Tag Archives: F0

Is poetry too poetic?

I come to this in wavering mode. On the one hand it can (and is about to be) argued that poetry is the main problem with poetry just as politics is the main problem with politics. On the other hand I can point to the work of some of our younger poets (particularly Timothy Thornton and Francesca Lisette) as examples of really strong poetic poets who are moving the form in new and exciting directions.

I need to clarify what I mean by the nature of the problem. The first issue is introspection and the sad fact that most poems a written in and from aspects of poetic lineage. We are all guilty of this, I have spent many years attempting to write in a similar fashion to poets that I admire because I think this is a good way to do poetry and also because I like to think that I ‘get’ what they are about. The second issue relates to what I think of as the heightened language problem. It is absolutely correct to say that poetry in a variety of ways concentrates, refines, energises and thus heightens our language practice but I am concerned that there is too much heightening going on.

Poetry that plainly says what needs to be said.

I’m going to start with a quote from George Herbert because it’s what reminded me of the current poetry problem and because it gives me an opportunity to identify contemporary poets who make matters worse. This is the first verse of ‘Jordan’:

Who sayes that fictions onely and false hair
Become a verse? Is there in truth no beautie?
Is all good structure in a winding stair? May no lines passe, except they do their dutie
Not to a true, but painted chair?

I would argue that the problem is best exemplified by the ‘false hair’, the ‘winding stair’ and the ‘painted chair’. The first time I read these lines I thought of Prynne’s austerity and his stated aim to say how things are and then I realised that he’s frequently guilty of creating a winding stair. In fact it’s the complexities of the stair that I find so compelling. Then I recalled those moments where the austerity is ruptured by false hair moments. ‘To Pollen’ is mostly unlyrical in that the phrases are blunt and completely without heightening. The third poem in the sequence ends with “Stand nearby went off its oil trap refined” which just isn’t poetic. The twentieth poem however has:

will explain how that works, how bravery is planted
in a celestial soil like dust that we are

and ends with:

for good cheer brave hearts never in vain as under
starry skies commit acts of stupendous cocky turpitude.

The first of these is a bitter and sarcastic quote of what the clergy say about warfare whilst the second undermines the lyrical description of our soldiers with the last three words, especially ‘cocky’ which is almost anti-poetic.

I’m ready to concede that Prynne is a special case in all kinds of ways and that the above two examples (ruptures which are intended to take our breath away) can be seen as attacks on Herbert’s false hair but I wonder whether their cleverness can be seen as part of the winding stair. Prynne does all kinds of winding stairs, he does radical ambiguity, he does secondary and tertiary meanings, he does obscure references all of which might appear at variance with his desire to say how things are.

Poetry made with false hair.

I’m guessing that this extract from Simon Jarvis’ F0 is what Herbert had in mind:

The grey shades fall across the lintel and the steppes of lack still roll their perfect carpet out
Not like something upon which it is death to tread rather like some death which we are to be and to tread.
The sun is still felt to go down as this planet spins over it
No less lit when it turns away
Than is this inside
No darker or lighter than a thought.

There’s the poetic twists of the first line (‘shades fall’, steppes of lack’) followed by the repetition ruse in the second and the mannered syntax and distorted perspective of the last four. I speak as fan of Jarvis and consider him to be one of our most accomplished poets but I think this, by being too poetic, is the kind of thing that gives poetry a bad name.

On this theme, it is widely acknowledged that nobody does the English landscape as well as Geoffrey Hill, this is conceded even by those who dislike the rest of his output. It is therefore of some note that Hill is at his most poetic (and playing with false hairs) in this particular mode. This is the beginning of “In Ipsley Church Lane 2”:

Sage green through olive to oxidised copper
the rainward stone tower-face. Graveyard
blossoms come off in handfuls - the lilac
turned overnight a rough tobacco brown. Every few minutes the drizzle shakes
itself like a dog.

As poetry this is very accomplished and poetic (‘rainward’, drizzle shaking itself etc) with a lyricism that’s at odds with the rougher speech and language struggles that occur in his less popular and more challenging work. This, I feel, tells us a lot about what many critics and readers expect from poetry, that it should have false hair and embellish rather than heighten language.

The Dogme interlude.

(Bear with me, this does make a kind of sense.)

