‘life’ by the interaction between this speaker and his poet. All of this you find intriguing and now look forward to see how this is maintained over two hundred pages. This is also where you start to have harder thoughts concerning this reciprocity between a writer and his subject, You consider the accuracy of the view that characters take on a life of their own. You’ve had a few half-hearted attempts to write novels and some of your characters do seem to acquire some kind of separate existence in your head and there’s characters in ‘The Faerie Queene’ that seem to be especially real (Britomart, Arthur, Artegall). You wonder whether ‘my poet’ is going to be referred to again. Of course the effect of this address is to remind you that what follows is a fabrication. that you’re not expected to immerse yourself in the world of the poem but to remain a bit removed from it even though you may have to accept the premise that the dead may speak to us.

Most of the above is reasonably clear but then you notice the semi-colon problem. Things would be much easier if there was a full stop after ‘thanks to me’ but there isn’t and you’re left wondering how the shaking of the head is connected to the relationship that’s just been alluded to / described. You then decide that you’re probably thinking too hard and read on.

It’s snowing, it transpires that our dead talker is in a block of empty flats and it is snowing outside. This event is described with such care that you think that it may well allude to something else, that the action of the snow may have something to do with our mortality:


Then, just as surely, these determined blacks
are filled by flake and flake, until the light
unthinking action of the snow conceals
every last record and the gazer lacks
all means to know their having been. The night
welcomes and hides them: what each thinks or feels

is as obliterated as a name
drawn in the soft sand when repeated waves
delete at one stroke its uncertain fame,
leaving these empty flats. The corner where one shaves
is still invisible. The mirror in its frame
glimmers more darkly, where its pool just saves 
the snow’s dim lights into its silver, and 
they fall more slowly over by the stand.

So, the snow is obliterating the ground, the surface of the earth and the initial flakes create a pattern of white and black patches. These ‘blacks’ are said to be ‘determined’ which may or may not be referring to baseline theology on whether or not we have complete freedom of action our our fate is predetermined by God. The snow covers everything up and in doing so obliterates all trace/memory of their existence. In the ‘ordinary’ world things don’t happen like this, traces are left, things and people are remembered so this snow must be especially destructive because it can effortlessly wipe out this fame or memory. What is being described however is not a blizzard but something that falls ‘flake by flake’ which doesn’t have those notions of hazard and destruction.

‘Mirrors’ and ‘darkly’ immediately produce the quote from Corinthians 1 in your head even if you’ve never fully understood it: “For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face: now I know in part, but then shall I know even as I also am known.” Of course, it’s even less certain that this possible ‘connection’ is the right one but it’s something that can be tested and revised as you go through the poem.

Then you think some more about snow, as in real snow, and you realise that a thin layer of snow does not obliterate all trace of what’s underneath- a flat surface like this black ground might change colour and texture but it will still be recognisably flat just as a slope will still be discernible. The other significant property of snow is that it eventually melts revealing what lies beneath. You read this again and notice that what is obliterated is not the blacks themselves but what they think or feel. This really doesn’t help, neither does the odd observation that the ‘snow’s dim lights’ appear to change the rate of fall depending on where they are.

Of course, there’s the possibility that you are already over-reading, that you’re trying to find things that aren’t actually there, that you should accept the fact that there’s this dead person inside this empty block of flats and that it’s gently snowing outside.

You then realise that the use of rhyme appears to be ‘working’ in that it isn’t getting in the way of your reading and does appear to add an injection of ‘flow’ to each stanza. This is odd because you normally get annoyed by the rhyme constraint as it invariably feels both contrived and (technical term) clunky. You remind yourself to read the Jarvis ‘Why Rhymes Pleases’ essay because you remember arguing with it at the time. You also admonish yourself for deriding the Jarvis view that formal constraint can enhance Big Thought Poetry.

You proceed slowly, you know from his previous work that Jarvis rewards attention to every aspect of what is going on. You enjoy this level of concentration, reading and re-reading a few lines at a time until things become apparent but this use of rhyme does, surprisingly, seem to make things more evocative and more beautiful. You think about this for a while and realise that beauty is a rare event in your reading of poetry, you can only recall brief moments of beauty in Celan, Hill and David Jones and none of these are bound by any kind of formal constraint. You then start to think about poems that describe beautiful things and those that deal with love and this isn’t the kind of beauty that you’re thinking of, it is a group of words or lines that are beautiful in themselves regardless of subject matter. You’re beginning to think / hope that ‘Night Office’ might be beautiful.

