Sunday, March 30, 2014

Simon Jarvis as W.H. Auden



A young English poet, fostered by an ancient and glorious university, starts writing startling, experimental verses, which find their first audience among a talented, radicalized coterie of other young writers.  He’s got amazing chops, especially when it comes to his metrics.  He travels.  He writes.  He is appreciated, especially in the left-leaning quarters of the literary world.  He moves to America, grows increasingly religious and perhaps less radical.  He turns toward more traditional forms, shows a great aptness for rhyme, and embraces the Anglican Church.

The poet is, of course, W.H. Auden.  Unless you add “…but moves back” after “He moves to America.”  In that case, we’re no longer talking about Auden, we’re talking about Simon Jarvis.

I don’t know whether I should be surprised that the two careers bear such similarity, but they do.  Auden’s career is generally seen as splitting into two phases, with 1939 being the crux—and I don’t think I’m alone in believing that 2014 is Jarvis’ 1939.  Consider the words of William Wooten from the February 28th issue of the TLS:
When a devotee of the astringent ‘difficulty’ of J.H. Prynne and de facto member of the Cambridge School publishes a 7,000 line Anglican poem in formal rhyming verse, it is safe to conclude he has had something of a change of heart.  Not total, perhaps.  Simon Jarvis’ Night Office, the poem in question, echoes and alludes to Prynne and foregrounds the sort of Adorno-inspired theorizing Jarvis and others have used to justify Prynnian poetics.  Even the way Jarvis writes as if no one had produced a rhyming couplet since 1908 may be more a result of subscription to modernist orthodoxy than evidence of its renunciation.  Still, there is no pretending Night Office is your standard Cambridge fare.
There are grounds to be less sanguine when it comes to generalities about “standard Cambridge fare” than is Wooten, but one takes his point.  There’s a departure here, even as there is continuity, and the departure leads Jarvis down the Auden highway, toward long, formal verse and the consolations of the Anglican Communion.

Auden claimed that he left England because he feared that, had he stayed, he’d have become a part of the Establishment.  It’s a likely enough counterfactual: one could easily imagine the aging Wystan, or perhaps the aging Sir Wystan, hobnobbing with the English elite in town and country, rather than crouching in his filthy New York apartment, taking Benzedrine to keep up with his book reviewing assignments.  Auden’s fear of ending up an English establishment figure does make one wonder about Jarvis’ fate.  As the Gorley Putt Professor of Poetry and Poetics at Cambridge University, Jarvis is well positioned, should he wish it, to slide into the kind of fate Auden dreaded.  Perhaps that's why, in a letter appearing in a later issue of the TLS, Jarvis emphasized his (very real, very much ongoing) connection to radical Cambridge poetry figures like Keston Sutherland.  If Jarvis is the Auden of the group, Sutherland is the P.B. Shelley.  But that's another topic.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Poetry: What’s Next? Find out on Harvard Square.




“Poetry: What’s Next?” That’s the title of the first in a new series of critical talks to take place at the legendary Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts (6 Plympton Street, to be precise).  I’ll have the good fortune to be a part of it, speaking alongside Ben Mazer of Boston University and Stephen Burt of Harvard.

 The event kicks off at 7:00 pm on Friday March 14th.  Hope you can come by—but if you can’t, fret not: the proceedings will be published by the Battersea Review, and then in a new series of critical chapbooks put out by the book shop.


A day before the Grolier event I’ll be speaking on related topics at the New England Conservatory, but you’ll have to pull strings to get in: it’s a students-only event.  Buying me a drink afterward, however, is a proposition open to the public.


Sunday, March 09, 2014

A Devil's Dictionary of the American PoBiz



Research continues in the vital field of descriptive poetic sociology, people, and my army of assistants labors ceaselessly in the fourth sub-basement of the secret backyard writing dojo.  Below find a compilation of current research results: a provisional and partial descriptive vocabulary for life on the slopes of the American Parnassus! 