Last night I was watching the Mark Cousins thing on the history of film and he was interviewing Lars von Trier. Lars was explaining what he did with the camera in ‘Breaking the Waves’ and Cousins remarked that Godard did something similar in the early sixties. Lars smiled at this and gently explains that Godard was/is still caught up in the cinematic tradition of making film whereas he wanted to get rid of all that.

The point is that those who do poetry perhaps need to get rid of all that as well. It’s interesting that at Dogme hq there is Dreyer’s editing desk and perhaps poets and critics should take a look at “The Passion of Joan of Arc’ to be reminded of just how much can be done with less.

I’ve never been keen on Dogme because I’m not keen on artificial constraints but some ‘rules’ might be helpful in solving the poetry problem or at least in beginning to think about the problem.

The Stress Position Dither.

As I’ve already said there’s a degree of wavering in my head on this because of the brilliance of some of the poetic and lyrical stuff currently being written. There’s also the problem presented by the first part of Keston Sutherland’s ‘Stress Position’ which is written in metrical 7 line stanzas. The poem as a whole is a searing indictment of the dismal Iraq fiasco in general and the use of torture in particular. This is one of the stanzas:

   Wash your mouth, the rustle of sweetened Diyala inflected by affix
FACE 2, affix CONE GUTS 6, the life you rifle down
battering the slash of blood in procrustean sewage, never bespoke
free karaoke? The revolving door that leads to the emerald
has seven doors and seven plates of glass, the man who pushes
it round, who pushes the push bars, who pushes the meaning onward
himself is the spicy diglyceride, pre-cum for oil and water.

Regular readers will know that I’m a great fan of ‘Stress Position’ and consider it to be one of the best achievements in the last twenty five years. I also recognise that the above containsseveral examples of what I’m trying to identify as the problem. There’s the mannered use of words and phrases (‘rustle’, ‘procrustean sewage’ etc), the faux portentousness of revolving doors and the meaning being pushed onward and the repetition of ‘push’ are all tricks of the trade that we could do without.

The dither kicks in when I can recognise the inherent value of the work as a whole and can recognise why the first part is constructed in this way yet feel (uneasily) that the deployment of the poetic bag of tricks is very bad for the future of poetry in the current scheme of things. The other bit of wavering with regard to ‘Stress Position’ is my minority view that the prose section depicting a wedding reception is the most successful and effective part of the work.

John Ashbery and the Winding Stair.

Unlike George Herbert, I don’t have that much of a problem with the ‘winding stair’ and would argue that most ‘good structure’ is in the intelligent and subtle use of form and language. I do however worry about the ongoing influence of Ashbery on both sides of the Atlantic because I feel that his work epitomises what Herbert was trying to get at. I’m going to be glib and suggest that Ashbery is the current poet of the chattering classes, lauded in the quality press and taught extensively in North America and the UK. I remain a great admirer of Ashbery’s earlier work and of the effort that he has put in to champion other poets. It doen’t take a lot of attentive reading to come to the conclusion that most of his later work is fairly self-regarding and repetitive as if Ashbery has found his own winding stair, is sticking to it and wants us all to admire it. I accept that Ashbery can do this because he is John Ashbery and has the absolute right not to care about wider issues. I also feel that, given his ‘profile’ that this kind of stuff is very, very bad for poetry.

The Painted Chair and the Truth

For Herbert, God was the truth, his poems ends with ‘My God, My King!’ as an example of all that plain poetry needs to say. This may be entirely sufficient for religious poetry but doesn’t tally with the situation of poetry today. I would argue that poetry will only survive, other than as a niche for academics and hobbyists, if it challenges, disturbs and confronts our comfortable notions of the truth. The most successful poems that I have read in the ‘challenge and disturb’ department attempt tp say truthful things about difficult subjects- J H Prynne on the ‘Troubles’ Vanessa Place on rape and the nature of evidence and Keston Sutherland on the sexual identities of children. These are disturbing because none of them, as subjects, have easy solutions and the poets do not pretend to provide answers to the challenges that they provoke.

Reading and re-reading ‘Streak~~Willing~~Entourage~~Artesian’, ‘Statement of Facts’ and the yet-to-be-published ‘Odes’ is a disturbing experience but also one that has convinced me that this is the kind of relentlessly honest poetry that must survive and flourish.

Pattern Poems. Why?

