Simon Jarvis, the vanishingly trivial and philosophical verse.

There’s a competition that goes on in my head as to who can write the most effective demolition of a book. The all-time leader at the moment is Gillian Rose for her gleeful destruction of Derrida’s ‘Of Spirit’. This holds first place because the destruction is effective and complete (this is helped by the fact that ‘Of Spirit’ isn’t very good) and because Rose cannot disguise the glee with which she goes about her task.
The competition has gained some impetus over recent weeks, first there was Alastair Fowler’s review of Don Paterson’s book on Shakespeare’s sonnets in the TLS where Fowler is witheringly dismissive of the enterprise. Of course, truly destructive reviews are much more enjoyable when the author under scrutiny is one that I already dislike. I loathe Paterson on the strength of the single poem by him that I’ve ever read but this was enough to elevate him immediately to the company of Larkin, Motion etc.
This may seem like stating the obvious but if you’ve been destroyed in print by someone who might know what they’re talking about then the only feasible response is one of dignified silence. This is especially the case when the critic’s erudition is legendary. There are very few who fit this category but Fowler is certainly one of them. This is not a lesson that Paterson has absorbed for the following week there is printed what can only be described as an extended whine which succeeds in making him appear even more stupid than he probably is. He also plays the auto-didact card which I find particularly distasteful because he’s using it to elicit pity. Needless to say, Fowler hasn’t responded.
Hot on the heels of this comes Simon Jarvis with a demolition of a book about the ‘copy’ written by an American academic in post structuralist mode. This isn’t as effective as Fowler, primarily because Jarvis displays his ideological distaste alongside his attack on the content. He ends by describing the book as ‘vanishingly trivial’ and gets points in this particular pantheon for that put down but loses them again with “Teleporting a book, on the other hand can now be enjoyed by anyone in their own home, as I discovered for myself when I threw this one across the room” which isn’t funny. I have to report that the author of said tome has this week responded with an incredibly bad-tempered whinge in this week’s TLS which more or less makes Jarvis’ point for him.
Last week I fell across (whilst looking for something else) a recording of a lecture given by Jarvis at the end of last year in which the interest in prosody gets more of an airing. It’s forty minutes well spent for those of us who are still trying to tackle ‘The Unconditional’ and work out why we don’t like ‘Dinner’.
Jarvis appears to be talking to a group of philosophers and presents the case for verse being an appropriate medium for doing philosophy and using Pope to illustrate why some find the constraints of rhyme and metre as being ideally suited to the expression of ideas. This seems reasonable and I listened in the expectation that there would be some explanation of the mechanics involved. This doesn’t occur but we do get a few more quotes from Pope’s Essay on Man.
Always keen to try and follow Jarvis’ thinking and having an interest in philosophical poetry, I’ve given this some consideration. I’ve looked at the more abstract bits of Jarvis’ own verse and at Spenser’s ‘Cantos of Mutabilitie’ and there are a couple of conclusions-

  1. The heroic couplet with it’s very regular rhyme and metre is not ideally suited to the expression of complex ideas- I find this to be distracting rather than helpful when reading because I’m looking for the rhyme rather than paying attention to the sense.
  2. The Spenserian stanza, on the other hand, is more suited to the expression of the abstract because it is a much more complex structure and because Spenser has the skill to use it to carry the reader along whilst expressing his own philosophical concerns.
  3. Jarvis’ use of rhyme in ‘Erlkonig’ is more complex than Pope’s and the more abstract sections are probably clearer than they would be without the rhyme.

I’ll try and give some examples of what I mean. This is from Pope;

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of Mankind is Man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A Being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much;
Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confus’d;
Still by himself, abus’d or disabus’d;
Created half to rise and half to fall;
Great Lord of all things, yet a prey to all,
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d;
The glory, jest and riddle of the world.

I don’t want to get into the content/meaning of this but this does have a sing-song feel which seems more than a little facile to my 21st century ears. There’s also the rest/beast ending which is a further distraction from the sense.

This is Spenser;

I well consider all that ye have said
And find that all things stedfastness doe hate
And changed be: yet being rightly wayd
They are not changed from their first estate;
But by their change their being do dilate;
And turning to themselves at length againe,
Doe work their own perfection so by fate:
Then over them Change doth not rule and reigne;
But they reign over change, and doe their states maintaine.

Of course I’m biased but I would argue that this is the finest example in the language of expressing complex stuff in structured verse and am more than a little puzzled as to why Jarvis should continue to rely on Pope to make his point.

