Tag Archives: ODE

Simon Jarvis and the ‘difficult’ poem.

In addition to this blog, I also run the arduity web site. When I say ‘run’ I mean that I have written most of the content, built all of the pages and try and fix things that go wrong. The site is intended to help readers to feel more confident in engaging with difficult or innovative poetry. Because I haven’t put any effort into promotion, it doesn’t get much traffic although the feedback has been positive and helpful.

Both George Steiner and J H Prynne have had a go at defining ‘difficult’ as it might apply to modernist poetry with Steiner putting more emphasis on allusion whilst Prynne emphasises both ambiguity and juxtaposition (this is a crude characterisation). Arduity provides information on types of difficulty and also looks at a number of ‘difficult’ poets including Prynne, Paul Celan, Keston Sutherlan and a number of others.

In the past I’ve been of the view that Simon Jarvis’ work exemplifies a particular kind of difficulty and the ‘The Unconditional is particularly difficult for reasons that don’t clearly fit with what Steiner and Prynne identify. This primarily relates to the frequency and length of digressive passages which are difficult to follow because they are very, very long.

I’ve written before about the digressive element and don’t intend to repeat myself, suffice it to say that this aspect of ‘The Unconditional’ more than qualifies Jarvis for inclusion in arduity.

So, up until the end of June, Simon Jarvis was in my head as being deliberately digressive and defiantly prosodic using both metre and rhyme to make his point. I then received ‘Dionysus Crucified’ and ‘F subscript zero’ followed in August. Both of these are in free verse and very, very different from the defiantly metrical ‘Unconditional’, ‘Erlkonig’ and ‘Dinner’.

Having spent some time with both, I’ve come to the conclusion that ‘F subscript zero’ is the more difficult of the two and I will now try and explain why. ‘Dionysus’ may have a page where the words are spread all over the place and a page where the words are printed over the outline of a cross but it does at least have the advantage of some proper names (Dionysus, Pentheus, Origen, Augustine, Ashley and Cheryl Cole etc) which might provide a number of footholds with which to begin. The only proper name in the first poem ‘F0’ is Paul Burrell together with a faily obvious reference to Princess Diana.

I wrote about ‘FO‘ a couple of weeks ago and drew attention to it as an example of Jarvis’ view that doing poetry is a good way of doing philosophy. Most people would consider philosophic poetry to be difficult enough but there are passages here which are very experimental in form too.

I’m using another extract from the first poem (‘ODE’) because it allows me to make more than one point:

   A filament burns in hours of effort continuously or with perenially reiterated force expelling daylight.
Eternal no instant!
Just as immeasurably you hop hopeless, heap up a big pile of nothing one on top of the
popped up these points, prop off at a dimensionless, totter off as a broke hand wud build
of water its imperishable palace of failure in floppies
of fire its terrible comfort blanket in cruel
of paper its inedible lunch in cash f memento is pool of solace i.e. oil outside L'pool
of leaf its fat bank account in the Caymans which I would love to have
of in
or and

To my mind, thse lines manage to pack in more difficulty than most poets manage in a career. Incidentally, for once, the formatting is reasonably accurate. The first thing to note is that things stop making grammatical sense in the third line until you realise that ther is a list that reads ‘of nothing’, ‘of water’, ‘of fire’ ‘of memento’ and ‘of leaf’ with the proviso that ‘of solace’ may also be included.

The next thing to note is that there are several different ways of saying ‘nothing’ and a missing ‘other’ and a missing ‘o’.

The missing ‘other’ occurs after “one on top of the” unless of course “on top of the / popped up these points” is meant to make sense. There’s also an apparent contradiction in a burning filament ‘expelling daylight’. If there is a missing other then I think we need to ask whether or not this is a philosophical other or an ordinary other just as we need to ask the same question about the repeated nothings. Given that other parts of the poem contain references to Derrida and Adorno, I think it’s safe to assume that there is some philosophical point lurking within these lines.

We now come to the issue of constraint. In his recent lecture Jarvis would appear to be arguing that the constraints of rhyme and metre were helpful in the writing of poetry with a philosophical theme, using the example of Alexander Pope to make his point. This particular poem is in free verse yet there is philosophy going on so this would seem to contradict the Jarvis thesis. However, I’d like to draw attention to the alliteration with the letter ‘p’ in the third and fourth lines and to the fact that ‘which I would love to have’ is so utterly naff that it seems to work against the lines that precede it.

I do have this half-formed theory that Jarvis is using poetry to subvert and dismantle what we currently think of as the contemporary poem and these very complex lines seem to bear this out. I might, of course, be completely wrong but it seems to be a worthwhile tread to pursue at this stage.

None of this is very helpful in preparing a page for arduity, I’m still concerned that a full description of what might be going on may deter rather than attract readers but I remain of the view that Jarvis’ work is important in its own right and has essential things to say about poetry that should not be ignored.

I will be returning to this poem once I’ve given it some more attention. As a final observation, I’m usually fairly good at bearing in mind the context of the whole poem whilst working through difficult sections but this particular piece has thus far defeated my attempts to get hold of the bigger picture.

I also need to give more thought to the celebrity thread that recurs in ‘Dionysus Crucified’.