Tag Archives: simon jarvis

Bad lines in Good poems.

I’ve just put a page on pt 5 of ‘In Parenthesis’ on arduity. As ever, any feedback would be much appreciated.

Whilst extolling the brilliance of this masterpiece, I came across a couple of lines that could be described as Not Very Good which was a bit of a shock because Jones (in my head) is almost perfect and this got me to thinking about other bad lines in brilliant poems. So, what follows is a compilation of those examples that most readily spring to mind. The bebrowed definition of Not Very Good in this context relates, I think, to a line or two that is out of place and jars with the rest of the poem, lines that sound dissonant when read aloud. I think there’s a difference between these and Keston Sutherland’s depiction of the wrong line because that would seem to be more about apparent banality or the non-poetic in a line which nevertheless works.

This selection is personal and subjective, I’ve chosen to concentrate on poems that I feel are excellent but nevertheless are let down by this small blemish.

John Milton and ‘Lycidas’

This has been called the greatest elegy in English literature, its subject is Edward King who was at Cambridge with Milton and who drowned in 1637. I’m of the view that Milton never does lines of the above sort, in fact I’ve never been able to locate a bad line in the entire length of ‘Paradise Lost’ but the fourth and fifth lines here do seem to be out of place:

Where your old bards, the famous Druids lie,
Nor on the shaggy top of Mona high,
Nor yet where Deva spreads her wizard streams
Ay me, I fondly dream!
Had ye been there.....for what could that have done?
How could the muse herself that Orpheus bore,
The muse herself for her enchanting son
Whom universal nature did lament,

I know that this is intended as a sudden cry of hearfelt anguish and is meant to be dissonant but it does need to be strong and well put together and neither ‘Ay me’ nor ‘and ‘what could that have done?’ are up to the task. It isn’t anguished enough nor lyrical enough to justify its presence. It might be argued that this lack of verbal skill is the ‘point’ that this interjection deliberately refuses to work so as to express the depth of human feeling but the fact remains that there is little anguish in ‘what could that have done’ and that it feels both gratuitous and inept. Perhaps Milton was trying to imitate the sudden outbursts in the work of George Herbert which was published a few years before but Herbert’s interjections are both strong and believable whereas this isn’t.

Simon Jarvis and ‘The Unconditional’.

I have said this before but the above is one of the most important publications of the last thirty years. It runs to 236 pages, it is brilliantly and infuriatingly digressive and defiantly metrical. It is also deeply subversive and I don’t understand why this fact isn’t more widely recognised. It isn’t an easy read but it is important and more than repays the attention that is paid to it. It was published in 2005 and is still available from Barque Press for a mere fifteen quid.

One aspect of the Jarvis thesis is that prosody is helpful when expressing complex or philosophical ideas and ‘The Unconditional’ is, among many other things, an example of this. However, there are a few lines where things go a bit awry and one of these serves to undermine a particularly brilliant passage:

        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 a shoppers loves
still wearily enduring falling sales
still waiting for authenticated close
or still abiding till 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.
The hue of the metallic colouring on
his complicit vehicle accompanying him
could barely properly be named as blue-
fantastically overpropertied as though blue left blue for a blue elsewhere
or settled only in the skull of an
acatastatical erotomane
whose dream then taking vehicle form
inflicts whatever violence it can
on any object-field whose lightest flinch
might intimate a rustable flaw beneath
with a pure undersong of "blue, blue, blue".
Serene irony fell into the wrong tax bracket.

I’ve quoted this at length to emphasis the damage that a line can do. On an initial reading I thought it was the last word in ‘But he was nowhere near the area’ that was wrong, that ‘area’ seemed so out of place in the lyrical brilliance of what precedes and follows it but I’ve now decided that it is the line itself that is the problem. Both the portrayal of the commercial traveller and the improvisation on the colour of the ‘complicit vehicle’ are sustained passage of lyrical invention and technical flair but both of these are let down by the presence of this one decidedly dull line. The other issue is that I don’t entirely understand what it is supposed to be doing, it doesn’t add greatly to the sense of what’s being said and even by page 19 most of us will have recognised that =x. is disposed to this kind of self-lacerating melancholia. it is therefore difficult to see what these three lines might add.

Whilst I’ve got the opportunity, I would like to draw your attention to the brilliance of “as though blue left blue for a blue elsewhere” which is almost as good as “on any object field whose lightest flinch / might intimate a rustable flaw beneath” which is obviously wonderful.

As with Milton, this kind of ineptitude is completely out of character for Jarvis and for ‘The Unconditional’ in particular, it may of course be that this is deliberately ‘wrong’ but this kind of knowing wink is absent from the rest of the poem and doesn’t occur in what Jarvis has published since. I’ve now read the poem four times and this remains the bit that is most strikingly bad, there are other sections and lines that are overly self-indulgent, obscure or badly expressed but this is the only line that seems to be irredeemably bad.

David Jones and ‘In Parenthesis’

Anyone who doesn’t think that David Jones was one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century either hasn’t read any of his work or is a complete fool. Tom Dilworth’s claim that ‘In Parenthesis’ is one of the five great war books that we have seems to me to be an altogether reasonable claim. Having spent the last ten days or so thinking and writing about it for arduity, I now have to report that it isn’t perfect and that there is at least a couple of lines that should have been cut.

The poem recounts Jones’ experience of his service in World Ward One leading up to and including the assault on Mametz Wood during the Somme offensive in July 1916. This is from Part Five and is a dialogue between two French civilians who run the bar that the troops frequent during rest periods away from the trenches:

        She bolted the door for the night
and when it was morning
Jacques said that the Englishman's guns had kept him awake.
She said that it was a pleasant morning, and the first in June.
He said it was time the English advanced, that there wera a
stupid race, anyhow.
She said they were not.
He would like to remind her of the Pastoral,
for which she laughed a long time.
with: Vah, vah,
and her head wagging
with: La - la la, and her finger pointed, with:
Tawny-tooth go watch the priest, and:
She said that the war was lucrative and chid him feed the
fowl, and smoothed her pinafore: sometimes the Siege Artil-
lery came in during the morning, if there wasn't a shoot on.

Jones glosses ‘Tawny-tooth…bent wit’ as “Cf. Skelton. I cannot find the passage I had in mind”- and neither can I, even with the assistance of the Adobe ‘find’ gizmo. In some notes Jones also explains why he is using a particular quotation but chooses not to do so here. I have a couple of concerns:

  • the two lines spoil the rest which is a reasonably straightforward account of a conversation that isn’t at all difficult to follow;,
  • if you are going to quote something then you should try and make sure of it’s accuracy;
  • if you know that the quote might be spurious and you are providing notes then you should explain (as you do elsewhere) what you were hoping to achieve.

It could be argued that this was an innovative and experimental work but there are elsewhere sustained pieces of experimental brilliance that do what they should whereas we will never know what this was meant to achieve, it serves simply to get in the way.

So, none of the above examples are essential to the poem and could be removed without too much difficulty and perhaps it’s this more than the poor quality that I find most difficult. None of these do serious damage to the rest of the poem and I would urge all readers to read the last two, you won’t be disappointed.

‘In Parenthesis’ is currently available from Amazon at just over twelve of your finest English pounds.