‘Erlkonig’ uses a more complex rhyme scheme than Pope but one that still seems a bit more ‘forced’ than Spenser;

Their broken bodies feed us, while their bones
diminish utterly beneath these stones.

of whose long burials the complex map
is written out in neurones or on thoughts
quick and self-centred in the soundless gap
I live in, opening the doors and ports
to fold in multiples the folding pap
steeped in their fluids for the is and oughts
which disappear into their secret fanned
like Kafka’s dog’s impenetrable tunnel.

Whilst this is satisfyingly complex and clever, I have to point out that either ‘neurones’ or ‘thoughts’ are superfluous and would not both be included except for the need to maintain the prosodic ‘flow’.

So, there is further method in Jarvis’ prosodic idiosnycracy and I’m beginning to delve into the finer points of his argument without actually reading either Wordsworth or Adorno. I’m told that there is a new poem about to be published and that it doesn’t rhyme… In the meantime I’m going to have another go at ‘The Unconditional’ and attempt to introduce ‘vanishingly’ into at least one conversation per day.

One further thought, there are two more effective models of philosophy in verse in the shape of Paul Celan (‘Erblind’ and Aschenglorie’ spring to mind) and Olson’s working through of Whitehead in ‘Maximus’. Neither of these constrain themselves in the above manner and are more effective or precise because of this.

17 responses to “Simon Jarvis, the vanishingly trivial and philosophical verse.

  1. Doesn’t look like Jarvis’s review is online, alas. I did enjoy listening to the lecture — he reads well, and quickly, so one has to pay attention.

    Agreed about couplets and complex ideas. Jarvis passes close by the reason, I think, without quite stopping to note it — it lies in the figure of the chain, which is well embodied in the verse form. A chain is precisely not a hierarchy: each link is small, and relates to its neighbors only loosely (and to the other links not at all). Pope acknowledges this in the passage Jarvis quotes, with the line “tenth, or ten thousandth, breaks the chain alike”, but seems not to notice that it spoils the figure as an image of creation. And again, I think it’s because of the chain-like quality of heroic couplets: each couplet is small, and relates only weakly to those before and after. (The only relation is negative — the rhymes of neighboring couplets should not rhyme amongst themselves.) So Pope’s momentary insight doesn’t propagate through the structure.

    In Spenser’s stanzas, rhymes look forward and backward as much as five lines, and in their overlapping, force your ear to hold other lines in store — even as you match up one rhyme, you know that another rhyme is coming for another of the lines you’re holding in short-term memory.

    With couplets, we never match backward or forward further than one line, and the constraint that the next couplet must bring a new rhyme gives the verse an inexorable forward movement. There are poems in which complex syntax spans many lines of heroic couplets, and the effect is very strange — the one I know best is Sordello, which reads as a vast digression of digressions. It’s effective in patches, but they’re not philosophical, but rather narrative/descriptive outbursts of monstrous or magnificent whimsy. Take the one Saintsbury quotes:

    As, shall I say, some Ethiop, past pursuit
    Of all enslavers, dips a shackled foot
    Burnt to the blood, into the drowsy black
    Enormous watercourse which guides him back
    To his own tribe again, where he is king;
    And laughs because he guesses, numbering
    The yellower poison-wattles on the pouch
    Of the first lizard wrested from its couch
    Under the slime (whose skin, the while, he strips
    To cure his nostril with, and festered lips,
    And eyeballs bloodshot through the desert-blast)
    That he has reached its boundary, at last
    May breathe;—thinks o'er enchantments of the South
    Sovereign to plague his enemies, their mouth,
    Eyes, nails, and hair; but, these enchantments tried
    In fancy, puts them soberly aside
    For truth, projects a cool return with friends,
    The likelihood of winning mere amends
    Ere long; thinks that, takes comfort silently,
    Then, from the river's brink, his wrongs and he,
    Hugging revenge close to their hearts, are soon
    Off-striding for the Mountains of the Moon.
  2. May I join in? I suppose heroic couplets always sounded emphatic, even to the 18th century ear, but to our present age they are especially didactic. Pretty effective for satire though, wouldn’t you say (thinking of Pope) or for humorous effect?

    My reservation about using poetry as a vehicle for reasoning things out is that poetry really takes flight when the imagination fuels it. A purely rational flight would draw an arc from A to B as with a jet plane, while a poem might drift like a balloon or cruise instinctively like a bird.

    Incidentally, I find I like Don Paterson – and I think that might be because he lets his imagination do the work. In his “Rain” collection there’s a humour there too, often rather black, but sometimes more playful. Just my personal response I guess.

    (Further incidentally, that extract from Spenser that Vance Maverick quotes is chilling to read!)

  3. (Browning, FWIW, not Spenser.)

