Simon Jarvis' Night Office

I've spent many absorbing and occasionally infuriating hours over recent years paying attention to the Jarvis project. This isn't any easy task, both The Unconditional and Night Office are very long poems with much digression along the way. I shouldn't like either of these because they make use of formal constraints (rhyme, meter) to make ideologicasl and theological 'points' that I can't identify with. Howwever, I'm addicted to both for reasons that I can't fully explain but I've read and re-read both and continue to be both provoked and absorbed.

Night Office isn't an easy read, it's tone is infused with emotional and spiritual pain. It's a religious poem but not one that tries to evangelise or in any way enthuse about 'finding God' as it provides a number of narratives and extended observations related by a number of the dead. In amongst all this sadness there is a profundity and technical brilliance. A key principle in Simon's longer work is the view that poetry thus constrained is best for expressing big philosophical and theological ideas. In demonstrating this, a gauntlet is thrown down to the rest of us who are stuck in some 'contemporary' notion that the Poem should explore other possibilities and that rhyme and metre are overworn and tired devices best left alone. My other personal prejudice is that poems shouldn't do big thoughts and that Pound was right when he said that poets should leave such things to philosophers and theologians.

Unusually (stuck in my ways, entrenched and obstinate with my views etc etc) I think I'm being won over. i think this is because I enjoy the work and enjoy tussling with the ideas therein. I'm also realising that my previous views on rhyme might be both simplistic and wrong.

The framing device for Night Office is a man sat in a room through the night watching it snow outside and:

    Dead, everyone, and gone beneath the snow,
    I search the past for them, but miss their faces.
    They are all where the happy dead must go.
    Only, in this dark room, I cannot know.
    their darkness, their sleep; my head replaces
    each one precisely in this life, and so
    they walk again this path from lungs to teeth
    escaping painfully from sweet relief.

    Each bears his rhythm like an inner star:
    each is walked through by some one line of stress
    not chosen or invented, though they are
    not accidental either, since they test,
    for each imprinted pattern, where the bar
    is lightly crossed, or halted at. My chest
    rises and falls beneath my shirt, as each
    treads slowly through me his peculiar speech.

By contemporary standards, this isn't 'difficult' in that ordinary / familiar words are used, the syntax is unmangled and it is possible to follow the meaning on a first reading. However, as with John Peck, complicated things are being said. I'm reading the general thrust as 'the happy dead' speak through the narrator but there's also the first sentence of the second verse which is ostensibly about the rhythm of the dead but may also be about the rhythm of the poem as in 'some one line of stress' before we get to the testing (assaying?) of patterns which are said to be imprinted.

The first verse also provokes some further consideration, why are these dead said to be happy and where is this place that they must go. Is this heaven or purgatory or some other place to wait the Day of Judgement? 'Happy' seems an odd adjective for the afterlife until it becomes apparent just how bleakly Simon depicts our lives in the here and now.

Now we come to the retraction, there's a video on the interweb with Simon explaining his view on rhyme and metre where he uses Pope's An Essay on Man to demosntrate how effective these constraints can be. On coming across this video, I wrote something on bebrowed which summarised the view but also tried to refute it by questioning whether Pope had been successful in this regard. Given the strength and technical strength demonstrated here and through the length of the work, I've changed most of my mind although I'm still clinging on to some reservations about poets 'doing' big thoughts. For a variety of unrelated reasons, I'm currently reading Pope's translation of the Iliad and have to concede that his 'Observations' reveal that he knew a great deal about poetry.

For most people length is a major obstacle because most people are reluctant to give precious time to something that needs to be read over weeks rather than days. I'd argue that the best poets in English wrote long poems that demand sustained attention: Langland; Chaucer; Spenser; Milton; Wordsworth and David Jones. This being the case isn't it worthwhile to give attention to a long work of serious intent? For those wary of giving such a commitment, I've found that reading and re-reading one chunk / fragment at a time is a worthwhile way of finding out if you're up for the challenge.