Simon Jarvis, Strong Poets and Hell

I was going to write something about the talking road but my eye has been caught by a passage three-quarters of the way through ‘The Unconditional’. For those few not yet familiar with this remarkable piece of work, it is a very long and very metrical poem. For those not familiar with the Jarvis thesis that poetry is Quite a Good Way of doing philosophy, please see previous posts on this blog and Tom Jones’ review which deals with the philosophy in a more structured way. On a personal note, I have a complex relationship with this poem, initially it took me more than a few attempts to get to the end of its 240 pages- normally I would have given up but it did appear to be doing something quite different and this kept on drawing me back in.

There are some bits, especially on music, that are too obscure for their own good and the shadow of Adorno does loom large and makes at least one brief appearance (under his birth name). This aside, I’m now on my fourth reading and am getting more out of it each time.

One of the main difficulties with this poem is the number and length of digressions, there are very many of these and they can go on for several pages.

The poem ostensibly narrates the story of a journey and contains a hero and a villain with a number of other characters in between. The villain is Agramant and this is the section that caught my eye:

         Every little thing's going to be all right.
So says the bottom of the glass in spades.
A glazing over yet to drone of screen
sees in an acreage of sponsored baize
Satan at matchplay bowls give hm one grin
coming as though straight out of the machine
inviting Agramant to notice well
how all made things wag gently round to hell.
Strong poets flopped around beside the pool
grimacing as the Weaker brought them drinks
(whose think-transporters would shed half their load
for one smile from the lips of Frank Kermode)
thus interrupting the important work
of strenuous clinamens sightlessly
performed by leaving out what most they loved
while turning deaf ears to all mere technique
preferring Theoria to the sleek
or roughened particles of letterage

In addition, at the right side of the page between ‘grimacing’ and ‘sightlessly’ there is this in a slightly smaller font:

How is it then, being
both the best general
and the best rhapsode
among us, that you
continually go about
Greece rhapsodizing
and never lead our

The odd thing is that on either the second or third readings I’ve made comments and underlined bits of the previous two pages but missed this altogether. However, I think it bears thinking about because of the way in which it appears to say a number of things. We need to get some stuff out of the way before proceeding. Frank Kermode was this country’s leading literary critic for many years until his death in 2010. The adjective ‘strong’ when applied to poetry is generally ascribed to Harold Bloom (a leading American critic) who also made use of ‘clinamen’ which we will return to. Agramant is derived from the character of the same name in Ariosto’s ‘Orlando Furioso’. Matchplay bowls is a game played in England both indoors and out, I’m taking it that the reference to baize refers here to the indoor version. Finally, Jarvis is against all flavours of the post-structural and what he views as its attendant relativism.

This first line is a straightforward quote from Bob Marley’s ‘Three Little Birds’, the preceding line is “Don’t worry about a thing”. The second line of world-weary cynicism/realism is one of the moods of the poem, Jarvis does male self-loathing and defeat in spades. The next line is the first of a six line sentence and doesn’t make grammatical sense, I accept that Jarvis adopts and moulds syntax as most poets do but I can only vaguely work out what he’s saying. I use the term to ‘glaze over’ as my response to something that I have to listen to that I find numbingly boring or (worse) self-evident and I assume we’re not just playing with glass / glazing / screen here but then again this just might be the case. I’m taking this to mean that Agramant that when Agramant begins to glaze over, Satan appears (as if in a dream because glazing over can lead to sleep) and is either playing or watching a game of bowls. It may or may note be important to note that it is the ‘baize’ that is sponsored rather than the match although “matchplay” sounds a bit corporate to me.

Agramant isn’t a stereotypical bad person in that he has both nuance and depth, there are hints that Doing Bad Things is more a result of a fractured (but clever personalitY) than any notion of evil. I’ve tried hard to reconcile my reading of Agramant with Jones’ ‘Spenserian’ tag but all of the villains in the Faerie Queene don’t do either depth or nuance and most are presented as being reasonably evil. I also need to note that Jarvis’ Agramant is much more likeable than Ariosto’s.

So, Agramant is given a single grin by Satan and this single grin is projected as if being expelled from ‘the’ machine and signifies the sad fact that all made things arrive (gently) in hell. ‘Wag’ is probably worthy of more attention, I’m not going to list all the definions that the OED gives for the verb but here are those the might be relevant:

  • to be in motion or activity; to stir, move. Now colloq. (chiefly in negative context), to stir, move one’s limbs;
  • to totter, stagger, be in danger of falling;
  • to oscillate, shake, or sway alternately in opposite directions, as something working on a pivot, fitting loosely in a socket, or the like. Of a boat or ship: To rock;
  • of leaves, corn, reeds, etc.: To waver, shake;
  • to waver, vacillate;
  • to dangle on the gallows, be hanged;
  • To move about from place to place; to wander. Also, to drift (in water);

Then there’s the proverbs, the most relevant of which would appear to be ’tis merry in hell when beards wag all’ but I can’t ties this in with the wagging of all manufactured or created (as opposed to ‘natural’) things. Unless of course ‘made’ is used in the sense of being a full member of the Mafia.

I’m of the view that the use of wag here incorporates all of the above with the possible exception of the wavering corn.

We then have this drunken illusion of things working themselves out (incidentally, the original lyric seems to suggest that the birds on the doorstep started to sing after Bob had lit his first smoke of the day) and this inevitability of all inauthentic things ending up in hell. I also need to point out that I am completely indifferent to matchplay bowls providing I don’t have to watch it- perhaps that’s the point.

There now occurs what seems to be a huge leap to a swimming pool and these two groups of poets. I’m a bit wary of poems that are directly about the making of poems and especially when the point being made is best appreciated by poets of a certain tendency. All the same, we have these overt references to Harold Bloom and some fun being had at the Weaker poets’ abject desire for some recognition from Frank Kermode. I think it needs to be said that my jury is still out on the flamboyant Bloom who does seem to have a way with the grand gesture but avoids doin g the hard work. From memory, ‘strong’ poets are those whose work will stand the test of time and I believe that Bloom singled out one Geoffrey Hill as the strongest poet currently writing in English. Weak poetry won’t stand the test of time, hence the need of a kind word from our foremost critic.

Prior to a couple of weeks ago, I hadn’t given ‘clinamen’ any kind of thought until Pierre Joris suggested it as a Deleuzian alternative to Celan’s use of ‘the angle of inclination’ in ‘The Meridian’ but here it is again. Of course I’d like this clinamen to be an endorsement of Deleuze’s multiplicities- clinamen is defined as “the original determination of the direction of movement, the synthesis of movement and its direction which relates one atom to another” in ‘Difference and Repetition’ but I must confess that it is much, much more likely to be used in the way that Bloom used it to describe the way in which poets attempt to avoid the influence of those that have gone before. This was first propagated in ‘The Anxiety of Influence’ in 1973 but it didn’t provide a thorough / accurate analysis of what influence is and how it might work. I know this because I don’t understand any of this and read ‘Anxiety’ many years ago in the forlorn hope of some assistance.

I can only observe here that the Kermode joke isn’t very good and ask whether or not we are still in hell or in some other kind of dystopia. Of course, Jarvis can’t be accused of ignoring technique, nor of being enamoured of the latest (usually French) theories. What isn’t so well known is Jarvis interest in and advocacy of the ‘letterage’ used for British road signs particularly those designed by Jock Kinnear and Margaret Calvert from 1957-67. This would lead me to suppose that these poets are weak because they are writing material that is the opposite of ‘The Unconditional’.

There is a vague chance that the prose relates in some way to the Keats translation of Plato’s Ion and that the general / rhapsode divide might reflect the split between the teacher of poetry / prosody and the maker of this poem. I still have no idea why it occurs here nor its purpose, annotations are supposed to make things clearer- aren’t they? I’m also in the dark with regard to the strong poets’ grimace and the reason for the or in ‘sleek or roughened’ so I might return to this in the next few weeks. I hope this has given a flavour of this remarkable work and will encourage others in to paying it some attention.

