Tag Archives: Lessons and Carols

Simon Jarvis and spirits and counter-fictions.

This is the third and final attempt to get my small brain around ‘Lessons and Carols’ from last year’s ‘Eighteen Poems’ collection. There is no guarantee that I’ll get to the bottom of this remarkable poem in terms of all that it has to say but it’s probably time to move on. What follows, as ever, is entirely provisional and I reserve the right to change my mind.

I occasionally get brief flashes of recognition or (even) insight into what things might be trying to say but I need to be careful because these often lead me into imposing the meanings that I may agree with rather than what is actually there. As I finished the second piece on this poem such a flash flickered across my brain and it’s still lingering around , it relates to these lines:


  knowing at once in these spiritual tunes the sound of what comes
straight from the other world, straight from enchantment and straight
  from the terrible kingdom of non-love, of freedom and absence and longing,
so do these presents stand vigilant there at the window.

The spirits are fictions, the gifts are their counter-fictions.

The flicker was sparked by the vigilance of the presents which took me into social policy mode. I spent far too many years of my professional life dealing with aspects of the British underclass and was very aware that the main function of this group is to act as central plank of social control. One of the main reasons that we economically conform and play the material/status game is that we don’t want to fall into the chaotic and seemingly cursed world of the Undeserving Poor. The other aspect of crass materialism is that we use objects to reassure ourselves and others that we are far removed from that kind of deprivation.

So, I’m provisionally reading this kingdom of non-love as the sink estates where these difficult and dangerous souls eke out a hand-to-mouth existence and the vigilant presents as fictive or illusory guards against falling into this realm of freedom and absence and longing.

This is probably far too neat but I can discern something of Adorno’s reference to thought having become its own watchdog although his inherent pessimism takes the above to a more extreme and bleak place.

I wasn’t going to do this but it probably needs to be noted that the fictive but compelling lures and snares of late capital have occurred in previous poems. This is from ‘At Home with Paul Burrell’ which was published in 2007:

(You’re going to have to scroll off the screen for this but I think it’s important to preserve line length and the shape of this material.)

Yes my daughter everywhere false immediacy glints at a lure or pastes this slip of null now back over everywhere.
   Yes everywhere mediation curls up into the no less false shape of a blind trust.

And this is from the brilliant and ground-breaking and generally wonderful ‘Dionysus Crucified’ published in 2011:

                                              Spirit-seducingly all the kind wives & the mothers: every one of us has a face made of cash
Every one of us now wears the mask of sold labour and each time I look in a face 
  All that comes back is the answer of cash and of freedom from love turned up in a picture of ideal & absolute * perfectly perceptless sex
All that comes back is the light not light but elicited twinkles of lusterous sold simulacra of faces, the person I wear to the bank.

Of course, it can (and should) be argued that I’m attempting to prop up this tottering edifice by ripping lines out of their original context/meaning. I’m guilty as charged but this ‘lesson’ as to the fictive and increasingly mindless nature of our passive existence is at least a bit of thread.

You’e delighted to know that I’m going to glide over perceptless sex and return to the spirits. I think it’s reasonable consider at least a few possible meanings for this tricky noun. The common factor in most of these would appear to be the absence of the physical or tangible. There’s the various religious and theological meanings, there’s the distinctly Hegelian ‘geist’ as in the force or thrust of progress, there’s spirit as a characterising feature or essence, there’s spirit as soul and as the thing that lives on after death.

All or any of these throws up number of challenges to the above – we are told that these spirits are ‘fictions’ but that doesn’t quite equate with the very real function that they undertake. The desire to play the status game and the fear of a slide into poverty and deprivation are very real for most of us, it can be argued these are merely illusory barriers but they aren’t fictive- they are very real and effective devices that are at least in part responsible for the cultural and social blandification that we see around us.

I hope these three attempts give some indication of the quality and depth of ‘Lessons and Carols’ – am now torn between moving on to ‘Night Office’ or paying some more attention to Burrell and the remarkable Dionysus.

Simon Jarvis, Adorno and complicity

This is the second attempt to do some kind of justice to “Lessons and Carols” from the recent ‘Eighteen Poems’ collection. In view of the response to the first attempt, I think I should reiterate that what follows is entirely provisional and that I am likely to change my mind as time goes by.

