Tag Archives: erlkonig

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.

Simon Jarvis reconsidered

Regular readers may know that I’ve been struggling with ‘The Unconditional’ for almost a year and yet haven’t been able to walk away from it. Jarvis has also published a shorter poem (“Erlkonig”) which is much more manageable and user-friendly.
John Wilkinson has described ‘The Unconditional’ as being as peculiar as the infamous Roussel tome, with it’s infuriating digressions. I possess ‘Images of Africa’ and have never managed to read it because I find it too contrived and more than a little smug about its conceit. The Jarvis poem doesn’t annoy me but I do find it really difficult to follow and retain some of the metaphors to the very end and perhaps that’s the point but it isn’t a point that I’m keen on.
There are other ways of making things cognitively difficult for the reader- Sutherland does this to great effect. Relying on extreme length to ensure that the reader has forgotten what it is we’re digressing from is simply a barrier to actually finishing the book- or are we just meant to read the first fifty pages and then walk away? The reason that I haven’t walked away and am now on my sixth attempt is that some of the lines are very good indeed and that Jarvis seems to have a number of interesting points to make. What these points may be I have yet to work out with any degree of precision but there’s more than enough to hold my interest.
There’s also the ‘wrong’ poetry issue that I wrote about a while ago whereby something flat and banal is used to interrupt or damage the flow of the lyric. Again, I don’t know whether this is deliberate but Jarvis does-

In that domain a buried A-road may
sometime by old pavilions of its shops
remind a hoarse commercial traveller
of the remediable loss of life
in undefended type face of a font
still mutely pleading for the shoppers’ loves
still wearily enduring falling sales
still waiting for authenticated close
or still waiting a ripeness when
the properly intolerable come
and foreclose closure closing it by force.
=x. was ready to feel all that.
There or anywhere else.
But he was nowhere near the area.

(Starting with the first line, every other line should be indented.)

We then get a more lyrical discussion of the use of the colour blue in motor cars. From the extract above, it’s clear to me that the last three lines don’t “work” and go from the slightly naff “feel all that” to the completely inane “nowhere near the area”. Given that Jarvis can sustain lyrical passages in a suitably poetic manner for several pages, I would suggest that this is deliberate although I have no idea why. The other question is whether that third line of wrongness is simply too wrong. I also have to ask whether the fourth and fifth lines aren’t trying too hard- what feels like something quite clever on first reading starts to become a bit pretentious and superfluous on subsequent readings.
I will persist with “The Unconditional” and am resolved to get to at least page eighty on this attempt.
Turning to “Erlkonig”, there are several things that can be said-
1. It’s only thirteen pages in length
2. The digressions are much, much shorter
3. It rhymes
4. It’s more socio-political and less philosophical than “The Unconditional”
5. A lot of it is about a road (again)
The title and epigraph are both taken from Goethe’s poem which translates as the “Elf King”. With regard to content, it’s not easy to make political points without sounding like a rabid Trot or a fully paid up member of the chatterati and it’s even harder to do this with rhyme. Jarvis succeeds on both counts as this example demonstrates. This stanza is dealing with CCTV and the kind of malveillance that we in the UK are increasingly familiar with.

The one supposed to know, but not to care.
The one supposed to hold in trust the worst
in order that the public’ s better share
should be protected from the truly cursed.
The one supposed indifferently to stare
at image after image, only at the first
which could offend, to hunt offenders down —
then to remember nothing, with a frown:

The last line is very, very astute and makes a complex point without making any great fuss and I really admire that. I’m also going to have to review the Bebrowed line on rhyme (too restrictive unless you happen to be Elizabeth Bishop) which is always a good thing. I could have a small rant about the title and the epigraph but I won’t as “Erlkonig” is a poem that succeeds on several levels and has given me much to think about which is always a good thing.