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Arduity: Reading Simon Jarvis.


I last penned this introduction about thirty months ago. I started with an extended moan about digression and my readerly inability to gain an overall or panoptic view of The Unconditional. Looking at this stuff I find that I've changed my mind in many ways- the most important of these is my recognition of Jarvis as a major figure in the literary scheme of things. This is primarily due to the range and strength of his work but also his readiness to follow his own distinct furrow. In terms of range, there cannot be a wider spectrum than Dionysus Crucified, Eighteen Poems and Night Office. The first of these is a radical adventure in free verse, the second appears on the surface to be a conventional collection whilst the third is a poem of 220 pages entirley in metrical and rhyming verse.

Jarvis demands concentration, his work is erudite without being overly elitist and the 'points' he has to make unfold with each reading. One of the reasonably constant threads is that of complicity in that we are all, no matter how radical or progressive, in conscious collusion with a system that is suffocating us and any sense of individual autonomy that we may have. Others may disagree but I see Dionysus Crucified as a watershed in that it mixed issues about truth and suffering in a (typically) challenging kind of way. The poem is loosely based around Euripides' The Bachæ, especially the relationship between Dionysus and Pentheus but also takes in many of the early Church Fathers and a 'canticle'. There's also an almost monolgue almost prose passage spoken by the poem's 'Messenger' which takes place in the present and is stridently resistant but evocative.

The concentration required for the longer works is quite demanding, primarily because some quite complex things are being said. Night Office, the most significant work to date, also contains more than a few references that most of us will need some google-related help with. However, the work is much less resistant than either Prynne or Hill. I was initially concerned that the continuous rhyming might produce a 'sing-song' effect that I would find quite difficult but this is far from the case, the rhymes work well and combine with the regularity of the meter to move the 'sense' of things along. The brilliance of the phrasing is more or less consistent throughout with very few 'flat' lines that interrupt the flow.

To try and illustrate this, here's part of a description of a visit to what is probably Ely Cathedral:


      until I face the crux, the dark carnation
      fixed where each line's construction meets the other
      impossibility of incarnation
      opposing and exhausting its dead brother
      so that the dead heart of the unsold nation
      must here in agony recall its mother
      and at this blackest point one point of light 
      drops in my disbelieving face as bright     

      infintesimal lit interruption
      at which I cannot but look up to find
      mere light and air break eightfold in eruption
      downwards diagonally from this blind
      triforium as if its incorruption
      could find an answer in the self-slumped mind
      which stirs itself, renews, awakens, set
      here at this instant upright : Now you let

      me go, and I stand up, walking unsteadily
      on and back out, as if this light might break
      in pieces on the floor, or totter, readily,
      back down the pavement, amble, haver, make
      of each uncertain step a note unreadily 
      sung on the other, or just let each take  
      its own time, The inalterable heart,
     The last lamps are extinguished : I depart.

I'm a non-Dawkins atheist but I too have been awed by standing in some of our great Gothic cathedrals and the above 'speaks' to my awedness but also says some beautiful things about the breaking of this 'mere' light. I wish I had the talent to come up with the 'self-slumped mind' but most of all the technique to compress a multi-dimensional ( for the want of a better term) and intense experience into 24 lines.

None of this material could be described as 'easy', Jarvis is of the view that philosophical and theological views and ideas can be best expressed in verse that is constrained by both rhyme and meter. Jarvis is the Gorley Putt Professor of Poetry and Poetics at Cambridge University so it may not be surprising that his longer works should demonstrate this particular point.This desire to pursue these kinds of question seems to be a central task in his overall project. He also has this odd interest in driving and the British road networks which is unable to stop appearing in the work. At some point between 2005 and the present, Jarvis became a practising Christian and this has become (perhaps) the dominant thread of the work. His other major influence has been the work of Theodor Adorno.

For those who would prefer to peruse a few examples without too much effort there's these audio and video files:

On a personal note, I shouldn't like this work, I think Adorno was wrong about most things, there isn't a god, rhyme and metre are hopelessly outdated and the Russian Orthodox Church manages to remain rabid in its racism and homophobia. Since paying attention to Jarvis' work, I've gradually and slowly come to realise that I was wrong about rhyme and meter and that I don't have to share the poet's views to enjoy and involve myself with the work.