This seems to have been following me around almost as much as the kenosis question. I think it started with Lachlan Mackinnon’s negative and bad tempered review of ‘Clavics’ and his reference to George Herbert’s ‘The Altar’. Then ‘Dionysus Crucified’ arrived which really does add a new dimension to this pattern business. I then buy The Herbert collection edited by Helen Wilcox and read her gloss on ‘H. Baptisme II’ and the fog began to lift. What follows is a number of examples coupled with questions that I don’t know the answer to.

The broad thrust of this enquiry is ‘why bother’? That is, why bother constructing a poem as an image of something when the words should be doing this job? The second part of this is doesn’t this kind of self-constraint lead to an inevitable decrease in quality? To be fair, I’ve given some consideration for the reverse (ish) process of painters who incorporate lines of verse into their work, both Kiefer and Twombly do this to good effect although with utterly different intent. So, I can see that the use of text can enhance visual images but I’m more than a little mystified by this patterning business in poems.

Then we come to the concrete poem and how this ‘relates’ to the pattern poem. I don’t want to dwell on this too much but in my head with concrete poems the image usually takes precedence over the text. However, the Wikipedia article on the gifted Iain Hamilton Finlay provides this definition: “poetry in which the layout and typography of the words contributes to its overall effect”. This could well apply to both and most sources cite Herbert as the earliest English ‘model’.

There’s also the nature of the image and how it might be ‘read’. Herbert’s ‘Altar’ is a poem in the shape of an altar, his Easter Wings are two stanzas in the shape of wings. The pattern of lines in ‘H Baptisme II’ is more abstract and therefore more open to interpretation. Here’s the first stanza-

                      Since, Lord, to thee
A narrow way and little gate
Is all passage, on my infancie
Thou didst lay hold, and antedate
My faith in me.

Wilcox quotes two critics who provide different readings as to shape, the first reads left to right and suggests a narrow entrance followed by expansion whereas the other reads to to bottom and suggests the ‘pattern of grace’ from small child to the sinfulness of adulthood and then the ‘renewed grace and humility of childhood in spirit’ Of course it also looks like an arrowhead and a quiver.

In her notes on sources to ‘The Altar’ Wilcox states that pattern poems originated in the Middle East and are also found in Classical poetry, she also points out that Puttenham refers to poems as ‘ocular representation’ in his influential ‘Arte of English Poesie’.

We now leap five hundred years and arrive at the oddness that is ‘Clavics’. There are several good things that can be said about the latest Hill sequence, the first being that it is much better in every way than ‘Oraclau’ which is a major relief for those of us who fretted that he might have completely lost the plot. The second is that it is mostly ‘about’ the 17th century and music, things that Hill does very well. The third good thing is that it has quite an overt mystical tinge.

There are thirty two poems in the ‘Clavics’ sequence and they all follow the same pattern. The second part of this pattern is a straight copy of Herbert’s ‘Easter Wings’ stanzas. In case there might be any dispute about this the ‘wings’ part of first poem quotes Herbert in the first two lines:

Intensive prayer is intensive care
Herbert says. I take it stress marks
Convey less care than flair
Shewing the works
As here
But if
Distressed attire
Be mere affect of clef
Dump my clavic books in the mire
And yes bid me strut myself off a cliff.

I don’t want to go into the meaning of this and I’m trying to ignore the bad jokes. Herbert fans may wish to point out that the stanzas were originally printed on their sides so that they look like wing but Hill knows that they were set out as above in the manuscript. It’s really important to recognise that Hill knows more than anyone else on the planet about English culture in the first half of the seventeenth century – most people seem to focus on his reputation for difficulty and overlook the fact that he is a brilliant critic, which is a pity.

So, this is an undiluted copy of ‘Easter Wings’ but the longer first part doesn’t follow either ‘The Altar’ or any of the other Herbert pattern poems which leaves me with a problem because its either a pattern by someone else that I’m not aware of or it’s of Hill’s own devising and is somehow a further expression of the ‘Clavics’ theme(s). The other more complex question is why would you want to make 32 poems that all have the same shape? If poets use patterns to in some way enhance what the words say, does this mean that all of these poems are saying more or less the same thing? As the answer to this is clearly ‘no’ then what (exactly) might Hill be hoping to achieve?

The first hypothesis is a kind of follow on from ‘Oraclau’, Geoffrey Hill has now reached the stage in his career (and perhaps in his life) where he is no longer concerned about the views of others and now does things because he wants to and because he can. The second is that he’s showing off that he can write 32 decent poems under this sort of constraint. The third is that he’s buying into the underlying Christian imagery deployed by Herbert.

