Sunday, 7 January 2007

The Unconditional (1/8)

About The Unconditional, by Simon Jarvis.

“hyperpedagogical sublime” (p. 115) “castrate Manhattan in a double smash” (p. 71)? Slash?

For a person, this poem is probably mysterious & moving if it is anything; for a public, it is forbidding rather than difficult – it’s much harder to make unverifiable statements about than (for example) a lot of late Prynne, so it’s tricky to appear to be talking about.

The grumes which flare throughout a first reading are predominantly Horatian satire (via Pope); fretful narratives of walking or driving around or it raining (as if John Wilkinson had completed Wordsworth’s Recluse – equally, such anxiety might be simulated if you were supposed to be on a quest to find a certain goblet but had forgotten); & weird embedded set-pieces which rupture the dominant prosodic form with chants, lists, & garbage (p. 236, ‘OaaneS / FrierJ / Aonaea / Rmwntr / Oaedhv / Stlsai’).

“(Several such at this point exited. / ‘Still wouldn’t Cortot have been better if / he hadn’t played so many wrong notes?’ ‘No.’ / Several more departed.) The lecturer / warmed to his task of driving every one / of these professionals to leave the room.” (p. 55).

The Unfinishable phenomenon also has a lot to do with its perverse lack of conventional subdivisions. When I put it aside & came back to it, I found I had to sort of take a run-up, flipping back a few thousand pages & then advancing with a scorned earth policy, hoping that I’d somehow pick up a thread or two before rupturing the membrane into new hermeneutic accomplishment.

The lack of organisational clarity is exceptional. On a Robinson College Open Day in 1997 I attended a ceremony in which cultists quartered a terrier on Clare Bridge to honour Simon’s custom of dividing his lectures into four parts. Perhaps the cantolessness is part of the attempt to strong-arm epic into a lyric mode. The Unconditional advertises itself as “A Lyric.” I have an unfounded hunch that to understand why this is not (or not only) a misnomer would be to complete my initiation into the poem’s world. I’ll make a suggestion about this later on, & I’ll mention now that I’ve found J.H. Prynne, “English Poetry & Emphatical Language” (1988), & Simon Jarvis, “Prosody as Cognition” (1998), useful in developing some background appreciation of the contentious modality. {I also meant to look into a possibly-relevant reading list from one of Simon’s lectures; I never got round to it but I can at least reproduce it: “Ulrich Broich, The Eighteenth-Century Mock-Heroic Poem, trans. David Henry Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); Gregory G. Colomb, Designs on Truth: The Poetics of the Augustan Mock-Epic (University Park, Penn.: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992); James Noggle, The Skeptical Sublime: Aesthetic Ideology in Pope & the Tory Satirists (New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001); Colin Nicholson, Writing & the Rise of Finance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).”}

“’How can a critical intellectual use / the very terms that she at once / subjects to a searching criticism?’ / The same way I fall asleep when you talk” (p. 171). “please sing your song of the soul into the sink” (p. 31). “Corpse-dinner Homebase” (p. 33). I think Peter Riley mentioned that the poem is full of disdain, but that it is not clear what for. I sympathise with the grumble. There’s been talk of The Unconditional as a work of great commitment & ardour, & though this is probably true in some senses – e.g. it feels like, where the verse is blank, the rhyme scheme is not xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx but e.g. abcdefghijkclmnom – it isn’t true in the sense of ‘meticulous cares taken that those who are likely to read it are also likely to understand it, at least if they read it hard enough.’ I sometimes get the impression of someone just fucking writing a massive poem OK. I conjecture that nuanced concepts, painstakingly gestated & road-tested, have been given a violent & whimsical last-minute tweak, & a pat on the rump into the spotlight. Things kilned, then tie-dyed. I also suspect that, here & there, the poem splurges on in the way satire can splurge on without necessarily being all that pointed or public or funny, & in the way metrical verse can splurge on without saying much.

But I can think of three responses to this somewhat ramified grumble. First, reducing any poem’s misty satirical targets to real world figures is an historic & greatly diverting pastime. Second, the charges which this poem levels are often philosophically sophisticated, & the targets constituted therein will of course not be stock characters, pre-assembled & available in culture, they won’t be recogniseable by their minutest gesture. This is a very good thing unavoidably associated with an only slightly bad one. Finally, the poem is pretty obviously filled with the same topics as Simon’s published critical work & what we can well imagine to be his life. Things like pain, purple, prosody, hermits, idols, aesthetics, anthropology, capital, language, ontology, music, football, driving, dreams, thinking about the War on Terror, writing poetry & criticism & theory & hanging out with others who so do. We need only follow his critical work or at worse follow him around a bit.

