Dionysus Crucified as Performance on the Page

In the recent interview for this blog and arduity I asked a question about whether the reading out loud of the above should take some kind of precedence over the printed version, Simon’s response was quite clear:

The printed text of this work is in my opinion its definitive realization. It wants to provoke its readers into auditory hallucinations : of antiphons, canticles, tragedies or operas. But those which I happen to produce, with Timothy Thornton and with Justin Katko-with others, perhaps, in the future- have in my view no special authority.

I wrote something last month about ‘Dionysus’ as performance and now I want to develop this further n the light of Simon’s response.

Let’s start by paying attention to what he says rather than what I want him to say. He says that the printed version takes precedent and the readings have no “special authority”. Simon always picks his words with care and I think we need to take on board his opinion that the book is the work’s “definitive realisation”. Both of these would seem to suggest that the book is intended as a performance for the eye before it is a performnce for the ear. The use of ‘realization’ needs thinking about because it implies that the work existed prior to being made into a book, so that we have to try and work out what this ‘work’ might consist of. There are two obvious but quite different definitions, work as in the effort and preparation that goes in to producing something and work as the product itself, when we speak of a writer’s work we usually mean the second of these although it is probably derived from the first.

The bit where our paths diverge is ‘it wants to provoke’ which implies that it acts as a kind of evocative ‘cue’ for the performance in another form whereas I want to stay with the book as a performative object. By this I mean that I think that reading it does provoke us into these ‘auditory hallucinations’, whether these be primarily musical or dramatic but, before we get to the stage of being provoked, the text itself is performing something for us.

This occurs on two levels and these mare in tension with each other. The first of these is the effect of the words as language and the second is the words as pattern. I’m now going to try and demonstrate how this tension produces a performance in its own right, not one that provokes ideas of another but is, in itself, something that pleases in a way that most poems don’t.

So, to begin we need an understanding of what the words appear to be saying. The poem opens with a monologue from Dionysus which enunciates some of the thems that follow by way of a statement of intent. The next four stanzas seem to consist of a re-working of the Euripides play and the legends on which it was based. This is followed by a long monologue that heralds the arrival of Dionysus in the manner of the Attendant Spirit in ‘Comus’ and other 17th century masquings which contains a brief observation on the more subtle effects of the current economic order. Much of the tone of this section feels parodoic, this is the first (unbroken) line:

What's that I can hear or half-hear at the edge of the forest where the dark shade gathers and glooms over where ther used to be a bright field?

And these are the last three lines:

  I must stop get everyone ready now. I must make sure that they know
Just what is coming from all the non-being which gathers there, there at the edge of the forest, there where the grey dusk is deepening down into black.
There where the birch and alder are losing their names into those of expensive delicious and infantile spirits, the whole false branded star.

The parodic bit comes with the almost B-movie edge of the forest motif but this is contrasted with verbal invention and dexterity- trees which lose their names, a star that is falsely branded as if for sale or to denote ownership.

This is followed by two ‘choric’ stanzas uttering what purport to be truths:

Only wait, soon you
Too will find rest.


All slurs
vanish in death.

(These are excerpts, the stanzas have eight and seven lines respectively.)

There then follows an extended dialogue between Pentheus and Dionysus which is packed with themes and ideas and is therefore very hard to summarise. At least part of this is concerned with the conglation of Dionysus and Christ, on the returning God, the sorrowful God, kenosis and godly sorrow, a restatement of Catholic orthodoxy together with a brief critique of Origen as early relativist, the workings of Grace, the nature and archaic roots of Greek tragedy, tragedy and performance together with two lines on cars. I do intend to deal with this ‘superabundance’ in the near future but here I just want to point out that the content is (at least) as complex as the form.

There now follows a page of text which can’t be read in a left to right linear kind of way but starts in part with
‘TIE HIM DOWN AGAIN’ and ‘STRING UP’ and ends with ‘Dog it mad Bakhants to black’. The text seems to reiterate some of the above themes, although I’m still working on ‘or say Qadaffi Gorgon Unit’.

The next page is entitled ‘MESSENGER’ and starts as a monologue from either Iran or Afghanistan in the voice of what appears to be some kind of security operative and gradually becomes something more philosophical and abstract before ending with the imgined death of Dionysus.

The final page is entitled ‘CANTICLE’ and contains a number of prayers and what read like a psalm along with references to the Dionysus myth. The work ends with:

World without end
O Lord save the Queen
Endue thy minister with righteousness

There’s more than enough thematic content here to engage my brain for a very long time and I would normally find messing around with the text more than a little distracting. Here, the effect is to enhance what’s been written and to turn it into a more complex and satisfying object. The book is very wide in order to accomodate many of the lines which are very long, text is overlaid over the outline of the cross, some texts are placed side by side to suggest simultaneity, at the end of the dialogue, Pentheus’ silence is displayed. Some of the text is occluded by the outline of the cross, the ‘CANTICLE’ page is a variation of the pattern poem.

When Prynne talks about poetry being so startling that it takes your breath away he is referring to word choice and the juxtaposition of those words in the modernist way. Here, the startling occurs because of the intellectual breadth and verbal ambition but also in the visual audacity. I’m trying to avoid the form/content platitude but the fact remains that both ‘stand’ in their own right and in this instance add up to an object (the book) which is more than the sum of these two parts.

I think that I also need to add that I’m not impressed by Olson’s experiments with the line nor do I Understand why Geoffrey Hill should write a lengthy sequence of poems using the same pattern but ‘Dionysus’ feels as if it’s on a completely different level and this I find compelling in part because it is so odd/wrong/implacable.

Very, very few poems open up the possibility of doing poems differently, ‘The Anathemata’ being the best example that springs to mind, but ‘Dionysus Crucified’ is definitely one of them.


2 responses to “Dionysus Crucified as Performance on the Page

  1. Jarvis’s statement on the text as “definitive realization” goes, I think, for most poetry. At the same time, sound is essential to it — just not a literal, specific, present sound. Reading a poem silently, if you’re doing it right, entails imagining its sound (how else to catch an assonance?) — but that doesn’t mean committing yourself to a particular sonic realization and listening to that.

    The same could be said of good prose. But not, I think, of plays, and certainly not of songs. (Classical music is like theater — you can read a score and get an idea how it goes, but any decent performance restores a dimension that wasn’t to be found on the page.)

    Tangentially, I enjoy very much Jarvis’s deployment of a basic device, daisy-chaining clauses together into long wandering sentences. I can’t think of a model other than “this is the rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built” — and the comparison is instructive. The syntax trees Jarvis builds are much more various than the simple chain of that rhyme….

    • I’m not at the stage where I’m articulating this very clearly but I am trying to cram (awkwardly and ineptly) some of his reply about provocation into something that reading Dionysus provoked in me, it is the combination of what the words might mean and how they look on the page that make the book, as opposed to the poem, into a performance.
      I’m now on my third reading of ‘The Unconditional’ and the extremely long sentences and subclauses have become exhilarating, but it’s taken a while.

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