Doing Justice to Dionysus Crucified

I still haven’t got my brain around what I’m doing with this blog, I veer from the straightforward (getting pleasure from writing about what I’m reading) to the complex (producing an accurate picture of contemporary innovative poetry in the hope that others might take an interest, acting as a thumb in the eye of academy speak and all things dialectical and Adorno, making the case for a much more ecumenical approach etc etc). Needless to say, I try not give the second one too much thought but there are times when I feel the need to take things a bit seriously.
The above poem is a case in point, primarily because it’s very, very good but also because it ‘feels’ quite important. This isn’t easy to describe with any degree of accuracy, the nearest I can get is to report that I picked it up again this morning and realised that ‘Dionysus Crucified’ embodies the reason why I read and pay attention to poetry. So, instead of repeating myself about how good and important this poem is, I propose to set out what poetry gives me and use ‘Dionysus Crucified’ as illustration.

1. Challenge.

I like to think that I enjoy being challenged, I like to think that I welcome my many prejudices and preferences being put to the test. Geoffrey Hill’s faith and politics challenge me and cause me to re-consider (briefly) my half-hearted atheism and my woolly anarcho=leftist stance. Jeremy Prynne’s attack on the structure of the English language and his commitment to producing hardcore poetry is immensely challenging to anyone who has a fixed idea of what poetry ought to do. Keston Sutherland’s Marxism is challenging to me because it’s a stance that politically I’ve always been a bit uneasy about. Simon Jarvis has a view about what poetry can and should do that I don’t share but I like to think that I’m ready to be persuaded. ‘Dionysus Crucified’ challenges me in several ways but primarily because it attacks several of my prejudices about what can and can’t be done in verse. It’s also challenging because it’s a ‘God’ poem and throws out a number of god-related ideas that are utterly foreign to me.

2. Signpost.

Poems do not exist in splendid isolation, successful poems tend to be those that are embedded in and connected to other aspects of existence. I take a degree of pleasure in following up those aspects that I either know little about or that mystify me. Reading David Jones has led me to delve further into the Somme offensive, the Roman Catholic Liturgy and all things Welsh. Reading John Matthias has led me to find out more about neuroscience, music and many personalities from the past. Reading Paul Celan has led me to give consideration to many aspects of Jewish thought and tradition. This is primarily because I need more context to make ‘sense’ of what’s being said but also because I enjoy finding out about things. ‘Dionysus Crucified’ has thus far led me to Euripides, Greek mythology and early Christian doctrine. This last aspect has proved particularly fruitful.

In the first post on this poem, I referred to the references to the dying god and to Origen and kenosis. I’ve since followed bits of these through. It transpires that both ‘godly sorrow’ and kenosis were both very big in the first half of the seventeenth century and are intertwined in complex ways- emptying your heart by crying so as to allow God to enter (this is a very crude paraphrase). Another of my current non-poetic interests relates to the Maurice Blanchot / Emmanuel Levinas strain in post-war French thought and there is some work that explores the kenotic aspect of Levinas’ view of how we must respond to the demands / needs of the other. All of this was triggered by “Origen, great in kenosis, knew how Christ emptied himself into Hell and there crucified you, the least underling, slave to implacable masters”. I haven’t yet started to work out the Origen references in the poem but that’s next on the list. The last section of the poem (‘Canticle’) contains at least one prayer and seems to end with another so I’ll also be spending some time sorting those threads out- the words in this section shouldn’t be read in the ‘normal’ left=to=right way. I find all of this quietly satisfying mainly because I only follow up those bits that seem important or that interest me.

3. Beauty.

This was going to be called ‘aesthetics’ but that would have taken me into territory that I don’t want to visit. There are (at least) two types of poetic beauty. The first is the beautiful image, ie the description or evocation of something beautiful. Geoffrey Hill’s descriptions of the English countryside, for example, belong to the first type, The second relates to the beautiful use of language which is beautiful primarily for its own sake rather than for what it signifies. These two extracts from ‘Dionysus’ strike me as examples of beautiful language use:

Is that him there. Is that least flicker of pallor - is that corrosion of shadow, that grain of the air as it shudders, is that 
or next to it him, or his placeholder - now at this shiver of gusts and of breezes comes everything I must defend,
everything I must entrench against, otherwise every sweetness and note and each colour and meaning is lost to the earth.

and:

Yes, there are idylls; the task may recede and the path may go down to long grass at the side of the river where indolence dangles a finger.

On reflection, this should have been first in the list, I was first alerted to the power of poetry by the beauty and strength of R S Thomas’ word use in ‘Welsh Landscape’ in 1968. I now realise that this is still the main attraction. The above extracts, I would argue, are exceptionally beautiful in their own right, regardless of any extraneous context or how they ‘fit’ into the rest of the poem.