    I shouldn’t have claimed Pope didn’t understand that the chain metaphor doesn’t work for creation. Rather, I disagree with him. If he knew (e.g.) that there have been extinctions, then he didn’t take them as counterexamples to his claim — but I do. More serious is the incompatibility between the chain and the hierarchy (tree, pyramid) as metaphors.

    • One of the maddening things about Jarvis is that he says really interesting and quite challenging things and then shies away from backing them up and I remain suspicious of someone who attributes things to Adorno that weren’t actually said. However, the relationship between form (or constraint) and telling the ‘truth’ continues to intrigue especially with regard to rhyme, I’m also grateful for the prod towards ‘Sordello’ because I’m trying coincidentally to write something intelligent about ‘The Cantos’ and I do need to understand more about the reference at the start of the second canto- I haven’t thought about Browning since school. i do hope it is monstrously whimsical.
      I’m not sure that your analysis of the Spenser gives enough credit to the way the metre propels things along almost without the reader noticing the pace of travel and I think this is what makes the rhyme function so well.
      With regard to the heroic couplet, I don’t know enough about Pope’s legendary skill in this department but this kind of scheme does (to my ear) sound fairly facile and the satire would need to acknowledge this in order to succeed.
      With regard to Paterson, my view of his ability is based on one poem read whilst standing in a shop but it was so utterly offensive and bad (in every possible respect) that I can’t bring myself to look at anything else. I don’t normally have this reaction, I manage to be indifferent to most contemporary verse but this particular poem was incredibly inept, self-pitying and tasteless.
      I agree that Jarvis speaks well but it might have been a bit more honest if he’d referred to his own attempts at philosophical verse as well as Pope’s, a contrast with the philosophy expressed by writers of free verse might also have carried more weight to his argument.

  4. Fair enough, the meter in Spenser is indeed effective — but in principle heroic couplets could be metrically as smooth, moving you through a verse paragraph that was not outlined by rhyme.

    I didn’t know Paterson before this — he reminds me of some successful American poets — though the bluff pretense that poetry is easy, and the preference for rhyme and meter of a sort, don’t generally go together here.

    John (Stevens) —
    My reservation about using poetry as a vehicle for reasoning things out is that poetry really takes flight when the imagination fuels it.

    Do check out Jarvis’s talk. He points out that prose which is best at reasoning things out is a special case as well.

  5. Thanks both of you for pointing me to Simon Jarvis’ talk which I certainly would not have discovered otherwise. I like his central distinction between verse (which can more or less be defined) and poetry (whatever that may be, as Prince Charles and Lady Di could have said). Later he suggests that there are both gains and losses in using verse to think. Perhaps we might say:

    Constraints of verse cause losses in cognition;
    The gains are manifest in exposition.

    Or perhaps not! I’ll bow and take my leave – but thanks for letting me trespass here.

    • I’m sure our host doesn’t feel you’re trespassing (nor can I, being but a visitor myself). At any rate, Jarvis would not agree at all that “constraints of verse cause losses in cognition”. He argues passim to the contrary, that verse is a mode of thought.

      • I’m all for more ‘trespassers’ – gives me more to think about. He does make that assertion, I’m not sure that he argues it though.

    • Very good John, I’ve spent the weekend trying out the couplet for what I want to say in verse and it does have some advantages in the short run but at any length (unless you’re Browning) it still tends towards the facile… Jarvis spends most of his time promoting prosody in all things, I just wish he’d back this up with a few more concrete examples that weren’t penned by either Pope or Wordsworth.

      • Vance Maverick

        For another use of the couplet, see Crabbe:

        Pinn’d, beaten, cold, pinch’d, threaten’d, and abused–
        His efforts punish’d and his food refused,–
        Awake tormented,–soon aroused from sleep,–
        Struck if he wept, and yet compell’d to weep,
        The trembling boy dropp’d down and strove to pray,
        Received a blow, and trembling turn’d away,
        Or sobb’d and hid his piteous face;–while he,
        The savage master, grinn’d in horrid glee:
        He’d now the power he ever loved to show,
        A feeling being subject to his blow.

        Effective, I think, but again it’s making narrative, not philosophy, work along the chain. And the echoes of the Popeian (Papal?) style of balanced aphorism is strange in this context.

      • I don’t find it as effective as the Browning, I can see the point of couplets and sequential narrative but I’m not yet convinced that it’s the best way to proceed along the chain.

