Superabundant thought, an open letter to Simon Jarvis

Dear Simon,

Thank you once again for responding to my questions, I know that (for the right reasons) you had some anxiety about this and I’m sure that many of the bebrowed readers found your answers both enlightening and stimulating, I know that I did. In response I’d like to expand a little on my poorly framed observation about the amount of thought that goes into your work. I’m going to try and avoid the philosophy and theology words in what follows because they’re not helpful to me in this instance and I don’t want to get bogged down in abstraction.

I like poetry that makes me think and challenges me to think in different ways and some poetry is very good at kicking off thoughts that feel as if they’re cascading through my head. There’s a passage in Paradise Lost that does this, one or two Celan poems, some late Prynne and some John Matthias as well as ‘Mercian Hymns’. So, I know this process, I’m familiar with it and obtain great pleasure in reading and re-reading. ‘The Unconditional’ does this and so does ‘Dionysus’ but in a different way.

I want first to talk about the effect of ‘The Unconditional’ which I’m now reading slightly obsessively for the third time. First of all there’s this very atmospheric depiction of provincial England in the rain which informs the ‘action’ as it unfolds, then there’s this middle-aged, middle class sense of defeated self-loathing together with the fact that each character is a cypher with more fallibilities and anxiety about those fallibilities than strengths. The depiction of Agramont’s inner workings is especially astute.

These factors set the ‘tone’ and provide a sullen backdrop to the extraordinary digressions that fill all 242 pages of this obstinately metrical work. As you know, I found the digressions initially quite difficult to negotiate but now they seem to make complete sense and my initial bewilderment has changed into what feels like the start of a serious engagement. The thoughts cascade and go to a range of different places raising for me questions of identity, my own entirely ambiguous relationship to this country which is now undergoing a kind of nagging re-evaluation and the knowledge that many of us of a certain age go on in our ways with no expectation of change, the way that you suggest that life becomes process.

There’s also my love of the long poem and the things that have been done with it since Homer started the Western ball rolling. I am going to use this platform at a later stage to develop my feelings about what ‘The Unconditional’ does to the genre / breed but I am very fond of the way that the poem undoes much of the contemporary vein. I haven’t yet mentioned the road and it’s speaking role which is both startling and accomplished (if a little bonkers (in a good sense)) and I’m very grateful for your eloquent explanation of your rationale.All of this is more than enough to be going on with but I know that I am going to have to start to pay attention to the music.

Turning now to ‘Dionysus’, the effect is different, in that there’s almost too much stuff going on for my brain to cope with. I’m thinking of this as a kind of extended christology which uses the figure of Dionysus as a way of talking about some aspects of faith and how these might apply in the present but I’m also very conscious of the literary tradition which seems to be a continuous presence. I’ll get on to the Dionysus/Christ device shortly but there’s also Dionysus’ foundational role in Greek drama and the relationship between classical devices and the 17th century masque together with the use of dialogue in Dante to make a point. This, as a setting, is more than enough for my small brain but we also have the ‘past in the present’ monologue and the radical use of form throughout.

In terms of thematic concerns, there’s the figure of the returning / sorrowful god and godly sorrow and kenosis and the workings of grace together with liturgical practice, the role of the cross in contemporary culture, concerns about imperialism, the compromises that we all make with the current economic order. There’s also the underlying anxieties about the preservation of the authentic but this is probably straying into areas that I’d rather avoid just now.

I want to use one specific example from the dialogue between Dionysus and Pentheus as an illustration of superabundant thinking-

ORIGEN, great in kenosis, knew how Christ emptied himself into Hell and there crucified you, the least underling, slave to implacable masters.
Stories for bedtime! He is away with the fairies if he thinks that. Where is his map of the place, where is his Lethean Sat Nav? Where are my wounds?

(I have retained the line length but the WordPress monster won’t let me do the Greek characters which denote that the first line is spoken by Pentheur and the second by Dionysus).

In these two lines you cover a huge swathe of Christian debate and controversy. Initially I thought that the sat nav conceit was more than a little naff but (because the thoughts have cascaded) it now makes more than a degree of sense about the past in the present, about forgetfulness, about guidance in the afterlife etc etc. The line also has the perfect finish in terms of a reminder of what’s at stake and the nature of the scorn poured on both Pentheus and Origen (as you might have gathered, I tend to be on Origen’s side which is where the element of challenge comes in). There was a time when I thought that kenosis was too obscure a subject for contemporary poetry but now I think that it might be more relevant than ever, especially in terms of emptying out self-interest so as to better heed the demands / needs of the other so I’m intrigued by this occurring prior to the harrowing of hell.

These two lines are representative of the superabundance that occurs throughout ‘Dionysus’ and, for this reader at least, this must be seen as a significant and lasting achievement because you manage to point in many directions at once without losing sight of the ‘thrust of the whole’.

And, I haven’t mentioned the colours of the cars……

John

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One response to “Superabundant thought, an open letter to Simon Jarvis

  1. Thank you for reading.

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