Consider this:

As good epitaphs go Will Lawes is slain
Permit me, sire, is slain by such whose wills 
Be laws. Again
Swift and neat hand
Notate the viols
Flexures of styles
Extravagant command
Purposeful frills
What comes of the upthrust and downthrust pen
These fantasies constrained by their own strings
Narcissus then
Crowns fantasy
Feasts what feasts brings
Imaginings
Consort like winter sky
Drawn from the wings.
Jolt into the epilogue by your leave
As into a mixed skirmish, a rout,
Punched semibreve
Like fatal bullet through the fine slashed coat.

I’ve turned this on its side, I’ve imagined two stanzas with the break at ‘pen’, I’ve utilised my very limited knowledge of musical notation, I’ve tried to ‘see’ a type of door key, I’ve struggled with the sequence’s epigraphs in English, Middle English and Latin but none of these offer me a way into the rationale for this kind of obsessive patterning. I’d really like there to be a rationale to do with music because this would fit with the title (as relating to musical keys) and to the reappearance of the Lawes brothers. The above, which is the third part of poem 3, holds out some hope with ‘punched semibreve’ and ‘Notate the viols / flexures of styles’ but neither of these lead in any obvious way to the singular shape that the words make.

It isn’t that there aren’t further veiled hints, this is from poem 12:

                Leave as coda
Some form of code
Like sonnets of Spanish
Aristocracy

This is again infuriating in that it appears to say something crucial when in fact it’s not saying very much at all. At this point I am ready to give up because the effort is proving to be greater than the expected reward.

We now come to Simon Jarvis and several different patterns. Lets start with the obvious, metrical regularity over a number of pages with no typographical variations produces a very regular pattern. Most of ‘The Unconditional’ can be thought of as a very long regular pattern. This pattern of itself says ‘poem’ as do Prynne’s quatrains in the ‘Streak~~Willing~~Entourage~~Artesian’. In both cases the pattern on the page conforms closely to what people think poetry should look like. It is only when the words are read that this vision of conformity is undermined. In Jarvis’ case the same can be said for the ‘poemness’ of ‘Erlkonig’ and ‘Dinner’ in that the pattern is the pattern of poetry. e now come to the patterning in ‘F subscript zero’ some of which I’m tempted to describe as mannered:

                                        That's how you paint me
Left Summa of the war effort
Which from within
{I just decline
{ To break
{I just fail
Or to unmake
Or smash
More than a line
Could ever slake
Thirst not thirst for the Absolute by now as though known or imaginable only under the covering cherub of radical evil
| thirst for a drink

Without dwelling on the meaning, can there said to be a pattern in this? If there is I think we need to ask what it is hoping to achieve (if anything). I also need to make an irrational bias confession. When I was fifteen I had a friend who would write poems that had unfinished brackets strewn amongst them. When asked, he explained that this was because his life was like an open bracket. We thought this was really deep and it took me about three months to realise that it wasn’t. So, I’m starting with the hackles of suspicion already raised. It will also be noted that these are not ordinary brackets, the only time I’ve had cause to use these is when writing CSS style sheets but I very much doubt that a point is being made about page formatting. I’ve had a look at how this things are used when doing big sums and (as expected) I don’t understand the explanation and I fully accept that this is my problem rather than his. As far as I am able to ascertain (after three minutes of research) a single bracket by itself doesn’t signify anything.

I am assuming that ‘Summa’ and ‘Absolute’ point to an overt philosophical/theological context but I’m still having to guess where there’s this wide gap running down the middle part of this extract. I do however feel that we’re at the more abstract (as in ‘H Baptisme II’) end of the spectrum.

‘Dionysus Crucified’ does pattern in a number of extreme ways. Neither WordPress nor I have sufficient flexibility / skill to reproduce the patterns with any degree of accuracy but I will try and describe what might be going on. The first important fact is that these pages are very very big which allows for the extraordinary line length but also for the patterns to be displayed as intended.

One one page there is an outline of a cross with a number of letters and words arranged around these. There isn’t any immediately visual pattern to the words and they don’t ‘follow’ or mimic the shape of the cross.Some of the text in the first third of the page doesn’t follow a ‘normal’ left to right reading, there is this:

              S
T
R
I
N
G

This isn’t exact but it is reasonably close. On each of these lines there are other words and letters and parts of words so that we’re not sure what it is we’re supposed to be reading and in what order. Once we get below the arms of the cross this is no longer a problem and a left to right reading becomes (sort of) feasible.