I've alluded to technical skill already and with Night Office this lies primarily in the fact that the poem 'sounds' like natural speech rather than the sing-song jangle that normally afflicts rhyming verse. This in itself is a major achievement but this is accompanied by a lyrical beauty of some intensity. This is p. 96:

   The poet is the one-man North Korea.
   His thorax shakes continuously with stress
   held against stress, idea against idea;
   his head blocks entry to what would confess
   the failure of his line: he ranks by fear
   that inner regiment whose shouts may press
   each thought or phoneme to its loyal service
   in perfect freedom from whoever heard this.

   Get disconnected, since the only vent
   for airs & graces is the severed cable:
   on at that point where the web is rent
   is this collective apparatus able 
   to see one colour, clock one distant scent
   or sit at a completely empty table :
   switch off the pictures, clear the virid links
   each gene would grab for from the thing which thinks.

   A bell suspended in the summer air
   effects this disruption to discursive
   concatenations of false persons where
   each figurine blinks up the blank recursive
   totem of self, emoticon's despair
   shuttling away from thought with every cursive
   screen-tendered send-off of extent's dead scribble,
   this electronic counterpart of dribble :

   a bell, the unsurrendered idiophone,
   corrects and tears this fabric, puts a block
   on vacant commerce, when each liquid tone
   gushes and tumbles from the neck : true clock
   whose watch can't see the wrist, day's bone
   which holds the spirit up, month's sounding stock
   you call and call across the faithless state
   unheard and unremembered till too late.

It appears to me that a few things come together in a way which runs through the poem as a whole, a bittersweet sense of self-deprecating humour, a muted but very present rage against our material concerns and a feeling of displacement that's stronger and more pronounced than alienation. The poet in general and Simon in particular as North Korea takes some time to mull over. We're not talking here about the hapless average citizen of North Korea but all of the country and everything in it. The poet's fear of failure, inadequacy, ineptitude is likened to the unseen dread and paranoia that is engendered throughout that particular society and culture. The ending is one of the many references to the poem that we're reading and I wonder whether this is a bit too clever for its own good. As a reader, I'm quite happy to work through the N Korea analogy and its various implications and appreciate how this is developed into the self-cesnorship that characterizes totalitarian regimes. I'm also impressed by the 'inner regiment' and 'loyal service' ambiguities but the last line, if we take 'this' as the poem we are reading jars just a little because the self referential only works if it's done well. The phrasing, the formal strtucture and the tone of the verse are nevertheless of a very high quality and produce a strikingly original 'take' on a very old theme.

The following verses address the down side(s) of technology, especially the interweb and ends with this apparent futility of being heard and remembered too late. I've read lots of work on this theme but Simon, here and elsewhere, is particularly good at skewering the guilts and casual crimes inherent in our digital age. One of the many 'points' of difference between my views and those above is that this reader is left cold by positivist references to the reality of colours and scents, no matter how near or far. The arguments against new technology and its inherent absence of thought are brilliantly expressed especially with the spiritual juxtaposition at the end and not only do I enjoy reading it but I also enjoy arguing with it.

Of course it might be argued that this position is essentially elitist, that the interweb makes information and hence knowledge much more freely available. More importantly for me, given that we can't put the genie back in the bottle we should attempt to make full use of the adavantages and try and find ways to lessen the impact of its flaws.

There's a couple of words that might not be entirely familiar to most of us, 'virid' would have presented me with a problem had I not recently paid attention to and written about John Peck's M which makes use of 'viriditas' which indicates greening, making abundant but also used by Hildegard of Bingen to describe the generative force used by God. The OED defines the adjective as "Green, verdant" even though it traces it back to the Latin 'viridis' the same root as viriditas. The fuller definition gets my vote because it satirises these omnisicient devices (links) as they spread their boughs and branches actoss the world. Theother word that might give a few problems is 'recursive' which, in it's non-technical guise, means "repeatedly or continually recurring, recurrent", in a verse that didn't have to rhyme then 'recurrent' would be more accessible, but that doesn't rhyme with the other two 'cursives'.