‘The Unconditional’ is sold by Barque Press for £15 and is well worth every single penny.

Dipping into ‘The Unconditional’

Regular readers will know that I have a complex relationship with the above poem by Simon Jarvis which was published by Barque in 2005. This complexity has the following components:

  • the poem is 236 pages in length
  • I really like long poems
  • the poem is defiantly metrical and this may have something to do with the Jarvis view that philosophical poetry is best done within some kind of constraint;
  • the poem is almost obsessively digressive as if it wants to leave nothing out;
  • I really like digression but found the length of the digressions and the detail that they contain very difficult to carry in my small brain;
  • Jarvis is very good on traffic;
  • I think more serious poetry should be written about traffic;
  • it took me ten attempts and many months for me to read all of it;
  • I’ve read it again and am now of the view that it is an important and subversive piece of work that should be more widely read.

In the past I have considered it heretical to dip into long poems because there are so many things that will be missed if you only read a section. So, for many years I’ve read and re-read ‘The Faerie Queene’ and ‘Paradise Lost’ all the way through, except for the rivers and genealogy sections in FQ and have found this to be enjoyable even though there are bits of both that are quite tedious. Recently however, I’ve begun to just read sections or even parts of sections so as to give specific aspects more attention and this doesn’t seem to be problematic, in fact I’ve noticed more things this way than I would with an end-to-end reading.

‘The unconditional’ is a long poem but it is also a poem that requires a degree of sustained concentration that I’ve found to be quite demanding even though the second reading was much less arduous than the first. I’ve therefore embarked on a series of dips and these have proved surprisingly fruitful. I’d like to use pp130-1 to show what I mean. One of the poem’s main characters is Jobless whose life has been crushed by the cruel realities of contemporary life. This is Jarvis on despair:

          Jobless too listlessly allowed his eye
to drift like unheld cursor to the top
whereas a thin strip of evening sky
3 inches long by one deep suddenly
glimmered a lit mass of illumined cloud
at corner of the screen but half concealed
by a corona off the anglepoise

Pausing here for a moment, there’s a couple of things that I only noticed when dipping. The first observation is that the words make sense in that there isn’t any of the distorted syntax so common in the modernist vein and that the words are everyday words. Closer reading would suggest that there’s a bit of a problem with ‘whereas’ which seems to be used to mean ‘where’ when its common definition is ‘on the other hand….’. I have tried the rest of the definitions in the OED and none of these make sense here either which leaves me with a sneaking suspicion that it is being used simply to keep up the syllable count for the sake of the metrical constraint. I may be completely wrong on this but I can’t think of any other reasonable explanation.

The next two items may be the result of over-reading or putting three and three together to make eleven but it seems to me that there are a couple of echoes from Wordsworth here. It may be that “three inches long by one deep” is an allusion to “‘Tis three feet long, and two feet wide.” from the original version of ‘The Thorn’. I only know about this because it features in Keston Sutherland’s essay on ‘Wrong Poetry’ which uses the line as the epitome of wrongness. The final item is this glimmering lit mass mularkey which seems to be the way the sky is described in bits of ‘The Prelude’ although I haven’t sought out particular lines/phrases and may therefore be completely wrong. In my defence, Jarvis does know his Wordsworth, having written ‘Wordsworth’s Philosophic Song’ which I still haven’t read (it’s very long, I won’t agree with it, life’s too short etc).

The poem continues with:

hitting the screen too mirrorwise to see
could none the less not blank out every note
of the four letters which his anxious eye
made out from several dot of cathode ray
causing a painful tightening at the chest
or then a lurch up from the lower spine
pushing the head out with its brace of eyes
to stare down at the flooring which he then
just as the blood arrested in his vein
slowly began at that to understand
or feel as though he understood that this
widely disparaged carpet was a map
of every message which he had to get

In the above we aren’t given any hint of what those four letters may be even though looking at them seems to bring on some kind of cardiac event. In this poem and several others Jarvis pays close attention to aspects of male self-loathing and here we have an astute description of where such feelings can lead. I particularly like the lurch from the spine which cause the head and its eyes to jut forward as if to some kind of attention.

Other aspects of this are a bit laboured- ‘too mirrorwise’ is probably trying too hard and either one of ‘to understand’ or ‘feel as though he understood’ is superfluous as we all only feel as if we understand- don’t we?

I’m taking ‘dot’ as a typo for ‘dots’ but I don’t understand why “or then a lurch….” is used instead of ‘and then’ because ‘or’ doesn’t make sense because I’m reading this as a sequence- chest tightening- lurching up- blood arresting until we get to the carpet.

The penultimate section of the brilliant ‘Dionysus Crucified’ has a carpet which causes some distress/consternation and is described in detail but it isn’t a map. Now, Jarvis is a committed late modernist but there is something oddly continental about other things acting as maps but it is Jobless that’s having this delusion and not our poet. Nevertheless, the poem proceeds:

          the next ten years or seconds of his life
nothing outside the textile ever spoke
more forcibly of this than clementine
or muck skip ochres fading to a brown
then zipped to primrose at occasional
points of most import like the words of Christ
printed in rubric for the hard of mind
in presentation copies of the word
distributed at prizegivings but here
shrilling alone a sheer bright lemon thrill

I read Jarvis because he makes passages like this, he can devise the idea of nothing being external to the fabric of the carpet and make it both credible and startling, he can come up with phrases like the ‘hard of mind’ that cause me to think about what exactly that might mean or refer to and why it isn’t in common usage. Most of all, this kind of thing is easy to do badly, to get carried away with the delusional and thus lose that which is believable and he manages to avoid this by staying just on the right side of bizarre and the last line is stunning.

I completely missed about 80% of the above in the first two readings, so perhaps ‘dipping’ isn’t so heretical after all…

The New Clever and Late Modernism

I’m going to try very hard not to display too many personal foibles in this but it does seem to me that the last six months (ish) have seen a disproportionate amount of clever/intelligent/cerebral material emerging on both sides of the Atlantic. It may well be that this degree of intelligence may have been around for some time and I’ve missed it but I’m about to make a case for the arrival of a new aesthetic which seems to be growing out of and away from the late modernist ‘thread’. I’m also aware that North America has a whole range of movements and labels apart from late modern but a number of developments there would suggest to me that the clever is on the increase.

I think that I need here to explain the ‘c’ word. This denotes both a demonstrable level of ‘inate’ intelligence that is communicated through the writing together with technical prowess in the doing of poetry and (this is key) a demonstrated understanding of what poetry can and should do. This is a working definition that avoids notions of theme or form simply because the New Clever does not ‘fit’ into those kinds of boxes. Before I give examples, I need to acknowledge that I’m attracted to cleverness in most things, I admire clever people with clever ideas so my enthusiasm may be a little warped. In my defence I have to observe that it is generally the clever material that has lasted and is revered rather than that which is efficient and/or beautiful but not very intelligent.

The fate of late modernism does seem tied up with the New Clever and this is best exemplified by our best practitioners, both of whom have recently published material which marks a significant departure in their respective careers and is wilfully and fiercely clever.

I’ve said before the The Claudius App is (after only two issues) the best poetry site on the web and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of the poets mentioned below have also featured there.

Some New Clever Poets/Poems

This is provisional, subjective and intended to be argued with- I also reserve the right to change my mind.

