Tag Archives: the unconditional

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
armies?

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….

Simon Jarvis’ SYMPARANEKROMENOTIKON

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’.

Throats

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.

and-

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.

Cars

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.

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……

John

Interview with Simon Jarvis

A few days ago I had the idea of asking Simon for an interview and he has taken the time to respond to my questions. I think I should make it clear that the questions relate to issues that interest me as a reasonably attentive reader of Simon’s work and are therefore personal to me but I hpe that they are of some interest to other readers.

1. What is it that attracts you to poetry rather than to other forms of expression?

Poetry is not really a ‘form of expression’. The question imagines a situation in which I know what I want to express, and then look around for the best ‘form’ for it. To the young aspirant the choice of life may appear to be an arbitrary restriction. Why may I not paint in the morning, compose sonatas in the afternoon, and write verse in the evening? Well, just make sure that someone will be bringing dinner along later.

2. Much of your work appears to be concerned with the true and the authentic, one of the things that’s beginning to strike me is this ‘poem as truth’ and ‘poem as real/genuine/unmediated’- how conscious are you of poems as cutlural objects?

This question is rather approximately formulated, if I may say so. I think it’s fairly evident from my published scholarly work what I think about these topics, and I don’t want to repeat myself.

3. Keston Sutherland has described his work as containing a ‘superabundance of language’ whereas I experience your poems as a superabundance of thought- is this a conscious demonstration of what poetry can do?

If you can tell me how much thought, or how much language, is enough, then I can tell you where and how far I superabound.

4. ‘The Unconditional’ does music really well and ‘Dionysus’ can be thought of as a musical performance. Do you intend to further develop both of these elements?

No.

5. I have to ask- why do you choose to write in such loving detail about the British road network?

‘I love a public road’. It’s sometimes asserted that our society is unprecedentedly chaotic; it is, in fact, unprecedentedly organized. As Durkheim pointed out, the developing intensification of divisions of labour produces an ‘organic solidarity’, one in which I depend on others at every turn of my life, and trust completely that their services will continue. Part of the cost of this is that perfect wonders of co-ordinated labour-such as the British road network-are just shrugged at, as though they had been there since the Flood. The road network, like the rail network, is a picture of the tender care which we all have and can have for one another. Its sound is these obsolete place names, names which have just been handed down to us, without our consent, but which we accept and learn to live in. Ever since I was a child, I have found road signs, with their names of towns and regions, their numerical computations of distances, and their letter forms, oblate to this purpose and no other, to be the mystical image of a nation which could even now be brought into existence. Road signs are the opposite of tax evasion.

6. If I were to identify a unifying theme to your work, I think I would talk about the conscious use of traditional techniques and motifs to do something utterly new? Would this seem reasonable?

Only death is ‘utterly’ new. For twenty years I knew that it was my duty to renounce metre. Then, suddenly, I knew that it wasn’t.

7. Are you conscious of the strategic (for the want of a better word) impact that ‘The Unconditional’ and ‘Dionysus Crucified’ have had and will continue to exert on the business of making serious poetry?

No.

8. You seem to have cut down on the use of foreign words and phrases since ‘The Unconditional’- are there any particular reasons for this?

I’m sorry to hear it, and not sure that I believe it. If you’re right, I’ll try to raise my game.

9. ‘Dionysus’ appears in a number of ways to say something about the poem as a performance, about the words on the page assuming a performative aspect. Is there an expectation that readers should approach it in this way? I’m not just thinking about the appearance of the text but of the nature and tone of the dialogues between Dionysus and Pentheus.

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.

Difficult syntax in Hill, Prynne, Jarvis and Neil Pattison.

I’ve been goaded into this by Lachlan Mackinnon’s disparaging reference to Hill’s ‘tortured’ syntax in ‘Clavicles’ and by reading Jack Baker’s useful paper on “The Burden of Authentic Expression in the Later Poetry of Geoffrey Hill”. Thinking about how best to get this particular gripe off my chest, I have come to the conclusion that a comparative survey of those that take syntactical innovation to extremes might be more productive than simply having yet another rant about Mackinnon.

