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Joy cometh in the morning

25 July 2014

Jeremy Noel-Tod on a poem of waiting


Night Office

Simon Jarvis

Enitharmon Press £9.99


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THIS new book-length poem by Simon Jarvis, Gorley Putt Professor of Poetry and Poetics at Cambridge, does not resemble anything else recently published in English verse. The floorspace of Night Office, so to speak, is vast: more than 200 pages of poetry rhymed into eight-line stanzas. Its subject is an office in the devotional sense: the vigil of a man on a winter's night. As snowflakes "drift and cluster, like the purest speech", a massively erudite insomnia begins.

Readers unsure whether to sign on for such a long shift might like to begin with Jarvis's lighter previous volume, Eighteen Poems (Eyewear Publishing, 2012). "Lessons and Carols", the opening piece, is a moving, conversational meditation from the edge of an English city on the spiritual angst the speaker suffers over material comforts. At its heart is the reflection that the "goods" of the world "are truly demonic", although this thought is also "too hard to know".

Night Office sets itself to know what is hard, both in form and content. As a critic, Jarvis has argued that rhyming in poetry reveals how "thinking is never all our own work": words lead to words in ways we cannot control. Thus, confining a philosophical poem in a narrow room of rhymeis a calculated combination of aesthetic masochism and intellectual asceticism, resulting in a "chastened melody" suited to the poem's paradoxical celebration of privation.

The result is a rich, bewildering, recalcitrant, and inconsistent essay in poetic thinking as a theological and political mode. At its best, Jarvis's syllabically precise, baroquely convoluted eloquence makes thinking physical. His descriptive gifts are particularly responsive to architecture, and his imagination can wring Christian significance from the trivial flow of quotidian life, as when the "fluffy little" logo of the "Lamb Hotel" awakens the "counter-song" of"its strong sonic / stems & fresh elements".

Yet the radical theory underpinning such an ambitious tech-nical venture - which proceeds by improbably tricky triple rhymes- does not convince when the technique itself does not, and this is a regular worry. Put simply, poets whose subject is "the world" can't afford to be stuck with "curled" and "unfurled".

"A poem", Robert Frost wrote,"is the emotion of having a thought while the reader waits, a little anxiously, for the success of dawn." Day, and joy, do come to Night Office: brightly, beautifully, and with restorative echoes of Wordsworth. But the wait is more than a little anxious.

Dr Jeremy Noel-Tod is a lecturer in the School of Literature, Drama and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia.

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