Simon Jarvis

I don’t think that anybody could argue that Jarvis’ work isn’t clever. ‘The Unconditional’ is one of the bravest and most challenging interventions to be made since the early seventies and ‘Dionysus Crucified’ is bursting with intellectual energy and formal experiment. In fact, it could be argued that these two very different works embody the New Clever in action. Both tackle complex ideas in ways that manage to both honour and subvert the last three thousand years of poetry whilst producing flurries of verbal brilliance:

Later in Services formica teemed.
Nonsemiotic grapefruit-eating all about
extended its impossible ideal.
Lay your knife and your fork across your plate.
Against all furious effort the slack face
still with each globful let some wet sign slip
to sit with meaning on the grating chin
while if de minimis a muscle there
could give no serviceable twitch that did
not paint a message in the vacant air
causing nonsemiosis to migrate
from off this world's bad grapefruit to some skies
of uninhabitable scientistic loss.
Agramant tucked into his bacon.

What’s clever about this (over and above the philosophical/ideological point that it makes) is that it could very easily have failed, it could have overstated the case and turned out yet another slice of poetic self-indulgence but Jarvis chooses to underplay his case and retain the ‘point’ within a comically banal frame. Agramant is the villain of the piece in this very long poem (240 pages) which is defiantly metrical throughout. He takes his name from one of the chief villains in Orlando Furioso- another very long poem. It’s verbally inventive and the point concludes brilliantly-“some skies / of uninhabitable scientistic loss”. I don’t agree with what Jarvis says but I am utterly won over by the way that he says it.

This, on the other hand is from ‘Dionysus Crucified’-

  And there they were, there on the verdigris sofa, Pen and the stranger, sitting bolt upright next to each other. Neither was saying a word,
Staring down into their Kenco while in the air all around us I noticed as soon as I sat down myself there was some kind of fusion jazz playing so quiet
That you could not really here it, could not really make out the notes, or the notes were as though they could not really bear to be notes, could not
Really will to be heard, but at each point where into the ear some decided concertion of sound might have brought its own message home, instead of this
The lost hum of saxophone dither would disappear into the airlessness, seem to become a prosthesis attaching the stranger therre to his comfortable
Sofa, although for the truth of it he didn't seem to be comfortable, sat on the edge of it just as if it were about to fades in the west as crimson
Devour him or kill in a single and swift suffocation his kin and his gods, his ancestors, with all his loving descendants, just as though all these were
shortly to vanish there into that armchair.

(The gap between ‘if it were about to’ and ‘fades in the west’ denotes that the latter is part of another poem that descends intermittently down the right side of the page.)

Pen is about to meet a sticky end- Pen being short for Pentheus who meets a horrible end in the Euripides play around which large amounts of the poem revolve. In terms of clever, I’d just like to point out that, once again, Jarvis demonstrates narrative skill whilst making a series of points in amongst the appalling colour scheme and sinister furniture.

Daniel Poppick

I know very little about Poppicks work but ‘Sneaky Freeze’ strikes me as an ideal candidate for the New Clever in that it makes startling use of language and seems at the same time against the boundaries of what it can do. This may sound hopelessly pretentious but listening to Poppick’s reading indicates to me a kind of sprint along the edge of coherence which manages to express things whilst undermining any sense of reliability. It’s very, very clever.

Amy De’Ath

“Cuteness is a Landscape” is another example of what De’Ath is doing with poetry, there’s the nods towards technique and convention, the exquisite word choice and an incredible sense of involvement that drags the reader in. I think this extract makes my point-

Your teeth are made of platinum
good for skating upside down
across the Cute, Zany & Interesting:

on Clink Street a floating
bookcase regurgitates
wonderlust. And a lesser soul am I for that

I’m going to ignore the presence of furniture and point instead to the image set up at the beginning, the presence of ‘the’ in line three and the play on wonder/wander together with the ‘straight’ poetry of the final phrase. Compelling, original and very aware of what poetry might be about.

Neil Pattison

Neil has produced some incredibly powerful work over the last few years and can be thought of as being in the vanguard of the New Clever because of his acute awareness of what words can do but also because of an absence of compromise. This is from ‘Slow Light’:

		Statuary, black stinted, oily pressure
floods analogue, dial into red : graphic fluctuation
wired-in, the pasture seized in tarry drift, ejected
measuring the iris backflow, airlift, break unscratched.

Gloze edging flouresces, accelerant centre fades :
inside, the accurate flow to shell-gland, cored
optic of pure courting is

I might be the only person on the planet who finds this stuff completely mesmerising but I don’t care. ‘Gloze edging flouresces’ is significantly brilliant by itself but placed in amongst this marvellous density shows a very intelligent process pushing against the edges of the form to say what must (must) be said. Neil is also a leading light in what I’m currently thinking of as the ‘New Witholders’ who have much more going on around the poem than inside it. Other members include Francesca Lisette and Joe Luna.

J H Prynne, Geoffrey Hill and the New Clever.

Both of the above seem to be pushing themselves in new directions, ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ certainly signifies a move away from the late modern and Hill’s ongoing engagement with pattern together with the level of learned abstraction in ‘Odi Barbare’ also signals a different way of doing clever.

So, I think I’m arguing for thinking about poems in a different way that seems more suited to what’s currently being written. Other New Clever poets would include Sarah Kelly, Reithat Pattison, Purdey Krieden and Jonny Liron but I’ll return to these in the next week or so….

The Archive of the Now- listening to poetry

The image is more of a poem than just the words on the placard, juxtaposition of two faces and one arm....

A few weeks ago I was approached by Andrea Brady asking for a link to the above which I was more than happy to provide because the archive does an incredibly valuable job of providing recordings of British poets reading their own work.

I’ve now spent some time with a number of the recordings and I’d like to draw attention to some of these.

I think I’ve said in the past that I’m not keen on listening to complex material without having the text in front of me as well. I also subscribe to the well worn but accurate observation that poets are bad at reading their own work although there are exceptions (Ezra Pound, John Matthias, Vanessa Place and Amy De’Ath spring to mind). I’m also disappointed about the sound quality of most of the readings on the web and won’t repeat here the rants that I have had in the past on this subject. All of this is counterbalanced by my recently renewed interest in how poems sound and might sound which was revitalised by Timothy Thornton’s account of the initial reading of ‘Dionysus Crucified’.

As a reasonably inept maker of poems I have a strong interest in all things archival so I want to spend some time here giving some thought to the idea of an archive of the present.

Before we get to the material, it seems that the site has had a fairly recent overhaul in terms of look and feel, it is a pity that nobody took the opportunity to update the links in each poet’s profile as many of these are either dead or redundant. The Simon Jarvis page doesn’t work at all.

There are a goodly number of what this blog considers to be essential poets reading essential poems and there’s also material that’s new to me that I need to pay more attention to. The ‘essentials’ are-

  • Caroline Bergvall;
  • Amy De’Ath;
  • Simon Jarvis (not working);
  • Francesca Lisette;
  • Neil Pattison;
  • Reitha Pattison;
  • J H Prynne;
  • Luke Roberts;
  • Keston Sutherland.

I have written before about my desire to be Caroline Bergvall and this recording intensifies that need. Some of the readings here can be listened to without the text but the brilliant ‘Chaucer’ poems would (probably) benefit from listeners having the printed version as well.