(This third point probably brings to mind the pseudo-recuperated Language poetry of American academia, especially as it is constituted within some of its critiques. (For example, the critique that fully integrated poet-critics risk their poetry being ignored or (merely) consumed by those paid (or paying) to read (and think & write about) it. (Contrast the scattered, discreet, & miscellaneous critical prose of baffling bard J.H. Prynne, or the shrug poetics of Tom Raworth (cf. also Tom Raworth {xox} & The Collected Critical Prose of J.H. Prynne ed. (forthcoming?); it’s really a matter of manners (and degrees)). “Some [Language] texts which I have liked greatly seem to promote inferred relations well outside the [Language] schedule, whilst others (which I have not cared for) have seemed every bit as restrictive in their ideological conformity as the most bourgeois texts written to satisfy the expectations of a predefined market […] consumption to be renamed as production: the open text, the inventive, selective reader, free to opt for useful waste or wasteful utility […] Isn’t it the classic freedom to eat cake, to diversify an assumed leisure & to choose out of a diversity which is precisely the commodity-spectacle of a pre-disposed array, clearwrapped in unitised portion control?” (J.H. Prynne, ‘A Letter to Steve MacCaffrey,’ The Gig 9). “Although it is ‘free’ to all appearances, the reading actually works by remote control” (Rod Mengham in Textual Practice I think)). Conventionally after ‘Oh no! The valleys of death have become hopelessly tangled! Can you match each stanza to its prose explication?’ comes ‘Spot the difference!’. That is, you exploit the haze of heremeneutic free-for-all (which all poems are required to carry like identity cards), envisioning in this haze (for example) an Unconditional homonculus which problematises, extends & critiques its Adorno: A Critical Introduction dancing partneress, & thus you supposedly dignify the poem as primary data and/or the dialectical advancement of the prose, but you in fact install, with an immense sense of relief, a critical fetish object which probably lapses into one of the positions examined & rejected by Adorno: A Critical Introduction in the first place. Man! Here’s Simon on roughly this sort of critical procedure, as it might happen in relation to For the Monogram: “Its difficulties hardly arise from the extent of its lexicon. On the contrary, a reader may seize avidly on any out of the way items as a chance to disappear into the dictionaries & other compendia, so as to bring some scraps of determinateness back to his task, or, viewed less sympathetically, so as to replace Prynne’s own text with others that are found easier to read.” ("The incommunicable silhouette," I only make the comparison with the Language poetry situation to help to rebut any systemic accusation of The Unconditional’s irretrievable obscurity, not to bagsie a putative poetomachiac Simon for the Language team (‘Shirts’), nor really in any way to stipulate what methods I think criticism should or should not use for the poem. Such upfront stipulation would be especially ridiculous in the case of The Unconditional, since the poem’s relationship with critical method is so eccentric. It is obviously underlain by a lot of research (though probably not ‘for’ the poem) & some readerly reproduction of that research seems appropriate. Simon says, “These considerations do not mean that Prynne’s work is cavalier about the question of accessibility. But the routes of access that are offered to these poems are not falsely immediate ones: rather, they discover […] that linguistic understanding is necessarily socially mediated […] working with the poems will not be only a question of reading them off against a competence which has been accumulated in advance; readers are asked to become researchers, to take purchase on the whole body of the language & the history & polity sedimented within it, rather than acquiescing in their dispossession in the name of the figment of a common readership” ("Quality & the non-identical in J.H. Prynne’s ‘Aristeas, in seven years’" Worst ‘Simon says’ ever). The Unconditional’s layout involves a lot of marginalia-soliciting white space. The unattributed, untranslated epigraph is the philological equivalent of a maddening itch (Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve ahh). On the other hand, the poem is dedicated to “the Auditor.” {…}. Additionally, the fact that the poem is metrical, & the fact that it is known by its author by heart (at least to an unusual degree), indicate some ambition exists that the poem be knowledge. In other words, the task we are set is not to accumulate knowledge about the poem, but to experience the poem as knowledge (I’d heard of this idea before but I’d always thought it ridiculous, until I read The Unconditional (more on this later)). (The first time I read The Unconditional I ignored the multiply-nesting parentheses, which I now think was stupid. Like it or not (I hate it), The Unconditional is a hypertext, & counting up & down the parentheses & occasional quotation marks makes it much clearer what’s happening)).

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