  6. If your interested in the influence of Browning’s Sordello on Pound’s The Cantos, it may be useful to look – if you haven’t already – at an early draft of Canto 2:

    Three Cantos:
    By Ezra Pound

    HANG it all, there can be but one Sordello!
    But say I want to, say I take your whole bag of tricks,
    Let in your quirks and tweeks, and say the thing’s an art-form,
    Your Sordello, and that the modern world
    Needs such a rag-bag to stuff all its thought in; 5
    Say that I dump my catch, shiny and silvery
    As fresh sardines flapping and slipping on the marginal cobbles?
    (I stand before the booth, the speech; but the truth
    Is inside this discourse—this booth is full of the marrow of wisdom.)
    Give up th’ intaglio method.
    Tower by tower 10
    Red-brown the rounded bases, and the plan
    Follows the builder’s whim. Beaucaire’s slim gray
    Leaps from the stubby base of Altaforte—
    Mohammed’s windows, for the Alcazar
    Has such a garden, split by a tame small stream. 15
    The moat is ten yards wide, the inner court-yard
    Half a-swim with mire.
    Trunk hose?
    There are not. The rough men swarm out
    In robes that are half Roman, half like the Knave of Hearts;
    And I discern your story:
    Peire Cardinal 20
    Was half forerunner of Dante. Arnaut’s that trick
    Of the unfinished address,
    And half your dates are out, you mix your eras;
    For that great font Sordello sat beside—
    ’Tis an immortal passage, but the font?— 25
    Is some two centuries outside the picture.
    Does it matter?
    Not in the least. Ghosts move about me
    Patched with histories. You had your business:
    To set out so much thought, so much emotion;
    To paint, more real than any dead Sordello, 30
    The half or third of your intensest life
    And call that third Sordello;
    And you’ll say, “No, not your life,
    He never showed himself.”
    Is’t worth the evasion, what were the use 35
    Of setting figures up and breathing life upon them,
    Were ’t not our life, your life, my life, extended?
    I walk Verona. (I am here in England.)
    I see Can Grande. (Can see whom you will.)
    You had one whole man? 40
    And I have many fragments, less worth? Less worth?
    Ah, had you quite my age, quite such a beastly and cantankerous age?
    You had some basis, had some set belief.
    Am I let preach? Has it a place in music?

    I walk the airy street, 45
    See the small cobbles flare with the poppy spoil.
    ’Tis your “great day,” the Corpus Domini,
    And all my chosen and peninsular village
    Has made one glorious blaze of all its lanes—
    Oh, before I was up—with poppy flowers. 50
    Mid-June: some old god eats the smoke, ’tis not the saints;
    And up and out to the half-ruined chapel—
    Not the old place at the height of the rocks,
    But that splay, barn-like church the Renaissance
    Had never quite got into trim again. 55
    As well begin here. Began our Catullus:
    “Home to sweet rest, and to the waves’ deep laughter,”
    The laugh they wake amid the border rushes.
    This is our home, the trees are full of laughter,
    And the storms laugh loud, breaking the riven waves 60
    On “north-most rocks”; and here the sunlight
    Glints on the shaken waters, and the rain
    Comes forth with delicate tread, walking from Isola Garda—

    ( I’ve only pasted the first of the drafts)

    You probably have this already. Pound was of course a great admirer of Browning and his use of dramatic monologues. It’s not such a great step from these to the mix of discourses found in modernist texts. Perhaps even Prynne’s use of different registers and lexis owes something to this, so that his poems could be seen as made up in part of fragments of various monologues. It must have seemed to Browning as one possible escape route from the lyrical ‘I’.

    • This is fascinating, I don’t have this or any of the other drafts- are these online? I think you’re right about Prynne on this but I’d also add David Jones – although his influence is more likely to be Pound than Browning. Incidentally Sordello is fascinating and shows what can be done with the couplet form, the phrasing is particularly instructive.

      • You can find the three drafts in the library of America edition of Pound’s poems and translation, which is well worth getting if you want a better understanding of him.OR, if you type in the first two lines:
        HANG it all, there can be but one Sordello!
        But say I want to, say I take your whole bag of tricks,
        Then you should find the other two drafts. The draft of Canto 2 is the important one for understanding Browning’s influence on Pound. If you have any problems finding them, tell me and I’ll send them to you.
        It could be argued that Sordello was the first modernist text in English.
        It met with almost complete incomprehension when it was first
        published. I really don’t think Browning wrote anything finer.

      • I think I’ve found them. I’ve started to pay attention to ‘Sordello’ – it is remarkable, regardless of its place in modernism. According to the DNB it put Browning’s career back by 20 years…

  7. the idea that larkin is a bad poet – i mean, he is overrated — but a bad poet

    • ‘Bad’ as in dishonest and cynically manipulative rather than technically inept. Also not very interesting which is probably why he is revered in the UK. I’m not one of those who take an ideological stance against him – I tend not to worry too much about any poet’s politics.

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