Bergvall’s work is marked by both commitment to what language can do and a readiness to experiment without losing either coherence or quality. The other observation that I need to make is that these readings are at variance with the poems that I have in my head, ie the way the poems ‘sound’ when I read them on the page. I wouldn’t read them as fast and I would be less emphatic- listening to these has made me reconsider (in a good way) how I’ve responded to the work as text.

I’ve written recently about the work of Amy De’Ath and have entered into some debate with the Harriet blog over the nature of her determined tulips and what they might signify and I don’t want to go over old ground. The readings here are from 2010 and demonstrate how poetry should be read. I first came across Amy’s virtuosity in this regard whilst listening to her read Jonty Tiplady’s ‘The Undersong’ which is a remarkable poem but made brilliant by the reading. The audio page of the current issue of the Claudius App also has Amy reading four of her own poems. Oddly, I don’t feel the need for the text for any of these even though some of these poems are at the complicated end of complex. If the archive really is about the ‘now’ then perhaps Andrea and co could commission a reading of the even-more-brilliant ‘Cuteness is a Landscape’.

I now need to register my personal disappointment at the failure of the Simon Jarvis page, particularly because I’ve never come across the first two poems and because I have a very clear idea of how ‘The Unconditional’ should be read. I think I’d also like to point out that there is absolutely no point in having a page that doesn’t function- it should be fixed or removed.

Francesca Lisette is another of our incredibly talented younger poets, she has this unerring ability to scare me and make me smile at the same time, there’s this mix of committed defiance and intellectual depth that is stunning. I remain of the view that anyone who can put ‘relinquish’ and ‘flounce’ together has got to be brilliant. The scariness also has some roots in a verbal density that really doesn’t see any need to compromise- this is one of those cases where having the text really helps. Incidentally, Mountain haven’t yet published Lisette’s latest collection but intend to do so in the fairly near future- according to their site it’s now called ‘Teens’. The relevant page does contain the text for ‘Icarus in Reverse’ which I think confirms my earlier assertion, even though her reading is perfectly judged and paced. I’d also like to draw attention to the link to Lisette’s reading at Greenwich in 2010 and ask rhetorically whether audio by itself is enough in an age where filming is incredibly straightfoward.

To conclude this part (of at least three) I’d like to observe that Neil Pattison has produced some of the finest and hauntingly brilliant poetry of the last ten years. I know this because I’ve been haunted by the ‘Preferences’ collection and by ‘Slow Light’ and ‘May Ode’. I’m going to omit the usual Pattison disclaimer and instead report that Neil is (or was) of the view that the audio version is somehow more definitive than the printed ‘Preferences’. I don’t hold to that view for two main reasons, the first is that this is complex and occasionally obscure/secretive material that repays readerly attention and there is a real danger that a first-time listener will be put off by the level of complexity that’s playing across a number of registers. This would be a tragedy because this is important/unique/groundbreaking stuff that we should all learn by heart. There’s also the issue of veracity, the first recording was made in 2005 and the collection was published in 2006 so I’m guessing that the differences between the two can be explained by re-drafting but the question then is (given Neil’s view) which should be considered authentic, or do we view authenticity as a movable commodity?

‘Preferences’ is still avaible from Barque but the link on the Archive page leads to an outfit wanting to sell me a domain name, this really isn’t helpful….


The above is the second poem (of two) in ‘F subscript zero’ which was published by Equipage in 2007. I’ve written about the first poem before and had decided that the above was too introspective / self-indulgent to be bothered with. I’ve re-read it a couple of times over the weekend and am now of the view that it should be bothered with because some of the things that it does work really well.

It’s also possible/feasible to draw more of a line from ‘The Unconditional’ to ‘Dionysus Crucified’ through ‘Symp’ in terms of the way that some things are done. I thought it might be useful to highlight some of the more important obvious elements rather than to hazard a tentative guess at what things might ‘mean’.


It would appear that readers are identified and addressed as throats and, less frequently, other body parts involved in speaking (teeth, necks, palates, ventricles) as if to encourage a level of identification with the poet:

  O fellow throats! O o"'"s! Perhaps you also have known one hour 
at which no string but bitters nor no alone grunt can wring out but a tit
or perhaps you alone have also known one infintesimal "and" therefore real.


Tub. Dur. Tat. I begin again. Tub. O fellow throats! lever a buccal gap to and approx mouth shape now and retch
thoughts in their proper order to the sink: improper objects to the exit hole. T

This emphasis on speech components might suggest that this is a poem to be read aloud but may also be about the vulnerability of the throat and the fallibility of the words that it makes.

This would be a difficult poem to read aloud because it isn’t clear as to how some phrases should be vocalised- ‘Hmm mph r mm/get’ or the missing word used above- and the last page contains a pattern which is a top to down phrase using one letter per line as with ‘T’ above.

Obscure words

We have a range of obscure words, I’m still defining ‘obscure’ as words that I don’t know the meaning of or need to check. There is also this line:

  as obsolete or foreign words dud or incarcerate down into a priamel and legible only as mock or booty.

which I’m taking as an acknowledgement of the difficulties presented to the reader although it does come in the middle of the obligatory ‘car’ section (see below). The OED tells me that ‘priamel’ is still being used and provides this definition- ” Originally: a type of short poem cultivated in Germany in the 15th and 16th centuries, culminating in a witty or ingenious turn of thought. Later applied to similar literary forms; spec. (in ancient Greek poetry) a device in which a number of items or options, culminating in a preferred one, are listed for comparison”. I think I’m also going to include ‘pop habitus’ as obscure because not everyone has read Bourdieu (even though they should) and not include it in the foreign section because it has now become part of English- hasn’t it?

The use of ‘vel’ as in ‘so the most important to paint / vel no-muck’ is both obsolete and obscure whereas ‘ipseity’ is just obscure. The use of ‘catachretic’ as in ‘its figuring retina-soul convert to ocean / being the thus catachretic body parts they are’ is either a typo or a bit too clever as ‘catachrestic’ is defined as ” Of the nature of catachresis; wrongly used, misapplied, wrested from its proper meaning”. The aforementioned ‘buccal’ is also obscure. I’m not including ‘interstitial’ but I do think that ‘interstitial void’ is an example of trying too hard.

Foreign words and phrases.

Regular readers will know that frequent and/or extensive use of foreign phrases is one of the things that we are implacably against. The reason for this is twofold-

  • readers who are not multilingual and haven’t spent a lifetime in the academy might feel more than a little intimidated by the use of foreign terms and phrases and may feel discouraged from reading further;
  • it is usually superfluous in that things can be said equally well in English.

There are exceptions to the second part of this when the use of the foreign term is the only way to carry the full weight of what needs to be said but these exceptions are few and far between.

‘SYMP’ starts with ‘Durch grub vers lux or lunch deflected……’ which doesn’t bode well and then we have this as a complete line-

Durch men-ya blub and men-ya langsam dop hei special ranger

I’ll freely confess that I haven’t gone to any lengths at all to work this out and I also need to point out that it was this that has deterred me from bothering with the poem until now. This is a pity because the rest of the poem desists from this kind of gesture and more than rewards attention.

I’m fully aware that this practice isn’t going to change anytime soon but that doesn’t mean that it’s an okay or reasonable conceit even though it has a long pedigree and is considered conventional by some. I take some encouragement from the fact that this particular trait doesn’t seem to have been inherited by the younger group of poets recently anthologised in ‘Better than Language’.

To try and bolster my case, I would argue that there are other ways of saying “The remainder is imperfect repetition of the immergleich novel in episodes of pluswert night on night” and that this ‘mix’ just feels awkward.