4. Clever.

I’ve said many times before that I’m attracted to cleverness and that this is a fault. One of the things that is most appealing about poetry is that it allows the skilled practitioner to do and say very many clever things in a very small space. This doesn’t mean that poems need to be ‘deep’ or profound in order to be intelligent or to do clever things. Elizabeth Bishop is not expressing really complex thoughts or emotions but she is saying things with great intelligence, George Herbert, on the other hand, is using his intelligence to say complex things in a very direct way. ‘Dionysus’ does clever things in a number of different ways but I’ll give this as an example of Jarvis’ poetic intelligence at work:

Every one of us now wears a mask of sold labour and each time I look in a face
All that comes back is the answer of cash and of freedom from love turned up in a picture of ideal and absolute and perfectly perceptless sex
All that comes back is the light not light but elicited twinkles of lusterous sold simulacra of faces, the person I wear to the bank

I know that this is a restatement of an age old theme but it is a clever version of it, managing to capture the compromises that we all make and the disguises that we all must adopt in order to function alongside the machinations of free market capital.

5. Odd.

‘Dionysus’ comes with very big pages because some of the lines are very very long, the outline of a cross is used on one page to sit beneath the words although the words are not set out in the shape of a cross. There are dialogues and monologues, speakers are denoted by the use of Greek characters. Parts of the poem should be read out loud simultaneously by two voices. I’m even more attracted to the odd than I am to the clever and it is debatable whether the intelligence of Jarvis’ output is outdone by its sheer oddness. One of the attractions to oddness is the desire to be startled, to be shaken out of readerly complicity and brought to face something that really shouldn’t work. Prynne makes the point that good ‘difficult’ poetry should be so startling as to take our breath away. I don’t think I’d go as far as that but I know that the startling (or odd) are always very welcome additions when they occur.

It is far too early for me to judge whether the oddness that is woven into ‘Dionysus’ actually works or whether it’s mere eccentricity but I’m going to enjoy finding out.

To conclude, the are many other reasons why I read poetry but they all tend to be subsections of the above. I haven’t included ‘skilful’ because there are some poems that show great skill but leave me utterly cold. I’ve also thought about including ‘exuberance’ but that’s probably a subsection of beauty.

The intention of this was to say useful things about an important piece of work, ‘Dionysus Crucified’ is an extraordinary poem and is still available from Grasp Press at a mere ¬£11.

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6 responses to “Doing Justice to Dionysus Crucified

  1. Thanks for this post. Hope this is available over here in the States.

  2. nathaniel drake carlson

    I really want to thank you for the time you’re taking with this poem. It certainly demands a thorough going over. In general, too, I want to express my appreciation to you for directing me toward both Prynne and Jarvis. I came to you through my already existing affection for Geoffrey Hill and David Jones and your work on them has also enhanced my appreciation. Having said all that, there is no doubt that Jarvis offers some very unique challenges the likes of which I haven’t seen before. In fact, I can honestly say that even after having gone through Dionysus Crucified twice now I am not necessarily any the wiser.

    I agree that individual sections must be looked upon as a way in to any furthering of understanding but often that just seems like not nearly enough. It’s all a bit overwhelming but, as a fan of Hill and Jones, I would want nothing less. Your exposition, however far you choose to take it, is quite welcome and valued. I don’t have too much to add at this point except that I would love to get your take on some of his structural decisions, such as “the page of the cross” for instance and how exactly we can or should attempt to read it. I have no idea actually and can only ever just scan for words and associations. And what of the use of “two soloists and messenger”? Do you think that choice to frame this poem in that way (not just as a dialogue but as a very specific one–the Greek symbols, for instance) is itself a crucial clue to comprehension? Is it, as it seems to be, an attempt to in some sense indicate the continued relevance of an ancient form or mode? And what of that last prayer? And by that I mean, how does it relate to the rest of the whole? Are we just to see it as a way to resolve it all? What tensions here are really being sought to be resolved?

    I’m somewhat knowledgeable of his theological and classical references but I tend to find (in Jones and Hill especially) one can never be knowledgeable enough. There’s never any certainty, after all, as to where the poet is necessarily taking these reference points. He is certainly not constrained by any dogma–or is he?

    Also, wanted to point to one of my own favorite passages of beauty here:

    “Come out: appear: appear as invisible, as non-existent: avow your abashed evanescence, your proposed rose, your nugatory transient fire!”

    I’m not sure what he’s getting at with that but it is undoubtedly gloriously stated.

    • Thanks for this Nathaniel, ‘Dionysus’ is dangerously absorbing and I can see myself spending many months with it. I am trying to avoid the forensic line-by-line approach and I’m beginning to see it as a whole rather than a number of sections (this isn’t yet the case with ‘F0’) In terms of the multiple voices, I’m going to ask for permission to post an account of the original reading by Timothy Thornton (the other speaker) and for permission to display the screen shots of the typesetting process re the cross.
      The more I read this poem the more I’m convinced of its importance both as a piece of work and as a major challenge to what every other poet is currently doing (this includes Prynne, Sutherland and Hill).

  3. “… to write and read with maximum focused intelligence
    and passion,” (Prynne: Mental Ears and Poetic Work).
    It seems to me that’s what you are both doing and demonstrating how to do with this blog!
    I’ve only recently discovered your blog after you posted
    ‘Successful reading and writing about poetry’,
    and it’s no exaggeration to say that I owe you for helping to renew my own sense of clarity and purpose.
    Thank you.

    • I’m completely flattered and pleased that you’ve made this response. As one who frequently loses clarity and a sense of purpose, this makes me feel more confident in what i try to do.

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