Tag Archives: the unconditional

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.

Keston Sutherland on Simon Jarvis

In attempting to write something coherent about ‘The Unconditional’ and ‘Dionysus Crucified’, I looked again at Keston Sutherland’s reaction to the former which is what probably awakened my interest in the first place. I’ve also re-read the introduction to ‘Wordsworth’s Philosophic Song’ and ‘Why Rhyme Pleases’. I don’t normally feel the need to read so much prose to consider a poem but ‘The Unconditional’ is not an ordinary poem.
Sutherland describes the poem as ‘unique’ and I think that is probably correct, I know of no other poem like it in the English language in terms of its sustained assault on what we think of as contemporary poetry and its attempt to re-define the nature of the debate about what poetry can and should do. It could be argued that there are several innovative and equally iconoclastic poets currently at work, I would venture to suggest that they don’t write defiantly metrical verse that is 240 pages long. So, unique is appropriate but doesn’t do full justice to the poem’s other qualities. Sutherland plays around with ‘absolute’ as a way of describing the poem and it is here that we part company. I persist in associating this term with the later work of Paul Celan who has come closer than anyone to thinking about and writing absolute verse. Celan’s work was notoriously sparse and terse and I remain wedded to the view that these are tow of the main characteristics of absolute poetry. I’m also of the view that absolute poetry has to be very good indeed and I think there are a number of minor failures in ‘The Unconditional’ that fall short of that standard. I’ll try and give some examples of these below.
I think the most important aspect of Sutherland’s response is the sense of confusion and challenge together with his need to make a personal response. The confusion (which I share) doesn’t come from any doubt about what’s being said but from the challenge that the poem presents to the way that most (all) of us think about and engage with poetry. This challenge is fundamental and is achieved by lines of metrical verse subverting most of our notions of reading and understanding. There aren’t many things in this world that make me re-consider the way that I think and respond but ‘The Unconditional’ continues to do that and this is a good thing.
So I’d use ‘subversive’ as the primary characteristic because of this oblique questioning and the presentation of thoughts and emotions in ways that demand attention and engagement. I’ve written in the past about the difficulties that I experienced in getting through the poem and the various strategies that were used, I think it is important to stress that I would usually have given up after the third or fourth attempt (life really is too short) were it not clear to me that there was something important going on that I didn’t want to ignore.
John Wilkinson has used the adjective ‘peculiar’ but I don’t think this does justice to the extreme oddness of this poem. I’ve been a long-standing fan of the deeply odd, although I have been trying to wean myself of this in recent months, and can identify several aspects that contribute to the overall eccentricity:
1. Length, a poem that runs to 240 pages is clearly out of step with the vast majority of contemporary work in English;
2. Narrative, this is a poem where not much happens and what does happen isn’t all that interesting;
3. Digression, the difficulty of the poem lies primarily in the concentration required to follow complex and densely argued digressions without losing sight of the ‘story’;
4. Prosody, which to many of us is a term from the dark and distant past, the poem relies almost exclusively on lines that are metrical and this is one of the ‘points’ of the poem, there are also lines that rhyme.
5. Roads, a recurring feature is the presence of the British road network, roads are given speaking parts.
In fact this poem is so odd that it falls into the ‘bonkers’ category. This is a critical and technical term which is use to describe those works (and/or aspects of those works) that are both incredibly ambitious but also highly improbable. The best example of a bonkers work is ‘The Faerie Queen’ which manages to be insanely ambitious in aim and to contain some of the least feasible sections that defy both logic and taste and yet still manage to ‘work’ brilliantly. I’m thinking of the graphic description of bestiality, Britomart’s experience of love via her bowels and the proverb swapping scene between Una and Arthur. In slightly more recent times, the inclusion of Black Beauty in ‘Stress Position’ falls well and truly into the bonkers category as a conceit that defies any semblance of common sense but comes across to the reader as something that is entirely feasible. ‘The Unconditional’ is so odd that it shouldn’t work on any level, it is too ambitious, it is too long, it is too reliant on metre, it personifies roads but it is magnificently successful both as a poem and as a gauntlet thrown down to what passes for contemporary poetic discourse. I have also to say that I still don’t accept the Jarvis position on prosody, nor do I accept what he says about poetry and philosophy but I do find his arguments intriguing and worthy of further consideration.
At this stage I was going to make some clever remarks about ‘The Conditional’ aiming for truth by means of an extended ‘blurt’ (a Jarvis term) but I then realised that I would have to write out an excerpt to illustrate my point and the only excerpt that was suitable runs to just over four pages. You will also note that I have managed to ignore everything that Sutherland has to say about the dialectic. This is entirely intentional. I’m not entirely clear why he decided to disclose about his own experience with depression even though the poem does spend a fair amount of time describing the more miserable features of the middle aged male and is particularly effective in the self-loathing stakes. I didn’t get the impression that I should respond as a depressive, nor did I find anything (other than the self-loathing) that seemed to speak of my own experience.
I was also going to produce examples of bits that don’t actually ‘work’ but that would also require extensive quotes. Suffice it to say that digressions of this length need to end well, they need to be a satisfying conclusion to some of what has gone before and a small minority of Jarvis’ endings fail to provide these and come across as both ugly and inept.
So ‘The Unconditional’ is one of those bonkers poems that demands and rewards serious attention. It also needs to be re-read, I started again as soon as I’d finished and the second round is proving even more unsettling and satisfying than the first…