Simon Jarvis poems usually contain reference to the British road network and/or cars. Simon has explained this in a recent interview and ‘SYMP’ contains this oddly powerful passage-

 Twigs and parts of a wire cut off some sections of a removed area just over by where the cars
could not be said to wait or stand but were: could not be said in an emphatic sense to be
more than the vehicles shining with all flung work of gorgeous metals not less barbaric than alien
in surfaces of almost wholly suppressed colour singing out as brightly to the abstractly possible sight
as obsolete or foreign words dug or incarcerate down into a priamel and legible only as mock or booty.

What I think I admire most about Jarvis’ work is his ability to be cerebral, lyrical and appropriately odd at the same time- “all flung work of gorgeous metals not less barbaric than alien”- ‘gorgeous’ really shouldn’t work in this context and I have yet to work out why it does.

So, the use of pattern, the continued references to roads / cars and the use of verse to do philosophy are all developed here in advance of ‘Dionysus’ as is the use of myth (in this case the story of Actaeon’s death) to do more complex things. The descending ‘ATTEONE MORTO’ down the lines of the last page anticipates the much more complex patterning in Dionysus but both poems seem to be pointing in the same kind of direction.

George Herbert and the Day Job

Two Mollys on Blue - Sarah Small

I’m reading Herbert’s instruction manual for parish priests, ‘Priest to the Temple’ and I feel a bit let down by my own judgement because it’s causing me to reconsider the poetry. I’m going to try quite hard to keep what follows out of the lit crit rigmarole but this may not be easy.

Let’s start with the reasonably obvious, George Herbert was a god poet and his god poems are some of the best we have. They achieve this quality in a number of ways but one of the main attractions is the use of the sudden interjection to express direct and intense emotion.

Although a fully paid-up, non-Dawkins atheist I am attracted to god poems because the best of them are better than anything else (Paradise Lost, The Divine Comedy) and because they manage to do many things at once and because god and god-related material has been such an important part of our culture. I’m also fascinated by the religious debates that swirled around the first 150 years of Anglicanism.

This doesn’t apply to all god poets, I really can’t stand either Southwell or Hopkins (and I have tried) and John Donne is currently underwhelming me for all kinds of reasons but I remain a devoted fan of John Milton, Henry Vaughan and R S Thomas.

Last month I wrote about the relationship between Herbert’s poetry and scripture in which I glibly dismissed the view of Stanley Fish that Herbert is catechizing with his poetry. This may have been a mistake. Before explaining why it might be a mistake I need to point out that I haven’t read ‘The Living Temple’ and can only make a reasonably informed guess at the general thrust of the Fish position.

The first thing that struck me on reading ‘The Priest to the Temple’ is the stridency of tone and the absence of nuance. I also have to observe that I would probably given up the ministry if I’d read this as an apprentice vicar in about 1635. There is also a lot of practical stuff about how to inspire rural parishioners and how to deal with overly ardent female members of the congregation but there’s also a (for me) surprising emphasis on liturgy as performance (on the part of the priest) rather than an expression of faith.

There’s also the biographical difficulty referred to by Helen Wilcox which is the fact that Herbert was a member of the nobility and the role of a rural priest isn’t by any means a normal career path for men of his standing- he had previously been appointed as Orator of Cambridge University and elected as member of Parliament for Montgomery. I’m not going to hazard a guess as to why he embarked on a much more ordinary life but do need to point out that there was a huge social and cultural gap between Herbert and the vast majority of his parishioners.

I’d like to start with the last stanza of ‘Grace’:</p?

O come! for thou dost know the way.
Or if to me thou wilt not move,
Remove me, where I need not say. Drop from above.

The Rowan Williams / Helen Wilcox line would be that ‘Grace’ is a straightish expression of fairly orthodox thought and that these last four lines are a spontaneous interjection from the poet as a personal expression of the conflicted soul. The Stanley Fish position is (probably) that the personal and exclamatory tone is a deliberate attempt solely to amplify / intensify the faith of Herbert’s readers.

Having read Prynne on ‘Love III’ and Wilcox’ introduction to the ‘English Poems’ I have been firmly on the side of spontaneity and heartfeltness in the manner of what Simon Jarvis describes as a poetic ‘blurt’. I’m now wavering between the two because of this:

THE Country Parfon when he is to read divine services, composeth himself to all possible reverence; lifting up his heart and hands and eyes, and using all other gestures, which may express a hearty, and unfeigned devotion. This he doth, First, as being truly touched and amazed with the Majesty of God, before whom he then presents himself; yet not as himfelf alone, but as presenting with himself the whole Congregation; whose sins he then bears, and brings with his own to the heavenly Altar to be bathed, and waihed in the Sacred Laver of Chrift’s blood. Secondly, as this
is the true reason of his inward fear, so he is content to express this outwardly to the utmost of his power; that being first affected himfelf, he may affect also his people, knowing that no Sermon moves them so much to reverence,
which they forget again, when they come to pray, as a devout behaviour in the very act of praying.Accordingly his voice is humble, his words treatable, and flow ; yet not fo flow neither, as to let the fervency of the supplicant hang and die between speaking, but with a grave liveliness, between fear and zeal, pausing yet pressing, he performs his duty.

So Herbert appears to be saying that priests should not be afraid to express their personal fervour as this will encourage the same in their flock but he’s also saying that the words shouldn’t flow but have a ‘grave liveliness’ so as to move the congregation to reverence.

Taking aside the wonderful nature of ‘grave liveliness’ as a phrase, I’d like to point out that there is a middle way to read these poems. The first thing that needs to be recognized is that they are intended to catechize but that Herbert’s view is that sincere personal expressions of faith are the most effective way to do this and he therefore has the best of both worlds.

The other modification that needs to be made relates to the nature of the ‘blurt’ because I think that the above demonstrates that the apparently can’t help myself spontaneity is in fact a conceit or device to increase fervour in the reader. I’d also suggest that the apparent inner conflict that Williams so admires is (probably) a device to mirror the doubts that each member of the congregation will have. Skilled demagogues, of course, have been doing this for centuries.

I set great store by honesty in poetry and shy away from anything that ‘feels’ contrived or manipulative. This should therefore give me a bit of a problem but it doesn’t because it hasn’t led me to question the nature of Herbert’s faith and the ‘interjection’ as technique rather than blurt seems entirely reasonable.

I must also mention that I love manuals of this sort and Herbert’s is an absolute delight- and gives a much clearer insight into the cares of the times than most of the religio/political tracts and pamphlets so beloved of historians.

Superabundant thought, an open letter to Simon Jarvis

Dear Simon,

Thank you once again for responding to my questions, I know that (for the right reasons) you had some anxiety about this and I’m sure that many of the bebrowed readers found your answers both enlightening and stimulating, I know that I did. In response I’d like to expand a little on my poorly framed observation about the amount of thought that goes into your work. I’m going to try and avoid the philosophy and theology words in what follows because they’re not helpful to me in this instance and I don’t want to get bogged down in abstraction.

I like poetry that makes me think and challenges me to think in different ways and some poetry is very good at kicking off thoughts that feel as if they’re cascading through my head. There’s a passage in Paradise Lost that does this, one or two Celan poems, some late Prynne and some John Matthias as well as ‘Mercian Hymns’. So, I know this process, I’m familiar with it and obtain great pleasure in reading and re-reading. ‘The Unconditional’ does this and so does ‘Dionysus’ but in a different way.