The last page is entitled ‘CANTICLE’ and has a shape in that the way that the lines are arranged make a discernible shape. I’ve spent the last ten minutes looking at this shape and have only managed to come up with either flying saucer or luxury yacht. Neither of these is likely to be in any way accurate in that we’re very much in God / prayer / hymn territory and a left to right reading doesn’t work.

In conclusion I think I’m beginning to see the sense of using shape or pattern to enhance or underline different aspects of meaning or intent. I think ‘Holy Baptisme II’ functions more effectively than the better known ‘Altar’ and ‘Easter Wings’ because there’s less evidence of self-constraint detracting from the poem. I’m going to become much more familiar with ‘Clavics’ if I’m going to discover Hill’s rationale and life may be just too short. Simon Jarvis continues to set me a whole set of different challenges but I am interested (and impressed) enough to rise to the bait. This may not be A Good Thing.

Dionysus Crucified is still available from Grasp Press for only 11 quid. There is no excuse. Clavics and the Collected Herbert tome are both available on Amazon.

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
Durationless!

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’.

Simon Jarvis’ F Subscript Zero

I blame Neil Pattison.
At the beginning of July I was enthusing about ‘Dionysus Crucified’ and which I saw as a radical departure from Jarvis’ previous work which had been characterised by a quite defiant use of regular metre. I continued to enthuse through the comments thread which is where Neil informed me of F subscript zero’ which was published by Equipage in 2007. I received a copy about a month ago and what follows is an interim / provisional report about which (as ever) I reserve the right to change my mind.
The first thing to note is that it contains two poems, neither of which are written in regular metre which demolishes the above mentioned chronology. In fact, the verse in the first poem is decidedly free and the second contains some odd formatting. The title is the abbreviation for ‘fundamental frequency’ which Vance Maverick has helpfully defined as
“within any tone, it’s the lowest frequency of any component. So If I sing a C, sounding about 125 Hz, that’s F0 — the overtones above it, which also contribute to the sound, are F1, F2, etc. (Of course, when an instrument plays its lowest note, that note has an F0 too.)”
The first poem would appear to have two titles, the first being “ODE” which appears in very large letters on an otherwise blank page and the second being “At home with Paul Burrell” which appears at the top of the first page of verse. This poem also carries an epigraph- “Immer zu! Immer zu!” in very small italics.
For those who who don’t know, Paul Burrell was butler to Princess Diana and became imbroigled in a fairly public row about some items belonging to Diana that found their way into his possession. As a result of this Burrell becama one of those minor celebrities beloved of the popular press. “At home with” is a headline used by magazines like ‘Hello’.
These preliminaries aside, the first few lines make it clear that we’re in Jarvis territory by which I mean that we’re dealing with poetry where nothing much happens but it happens in really interesting ways and with a strong leaning towards the abstract. The first seven lines are:

"Pudge blinks up or is it glints up from an area of skin pushed out as a fat
fat reserve held against no imaginable lack under the jawbone.
An eye glassy with its declaration of fair dealing first fixes then blurs its blue
or grey trompe window cum aperture into what were the most seeing or most living
or as a hole through which we can gaze into the trace left by a paralogism
or as one of two little caverns frankly welcoming two other little caverns of mine
into it/our ownmost shared inner expectorated category mistake."

I may be wrong but I cant think of anyone else who writes quite like this. I’d like to draw attention to ‘no imaginable lack’, ‘trace left by a paralogism’ and ‘inner expectorated category mistake’. There will be many who will view such phrases as being either unbelievably pretentious or far too mannered for their own good. There have been times in the last month when I have shared this view but now I’m not so sure.

It is worth bearing in mind Jarvis’ view that poetry is an excellent way of doing philosophy and also that doing difficult or ambitious things often comes with a price. The standard, sensible response to reading the above as the start of a six and a quarter page poem would be to put it down and not proceed any further but I’d like to suggest that those who do peresevere will be rewarded. I’m not suggesting that this is an easy ride and that all it takes is to re-adjust your head in line with the Jarvis thesis. What I am suggesting is that this overt attempt to put his thesis into practice has resulted in some of the most startling and though-provoking verse of the last decade.

The above use of ‘parologism’ and ‘category mistake’ announce Jarvis’ intent and the use of many clauses in one sentence echoes the digressive habits of ‘The Unconditional’.