From the snow and its effects, things move onto the dead and three stanzas that seem to set out the ‘frame’ of what is to follow:



“Dead, every one, and gone beneath the snow.
I search the past for them, but miss their faces.
They are where all the happy dead must go.
Only, in this dark room, I cannot know
their quietness, their sleep; my head replaces
each one precisely in his life, and so 
they walk again from lungs to teeth,
escaping painfully from sweet relief.

Each bears his rhythm like an inner star:
each is walked through by some one line of stress
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 soft 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,

So things start to get a bit odder, the dead person who is still talking to us is the mouthpiece of these friendly spirits who are already where the ‘happy dead must go’. You’re not keen on this turn of events, your failure to believe in a god also entails rejecting any notion of the after- life. You also view the ide that the dead use living people to speak on their behalf one of the most cruel forms of quackery. Of course, this may not be what Jarvis means but you cn’t immediately think of another reading of “as each / treads slowly through me his peculiar speech”. Whether this is the case or not there are a few questions that need to be answered:

  • Does searching the past simply mean ‘trying to remember’ or does it mean that the past is a physical thing, like an archive, that can be searched?
  • Do all the happy dead go to heaven or is this referring to some other state / place?
  • Are the happy dead happy because they’re in heaven or were they happy before they got there?
  • Why is being dead described as ‘sweet relief’?
  • Is the ‘not chosen, invented nor accidental’ conundrum a riff on theological understandings of free will and determinism or is some other kind of paradox been alluded to?
  • Why are impressions left in the tongue rather than on the tongue?
  • How, exactly, are these spirit voices pitched through his sight?
  • Why is the night specifically European?

You hope that some of these will be resolved as you move through the rest of the poem but there is niggling doubt that some of this might be clever for the sake of being clever. It may be that ‘my slow tongue’ refers to language or speech rather than the physical object and that ‘in’ would make a little more sense, but not much.

The other worry is whether or not the chosen / invented rigmarole is overly contrived leading to a degree of clunkiness. If it does refer to God’s foreknowledge then why not be a little less oblique? If it refers to something else then it simply sounds portentous without meaning very much- this is one of the most common poetic mistakes but it’s not one that Jarvis usually makes.

Then you decide to look at ‘curls, recessions, / vaults, and returns’ that ‘speak soundlessly’. The first thing that strikes you is church architecture with regard to the first three and a kind of roundedness that can be applied to vaults and curls and then you get hung up on the discovery that a recession is also a feature of the church service “the withdrawing procession of the clergy and choir to the vestry at the close of the service” together with ‘return’ as a noun can also mean ‘paroussia’ which apparently is the Second Coming or ‘an event comparable to the Second Coming; a Messianic of apocalyptic appearance’. At this point your brain starts to hurt because the primary ‘sense’ is the dead, these “friendly spirits” are going to speak through our narrator – who is also dead. Things become complex when you start to think about things withdrawing or turning in on themselves or being covered by round arches or by returning as part of the End of Time. You don’t think for one second that any such return at any time is at all possible and that this cynicism may be preventing a clearer understanding.

You’re also struck by things that “pass through my face from the inside” and you decide to think about this some more. Is this inside the contents of the skull or is it the fleshy structure of the face itself? You are going for the former because this is where dreams and depressions lurk. This passing through implies that these ‘states’ are on there way to somewhere else or is this just a clever way of saying that these things leave their mark or trace on their way out into the world?

As ever, any kind of feedback- especially with regard to the way things are said – would be very much appreciated.

Simon Jarvis’ Night Office

‘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?
  • curls?
  • 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.

The Odes to TL61P and the nodding dog

The Odes had their London launch last week and I now have to take back anything I’ve previously said about the way that Keston reads his work- this was a magnificent performance which managed to do justice to the text and to throw up more food for thought. Prior to this there was launch in Brighton which was recorded and is now on soundcloud and I think we all need to thank Joe Luna for producing such a clear and professional account of the event.

