It may be a well-worn path but, with our reduced attention span, it does seem that contemporary serious work of any length. is under threat. I'd suggest that most people are unwilling to commit either time or effort to this kind of material because it involves a risk and much furrowing of the brow which takes time and effort. The argument here is that length is a dimension the can't be overlooked, to do so is both negligent and lazy.
I'm using the recent work of Simon Jarvis to justify this view because his latest work is Very Long Indeed. Jerusalem Deleted occupies over 220. This may seem the wrong end of the spectrum but if I can win a few converts with these extreme examples then perhaps a fraction of the tide might begin to turn.
This isn't in any way to deny the value of brevity. Since adolescence I've been of the view is that one of poetry's greatest qualities is compression of thoughts and ideas, especially in the later work of Paul Celan. However, as with Prynne's shorter work, this quality is also thought by many to be not worth the effort.
My current predilection comes from the re-enchantment delivered by Spenser's The Faerie Queene which led on to Milton's Paradise Lost. Both of these I found completely absorbing and, for different reasons, immersive. Prior to this I'd spent 25 years of reading in the belief that poetry was the form of expression that excelled in the distillation of complex thoughts and arranging this in a very precise way. I had the example of Paul Celan to justify this view about the Poem at its best until Spenser swept me away.
This isn't to suggest that there's a direct relationship between length and quality. My sense of immersion comes from the more extended attention that poets are able to give to important but complicated issues- Spenser on chastity, Milton on the nature of evil are two examples that immediately spring to mind. Some late modernists achieve this by means of compression and what Celan referred to as 'radical ambiguity' whilst others have been extremely extensive in their treatment the ways in which we are. In this piece I'm going to try and explore recent Jarvis and Peck publications to think about totalities and readerly involvement.
Given the many things treated at length in JD, I want to attend here to fear which is perhaps the protagonist's main feeling as he progresses across a ruined England. In my everyday state, I don't get frightened, the only thing that scares me is the onset of severe depression and the knowledge of what's going to come. This absence has led me into a variety of scrapes but it's really hard to will yourself to be scared when you aren't. So other forms of fear I struggle to identify with. Jarvis' previous and lengthy Night Office has personal desolation as one of its main concerns which is something I can relate to.
The poem is formally structured in terms of rhyme and metre and I'm dragged in because I am sceptical about the Jarvis thesis that structured work is the best way to express seriously big principles and positions. Although I'm a non-Dawkins atheist, I'm intrigued by the history and workings of faith and JD has these in abundance.
The poem is wonderfully digressive, a device not to everyone's taste but Jarvis uses it to explore every facet of what might be said about an idea or position. This is how philosophers make their points so as to demonstrate the universal applicability of what they're say and to refute in advance any of the likely objections from their peers. The other 'point' of digressive poetry things is to exemplify a point. Milton does this a lot.
By way of illustration, with a bullying inner voice this is a long and gnarly example of what I think I'm trying to say:
so I heard this fair voice insert this qualm sharp as the finest skewer which transfixes 415 this banished throat which its pin remixes: "Thus the incorrigibly vicious heart "turns to its comforts in the coloured weather : "thus perfectly you recollect your art "how to forget your friends, whose faces never 416 "move you one inch towards a painful action. "Your landscaped lullabies seal you forever "into your circle of self-rhymed redaction : "you lack the one thing needful, since strong cash "locks you in vistas whose retained attraction 417 "sets into stone. We burn to our last ash : "we are eliminated until you stroll "your war-soused gazetteer, or cut a dash "in cloud nomenclatures, convoke your shoal "of stops and toponyms. You like to watch, 418 "can't lift a finger to redeem your soul, "succour worst horrors in a plan you botch "with mere surmises of sweet alibi, "the pretty pinks of heaven! I would scotch "these flights which serpentine into the sky 419 "of mere conjecture, not for I resent "a joy at all you catch where it should fly "nor make you bind it to me, but am sent "rather to call you once more to that task "which, as ungrateful, you still represent 420 "as the most doffable or lightest mask "encumbering your face." I felt the chips twitch in my cheeks and fingers, & just then vile Predators and Reapers made the tips 421 of the tall chestnuts quail; a few score men of man-sized combat units from land ships dispersed through the erased park, and again I lay down as though dead upon the ground, part of me hoping that it had come round 422 to me at last, and I might expire just as a tablet quietly dissolves to salt your analgesic. One entire logic of ending still as if resolves its exitless dénoument in my dire 423 pre-corpse, which, outraged in advance, revolves in its imagined grave. I could not move. nor think one thought which Julie might approve. I looked on madness as my only chance. My chief fear was, my senses would not fail me
I make no apologies for the length of the above as JD has 1400 such verses and length is what I'm writing about. The soft option here would be to indicate that you are attracted to this kind of material or you aren't and leave it that but, first, there are several features that I need to draw attention to. I'm taking it for granted that readers of this are already up for the effort involved in attending to seriously radical work. JD is radical, as with Jarvis' other long poems, because it flouts current conventions of what a poem should be and it does that by means that contradict notions of how these must be made.
