Tag Archives: alexander pope

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.

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.