|The Holy Forms of Mark Jarman
The Reaper Essays
by Mark Jarman and Robert MacDowell
Story Line Press, 1996
edited by Mark Jarman and David Mason
Story Line Press, 1996
Paperback, 280 pp, $15.00
by Mark Jarman
Story Line Press, 2000
Paperback, 83 pp., $13.95
Since 1980, when he began publishing his journal
The Reaper, Mark Jarman has been calling for drastic
change in American poetic practice. The eponymous "Reaper,"
a composite personality of Jarman and Robert McDowell, writes
articles, manifestoes, and interviews. Attacking the dominance
of confessional, deep-image, and meditative poetry, The Reaper
flamboyantly lays out a plan for reform. Almost fascistically
directive, a 1981 essay entitled "The Reaper's Non-Negotiable
Demands" included these ten commandments:
- Take prosody off the hit list.
- Stop calling formless writing poetry.
- Accuracy, at all costs.
- No emotion without narrative.
- No more meditating on the meditation.
- No more poems about poetry.
- No more irresponsibility of expression.
- Raze the House of Fashion.
- Dismantle the Office of Translation.
- Spring open the Jail of the Self.
The Reaper explicates his demands with his sharp
tongue firmly in his cheek. Of number 6, the explication reads,
"We mean NO MORE POEMS ABOUT POETRY." Other demands
have fuller explications, exploring examples of good and bad
poetry. The Reaper attacks a remarkable number of heavy-hitting
poets and critics with a deliciously vicious humor. Louise Glück
indulges in "distortions of language that serve to obscure."(23)
"The influence of Stevens appears harmful"(27) in
the work of Robert Hass. Bly and Merwin translate work to sound
like their own.(42) Gregory Orr's work looks more like "poverty"
than "poetry."(36) Wallace Stevens writes "bric-a-brac."
Jorie Graham, Harold Bloom, John Ashbery, and many others are
attacked and dismantled in their various poetic and critical
In one particularly funny essay, The Reaper conducts an interview
with Sean Dough and Jean Doh, a set of composite personalities
echoing The Reaper's joint persona. Dough and Doh engage in
the kind of "navel gazing" that The Reaper
finds so reprehensible. The humorous image of two poets sitting
down with Death for an interview sets the scene for the telling
answers of the husband-and-wife team. The Reaper attacks
the critical establishment through their voices. Jean Doh says:
|Why is the critic writing about you in the
first place? Because he can't write about himself. That's
why I love critics. I love Helen Vendler. I love Harold
Bloom. And I'm happy to say they love me, too. In fact,
I'll be thrilled to see what they say because
they've been silent for some time-about Bones Through
Their Noses [Doh's most recent book.]
The two poets prattle on self-centeredly throughout
Jarman and McDowell's joint persona ended when The Reaper
folded in 1989 after nine years. Premised on the notion that
awareness of death is the opposite of and the antidote to self-centered
navel gazing, the journal chose its own death date and happily
left newsstands of its own volition. Jarman's second critical
Angels (Story Line Press 1996), is an anthology of the
"New Formalists." Jarman explains the term's origin
"as a dismissive epithet by critics hostile to the movement."
Formalism here refers simply to writing in poetic forms,
and Jarman admits that the term is "usually thought inadequate
even by its adherents." He oddly fails to mention that
the term's inadequacy also stems from Formalism's having been
an early twentieth-century critical movement spearheaded by
Roman Jakobson. One could hardly call oneself a "new deconstructionist"
and have no relation to Derrida!
Jarman's anthology Rebel
Angels, which modestly does not include himself, is
a wonderful collection of formal poems and completes as its
third leg the formalist anthology triumvirate that also includes
Strong Measures and A Formal Feeling Comes. Some
of the poems in Rebel
Angels are indeed familiar from Strong Measures,
like Tom Disch's stunning "The Rapist's Villanelle."
Jarman's decision to edit such an anthology hardly contradicts
his stance in The Reaper: "Obviously, The Reaper
does not clamor for a return to the heyday of rhyme and meter,
the elegant formal poem..." It does call into question
The Reaper's sincerity. Clearly, Jarman is excited by the elegant
formal poem, and that is exactly what he showcases in Rebel
Not surprisingly, Jarman's critical journey
has brought him ever closer to classical form. His Questions
for Ecclesiastes (Story Line Press, 1997) includes a section
of twenty "Unholy
Sonnets." In his new book, Unholy
Sonnets (Story Line Press, 2000), he expands the project
and produces a brilliant volume. The forty-eight poem sequence
actually includes fifty-seven sonnets. (The first poem has four
sonnet stanzas, and the last poem has five. There are also italicized
and unnumbered poems which precede and follow the sequence.)
The sonnets vary in form, but many of them employ vowel rhyme
and slant rhyme.
Sonnets are hardly unholy because they reject God
they don't reject God but they do formulate a new understanding
of Him. Jarman invokes John Donne through his title but rejects
the formulaic nature of the metaphysical poet's holy sonnets.
Where Donne questions God, questions himself, and then accepts
God, Jarman approaches God through the context of human belief.