I've spent a few years hanging personfully on to a bundle of prejudice that holds to the view that rhyme especially is too much of a constraint and gets in the way of meaning. Attending to this work continues to erode this position but what follows might show that doubts still linger in my head. As might be clear from the above, our protagonist is reluctantly on a mission which involves a journey mostly on foot through a ruined England whilst a war is going on. This struggle is between Monophysites and Miaphysites, two groups whose different views on the nature of Christ caused much friction in the Early Church. This may seem far-fetched but one of the poem's epigraphs is "The modern state is a transformed church".
That's the briefest of brief overviews but it does give some context to the above. Our protagonist is a reluctant traveller, his journey is filled with doubt and extended hesitations. He's also pestered by voices which are mostly self-generated and highly critical. This is one of those occasions where the voice of the enigmatic Julie attempts to direct him back to his course.
The monologue expresses its accusations with density and an unfamiliar syntax. This latter aspect runs through the poem and requires some concentration to negotiate. It starts with the accusation, our protagonist has betrayed his friends by straying from his allotted course, he has taken the easier option and his friends will continue to suffer for it. There are a couple of startling phrases, the 'coloured weather' and 'cloud nomenclatures'. These would seem to relate to the fact that it's snowing, something that has managed to lift our protagonist's spirits. A reading that doesn't give attention may miss this fact and become brow-furrowingly irritated. If, however, this context is obtained, then these two make wonderfully poetic sense.
Of course, with this particular work, it might be argued that the phrasing is too convoluted and the syntax deters rather than attracts. To take one of the more resistant bits; ""Your landscaped lullabies seal you forever / "into your circle of self-rhymed redaction :". these aren't skimmable lines but some of the resistance is overcome if they and the rest of the accusations are read aloud. The it emerges that this is about our protagonist finding enough solace in the snow to be able to carry on making the poem that is in front of us. This might be over-clever but it does give me cause to consider my poetry making and whether I need such in order to write effectively. I've come to the conclusion that I don't, nor am I comforted by metaphorical snow covering / erasing the landscape beneath. Both of these devices do prod me to reflect on this and to come to a clearer idea of what I might be doing and how I might be doing it. That's what I mean by involvement and having a relationship with the work. I also had to check on the definitions of 'redacted' because I thought the verb was only about deletion but the OED gives; "To bring together or organize (ideas, writings, etc.) into a coherent form; to compile, arrange, or set down in a written document. Also: to put into a particular written form", which makes more sense here, especially with the use of rhyme and metre.
The poem is full of these delights which provoke readerly attention and pull the reader into a world as well as a mindset. You really can get quite blissfully lost in work of this length and quality, especially if you proceed initially at a glacial pace and read aloud the parts that require a little more attention.