I want first to talk about the effect of ‘The Unconditional’ which I’m now reading slightly obsessively for the third time. First of all there’s this very atmospheric depiction of provincial England in the rain which informs the ‘action’ as it unfolds, then there’s this middle-aged, middle class sense of defeated self-loathing together with the fact that each character is a cypher with more fallibilities and anxiety about those fallibilities than strengths. The depiction of Agramont’s inner workings is especially astute.

These factors set the ‘tone’ and provide a sullen backdrop to the extraordinary digressions that fill all 242 pages of this obstinately metrical work. As you know, I found the digressions initially quite difficult to negotiate but now they seem to make complete sense and my initial bewilderment has changed into what feels like the start of a serious engagement. The thoughts cascade and go to a range of different places raising for me questions of identity, my own entirely ambiguous relationship to this country which is now undergoing a kind of nagging re-evaluation and the knowledge that many of us of a certain age go on in our ways with no expectation of change, the way that you suggest that life becomes process.

There’s also my love of the long poem and the things that have been done with it since Homer started the Western ball rolling. I am going to use this platform at a later stage to develop my feelings about what ‘The Unconditional’ does to the genre / breed but I am very fond of the way that the poem undoes much of the contemporary vein. I haven’t yet mentioned the road and it’s speaking role which is both startling and accomplished (if a little bonkers (in a good sense)) and I’m very grateful for your eloquent explanation of your rationale.All of this is more than enough to be going on with but I know that I am going to have to start to pay attention to the music.

Turning now to ‘Dionysus’, the effect is different, in that there’s almost too much stuff going on for my brain to cope with. I’m thinking of this as a kind of extended christology which uses the figure of Dionysus as a way of talking about some aspects of faith and how these might apply in the present but I’m also very conscious of the literary tradition which seems to be a continuous presence. I’ll get on to the Dionysus/Christ device shortly but there’s also Dionysus’ foundational role in Greek drama and the relationship between classical devices and the 17th century masque together with the use of dialogue in Dante to make a point. This, as a setting, is more than enough for my small brain but we also have the ‘past in the present’ monologue and the radical use of form throughout.

In terms of thematic concerns, there’s the figure of the returning / sorrowful god and godly sorrow and kenosis and the workings of grace together with liturgical practice, the role of the cross in contemporary culture, concerns about imperialism, the compromises that we all make with the current economic order. There’s also the underlying anxieties about the preservation of the authentic but this is probably straying into areas that I’d rather avoid just now.

I want to use one specific example from the dialogue between Dionysus and Pentheus as an illustration of superabundant thinking-

ORIGEN, great in kenosis, knew how Christ emptied himself into Hell and there crucified you, the least underling, slave to implacable masters.
Stories for bedtime! He is away with the fairies if he thinks that. Where is his map of the place, where is his Lethean Sat Nav? Where are my wounds?

(I have retained the line length but the WordPress monster won’t let me do the Greek characters which denote that the first line is spoken by Pentheur and the second by Dionysus).

In these two lines you cover a huge swathe of Christian debate and controversy. Initially I thought that the sat nav conceit was more than a little naff but (because the thoughts have cascaded) it now makes more than a degree of sense about the past in the present, about forgetfulness, about guidance in the afterlife etc etc. The line also has the perfect finish in terms of a reminder of what’s at stake and the nature of the scorn poured on both Pentheus and Origen (as you might have gathered, I tend to be on Origen’s side which is where the element of challenge comes in). There was a time when I thought that kenosis was too obscure a subject for contemporary poetry but now I think that it might be more relevant than ever, especially in terms of emptying out self-interest so as to better heed the demands / needs of the other so I’m intrigued by this occurring prior to the harrowing of hell.

These two lines are representative of the superabundance that occurs throughout ‘Dionysus’ and, for this reader at least, this must be seen as a significant and lasting achievement because you manage to point in many directions at once without losing sight of the ‘thrust of the whole’.

And, I haven’t mentioned the colours of the cars……


Dionysus Crucified as Performance on the Page

In the recent interview for this blog and arduity I asked a question about whether the reading out loud of the above should take some kind of precedence over the printed version, Simon’s response was quite clear:

The printed text of this work is in my opinion its definitive realization. It wants to provoke its readers into auditory hallucinations : of antiphons, canticles, tragedies or operas. But those which I happen to produce, with Timothy Thornton and with Justin Katko-with others, perhaps, in the future- have in my view no special authority.

I wrote something last month about ‘Dionysus’ as performance and now I want to develop this further n the light of Simon’s response.

Let’s start by paying attention to what he says rather than what I want him to say. He says that the printed version takes precedent and the readings have no “special authority”. Simon always picks his words with care and I think we need to take on board his opinion that the book is the work’s “definitive realisation”. Both of these would seem to suggest that the book is intended as a performance for the eye before it is a performnce for the ear. The use of ‘realization’ needs thinking about because it implies that the work existed prior to being made into a book, so that we have to try and work out what this ‘work’ might consist of. There are two obvious but quite different definitions, work as in the effort and preparation that goes in to producing something and work as the product itself, when we speak of a writer’s work we usually mean the second of these although it is probably derived from the first.

The bit where our paths diverge is ‘it wants to provoke’ which implies that it acts as a kind of evocative ‘cue’ for the performance in another form whereas I want to stay with the book as a performative object. By this I mean that I think that reading it does provoke us into these ‘auditory hallucinations’, whether these be primarily musical or dramatic but, before we get to the stage of being provoked, the text itself is performing something for us.

This occurs on two levels and these mare in tension with each other. The first of these is the effect of the words as language and the second is the words as pattern. I’m now going to try and demonstrate how this tension produces a performance in its own right, not one that provokes ideas of another but is, in itself, something that pleases in a way that most poems don’t.

So, to begin we need an understanding of what the words appear to be saying. The poem opens with a monologue from Dionysus which enunciates some of the thems that follow by way of a statement of intent. The next four stanzas seem to consist of a re-working of the Euripides play and the legends on which it was based. This is followed by a long monologue that heralds the arrival of Dionysus in the manner of the Attendant Spirit in ‘Comus’ and other 17th century masquings which contains a brief observation on the more subtle effects of the current economic order. Much of the tone of this section feels parodoic, this is the first (unbroken) line:

What's that I can hear or half-hear at the edge of the forest where the dark shade gathers and glooms over where ther used to be a bright field?

And these are the last three lines:

  I must stop get everyone ready now. I must make sure that they know
Just what is coming from all the non-being which gathers there, there at the edge of the forest, there where the grey dusk is deepening down into black.
There where the birch and alder are losing their names into those of expensive delicious and infantile spirits, the whole false branded star.

The parodic bit comes with the almost B-movie edge of the forest motif but this is contrasted with verbal invention and dexterity- trees which lose their names, a star that is falsely branded as if for sale or to denote ownership.

This is followed by two ‘choric’ stanzas uttering what purport to be truths:

Only wait, soon you
Too will find rest.


All slurs
vanish in death.

(These are excerpts, the stanzas have eight and seven lines respectively.)

There then follows an extended dialogue between Pentheus and Dionysus which is packed with themes and ideas and is therefore very hard to summarise. At least part of this is concerned with the conglation of Dionysus and Christ, on the returning God, the sorrowful God, kenosis and godly sorrow, a restatement of Catholic orthodoxy together with a brief critique of Origen as early relativist, the workings of Grace, the nature and archaic roots of Greek tragedy, tragedy and performance together with two lines on cars. I do intend to deal with this ‘superabundance’ in the near future but here I just want to point out that the content is (at least) as complex as the form.

