Category Archives: mythology

The Allegory by the Pool.

John Kay started his piece in this morning’s FT by telling us he’d been having a break on a beach in a warmer clime and how this period of inactivity had caused him to try and work out why hotter countries tend to be poorer countries. I too have been away to a warmer place and intended to sip cocktails by the pool whilst spending much time with S Jarvis’ Night Office. This plan lasted until Day 2 when I had to concede that the contrast between the work and where I was lying was just too great. I did however have extensive backup on the variety of gizmos that accompanied us so all was not entirely lost.

Flicking through one of these I came across The Cambridge Companion to Allegory edited by Rita Copeland. Now, normally I hate the entire range of Companion / Handbook tomes that seem to proliferate these days but this one was in chronological order and I felt that an overview might be beneficial. In the past I’ve skirted around what Spenser called this ‘darke conceit’ because it appeared to be one of those lit crit terms that I try to avoid and because an initial bit of reading and reflection had led me to believe that things might be very complicated indeed.

So, I started off with the Greeks and discover that initial pre-Socratic readings were concerned with symbol, under-meaning and enigma. These come together to produce what Copeland describes as “the encoded expression of a mystical or philosophical truth, a manifestation of transcendental meaning that is at once immediate and remote” at which point several bits in my head came together at once. I’ve long ranted against the view held by some that poetry is in a privileged relationship with truth, I’ve poked fun at Heidegger and others who hold this position and have been generally derisive, the term ‘errant nonsense’ has been used.

I would have been more sympathetic to this notion of privilege had I been aware of the background, that poetry preceded philosophy as a means of doing philosophy and that this quest for under-meanings was a search for some kind of inner truth. I read further and it transpires that Origen and Plotinus had more than a little to do with this vein of thought which is odd because I’m a fan of both and hadn’t put either of them together with under-reading and truth.

As an aside, my interests in these two have been to do with philosophy / theology rather than poetry. As with the Church of England 1590-1635, it’s an attraction that I can’t explain.

Moving on, the Jarvis Project of demonstrating that poetry is an appropriate and fitting way to do philosophy suddenly (in my head) becomes much less wide of the mark and my previous criticisms of the Faerie Queene as a failed allegory now seem a bit silly. It therefore seemed sensible to have a think (by the pool, Green Hawaii in hand) about how this might inform my reading.

This new insight doesn’t mean that I’m any clearer in understanding this conceit but it does give it a framework by which to think about the very many complexities. If I start with that which is closest to hand, having Night Office as a title more than hints that the room in which the poem’s protagonist sits might represent this aspect of monastic observance as well. I’d understood that fairly obvious conceit on hearing of the poem’s title and I’d also worked out the train / stations of the cross trope but my reading thus far had missed the references to fragments of light as being moments of revelation that might occur when reading allegorical work. With all of this in mind, I’m going to have to start the work again. Sigh.

On further reflection, I’ve discovered that I like allegory in that most poems that speak directly to me have an element of the allegorical. The Wedding reception scene in Keston Sutherland’s Stress Position is a very clear allegorical description of acute mental distress, his Under the Mattress is an equally brilliant representation of the current dismality that masquerades as politics in the UK.

Up until the pool moment, I hadn’t thought of David Jones’ The Anathemata as standing for anything other than an exploration of Jones’ personal cultural clutter but it now occurs to me that the voyage recounted in Middle-Sea and Lear-Sea might have more to do with the projection of faith, the cenacle and art into the world rather than a straightforward journey through time and space.

In order to get my brain around the Neo-Platonic aspects of this I’ve started to read E R Dodds’ edition of Proclus’ The Elements of Theology. In his introduction Dodds draws a directish line from Proclus’ thought to Nature’s rebuttal of Mutability in Spenser’s Two Cantos of Mutabitie at the end of the Faerie Queene;

I well consider all that ye have said,
And find that all things stedfastnesse do hate
And changed be: yet, being rightly wayd,
They are not changed from their first estate;
But by their change their being do dilate,
And turning to themselves at length againe,
Do work their owne perfection so by fate.

This isn’t glossed by the usually reliable Hamilton to either Proclus or the more recent Neo-Platonics and the allegorical element resides in the names of the characters more than in the narrative but it does provide further thought especially as others are of the view that there is a strong NP thread running through the work. The notion of things turning to themselves and thus acheiving perfection apparently comes from Proclus.

As a further aside, Proclus makes the claim that explaining a thing involves simply describing how came about, a proposal which seems reasonable until you try to apply it in the ‘real’ world.

Returning to the conceit, I’ve stated quite glibly that the allegorical aspect of the first book of the FQ doesn’t work in that Redcrosse (holiness) isn’t holy and his journey to this stage is not by degrees of learning and improvement, as we might expect, but by stupid mistake followed by even more stupid mistake which eventually leads to scourging and contemplative enlightenment. I’d now like to qualify this by saying that Book I is an incredibly and defiantly complex way of saying many things at once and that I obviously need to be more attentive to these potential under-readings before rushing to judgement. I’ve read the whole poem more than a few times and with a fair degree of attention but I’ve missed completely the less obvious, more hidden, aspects of the relationship between Redcrosse and Una, the damsel who guides and supports his mission.

Paul Celan also calls for a more careful reading, if only to reject the view that all his work is allegorical. It still isn’t but it does do remarkable things with language, Todtnauberg is an account of a meeting between Heidegger and Celan that did take place but within it there are all kinds of metaphors and allusions that critics continue to argue about but it isn’t allegorical in there isn’t a set of equivalent conceits at work.Erblinde is a more likely candidate but, again, I can’t work out how the various images fit together so as to ‘stand’ for anything else than the words on the page.

I’m going to end as I started with Night Office and, on this occasion the role of the poet:

I will not say that I am a device.
The semicircle where my heavy lyre
gives up its hard notes: looks out over ice;
tall poplars to the right; one may admire
how in the distance that dome can entice
from its squat cupola to the entire
warehouse of print on which the state has fed
its house of authorships, its empty head.

Which is why I need to start from the beginning – again.

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.