God matters for what he means to humanity, and Jarman's natural
landscape is the body and the human.
In the book's most vibrant sonnet, Sonnet 9, Jarman talks about
prayer, although God never enters the poem. The sonnet opens,
|Someone is always praying as
Breaks up, and smoke and cold and darkness blow
Into the cabin...
The poem wends its way through specific and
|...Praying as it happens,
Praying before it happens that it won't.
Someone was praying that it never happen
Before the first window on Kristallnacht
Broke like a wine glass wrapped in bridal linen.
Jarman calls attention to the failure of prayer
and the agony of tragedy, but there is no indictment of God.
For those of us who don't accept the "cosmic ATM"
(ask-and-you-shall-receive) view of prayer, the poem is about
the horror of the world, not about God's failure to answer desperate
prayers. In the final lines of the sonnet, Jarman marks humanity
as his territory, and human perceptions of God overshadow any
conception of God Himself.
Jarman structures numerous poems with the clear repetition of
Hebrew prayer. For example, Sonnet 12, a couplet sonnet, is
structured around an initial line, "God does not..., God
is..." followed by a rhyming line. The poem begins in the
|God does not know, God is what is known.
For affirmation ask the living bone.
The poem progresses to the larger earth by the
|God does not judge, God is what is judged.
Ask rock, ask mountains that the ice has budged.
|God is not creation, God creates.
Consider things made by our loves and hates,
again grounds Jarman in the human, almost suggesting
that God is a creation of our own passionate emotions.
Throughout the second and third sections of Unholy
Sonnets, Jarman invokes Christ's resurrection
in the context of contemporary lives and bodies. Sonnet 20 begins,
|One model asks another, 'What do you eat?'
She means how do you keep your skeleton
Just underneath your skin
Sonnet 20 also describes people who have experienced
the glory of Christ within their bodies:
|The kingdom is within you,
My Grandfather could put his finger on
The spot he felt the flame of spirit burn
And it was not some vague thing in his head
and ends with the couplet,
|You, too, can stay as thin
as Jesus Christ
Eating down to the perfume of your wrist.
The juxtaposition of the extremes is delicious.
Christ's delirium, the models' anorexia, and his grandfather's
religious ecstasy converge into one point of extremity and austerity.
The body unifies and contains.
The final unholy sonnet, "The World" (followed by
a postscript poem) is actually a five-sonnet crown (a classic
crown has seven sonnets). Jarman's formal virtuosity is perhaps
the clearest here. Alternating between vowel rhymes (grace/faith)
and masculine slant rhymes (this/thus, life/leaf), he constructs
five Shakespearean sonnets, the final line of each, sestina-like,
beginning the next sonnet. The first line of the first sonnet
becomes the line of the last sonnet, although with slight alteration:
"The World works for us and we call it grace." becomes
"and when the world works for us, we still call it grace."
The crown (disguised as a single poem with sonnet stanzas) details
our human awe and confusion in confronting the world.
The epilogue poem toes the Christian line in a way that none
of the other poems do. Still grounded in the human, Jarman suddenly
accepts the divinity of God and the triumph of Jesus over death
as gospel truth. The closing couplet,
|Today we meet our maker, in
That turns the ash of yesterday to flesh
rings oddly hollow in the light of the book's
previous refusal to allow God to comfort or salve human tragedies.
This anomalous sonnet alone can be described as holy, in the
most Christian sense of the word in the sense that both
Gerard Manley Hopkins and Donne intended their work to be holy.
Perhaps this is why the poem appears at the end, unnumbered
and in italics. The poem's beauty remains intact:
|Someone is God who had a common
That you might give a child or animal
Jarman's poetic muscles are still flexing, but
the tone and diction have changed dramatically, although love
for what is human still shines through and conquers godly austerity.
The triumph of the resurrection becomes the triumph of remaining
in one's body.
Ultimately, Jarman's work does not look for answers. It stays
within the human and focuses on the body. He locates his subject
and unflinchingly turns it over and over, in a form organic
to his project. Jarman's style and virtuosity make him one of
today's most fascinating and innovative poets. (And whoever
thought that sonnets would be innovative?)
DRAWN ON FOR THIS ESSAY
Finch, Molly, ed. A Formal Feeling Comes. Story Line
Press, 1994. Paperback, 308 pp., $15.95.
Dacey, Philip and David Jauss, ed. Strong Measures. Pearson,
1986. Out of Print.
Jarman, Mark. Questions for Ecclesiastes. Story Line
Press, 1997. Paperback, 100 pp., $12.95.
ALSO OF INTEREST
Jarman, Mark, Far and Away. Pittsburgh: Carnegie-Mellon
University Press, 1985.
_____________, Iris. Brownsville, OR.: Story Line, 1992.
___________, North Sea. Cleveland State University Poetry
______________, The Black Riviera. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan
University Press, 1990.
____________, The Rote Walker. Pittsburgh: Carnegie-Mellon
University Press, 1981.
____________, Tonight Is the Night of the Prom. Pittsburgh:
Three Rivers, 1974.
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