A Devil’s Dictionary of the American PoBiz

Adjunctivitis: The condition, visible on your vita, of having held so many adjunct teaching gigs for so long that tenure-track hiring committees suspect there’s something wrong with you and silently pass on to the next applicant.

Anti-Foundationalism: The belief that all evil emanates from the Poetry Foundation’s menacing, black-walled headquarters in Chicago.  It was once thought that being invited to air one’s dissent in the pages of Poetry or on the Foundation’s website would ameliorate symptoms, but studies have since shown such treatment just as likely to intensify the condition.

AWP Block: (Pronounce the “AWP” to rhyme with “yawp”): An occurrence in which your attempt to schmooze with the editor of an important journal is cut off by another desperate poet who sights the editor’s name tag and swoops in between the two of you, giving the editor a big air kiss and clocking you with a tote bag.

Bestseller: A poetry book purchased by at least one person neither related to, nor a former student of, the poet in question.  The existence of bestsellers has yet to be verified.

Brooklynschmerz: The anxiety caused among poets by the very existence of Brooklyn.  Those who live elsewhere (that is, in the provinces) often manifest such symptoms as: talking shit about Brooklyn, mentioning how glad they are to have left/never been sucked in by Brooklyn, or looking around at the local landscape of strip malls and Chuck E Cheese franchises and complaining about how they should be living in Brooklyn.  Those who live in Brooklyn manifest symptoms such as: talking shit about Brooklyn, mentioning how they wish it was like it was before people like those other guys in the slow-pour coffee line showed up, and looking around at the local landscape of condo redevelopments and crime scene police tape and complaining about how they should be living in Portland.

Censorship: Something that happens to poets in other countries.  American poets are protected by the constitution and widespread public indifference.

Close Reading: An event at which one performs one's poems in a venue the size of a phone booth.

Hinternet Publication: Online publications so obscure that only the hardiest of online frontiersmen will ever come across them.  Just as real-world hinterlands are often given misleading names to attract settlers (“Greenland”), hinternet publications have been known to include indicators of grandeur (the word “Review,” for example) in their titles to lure the unwary and deceive the department chair looking over one’s annual evaluation.

Impoetence: Writer's block.  A failure to rise to the occasion.

Mastblurbation: The writing of vague or incomprehensible blurbs, rife with terms such as “achingly,” “audacious,” “luminous,” and the name-checking of John Ashbery.  Alternately: the writing of one’s own jacket copy.

Metafore: The act of trying to convince a more prestigious poet that the two of you have met on a prior occasion.

Microphellatio: The widespread phenomenon of poets posting pictures of themselves with microphones dangling in front of their open mouths.

MFAphasia: The condition suffered by those who stop writing after they’ve finished their MFA theses and no longer have to come up with something for workshop every week.

Multiclutchural Poet: One who tries desperately to find a Native American, African-American, or Latino ancestor.  Mid-career name changes may be involved.

Oral Phase: The point in a prominent poet’s career when he or she spends so much time criss-crossing the country giving poetry readings and talks at conferences and hob-nobbing with the local literati that the actual writing of poetry ceases.

Oronism: The religious belief, widely held to be heretical yet celebrated irregularly by congregants at secret gatherings at Orono, in the remote woods of Maine, that only those poets with a personal connection to SUNY-Buffalo exist, and that all others are illusions created by an evil demiurge named Vendler.

Poetariat: The mass of unsung poets.  Adjuncts, mostly.

Profschmerz: The anxiety/defensiveness/resentment felt by American poets who are not working as professors during an era in which the most common source of a poet’s paycheck is a university English department.  Symptoms are various, but the phrase “I pity you academicians” is a sure sign of an advanced stage of the disease.

Reversifier: A poet who tries to write in meter but gets it backwards.  A New Formalist.

*
Many thanks to R.S. Gwynn, Paul Bond, T.R. Hummer and Michael Anania for their valuable research in cataloging these terms.


Saturday, March 01, 2014