Mucking around with syntax is commonly justified by the normal poetic bleat that the language is not adequate to give voice to the poet’s finer feelings and deeper thoughts. Such manipulation is often used to disguise the fact that the poet has nothing to say- whilst acknowledging these pitfalls I want to try and show why and how really accomplished poets to produce stunning work.

I want to start with a rough and ready definition of syntax- the way in which phrases and sentences are put together.

I also want to propose that good poems are a site of many different kinds of struggle and one of the most telling is the one that engages with the standard English phrase and/or sentence.

Sometimes this engagement can lead the reader to new heights of bafflement. My current favourites are ” To the / chance repented step. This night is. By limit reach / luminous” (Neil Pattison) and “At for to.” (J H Prynne). Baker makes the following comparison -“But, whereas many of Hill’s peers, from John Ashbery to J.H. Prynne, revel in linguistic indeterminacy, the poet-figure in Hill’s recent work emerges as one who strives to resurrect language, to preserve its capacity for “eloquence and apprehension” against the destructive tendencies of the age.” I think this is absolutely correct about Hill and I can see that Ashbery’s output is about 85% revel but I think he’s wrong about Prynne.

I do however think there is a key difference between Hill and Prynne in that Hill loves language and Prynne doesn’t. Hill’s best work is characterised by an increasingly vivid tussle to get language to do what it is capable of, to realise its full potential at the hands of the poet. Prynne, on the other hand sees language as perpetually tainted and that the structure of language reflects and underpins the worst aspects of our culture. Jarvis and Neil Pattison both seem to fit somewhere in between but nevertheless produce work that bears evidence of different types of conflict.

Here’s Prynne in his ‘quick riposte’ to Peter Handke in Quid 6-

Of course it is rather easy to ‘see what he means’; and the history of Europe in this century is full of those terrible events supposed to have traduced or contaminated language, along with those sorrowful bystanders, perched upon some peak of purity, who can bewail the loss of a model of rational, passionate and poetic discourse that would somehow resist the ruptures of historical process. But, how silly. Warfare between nations is most often waged across language-frontiers, as a fiercely linguistic event, even if often for reasons not fully conscious or not admitted into full public view; but the mounting up of a war programme, in advance of the hostilities and to justify their methods, is a concatenation of intensely linguistic processes, in which the whole identity and propensity of individual language-histories are worked into the deepest complicity. By the time that war ‘breaks out’, that is, is declared by one nation or tribal cohort confident of subjugating another, the cascade of positional alterations to language use has been largely completed.

I don’t think that Prynne is saying that language is inherently evil or morally flawed but that it is often a kind of willing partner in Very Bad Things.

Then we have this longer passage from ‘George Herbert, Love III’-

Well, language is imperfect and is damaged by sin, not least in relation to man’s conception of his own self, inner and outer, puffed up with tendency to vainglory and selfishness even in moments of the most vehemently powerful moments of exchange with the divine. The very format of utterance grammar, with the subject-position in English syntax coming before and governing all by way of a sequent predicate, performs and expresses this vaunted, front-loaded selfhood. What the reader has in this poem is what is discoverable in its fallible language and we are to reconstruct what may be its near-full spiritual significance, by linguistic acts, by scrutiny of searching and minute kind. This is sacred philology and hermeneutics, ancient practices which are root-based.

But in the human encounter with belief-moments the reader is not pursuing the practice of assimilation to the world of language and experience outside the self, as situated in a distinct historical or cultural era, or not this merely. The reader is also intimately drawn into this focus of experience as given form and purpose by belief or the question of it: and this self-interior focus is also in large part linguistic.

Needless to say, there isn’t much here that I agree with and some of it seems to be obviously incorrect but it does give us a clear pointer as to what Prynne might be about. It’s also striking that this notion of a language damaged by sin and its structure performing some of the less desirable features of our national character should be expressed with such clarity and vehemence.