I’m currently spending most of my reading time with the Odes mainly because I don’t understand how they work – there seems to be a new (to me) set of devices being thrown together and I have yet to work out how the various effects are achieved.

There is one section that is beginning to furrow my brow in unexpected ways, this is the offending paragraph in full:

      China is now a multilateral partner. That joke
about the reference to the answer in the riddle in the
reference to the answer to my life will be repeated
without a pause until I laugh. Bush says three people
were waterboarded, and hold the zeroes; our text today
is maintain physical integrity, but a hundred times funnier,
and therefore a hundred and one times funnier,
billions of times funnier, and hereafter infinitely more
because stupefying at a compound growth rate
too big to fail. There is always something we need to do about
everything, something it is always hard to be. Career
poets are part of the problem, smearing up the polish,
drying out the fire; chucking shit all over the place; not
being party to the solution; banking on the nodding
head 'the reader' saying 'yes, that's what it's like' so
as not to know what it's for, since meaning is easier,
that way, gaped at through the defrosted back window
of the Audi, hence the spring for a neck; we all
know where that shit got us: being what we eat. The
British have become snobs. The don't want to be security
guards always getting the nightshifts at KFC illegally
married to sewage technicians, subject to racist abuse
which intelligent politicians learn they must not be seen
on camera to regard as bigotry; the immigrants are real
because they do. They say, I am more realistic than
you. But at least you listen. The EU ones are the
mainstream, the non-EU ones are the avant garde.

I want to think a bit about the ‘that’s what it’s like’ jibe which I’m informed is a quote from Don Paterson. The normal Bebrowed line on this is that any criticism of this particular poet is a Good Thing per se but this particular
assault may deserve unpacking. As a reader there are very few poems that come close to describing how something is for me. Some, like John Matthias’ ‘Kedging in Time’ are immensely evocative of a group of feelings and attitudes that I hold but I don’t know how those things ‘really’ were because they occurred before I was born. I don’t share John Milton’s faith but his depiction of the way we are brought to do evil seems fairly astute. Keston Sutherland’s depiction of mental anguish in Stress Position strikes a major chord with my experience of severe depression- it isn’t exact but its flow and feel does say more than something about the spirit of the beast. I’m therefore, at least in part, sitting on the rear shelf of the Audi.

Slightly more attentive reading reveals that description (how it is) is being extended into meaning which makes things a bit more complex. Poetic mimesis is complex and layered enough but meaning takes us into this new and shining realm of smoke and mirrors. To get us into this position, Sutherland contrasts similarity for function. ‘what it’s for’, and implies that we attentive readers should concentrate on this aspect if we are to avoid becoming the nodding dogs.

I have no idea, and have no intention of discovering, of the context in which Paterson made this effortless remark but I think the quality of the description is reasonably crucial in leading us to think about function. For example, the Odes describe this really odd but little noticed phenomenon of an acceptance of austerity measures amongst the UK population because we feel that we (somehow) deserve to be punished, that in some way our personal behaviour has resulted in the ongoing fiasco. As a reader, I’ll only be encouraged to think about the meaning or function of that piece of wilful masochism if it is described or alluded to in a way that I can recognise. I think what I’m trying to say is that most of the time I need to be a nodding dog before I can become a thinking dog.

This paragraph also exemplifies Sutherland’s enviable skill in ramming several devices up against each other in ways that shouldn’t even begin to work but do, the themes move from diplomacy, torture, absurdist repetition, mimesis, meaning, the sins of the career poet, immigration, racism and menial labour in a few brief lines and mostly make sense. The only sentence that might not make sense is “There is something we need to do about everything, something it is always hard to be”. I’m struggling with the second half of this primarily because it might sound better than it is. Either this could mean that there is something that it is always hard to be, without this something being specified, or it is hard to be that person that must do something about everything, either way I don’t think it ‘works particularly well but this is small price to pay for the general level of brilliance that runs through this material.

I think the best way to approach the Odes is to read them straight through at least a couple of times so that you can grasp the glory of the full picture before beginning to think about the component parts.

The Odes to TL61P is published by Enitharmon and sells for £8.99.