Reviewing ‘The Unconditional’ in Jacket Tom Jones described the poem as “scholarly and in part its scholarship is part of Jarvis’ professional life”. I’ve spent the last few weeks thinking about whether I agree with that observation and what a scholarly poem might look like. I’ve decided that the term is less than useful because it implies an excess of objectivity which is inimical to the production of verse. One could argue that the ‘Maximus’ poems are scholarly because they are based to some extent on Olson’s archive-based research and are informed by Process and Reality but this would to overlook the utterly biased way that Olson argues his case. There is more of a case to be made for the astronomical aspects of ‘Paradise Lost’ being viewed as scholarly because they are based on contemporary science but nobody would argue that astronomy was Milton’s main ‘point’.
Jarvis’ professional life does however throw some light on this poem but more as a way of understanding one particular piece of polemic. He has written a well respected tome on Adorno in which he waxes eloquently and enthusiastically about the major elements of the Frankfurt School. This isn’t at all surprising as most poets writing in or around the Cambridge vein have bought into the Adorno view. One aspect of this view is its ingrained and unapologetic positivism and another is the view that poetry somehow has a privileged position as a means of creative expression. This particular breed of positivism is deeply/violently against most aspects of post structuralism and especially the works of Jacques Derrida. I now need to quote a lengthy extract which displays this tendency I’m providing such a large chunk because I want to try and avoid taking something out of context-

ready to call all bliss abstract from its long laboured fund of public inattention which is
at once a wrong screen and an exact measure of all goods failing to find a port
at once cloud and the only lit ghost of majesty not babied in blue melancholy
which is a flood at once drowning so punishing and so or and illuminating this dark orb
or which would be at once both saint and criminal only by virtue of this Mobius-at-once generale gloats
taking the hiatus in the a a tongue has broken down for mere representation of breakdown and thus
taking all breaks only for an imaginary slippage and hence whispering or otherwise repeating
a disowned indifferent cosmology of perennial deferal and differing eyelessly in its
refusal to speak a cosmology but instead just slid up topless topologies displacing all top
viz an insideless life no life but built like an invisible brainless bottle or blurred into lobbed blobs
innerless outerless upperless lossles less here than there, deathless, seamless, nested & recursive
less even like 'an advanced credit system' that it is a causality-through-freedom of holding companies
than it is the way my eye flees from sight of a pupil to a fugitively lit corner of restrained eyewear
than it is like the way my ear drops from the grain of an insignificant abrasion to its indexical stuff
than it is like the way my tongue slips from a kiss to a lick collecting some sundry or some sexy data
hand flips from a caress to a blow than it is like how in any event I may not discriminate a quality and how I may not discern a change

I’ve written at length about the ‘Stripogrammatology’ quip in Keston Sutherland’s ‘Stress Position’ and have been critical of both its brevity and the abusive terms in which it is expressed. To be fair, Sutherland has put forward a vigorous defence of the two lines in question and I think we’ve agreed to differ. My primary concern was the fact that it’s intellectually shallow to dismiss Derrida in two lines. The above however is a much fuller critique of how the Anglo Saxon academy views deconstruction in general and the controversial ‘Differance’ essay in particular. I have to concede that it ‘works’ in that it is an effective statement in verse form of the standard position and that there are many good ‘philosophical’ bits, in fact I find the first ten lines to be quite stunning, especially ‘babied in blue melancholy’, ‘Mobius-at-once generale’ and ‘just slid up into topless topologies’. After line ten things get a bit too mannered for my liking without adding very much to what’s gone before but the whole does represent a poetic way of doing philosophy.
I need at this stage to come clean with the fact that I don’t share the Jarvis/Sutherland line on this particular subject and I would question whether the above standard refutation is an accurate reflection of what Derrida was about and whether this particular piece of condemnation latches on to the weaker bits of this particular essay or is just another wide-angled volley in the hope of taking a few prisoners. I’d also question whether Derrida actually did philosophy, but then again I’d ask the same question about Adorno.
The other point is that I had to read the above three or four times before I realised what was going on which indicates that I probably need to pay more careful attention to the rest of it.
I don’t want to say much more at the moment because I’m still trying to get my brain around most of it and haven’t yet begun to think about the second poem. Some bits are very experimental-

then but
so not

Some of these make sense whilst others at the moment are merely annoying. As for Paul Burrell…….