In the interests of balance, I want to weigh this against what Hill says at the start of the ‘Weight of the World’ essay-

Questions of accessibility turn upon matters of context. In both sacred and secular writings we may receive, at any instance, a sense of things inaccessible suddenly made accessible, where grammar and desire are miraculously at one. The effect may appear to be studied (as in Milton or Hopkins) or spontaneous (as in the Wesleys or Wordsworth); what delights and silences us is the sustained moment of communion between the two kinds of eloquence and apprehension.

So, for Prynne, the structure of language is to be attacked and our blithe assumptions about it (neutrality, innocence) are to be confronted and undermined on the way to declaring ‘how things are’. The price for this is the charge of obscurity and elitism.

Whereas Hill is in a struggle, wrestling and moulding language in the hope of reaching that point where the creative impulse and language structure are ‘miraculously unified’

Now I need some examples to indicate what I’m trying to say. With Prynne I think it can be shown that the broad arc of the last thirty years has been a more and more uncompromising attack culminating in the magnificently austere ‘Streak~~Willing~~Entourage~~Artesian’ of 2009.

Thirty years (ish) takes us back to ‘Oval Windows’ from 1983. The second poem in the sequence shows some sign of an early attack:

Formerly in a proper tonic, the rain
would pelt and cure by the foam inlet.
Smartly clad they could only panic
through the medium itself, rabbit by proxy.
On both sides smart guidance ex-stock
makes for home like a cup cake over.
Don't stare:
Police aware:
it is a defect coma and it shows;
try it on, see if they'd want to care.

I don’t want to undertake any kind of analysis of meaning or intention but I do want to point out where the syntax is being attacked. To start with most of the ‘rules’ are honoured, sentences make a kind of sense and are self-contained but some commas are missing and we are not at all clear what/who ‘it’ and ‘they’ refer to in the last two lines.

There is a project to be undertaken mapping the ‘syntax arc’ which I might do for Arduity but here I want to magically leap into 2009:

As to for a mint action bare sender add mantric, bare
cradle invention socket burden to saturate. To ramble his
for glimpse for insert her his pinnate to foramen custom
topic indecision failer for. At for was para fusing flim

This is the first quatrain of the eleventh poem in the sequence and is representative of the kind of attack that goes on throughout. I chose this because the first three words are echoed in the sentence ‘At for to.’ in the fifth quatrain.

The attack is of such force that phrases that do ‘follow the rules’ stand out in stark relief (pun intended). This poem has ‘Skim the lines’ and ‘Did they wear better’ but the rest is very much in the same state as the lines above.

Now we come to Geoffrey Hill. This inevitably involves some discussion of where the dividing line in his trajectory occurs. Jack Baker seems to place one line prior to ‘Canaan’ in 1996 and to another between ‘Triumph of Love’ and ‘Speech! Speech!’ in 2000 whilst others identify ‘Triumph of Love’ as the turning point. I’m going to play safe and use ‘The Pentecost Castle’ sequence from ‘Tenebrae’ which was published in 1978 and this year’s ‘Clavicles’. This contrast enables me to make my point without getting mired in the before/after debate and is also appropriate because of the two
epigraphs. The first is from W B Yeats:

It is terrible to desire and not
possess and terrible to possess
and not desire.

and the second is from Simone Weil:

What we love in other human
beings is the hoped for satisfaction
of our desire. We do not love their
desire. If what we loved in them
was their desire, then we should
love them as ourself.

I don’t often get all soppy about poetry but ‘The Pentecostal Castle’ sequence is heartbreakingly beautiful. Re-reading it today I’ve become more aware of both its humanity and lyrical strength. It’s also a supreme example of personal and intellectual honesty. This is the eighth poem:

And you my spent heart's treasure
my yet unspent desire
measurer past all measure
cold paradox of fire

as seeker so forsaken
consentingly denied
your solitude a token
the sentries at your side

fulfilment to my sorrow
indulgence of your prey
the sparrowhawk the sparrow
the nothing that you say.

Again, I’m not going to worry about meaning but look at the nature of the struggle with language. The first thing to note is the absence of punctuation and this can be read as a list of twelve semi-autonomous phrases or three self contained sentences. The phrases make sense and are constructed in accordance with ‘normal’ English. The sequence as a whole can be thought of as a wonderful meditation on the many dimensions of desire but there is not yet any real sign of overt struggle.

