Keston Sutherland on Simon Jarvis

In attempting to write something coherent about ‘The Unconditional’ and ‘Dionysus Crucified’, I looked again at Keston Sutherland’s reaction to the former which is what probably awakened my interest in the first place. I’ve also re-read the introduction to ‘Wordsworth’s Philosophic Song’ and ‘Why Rhyme Pleases’. I don’t normally feel the need to read so much prose to consider a poem but ‘The Unconditional’ is not an ordinary poem.
Sutherland describes the poem as ‘unique’ and I think that is probably correct, I know of no other poem like it in the English language in terms of its sustained assault on what we think of as contemporary poetry and its attempt to re-define the nature of the debate about what poetry can and should do. It could be argued that there are several innovative and equally iconoclastic poets currently at work, I would venture to suggest that they don’t write defiantly metrical verse that is 240 pages long. So, unique is appropriate but doesn’t do full justice to the poem’s other qualities. Sutherland plays around with ‘absolute’ as a way of describing the poem and it is here that we part company. I persist in associating this term with the later work of Paul Celan who has come closer than anyone to thinking about and writing absolute verse. Celan’s work was notoriously sparse and terse and I remain wedded to the view that these are tow of the main characteristics of absolute poetry. I’m also of the view that absolute poetry has to be very good indeed and I think there are a number of minor failures in ‘The Unconditional’ that fall short of that standard. I’ll try and give some examples of these below.
I think the most important aspect of Sutherland’s response is the sense of confusion and challenge together with his need to make a personal response. The confusion (which I share) doesn’t come from any doubt about what’s being said but from the challenge that the poem presents to the way that most (all) of us think about and engage with poetry. This challenge is fundamental and is achieved by lines of metrical verse subverting most of our notions of reading and understanding. There aren’t many things in this world that make me re-consider the way that I think and respond but ‘The Unconditional’ continues to do that and this is a good thing.
So I’d use ‘subversive’ as the primary characteristic because of this oblique questioning and the presentation of thoughts and emotions in ways that demand attention and engagement. I’ve written in the past about the difficulties that I experienced in getting through the poem and the various strategies that were used, I think it is important to stress that I would usually have given up after the third or fourth attempt (life really is too short) were it not clear to me that there was something important going on that I didn’t want to ignore.
John Wilkinson has used the adjective ‘peculiar’ but I don’t think this does justice to the extreme oddness of this poem. I’ve been a long-standing fan of the deeply odd, although I have been trying to wean myself of this in recent months, and can identify several aspects that contribute to the overall eccentricity:
1. Length, a poem that runs to 240 pages is clearly out of step with the vast majority of contemporary work in English;
2. Narrative, this is a poem where not much happens and what does happen isn’t all that interesting;
3. Digression, the difficulty of the poem lies primarily in the concentration required to follow complex and densely argued digressions without losing sight of the ‘story’;
4. Prosody, which to many of us is a term from the dark and distant past, the poem relies almost exclusively on lines that are metrical and this is one of the ‘points’ of the poem, there are also lines that rhyme.
5. Roads, a recurring feature is the presence of the British road network, roads are given speaking parts.
In fact this poem is so odd that it falls into the ‘bonkers’ category. This is a critical and technical term which is use to describe those works (and/or aspects of those works) that are both incredibly ambitious but also highly improbable. The best example of a bonkers work is ‘The Faerie Queen’ which manages to be insanely ambitious in aim and to contain some of the least feasible sections that defy both logic and taste and yet still manage to ‘work’ brilliantly. I’m thinking of the graphic description of bestiality, Britomart’s experience of love via her bowels and the proverb swapping scene between Una and Arthur. In slightly more recent times, the inclusion of Black Beauty in ‘Stress Position’ falls well and truly into the bonkers category as a conceit that defies any semblance of common sense but comes across to the reader as something that is entirely feasible. ‘The Unconditional’ is so odd that it shouldn’t work on any level, it is too ambitious, it is too long, it is too reliant on metre, it personifies roads but it is magnificently successful both as a poem and as a gauntlet thrown down to what passes for contemporary poetic discourse. I have also to say that I still don’t accept the Jarvis position on prosody, nor do I accept what he says about poetry and philosophy but I do find his arguments intriguing and worthy of further consideration.
At this stage I was going to make some clever remarks about ‘The Conditional’ aiming for truth by means of an extended ‘blurt’ (a Jarvis term) but I then realised that I would have to write out an excerpt to illustrate my point and the only excerpt that was suitable runs to just over four pages. You will also note that I have managed to ignore everything that Sutherland has to say about the dialectic. This is entirely intentional. I’m not entirely clear why he decided to disclose about his own experience with depression even though the poem does spend a fair amount of time describing the more miserable features of the middle aged male and is particularly effective in the self-loathing stakes. I didn’t get the impression that I should respond as a depressive, nor did I find anything (other than the self-loathing) that seemed to speak of my own experience.
I was also going to produce examples of bits that don’t actually ‘work’ but that would also require extensive quotes. Suffice it to say that digressions of this length need to end well, they need to be a satisfying conclusion to some of what has gone before and a small minority of Jarvis’ endings fail to provide these and come across as both ugly and inept.
So ‘The Unconditional’ is one of those bonkers poems that demands and rewards serious attention. It also needs to be re-read, I started again as soon as I’d finished and the second round is proving even more unsettling and satisfying than the first…

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