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Experiments in reading: Simon Jarvis' Night Office.

Part Two.

There's a dilemma before you get any further and it involves what you're thinking of as spontaneity versus something more considered. The first option involves ploughing purposefully on and not paying any attention to Jarvis' critical output other than to be aware of the Main Points whilst the second is to absorb the gist of those essays which might be pertinent to what's going on here. This particular problem seems important because of Night Office's use of rhyme and metre to say quite complex things. From what you remember, you disagree with the Jarvis perspective on formal constraints enhancing complex themes but it might be as well to get a bit more of the rationale.

The other side of the coin is that you shouldn't need to be aware of the technical underpinning to grasp wht the poem is trying to do and that you should just Read the Fucking Words on the page. You decide to look briefly at "Thinking in Verse" and "Why Rhyme Pleases" before proceeding as these sound as if they might be quite pertinent. The first of these starts by reporting a coversation between Byron and Shelley. The former is arguing for a pragmatic and functional view of prosody but Shelley counter with: "But I do say that they all depend upon reason, in which they live and move, and have their being; and that he who brings them out into the light of distinct consciousness, beside satisfying an instinctive desire of his own nature, will be more secure and more commanding." This chimes in with "Why Rhyme Pleases" quote from Adorno:

The first is the argument that technique is the way art thinks. The second is the argument that art thinks historically, and that what it knows, when it thinks well, is natural-historical experience. So called 'form' becomes in Adorno's account a kind of inexplicit mimesis, a mimesis which is not of individual objects in the world, but of those features of natural-historical experience which are at once the most elusive and amongst the most important: of structural shifts in the texture of experience itself which are too painful, or too blissful, directly to be thematized. No art is about itself. So technique knows something about the world. Yet it knows it, Adorno suggests, just by the most obsessive, and perhaps even the most fetishistic and solipsistic, absorption in its own proper stuff. We can see how this might suggest a different line of enquiry from that pursued by Prynne. If technique is the way art thinks, and if self-absorption is, curiously, the way art notices others, then might this 'virtuoso incantation' be, not simply a screen or a cocoon or an anaesthetic, but a medium - a medium for thinking, and for thinking about historical experience, just when in the very act of apparently retreating from it?

You'd forgotten the force with which this is expressed but you find that you are less impressed with this thesis than you were a couiple of years ago. You have a number of prejudices with regard to Adorno and a few more pertaining to the Romantics but, in order to understand a model, you need to understand how the model "works". For example you can accept the Marxian model of how the economy works because the theory provides a reasonably detailed exlpanation of how capital functions. In order to accept the Jarvis view of prosody (as well as the Heidegger/Prynne view of poetry) you would need to know how rhyme and metre acquire this exalted and powerful position. It doesn't appear to you that this is provided so you remain sceptical. You are intrigued, in spite of yourself, as to form as "inexplicit mimesis".

The reason for this internal wrangle is the fact that the constraints do seem to produce some remarkably powerful passages. The first of these introduces the first overtly religious element:


    necessities of fear, desire and pain.
    Tonight one little tune won't leave my head.
    It rattles through again and then again,
    sitting me upright by this sleepless bed.
    I do not want the snow to turn to rain.
    I search the adits of my empty head
    to know its source; I turn my recollections
    over and over in their wrong selections,

    till I detect this pattering refrain.
    Ten years ago I walked across the bridge
    over the river in the freezing rain.
    It would not turn to snow; the distant ridge
    refused to whiten, while the ice again
    greeted my neck, my foot just slipped, then slid
    along the pavement, swerved, and then recovered,
    right at the moment when there was discovered

    just in the corner of my eye the vast cathedral,
    too large for its believers, and just now
    dwarfing small clumps of them in polyhedral
    splendours and gestures. Its bright sharpened bow
    went sailing through the night, to put down evil
    wherever it might surface, so that how
    the back of it disgorged the faithful, few
    at this cold, minor, festival, and who

You find this magnificent, you are brought into this chilly night and the sudden immensities, the dramas of this familiar but still very strange object and you recall your own recent experience of a 'son et lumiere' gig last winter at Durham Cathedral which wasn't that special but did re-emphasise for you the sense of vastness and too bigness described here. You're also thinking about monumentality as an expression of power which you usually frame in exclusively negative terms but here there's this sense of protection and justice: "to put down evil".

