Reading Simon Jarvis' "The Unconditional".


Five things that can be said about "The Unconditional":

  • length, it has 240 pages of length, this has implications for the attentive reader;
  • the authentic, the poem seems to be rather abstractly concerned about the nature of the difference between the authentic and the fake and spends a lot of time making not very poetic points in favour of the former;
  • prosody, as in metre and rhyme but mostly with metrical regularity, this fact is stated at the end of the poem and may have something to do with Jarvis' day job as Gorley Putt Professor of Poetry and Poetics at Cambrige University;
  • satire, except that isn't the kind of satire that many of us are familiar with;
  • the British road network, Adorno, music and middle-aged male self-loathing are all given some attention and it rains a lot.

Simon Jarvis is of the view that constrained, as opposed to free, verse is a very good way of doing philosophical work. His academic work has focused on Adorno's practice, the philosophical dimensions of Wordsworth's verse and impressing upon us the continuing importance/relevance of prosody. The poem can be seen as a working out or a demonstration of the 'Prosody is really good' argument and one of the very real joys of reading the poem is to put this observation to the test.

There are films (The Sacrifice, Satantango) where nothing much happens but this nothing much occurs in really interesting ways. On my first reading I tended to get stuck on the use of digression in 'The Unconditional' as a variation on the slow cinema trope. This was a mistake because I was focused on the barriers to 'understanding' rather than going with this particular conceit.

I'm now of the view that what might be going on is that well-worn modernist anxiety about doing justice to what Pound thought of as 'the whole shooting match'. The only evidence I have for this is that qualification is built on qualification so that, at times, there is this quite obsessive anxiety to say all of what needs to be said.

A brief example

I've tried hard to locate a passage that will adequately represent 'The Unconditional' but have failed, this is primarily due the Jarvis tendency to stick with one particular train of thought for very long periods of time. In what follows, it is important to know that Agramant is the poem's arch-villain:

  Later in Services formica teemed.
Nonsemiotic grapefruit eating all about
extended its impossible ideal.
Lay your knife and fork across your plate.
Against all furious effort the slack face
still with each gobful let some wet sign slip
to sit with meaning on the grating chin
while if de minimis a muscle there
could give no noticeable twitch that did
not paint a message in the vacant air
causing nonsemiosis to migrate
from off this world's bad grapefruit to some skies
of uninhabitable scientistic loss.
Agramant tucked into his bacon.

I've chosen the above as a demonstration of both the delights and challenges that face even the most patient reader. It is too ornate, there is too much faux self-deprecation going on but all of these irritations are startling enough (most of the time) to overcome any sense of annoyance. The above is about eating segments of grapefruit in a motorway services cafeteria. There's a lengthy and quite spiteful playing around with theory making that Jarvis finds to be suspect and there's this faux ornate piece of self-mockery going on that appears to be about using poetry to undermine itself. The redeeming features are;

  • formica that teems;
  • sitting with meaning;
  • a loss that can't be lived in and yet has skies.

All of which adds up to a completely absorbing piece of work that challenges many of our modernist assumptions about the abiding strength of the metrical line. It needs to be read and is still available from Barque Press for 15 quid.