I think I must here advocate the joys of re-reading. I have a number of long poems which I try to read each year, these were originally only Paradise Lost and The Faerie Queene but now the list has grown to include those by David Jones, Charles Olson, Jarvis and the Gawain poet which makes reading everything in twelve months rather tricky. I do this for the pleasure of reading work that delights me and also to get the maximum return on my initial investment as more aspects and details come into sharper relief. This isn't always a good thing, I've come to the view that Book 1 of FQ doesn't really work, Milton's description of Eden is cloying and Jones notes to The Anathemata aren't as useful as they should be. I persist with and revel in all three because of their overall brilliance regardless of these minor faults.
One of the most important pleasures that a really long poem delivers is a sense of involvement with the physical and mental world that is depicted. Being involved entails becoming increasing aware of and stimulated by what's being said. This is immensely satisfying because it promotes the development of a readerly relationship with the work. As with all such affinities, this is reciprocal and is characterised by trust and honesty. I try to read with an open mind and respect for the poem and its maker and I expect the same back. A couple of examples where this has broken down is Eliot's Four Quartets and Langland's Piers Plowman, both of which held some fascination but on a subsequent reading the feeling of being dishonestly manipulated became more than enough of a deterrent. None of Jarvis three long works (The Unconditional, Night Office and Jerusalem Deleted have in any way disappointed me thus far and I doubt that they will.
We now come to rhyme. There is, and always has been a wide spectrum of views about its use and what it can do. I've probably occupied several points along this range. The first is that it should be discarded as a hackneyed and damaging throwback to the Romantics and rhyme done badly makes bad poetry. The second is that most rhyme is too close to song and thereby creates a musical cadence rather than a poetry one. The third is that rhyme done well, as in the work of Paul Muldoon, is very good indeed but hampers, more so than metre, the accuracy or precision of what need to be said. The fourth is that Milton eschewed rhyme for Paradise Lost. The fifth is a kind of grudging acknowledgement that rhyme adds an additional element that can be both involving and satisfying.
I'm now going to make a hopefully brief dip into lit crit to attend to the Jarvis View on this tricky facet. His Why Rhyme Pleases essay makes a number of claims which may require some attention with regard to both JD and the preceding Night Office. As you would expect, most of the arguments are long and complex so I'll try to drag out what appears to this uneducated eye to be relevant. Of course this selection is subjective and provisional but perhaps worthy of thought:
I'm suspicious of most of this because I like to know how things work, I need to know how this 'distinctive mode' is produced, I think the equation between technique and a thinking art sounds better than what it might mean. This may of course spring from the well-established arduity bias against Most Things Adorno or my inadequate intellect but my suspicion remains. I'd also like to spend a very long time arguing with the "no art is about itself" quip because it's wrong. I'm very sceptical of this particular mimesis mostly because it carries too much of the Marxian perspective which feels inappropriate in this context.
The other two quotes make more sense to me although it took me a while to work out that Jarvis' three long poems embody this conversation. I'm in complete agreement with the last quote and the call for a reader's performed virtuosity but I'd spread this to Things Other than prosody as well. I'm not at all sure about Johnson's word but the rising mists accurately mirror what's going on in my reading head most of the time
For me rhyme and metre work together to produce pace by which I mean they provide the temporal rate at which the poem moves along. I'll freely confess that this notion has grown out of my first encounter with the technical brilliance that is the Spenserian stanza and the many different ways it is put to use in The Faerie Queene. These two elements when used ineptly, as with Geoffrey Hill's Oraclau produce turgidly bad verse that destroys any kind of cadence and flow.
Throughout JD an impetus is maintained that is most apparent when it is read aloud, although the eye is also carried along by this flow. The downside of this effect, as with Spenser, is that the intelligence and acuity of what's been said can be missed or overlooked by the forward movement. The 'Pleases' essay draws attention to Pope's use of the mid-line rhyme and it would appear that we have two of these here in verse 423: outraged / grave and (perhaps) as / was. The other formal device highlighted in the essay is the alternating noun/verb line endings in the first part of the extract. I'm not sure about the intended 'effect' of these but I'd argue that most readers would miss both- I did.
In conclusion, I hope I've demonstrated why the seriously good and very long poem is worth the effort, that it's good to be drawn fully into the world of the poem and the mind of the poet and a real pleasure to be involved with and absorbed in the text.