This particular poem is ‘about’ many things but one of the centralish threads would seem to be that we participate in the current ways of doing even though we deplore them and, in turn, deplore ourselves for knowing this and continuing to participate. Before taking this any further, I think that I should present some evidence for this bold assertion:

    All that I feel for them floats in an ether of foolish
      half-waking conjecture, cutting the circuit short just
    where thought might become painful, might tell me how to wake up.

The ‘them’ refers to the gifts that we buy for family members at Xmas and I’m currently reading these as a kind of metaphor for all the products of the free marketplace- a place that lulls us into this kind of anaesthetized thoughtless folly. This is accomplished stuff in that it covers a lot of ground in just three lines and carries a couple of deft phrases. This ‘half-waking conjecture’ in which feelings float is effective but I’m not entirely sure that it can be described as ‘foolish’ – the point for me is that my participation in this bauble-driven world is anything but foolish, I am fully aware of the compromises that I make and tell myself all kinds of stories (at least I’m doing something, I try to live an honest and decent life etc etc) to make this reasonably bearable.

Just after writing the above paragraph I fell across (in a big book about Gerhard Richter) a quote from Adorno which may inform some part of this theme:

Whilst thought has forgotten how to think itself, it has at the same time become its own watchdog. Thinking no longer means anything more than checking at each moment whether one can indeed think….The socialization of mind keeps it boxed in, isolated in a glass case, as long as society is itself imprisoned.

Jarvis is probably this country’s strongest Adorno advocate, his ‘Critical Introduction’ is an incisive endorsement of all aspects of the Adorno project. Coupling this with Jarvis’ view that poetry can ‘do’ philosophy really well and it is possible to read ‘Lessons and Carols’ as a working through of what Richard Haidu describes as Adorno’s ‘testy pessimism’.

I don’t share this pessimism although I can see that the analysis behind it has some merit. I’m more convinced by the gauntlet that Bourdieu throws down in ‘Distinction’ which points out that all forms of creative expression are fundamentally tied to the prevailing economic order. I’d like to think that most of my adult life has been spent finding ways to act/intervene that make small but incremental changes to this dynamic. If I didn’t do this then I’d probably remain in the Slough of Despond for a Very Long Time.

So, this poem offers both an ideological and personal challenge that asks questions about the current Bebrowed strategy for changing the world. It also further undermines my view that poetry and ideology don’t mix. Jarvis’ work over recent years has moved me closer to a grudging acknowledgement that poetry that ‘does’ ideology can be successful in both arenas.

This is an accomplished and adept poem but it sometimes goes over the top in making its point. The second ‘might’ on the third line quoted above is an example of (to my ear) too much emphasis being given so that the ‘message’ is diluted.

The other aspect that springs to mind is the use of the first person to make the wider point- he presents his own situation as being compromised by ordinary things and thus gently suggests that the reader should consider the extent of compromise in his/her own life. This is of course well worn device but Jarvis gives it a final twist:


    May the bereft state continue its care for our welfare
      there in the dark, where its artless security shines!
    I shall go walking back home, while these measures and lines
      borrow some part of their tune from the fictional spirits.

I’m not usually a fan of the self referential in poetry. There was a time when I thought it was clever and daring but now I find most of it to be too knowing and mannered for its own good and this is probably a reasonable example. The theme has already been spelled out with some aplomb but is somewhat undermined by this ending which seems to say that only ‘some part’ of the poem is bound up with society’s imprisonment whilst Adorno and Bourdieu would both say that all of creative expression is thus fettered.

I also need to confess that I don’t understand the exclamation mark which seems simply inept but Jarvis is too accomplished to succumb to this level of naffness.

This is a provisional reading that’s in some kind of progress, on the next occasion I want to tackle the more complex nature of the spirits and the gifts.

Simon Jarvis and the Bloke Thing

We’ll do the puppy dog enthusiasm first. Anyone with even a passing interest in English poetry in the 21st century needs to obtain a copy of Jarvis’ ‘Eighteen Poems’ which was published by Eyewear at the end of last year. This is because his work is important and exciting and more challenging than almost everything else that I’ve read in the last ten years. End of the tail-wagging thing.

