Claudius App Fortnight: Dionysus Crucified, Part the First

Thanks to the innovative and eminently usable design of the App, I hadn’t realised that the above reading was part of issue five until last week which is a pity because Dionysus benefits from being listened to as well as read. I have a lot to say about this so will attempt a slice at a time rather than the whole lot in one go.

I’ve written about DC before when it was published in 2011 but in the past I’ve probably dwelt too much on the poem’s visual aspects and not enough about what the poem says. Dionysus is a multi-layered figure in myth and literature. He is primarily known now as the god of wine and is thus associated with all kinds of unbridled pleasure seeking. There are many Greek myths about him and a play. The Bacchae by Euripides which informs much of the poem.

In addition, more than a few scholars have noted have noted that there are some similarities with Christ and this is extended in DC. This multi-facected god occurs in a variety of guises throughout European literature, my personal favourite is as Comus in Milton’s A Masque Performed at Ludlow Castle which pits the god of revels and licentiousness against the figure of chastity.

One of the things that I did notice about the poem, from its format and subtitle (Choral Lyric for Two Soloists and a Messenger) was that it had the potential for being read by multiple voices and this recording confirms that but in surprising ways.

Dionysus returns to Thebes in order to gain revenge on behalf of his mother who the King (Pentheus) and the women of Thebes had refused to believe that she had been impregnated by Zeus. Needless to say, Pentheus meets a bloody end at the hands of the female followers of Dionysus, one of whom is the king’s own mother.

Before we get any further it’s important to say that DC is involved with contemporary concerns and problems rather than an ‘updated’ piece of Greek literature. The other item of interest is that, in print, these lines are very long indeed. After much internal debate, it has been decided that we’re going to retain line length at the expense of readerly ease so you will have to scroll to the right for some of what follows. Sorry.

After the sound effects (which are absent from the printed poem) things start with an introduction from Dionysus who wastes no time at all in announcing himself:

I to the land of THEBES DIONYSUS son of ZEUS have come have come and son of daughter of KADMOS SEMELE have come too borne of divine fire:
   I from a nylon jacket announce recombinance because it is unreasonable that my skin not also learn to survive in plastic consciousness of objecthood
So when I in congealed oil products may orange it to the top at the derived traffic island or at some other holy place as though some beacon were lit

Now, I’ve complained before about poems that are read indistinctly and or at too fast a pace but here the enunciation is clear and the pacing seems about right but there are still three words that the first or second time listener is going to have problems with: ‘recombinance’, ‘objecthood’ and ‘orange’- although the last of these is due to its use as a verb. Now, I think all poetry should (must) be read aloud to other people and spent most of last year doing that very thing to a variety of non-poetry audiences. The dilemma for me is how best to convey all the content of a poem without becoming Very Ponderous Indeed. I don’t know the answer to this but I do know that it’s a problem especially for first-time readers who don’t have the text and are simply scrolling through a number of sound files to locate anything of interest. It could be argued that this applies to most half-way decent work but the Jarvis Project is strategically important in all kinds of ways and needs to get the widest audience possible.

As can be heard, Simon Jarvis does not ‘do’ straightforward points, the house style is much more of digression, as if to wring every last point out of a sentence and yet this recording doesn’t (somehow) require the level of attention that is needed for print. It still does need serious and sustained attention, not because of the subject matter but because of what it does to poetry as a ‘form’ by which I think I mean that DC is reasonably unique in what it does and it does it with aplomb.

Prynne talks of the ability of late modernist poetry to surprise and startle and this is at work here in the use of words and in the oddness that is the derived traffic island as well as the ‘classical’ opening line followed immediately by the nylon jacket and the congealed oil products. The use of ‘orange’ as a verb might tie in with the colour of the jacket but I don’t think listeners will have time to think this through in the course of a reading but giving a performed impression of the content may be what’s going on here.

Justin Katkow’s reading of the opening speech contains a few stumbles but also changes one of the words, the inner dish which first displayed it becomes the inner dish which first deployed it which significantly changes the meaning of the line. Therefore I, as a Jarvis completist, need to ask whether this is deliberate or accidental and, if the former, why was such a significant change made after publication?

Following the speech things move on with 4 verses from what I assume to be the choric element referred to in the subtitle. I need to declare a personal interest in this, I’ve been working creatively with multiple voice performances for the past couple of years and am therefore intrigued by how others do it.

I’m not trying to achieve what I think is being attempted in DC but I am concerned with the blurring of coherence and the power of repetition. I’m also playing with the plain speech / polyphony / cacophony continuum and the different ways in which these make ‘sense’ to an audience. In my reading of the poem, I hadn’t reckoned on these verses being read by two voices with a slight delay. This increases the power or strength of what’s being read but loses some of the clarity that one voice provides. If it was me I’d be tempted to double the delay interval and bring more of a contrast between the voices- probably with the use of a female voice as the ‘follower’. This is a minor quibble, for years I’ve been convinced that the use of multiple voices at the same time provides a much wider and more productive dimension to The Poem and this kind of example goes some way to vindicating that view.

I want to spend much more of the second part of this to the other uses of two voices in Dionysus so I won’t dwell on them here except to note that these four verses are far from simple and to perform them in this way is indicative of the ambition and absence of compromise in the Jarvis Project.

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