I’ve chosen poem 11 from the ‘Clavics’ sequence because I think that it is likely to have been in Mackinnon’s mind when he described Hill’s syntax as ‘tortured’. This is the first part of the poem before we get to the ‘wings’:

Plug in a dissonance to make them wince.
Density a workable element.
Name-acclaim once-
Reclaimed ransom
Truth from figment.
Picks its fragment
Somewhere such a kingdom
Roughed assonance.
Judith of Bethulia's well wrested
Calm. How controverted we have become,
Questor quested;
Answerable;
Outside the frame
You can't draw from
Old dense pin-stabbed Bible
Unmolested.
Somewhere is sacramental belonging.
Here we find but banking with God's grammar
Strung unstringing
Grace from chance, worked like a novice stammer.

I would argue that this exemplifies Hill’s battle with language rather than his torture of it. The phrases make sense, there are properly formed sentences and with a bit of work we can see what he’s trying to get at. If heightened language is what marks poetry out from prose, isn’t this a good example of how this can be done?

So far we have struggle and attack as ways of confronting language and must now move on to the subversive practices of Simon Jarvis.

I think that it is reasonable to assume that Jarvis has a problem with contemporary poetry of all shades in that he doesn’t even try to do what he wants it to. He has therefore launched a two-pronged attack on the form and the way we think about the form. This is achieved by using poetry to attack poetry. The two prongs are at the opposite ends of the poetic spectrum, at one end is the defiantly metrical 250+ pages of ‘The Unconditional’ which looks like poetry and behaves like poetry but uses digression to defy the reader’s stamina and ability to keep up. A very much lighter version of this is ‘Bacarole’ on the Claudius App which looks like a poem but uses very extended sentences and clauses to disrupt any readerly attempt at conventional understanding. At the other end of the spectrum there is ‘Dionysus Crucified’- I’ve written about some of its more outlandish strategies before and I don’t intend to repeat myself here but it is difficult to imagine anything more radically ‘free’ that doesn’t descend into nonsense.

What I think I’m trying to say is that the Jarvis project involves the skilled use and manipulation of language to take aim at current poetic discourse and practice and is a much more effective strategy than most of those attempted in the last fifty years. In terms of syntax mangling, even on the very experimental ‘cross’ page the only clear example is ‘He needs stabbed in a throat’.

Now we come to Neal Pattison who has been known to add helpful comments to this blog and who is also a very accomplished poet. I want to use an extract from the prose poem ‘Curve, Indifference’ which was published in ‘Preferences in 2006 because it deploys a very different approach to syntax that produces a quite complex effect:

This we in the litchen attest. This afternoon is. By
stone reaches. Sunlight warms to a limit room, its
loving parallel : there are in stones her junctures
attested, and the low reaches bed cool with talk's 
mantle. Locators in pliancy instruct with cherubic
levity. The lips of earth, the breast and eyes attest
we mean extraction : these accidental of discre-
tionary will by chalk banked drop embed these 
only reaches accidental lip. You are awake. To the 
chance repented step. This night is. By limit reach,
luminous.

I’ve written about the Preferences collection before and probably need to write a longer piece to do it full justice but I’d now like to use the above to try and show how Neil uses syntax to heighten and intensify what is being said and also to display and withdraw at the same time. The repetition of attest and the subject/verb inversion when this is used, the deliberate placing of the colons between the words rather than immediately after the preceding word, the temporal progress from afternoon to night, the use of emphasis in the most conventional sentence are all used with great skill both to heighten and intensify what is being said. The greater subtlety lies in the things that are left unsaid, that ‘sense’ is being pointed towards but not actually displayed.

So, poets can do complex things with syntax and some of us find this one of its greatest attractions. In fact, with a few honourable exceptions, poets that don’t do things with syntax tend to be quite dull and banal. The primary exception is, of course, Elizabeth Bishop.

The Unconditional, Streak~~Willing and Preferences are available from Barque Press, Dionysus Crucified is available from Grasp Press, Clavics and the Collected Prynne (for Oval Windows) are both generally available.