The narrative voice(s) do create a feeling of being displaced, of having been removed and there's an exploration of this which invites the reader to think about their own experiences of this state. My own response to the interweb is complex and many sided and permanently shifting about. I'm not happy with gizmos and softwares that dictate what I do, when I was running an information and e-commerce site my partner and I decided that we should build all our platforms in-house rather than get them out of a box. I was very fortunate in that he had years of expertise in software development so we could manage and tweak our own systems as we went along. The problem that I have with social networking is that users can't tailor things to their needs and the commercial interests drive us in specific directions. However I don't share the Jarvis contempt for these things because the stuff that is generated isn't always electronic 'dribble' - it depends who your friends are. I do however freely confess that I try and avoid fixed views on this thing because it is still changing so fast that we don't have timeto reflect. My other view is that there is a lot of dribble out there but there's also been 500 years of dribble in print. The intellectual snob within also feels a sense of bemusement in that billions now have access to all forms of knowledge and can participate in the discovery and framing on new discoveries yet prefer to make use of this opportunity by sending pictures of their cats to each other. I'm not suggesting either that getting disconnected is a completely bad thing, I've had three weeks of freedom from the interweb this year which I find helpful in terms of perspective and my mobile is usually switched off because it's a distraction that I don't need. With regard to the above, these re-considerations are prompted by this page of verse and this kind of prompting occurs on almost every page.

I've just realised that 'concatenation' is another out of the ordinary word that readers might need some help with (something that's linked together like the links of a chain- OED) but, unlike, 'viridas', the sense can be gained from the context. The query here is whether a five syllable word 'fits' into the formal schemes of the poem? It seems to disrupt the verse when read out loud.

Getting back to being 'prompted', I don't think this is the same as being able to relate directly to a description or observation. Geoffrey Hill's line about subsequent generations being 'harrowed' by two world wars and Keston Sutherland's description of an aspect of mental illness 'speak' to me directly in that they solidify for me a bundle of what were previously jumbled emotions. Prompting on the other hand involves something that triggers off a series of thoughts, as above, where I don't share the perspective but nevertheless am prodded gently into a reconsideration of my own.

This is primarily a religious work and does contain moments / sections that are genuinely uplifting, even for this non-Dawkins atheist. Two of the main concerns are liturgical practice and the nature of ruins. This is from p. 135:

   Each true disaster sees another star
   rise from its ashes, since the broken church
   is first the church then when its ruins are
   ruins of ruins, and the worm's research
   is to find out those rubbles whose bits are
   codes of the future, where the bee's sweet search
   reports at length, in lieu of unpaid tax,
   to the state's ruins, honey, gold and wax.

What follows is a piece of unfettered and thus provisional speculation - Simon is an admirer of Adorno and has written Adorno: a Critical Introduction. I'm of the view that Adorno may be right about many things but he was wrong about poetry. One of the things that he might have been right about is the nature of the fragment. According to a book about Blanchot's use of the fragment, Adorno felt that "For even as the fragment testifies to totalisation's failure, it also makes a paradoxical last-ditch attempt to redeem art by recalling it to those very duties it cannot fulfil. The fragment here protests, resists, objects, challenging the totalising artwork as such, together with those, social, political and economic forces that have turned artistic expression into an alienated consumer product". I'm now thinking that the same dynamic may apply here, if 'fragment' is replaced by 'ruin' and 'art' by faith. Oddly, on previous readings, I've skimmed over the ruin and ruination asspects of the poem in an attempt to get hold of the theology but it may seem that these two are intertwined. Perhaps. Or this may well be just another case of overreading. There's also the notion that the poem's various episodes can be read as fragments (ruins), although this guess will require very careful examination.

To conclude, Night Office is Simon Jarvis' most important and challenging work today and must be given the attention and serious consideration that a work of this stature deserves.

Night Office is published by Enitharmon for a mere 9 pounds and 99 pence. The site also has an instructive discussion between Rowan Williams and Simon at the 2013 London launch.