Reading Simon Jarvis
Before reading Jarvis' work the reader has to decide which Jarvis he or she wants to start with. There is the defiantly metrical Jarvis that is featured in 'The Unconditional', 'Erlkonig' and 'Dinner' and there is the not at all metrical Jarvis of 'F subscript Zero' and 'Dionysus Crucified'. The experience of reading the poems veers between exhilaration and perplexity in equal measure, there's also the problem of what I think of as cognitive difficulty that runs through some of the work. With all of the above except 'Erlkonig' and 'Dinner' it is quite difficult to get a reasonable overview of what's going on. In 'The Unconditional' this is because of the length of the poem (over 240 pages) and the amount of digression that it contains. This makes it difficult for even the most attentive reader to follow what is being said.
One of Jarvis' many concerns is the thorny issue of truth and authenticity and he is of the view that formally structured poetry is a good way of doing philosophical things. This short extract from 'The Unconditional' will perhaps serve as an illustration:
Laziness and love both must die out again.
Affirmative modernism art-side gives rise to these
the pleasures of negation minus guilt
braying in acid lime eleetists down
free from nostalgia as from any pain
or from complicity with any ill:
free then from any possibility
of bad returning to a "mythical":
free from bad wishes for totality:
free from bad longing for a mother's breast.
As can be seen this is complex and intellectually challenging stuff, it is fairly unique in its refusal to compromise or to make concessions. It is also addictively compelling once you meet it on its own terms. I think I must emphasise that this, more than other innovative poems, requires both tenacity and a readiness to engage with both form and content. The readerly experience can be exasperating- it took me eight or nine attempts to finish 'The Unconditional'- but the attention given is more than amply rewarded in terms of things to think about and the fact that content at this level makes the vast majoity of other poetry (both innovative and mainstream) just seem ordinary.
Given the unique nature of 'The Unconditional' and the fact that very little has been written about it, I can only rely on my personal experience. I started to read in 2010 and understood that a journey was being described and that there were a small group of protagonists, the 'bad guy' is named after a character in 'Orlando Furioso' and the other characters have odd names. The length and complexity of some of the digressions was initially annoying but the use of metre did add a degree of momentum which I have come to appreciate. I'm now on my third reading and am finding more and more things that make me smile.
F Subscript Zero
This was published in 2007 and contains two poems, the first is called 'ODE' and is subtitled 'At Home with Paul Burrell'. The form used is much freer and contains a number of devices that I find annoying. It is also exhilirating stuff that should set off a cascade of thoughts/emotions in the attentive reader:
Whether I am
Panicked and sick or otherwise distracted
Alert and freezing to one hot will
Lost & dispersed or otherwise disenacted
Bringing to form one line or thought still
Asleep & dreamless or otherwise retracted
Thinking in sleep of what I can will
Thrown & dejected or otherwise subtracted
Singing in thought both what I am and what fulfil
I am all otherwise even than this which I here print and sign by just singing bereft of all value.
Pudge blinks up just the same; a pill for the drudge rota still slips down too like comparison.
Puce silk and polyester keen
Their elegies of worked and imprisoned feeling.
This kind of stuff throws down a number of challenges to the reader which are primarily about the 'density' of the subject matter although the language used is generally straightfoward and the syntax deployed is less tortured than most. I've been reading and re-reading 'ODE' for a number of months now and continue to notice new elements.
Jarvis does middle aged male self-loathing better than most and also makes frequent reference to the British road network throughout his work, as a fully paid-
up self-loather, I can vouch for the sweaty accuracy of his description and the roads obsession serves to add a degree of personality to the work.
This is Jarvis' most experimental and dazzlingly subversive work to date, it contains:
- very, very long lines which require a very wide page to display them;
- a page where text appears to have been smeared over the top of the outline of a cross;
- a page of religious prayers and phrases which are presented simultaneously on the page;
- extended reference to the teachings of the early Church some of which might be misleading;
- sarcastic/elitist reference to Ashley and Cheryl Cole.
As the title suggests, there's also a lot of Dionysus and Pentheus in a variety of different styles and voices. Words like 'bonkers' and 'brilliant' come to mind but this really does need to be read because it's both very accomplished and utterly unique- rather like 'The Unconditional'.