Simon Jarvis reconsidered

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neuroscience and poetics

In my vain efforts to wean myself away from poetry, I’ve spent some time this week thinking about how the brain functions. My motives aren’t exactly pure, being bipolar means that there is something wrong with my brain and I’d like to know a bit more about what it is that might be ‘wrong’. The other motive is that I’ve got a strong interest in research that’s still in an early stage of development- I find the various metaphors and gropings for some level of certainty to be fascinating.
As Jerry Fodor says in this weeks TLS, we simply don’t know how the mind works and the extent of our ignorance is staggering but that doesn’t stop us trying to pass off guesswork as fact. My favourite metaphor of the moment is the ‘attentional blink’ but I’ll get to that shortly.
This week’s New Scientist carries a feature called ’50 ideas to change science’, I was flicking through these when I came across a piece eintitled ‘Top-down processing, our past determines our present’ which appeared to be of interest because of the similar threads that run through the work of Charles Olson and David Jones. This turns out to be a bit wide of the mark but the piece continues- “In truth, we are realising that our experience is closer to a form of augmented reality, in which our brain redraws what it sees to best fit our expectations and memories.”
Isn’t this in effect an extension of the Pound/Eliot project? Isn’t this notion of augmented reality what Prynne is trying to express (I’m thinking of his later work and of the praise he heaps on Merleau-Ponty). I would argue that strong poetry is ideally equipped to play on the margins between perception, knowledge and feeling and that this is a privileged position that should/must be pursued. I’m not saying that we should all endeavour to write ‘like’ Prynne but that poets do need to think more clearly about the notion of ‘pure’ or ‘immediate’ experience and the ways in which these are compromised by our memories of the past.
This isn’t an easy task but there are examples, the way that Olson and Jones move between myth, history and the present, the austerity and resilience of Prynne’s work since 1995, John Matthias on brain function in ‘Trigons’: all of these point to fertile ground.
The other element that I’m waiting for is neuroscience catching up with the work of Alfred North Whitehead on process because it seems to me that progress in this field can only begin to be made by clearing out the Cartesian ‘gunk’ that Olson so delightfully refers to.
So,I’m calling for a poetics that re-thinks both perception and the relationship between substance and process in anticipation that it may begin to tell us ‘how things are’.
‘Attentional blink’ as I understand it, refers to our inability to register a visual stimulus if it is presented less than half a second after the first. I like this primarily because of the way it sounds but I’d like to report a serious case of inverted attentional blink. I’ve recently had another concerted attempt at reading ‘The Unconditional’ by Simon Jarvis. Previous attempts have been thwarted by what I thought was my inability to apply sufficient concentration. Normally I’d have given up months ago but the poem does contain enough good stuff to hold my interest. On this occasion I tried a different strategy which focused on the digressions rather than the narrative thread. This has proved more successful until I realised that I was becoming so absorbed by the extended metaphor that I had forgotten what it was referring to. This pattern repeated itself across many pages of reading and re-reading and I’m still no further forward in making sense of the thing. A clear case of attentional blink in reverse? Perhaps next time I need to be less absorbed….. any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

Getting distracted by Simon Jarvis

‘The Unconditional’ should come with a number of warnings. Barque should tell prospective purchasers that the experience of reading this poem will leave them fundamentally disconcerted and that the effort of sustaining concentration will probably prevent all but the most determined getting to the last page. There should also be a separate warning for those with a tendency to mania which states that this will only feed the hunger for distraction.

I’ve had five attempts at ‘The Unconditional’ to date and have never got past page 40 (did I mention that it’s very, very long?), the reason for this is that on each occasion I become scared that I’ve missed something and have returned eagerly to the beginning. On about attempt three I decided that I shouldn’t get bogged down in the use of brackets because that may become apparent further into the poem. I then re-read all of the critical responses to the poem and found (again) that these didn’t really match the inherent weirdness of what I was reading. I also downloaded ‘Wordsworth’s Philosophic Song’ from the now defunct aaaarg site and skimmed though a few pages.

Others have waxed at length on the theoretical and technical aspects of the work so I won’t do that. I want instead to concentrate on the use of language and on the use of rhyme. ‘The Unconditional’ is a song in that it uses regular metre and rhyme to say complex and difficult things. 9 times out of 10 this works and it works reasonably well although I’m not at all sure why the rhyming lines stop and start. The use of language is reasonably straightforward, there are characters and things happen- “as =x first climbed the stairs and then climbed down / backwards from Eden with no smile or frown / breaking the clench of composited teeth / incompetent to choose help or relief…” as can be seen, events move slowly but in interesting ways. With regard to big words, there’s currently one word per page that I’m having to look up which  isn’t to great a hardship but it does disrupt the flow.

Further distraction came along with the arrival of ‘Prosody as cognition’ on my hard drive which turns out to be a spirited defence of the central place of prosody in the face of many attempts to pronounce it redundant. The poem ends with a note which starts “This poem is metrical” and then goes on to give an indication of how the main protagonist’s name (=x) may be pronounced. Re-reading the first bit of  ‘Philosophic Song’ I came across this-

“It might mean, not that philosophy gets fitted into a song – where all the thinking is done by philosophy It might mean, not that philosophy gets fitted into a song – where all the thinking is done by philosophy and only the handiwork by verse – but that the song itself, as song, is philosophic. It might mean that a different kind of thinking happens in verse – that instead of being a sort of thoughtless ornament or reliquary for thinking, verse is itself a kind of cognition, with its own resistances and difficulties…… it would be philosophic song precisely in so far as driven – by the felt need to give utterance to non-replicable singular experiences in the collectively and historically cognitive form of verse – to obstruct, displace or otherwise change the syntax and the lexicons currently available for the articulation of such experience”.

I quote this at length because I think it sets out the rationale for ‘The Unconditional’ as philosophic song and because it makes some key points, I particularly like the “felt need to give utterance to non-replicable singular experiences” because I think it encapsulates what poetry is about. I’m not sure that ‘The Unconditional” succeeds in its ambition but I shall start it again with a renewed interest and a determination to get past page 40. Did I mention that it’s 239 pages long?