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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
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