There now follows a page of text which can’t be read in a left to right linear kind of way but starts in part with
‘TIE HIM DOWN AGAIN’ and ‘STRING UP’ and ends with ‘Dog it mad Bakhants to black’. The text seems to reiterate some of the above themes, although I’m still working on ‘or say Qadaffi Gorgon Unit’.

The next page is entitled ‘MESSENGER’ and starts as a monologue from either Iran or Afghanistan in the voice of what appears to be some kind of security operative and gradually becomes something more philosophical and abstract before ending with the imgined death of Dionysus.

The final page is entitled ‘CANTICLE’ and contains a number of prayers and what read like a psalm along with references to the Dionysus myth. The work ends with:

World without end
O Lord save the Queen
Endue thy minister with righteousness

There’s more than enough thematic content here to engage my brain for a very long time and I would normally find messing around with the text more than a little distracting. Here, the effect is to enhance what’s been written and to turn it into a more complex and satisfying object. The book is very wide in order to accomodate many of the lines which are very long, text is overlaid over the outline of the cross, some texts are placed side by side to suggest simultaneity, at the end of the dialogue, Pentheus’ silence is displayed. Some of the text is occluded by the outline of the cross, the ‘CANTICLE’ page is a variation of the pattern poem.

When Prynne talks about poetry being so startling that it takes your breath away he is referring to word choice and the juxtaposition of those words in the modernist way. Here, the startling occurs because of the intellectual breadth and verbal ambition but also in the visual audacity. I’m trying to avoid the form/content platitude but the fact remains that both ‘stand’ in their own right and in this instance add up to an object (the book) which is more than the sum of these two parts.

I think that I also need to add that I’m not impressed by Olson’s experiments with the line nor do I Understand why Geoffrey Hill should write a lengthy sequence of poems using the same pattern but ‘Dionysus’ feels as if it’s on a completely different level and this I find compelling in part because it is so odd/wrong/implacable.

Very, very few poems open up the possibility of doing poems differently, ‘The Anathemata’ being the best example that springs to mind, but ‘Dionysus Crucified’ is definitely one of them.

Poetry and truth, a further response to Tom Dunn


I’ll probably need to take my time with this because it strikes me that simply making a few assertions isn’t going to be helpful. I also want to avoid thinking about truth at the expense of poetry because that seems equally self-defeating. So, I need to start with the personal- I like poetry and I especially like poetry that I find to be useful. This usefulness (which is different from utility) may be simply that a poem can help me think more productively about something or it may challenge the way that I currently think or feel or it may show me something else that language or heightened language can do.

In adolescence I formed the view that the function of poetry was to describe the essence of things and it didn’t matter if these descriptions were terse and/or obdurate, they were useful if they were honest. I can still make a case for the ‘poetry is about what really matters’ faction but I now think that what ‘really’ matters is more about the relationship between things than some essential quality of the things themselves. It is true that I find some poems profound and moving but I think that those poems are more about the struggle for truth rather than its discovery or prediction.

I think poetry (as well as being far too poetic) can take itself far too seriously and I don’t think this is confined to the Cambridge School or other politically minded groupings. I think that this stems from two principle causes. The first of these is the fact that the making of poetry is an intensely personal and intimate act in that we are trying to express what we think and what we feel with an intensity that doesn’t occur in fiction. Because of this we tend to expect a serious and considered response which is usually the case because most readers are also poets. The other issue relates to the weight of history, poetry has built up around itself a body of knowledge which is expressed in sombre and considered tones, woe betide the critic who attempts a humorous tone even when such a response is required. In short, poetry’s image is conducive to a readerly expectation of essential truths.

This might be disappointing but I’m only going to use one example of poetic expression of secular/philosophical truth and two examples of the expression of religious truth.

Charles Olson and the Truth.

I’m going to start with Charles Olson’s use of Whitehead’s ‘Process and Reality’ in ‘The Maximus Poems’. I’m using this because it’s a philosophical position that I’m vaguely sympathetic to and because Olson expresses it really well with an enormous amount of skill.

Here’s a confession, I haven’t yet managed to get through ‘Process and Reality’ and am therefore dependent on what others have said. Broadly, Whitehead puts more emphasis on the relationship between things, suggest new ways of thinking about time and challenges the view that knowledge should be based on things that are fixed. ‘Maximus’ has many other conerns but it does Whitehead really well.

This poem is entitled ‘OCEANIA’ and dates from June 1966 and is about Olson walking around the New England town of Gloucester in the early hours of the morning. The poem is written in the present tense and is seemingly straightforward until we get to-

And now I look onto the marsh
away from the boulevard
lights-& there is the
whole back of the river's
mouth flooded as I had
5 yrs ago called it Oceania!

As a stiff and colder
wind too, straight down
the river as in winter
chills cools
the night people had sd

earlier they'd hoped
wld have been a
thunderstorm I had sd no
the wind's still
where it was

Excuse please no boast
only the glory of

the processes
of Earth
and man.

And no one
to tell it to
but you

Robert Hogg, Dan Rice and Jeremy Prynne

I’d forgotten about the Prynne reference but the above is my favourite example of poetry expressing a truth really well. This occurs in the middle of the poem, Olson continues on his walk but now the reader is involved in and taking part in the ‘processes of Earth and man”. This is what poetry is good at but it does require enormous skill to get it right.

Geoffrey Hill and Godly truth.

‘The Triumph of Love’ is one of Hill’s most successful sequences and focuses on the terrible events of the last century but this is presented through the prism of his faith. Poem CXXV contains a longish debate about faith and philosophy and a number of deliberately provocative statements:

....................The intellectual
beauty of Bradwardine's thesis rests
in what it springs from: the Creator's Grace
praecedentem tempore et natura ['Strewth!!!
'already present in time as in nature'?-ED]
and in what it returns to-our arrival
at a necessary salvation. So much
for the good news. The bad news is its correlate-
everlasting torments of the non-elect; guaranteed
damnation for dead children unbaptized.

The poems then has a bit of a rant at those who choose to try and dilute the severity of this ‘news’ and ends with-

I have been working up to this. The Scholastics
mean more to me than the New Science. All
things are eternally present in time and nature.

Bradwardine’s chief claim to fame is that he wrote a tract defending the established Catholic church and its doctrines against a group of medieval reformers who were known as the ‘New Pelagians’. Hill’s faith leads him to side with the more conservative view but also has to accept what this means and there is some unease about this although the last line expresses a religious truth. The workings of grace and the nature of salvation play a big role in Hill’s work and he has spoken recently of his view that all his work is informed by his anxiety as to the fate of his soul. We may not share Hill’s faith but I think that we must recognise his ability to express difficult aspects of it with great skill.

Simon Jarvis and the nature of Grace.

I do intend to write something about ‘Dionysus Crucified’ in the near future in part as a response to two of the responses Simon give to the interview questions. Here I just want to give an example of how very innovative poets deal with religious truth. What follows is a couple of lines that are very long and unbroken in the original, the first line is spoken by Pentheus and the second is Dionysus’ response-

Here against undeserved instruments I with my year of worked seasonal graces apply to the ceaseless sodality made by the party of inextinct saints.
Apply to head office: grace lightens wherever it will, and your workings convert it to sacrifice so that its ghost may become the free gift you deplore.

How grace might function has been and remains the source of enormous strife and controversy, here Jarvis appears to be espousing a traditional view which is further elaborated in his references to the teachings of the early church. ‘Dionysus is an incredibly complex and ambitious work but I think that this brief extract demonstrates Simon’s ongoing concern with truth, both religious and secular.