The first prosodic thing of note is that the rhymes don't seem to get in the way, that the sense continues to 'flow' and it doesn't feel that there's some contrivance / manipulation going on, it's not obvious that there's a reasonably regular line length and a rhyme scheme. You read it out loud and some more questions bubble to the surface- "again and then again" seems to be more of a device than something that enhances the sense of what's been said, the cathedral / polyhedral / evil rhyme sounds better than it reads but you are concerned about "putting down evil" because it seems to jar with the rest of this passage- a phrase that might be better suited to Marvel Comics than here. You then think about this with surfacing, as in coming to the surface of the water and 'put down' seems a little bit more fitting

You also gather that there's some quite complicated but pleasing things been done with rhyme, 'slipped / slid', 'pavement / moment' , 'swerved / recovered / discovered', none of which would you have recognised had you not read the lines aloud. You're very keen on how things sound because it's the one test that is reliable when it comes to deciding if things 'work'. There are some lines in the recent work of Geoffrey Hill, for example that look okay on the page but sound abysmal when read out loud. You worry about the number of commas in the last line and whether 'pavement' is sufficiently poetic but you are impressed. It's also using ordinary language with none of the usual syntactical bends and spirals deployed by most complex contemporary verse.

What's less satisfactory is the cathedral as ship trope which is too tired and worn out for this kind of use even though it may be setting the frame for more complex observations or ideas later on. The sharpened bow doesn't make a lot of sense because it's not at all clear how it got to be sharpened, nor how having a sharp bow might be helpful in "putting down" evil. Of course you may be suffering from an unhealthy preoccupation with David Jones' "The Anathemata" and the extended church / ship metaphor. You also have more than a bit of a problem with the notion of evil but you are prepared to hold this in abeyance for the moment because you know that our poet is a committed positivist and has no truck whatsoever with the way that you 'read' the world.

You notice "adits" and dip into the OED which comes up with: " A roughly horizontal passage introduced into a mine for the purpose of access or drainage. Also in extended use; spec. a watercourse, esp. one that carries water away from a mine" and " A means of access or entry; an avenue. Also as a mass noun: access, approach" which is pleasantly wry. You know how infuriating it is to have an unidentified tune running through your head that you can't get rid of and at such times your head does feel riddled with contradictory adits. You resolve to try and introduce the term into the next weekly visit from your mental health professional.

You re-read the three stanzas together and puzzle over the rain / snow repeat (inversion?) because it's obviously an extension of the snow covering all the "determined blacks" referred to earlier. Snow that turns to rain will uncover those features that have just been covered, but in the second stanza a distant ridge (higher, more likely to be snowed upon) refuses to whiten so everywhere within sight may well be receiving this freezing rain. You scan a little way ahead to encounter the snow again but things still don't make sense.

You are however much taken by the polyhedral splendours and gestures which (for you) immediately recall one of the opening pargraphs of "The Anathemata":


          (Osific, trussed with ferric rods, the falling numina
    of column and entablature, the genii of spire and triforium,
    like great rivals met when all is done, nod recognition across
    the cramped repeat of their dead selves.)

You're not seeing thus far any indication of influence between the two but there is at least a similarity between a gesture and a nod of recognition. You're also aware that it might be a mistake to read and write about both of these at the same time because you do have this tendency to extrapolate themes / similarities that weren't anywhere near the poet's head at the time of composistion. You reflect on this for a moment and decide that you're enjoying the process of attending to both at once and nobody is twisting your arm and you don't have any rules that are set in stone and so the moment of anxious introspection passes.

You notice that this cathedral has a vastness that is too big for the congregation and it strikes you that most big churches have this quality, this immensity and you'd always considered that this was part of the idea, that there was a kind of competition between the medieval builders as to outsizing each other and that (in part) the point of this bigness was to remind the faithful of their insignificance in the presence of God

Before moving on to the next (musical) part of the cathedral story, you recall something from "Why Rhyme Pleases" that tlks about Pope's rhymes being more effective because the rhyming words come from different parts of speech.You read back and notice that the most effective nd impressive stanza, the third, follows this tendency mor than the other two.