One of the recurring themes in Jarvis’ very broad range of work is the plight of the middle aged bloke, one of the other themes/interests is the Great British road network. I’ve had a few problems with the bloke thing because it’s felt scratchy but never quite scratchy enough although there are elements of ‘The Unconditional’ that come close. The usual Jarvis angle on the Bloke Thing is the troubled issue of complicity with regard to cash and the extent to which we all have to play capital’s game. Many, many middle aged writers do this and most of it is an extended whinge about how difficult life is and how the ways of the world force us into new depths of melancholic sadness. The Jarvis take is usually more effective than this and the first poem in this collection raises the Bloke Thing to new heights of non-wallowing expression. These are the opening lines of ‘Lessons and Carols’

    The ring road rests, and frost settles over the meadow;
      down at the river the lights are strung out into faint
    points of attention and silence envelops the dark.
      Here I am standing again on the path on the edge of the city.
    Here I am set with a face looking up at the black
      exit from lighting, the place where the money runs out.

This sets the scene for an elegaic account of Bloke Things which seems to use metre to set up a kind of incantation effect. I’ll deal with this shortly but I think the most striking feature of the above lines are their lyrical strength- I’m particularly fond of ‘faint / points of attention’ and ‘the black / exit from lighting’ because both do clever and evocative things in a few words. The ‘points of attention’ manages to be both lyrical and complex without seeming to try.

I’m going to ignore the ringness of the resting road for the moment and talk a bit more about this Bloke Thing. There has always been a miserablist faction within the Bloke school of poets and this kind of self-lacerating exhibitionism has won more than a few plaudits and continues to do so. This is fair enough, there’s obviously a readership for what Drayton once call ‘ah, me’ verse but I find it inherently dishonest and reasonably loathsome so I approach the Jarvis forays into this territory with a degree of prejudice. It turns out here that he’s not pleading for sympathy but delivering a thesis that’s been one of his semi-formed bones of contention for a while. He’s also elaborating on the Bloke as Dad gizmo in a way that Doesn’t Quite Work.

We’ll continue with the retail problem, J H Prynne is more than a little scornful of the devices used to get us to buy things but Jarvis seems intent on taking this to a new level:


      Each knows, sees us. Although we can never believe it,
    under this laboured neutrality lurks a persisting
      terror of scorning them, terror of giving offence to them.
    We must by gifts; we must come to the store,
      leaving our monoglot offerings there at the checkout
    leaving with objects apparently filled up with life.
 

Most blokes will confess to disliking shopping (I’m banned from shopping because of my obvious desire to get the whole thing over as quickly as possible) but this is an analysis, description of how retail is supposed to work on our soul and make us feel inadequate if we don’t participate to the full. It’s very well done and sustained through most of the poem and I like it because it gives me something to test my own prejudices and phobias against- I’ve long been of the view that we can’t live on this planet without being compromised by the money machine and that retail does a reasonable job of pulling us in further by means of deception and guile but I’m not convinced that in the many Blokes there ‘lurks a persisting terror’ of ignoring the whole rigmarole. In fact I think most people are aware of the compromises involved and ‘succumb’ anyway- which is probably more worrying but akin to the feeling that the current austerity binge is somehow our fault.

I’m not sure that ‘apparently’ works on the last line but the rest is another example of Jarvis using metrical constraint to get his point across.

The road/driving motif is preserved with

    the telephone smooth as a baby, the shallow recessed
      hand-holds which welcome me into my family car,
    all are quite empty of thought or motive: all, all
      think nothing at all, think all that a stone thinks or less than it.
    All that I feel for them floats in an ether of foolish 
      half-waking conjecture, cutting the circuit short just
    where thought might become painful, might tell me how to wake up.

This is brilliant because it uses simple objects and our feelings about them to make a wider point. It doesn’t matter that the point has been made many times before- what matters here is the ery human elegance with which it is expressed. The ‘ether of foolish half-waking conjecture’ is wonderful and currently the subject of some debate in the Bebrowed household.

I’m not entirely clear that the dilemma of the Bloke as Dad theme works quite as well because it’s trying to do too many things and has this:


    just as a father wants to protect his dear children
      holds them against him, enfolds them in cuddles, for fear
    that his own strength will be too small to save them all, knowing
      he floats like a twig in a river of pitiless money

I am going to come back to this and the conclusion at a later date because I think it needs to be unpicked in the context of the Jarvis Project as a whole but for now I’d like to conclude that this is brilliantly expressed, thought-provoking stuff and that ‘cuddles’ really doesn’t work on any level. At all.