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Reitha Pattison’s ‘Some Fables’ as performance.

A few days ago I was speculating out loud as to what poetry might do and whether this may be a more productive question than those relating to meaning and form. I also suggested that maybe thinking more about poetry as performance could be productive in these difficult times.

I’d like to start by getting to a more precise indication of what I think I mean by performance and to make it clear that I don’t mean the poetry reading as performance nor do I mean slam poetry or any variations therein. I do mean the performative effect of the words on the page as words on the page.

This effect can take many different forms and can be achieved in many different ways. Some poets appear to understand this aspect of the poem better than others, (Spenser, Milton, Ezra Pound, Allen Ginsberg, Paul Muldoon) and now I want to look at Reitha Pattison’s sequence with this perspective in mind.

‘Some Fables’ consists of twenty nine-line, single-stanza poems divided equally into two ‘books’. Each of the poems is based on a classical fable and then does things to it in startling and subversive ways. Both the sequence and the two books and the individual poems can be experienced as performances.

There are several definitions of ‘performance’ that we might need to take with us:

  • (OED 4a)The action of performing a play, piece of music, ceremony, etc.; execution, interpretation;
  • (OED 4c) An instance of performing a play, piece of music, etc., in front of an audience; an occasion on which such a work is presented; a public appearance by a performing artist or artists of any kind. Also: an individual performer’s or group’s rendering or interpretation of a work, part, role, etc. In extended use: a pretence, a sham;
  • (OED 1g) Linguistics. N. Chomsky’s name for: a person’s actual use of a language, as opposed to his or her knowledge of it.;
  • (OED 1e) Psychol. The observable or measurable behaviour of a person or animal in a particular, usually experimental, situation. Also as a count noun: an observable or measurable action;
  • (OED 1f) Business. The extent to which an investment is profitable, esp. in relation to other commodities; an instance of this.

I want to be greedy and use all of the above to look at this remarkable work. I am not suggesting that ‘Some Fables’ is especially suited to this frame, I can think of many others (‘The Triumph of Love’, the proverb swapping scene between Arthur and Una in ‘The Faerie Queen’, ‘Triodes’, ‘Dionysus Crucified’ etc.) that might be better suited but I’ve been particularly impressed by the sequence and it has been in my thinking this week.

Let’s start with definition 4a, the title indicates a very old literary form and suggests some variation on this theme. The term ‘fable’ leads us to think of Aesop and the stories we were told as children or other attempts at performance like ‘Animal Farm’so it is reasonable to assume that these will be in some way interpreted, as would a Beethoven symphony or a tragedy by Shakespeare.

Of course there are many differences between an orchestral or theatrical performance and the reading of a poem but if we think of language and the history/tradition of poetry as the script/score and what the poet does with this as the performance then I think we might be getting closer to what poetry does.

So, Pattison has decided to perform some fables and the title puts the audience/reader into a certain cast of mind with regard to the ‘original’ form but also with later variations (emblems, epigrams etc) somewhere on the horizon.

This is the first poem in the sequence:

A reflection: dog dropped meat
into dog and meat and evil were
rewarded in cold fronts on level
markers of repast left in the dish
after lights out; nights strung about
in stern cosmetic aches. Provisions
were got in and some still starved.
Providence is one solid thing, tight
far-off agrarian work ethic another.

It should be reasonably obvious on a first reading that this isn’t a straightforward variation on a theme and that the performance is much more nuanced than we may have expected. Of course, the advantage of the performance on the printed page is that the audience (a lone reader) can stop the performance at any time in order to absorb and reflect.

The first judgement that I make about a performance of any kind is whether or not it holds my interest. This can relate to the skill of the performer (Elizabeth Bishop), the subject of the performance (Maximus) or to the method of delivery (The Unconditional) with Poetry as the script/score/screenplay. In this instance factors one and two more than get my attention. There is the obviously skilled use of language and the tantalising hints of a number of subjects.

The poem does invite a fair deal of interpretation but before we get on to that, I’d like to point out elements of language use that are performative in the sense of the last three definitions as quoted above. The opening announcement is ostensibly plain and unambiguous- a reflection is ‘plain’ language word for a plain language thing and then we are given the nature of the reflection which points at one particular fable. This is followed by a series of plain language statements that aren’t by any means clear and the poem ends with a brilliantly phrased but very enigmatic moral. The skill in this performance lies in both word choice and the way that key words are put to use= ‘meat and evil’, ‘markers of repast’ ‘stern cosmetic aches’ ‘some still starved’ and all of the last line.

Staying with the performance theme, what this first poem does is make a series of introductions about what follows (there will be recognisable fables, there will be morals, some attentive thought will be required) but also establish a distinctive voice or the means by which the performance will take place and it is this voice that I now want to think about.

I need to be honest here and confess to not knowing exactly what it is that I mean by ‘voice’ even though I see this as crucial to the performance perspective. In terms of effect, the voice of a poem gives us some idea of the character of the poet, some hint about personality and more of a hint about the way in which the poets lives (is) in the world. Of course this may be due to my working background in the business of making judgements about character from pieces of behaviour but the fact remains that each poet that exists in my head has a distinctive mode of expression that is more than just a collection of poetic conceits. This applies to all the poets that I carry around regardless of whether or not I like their work.

.

This voice, I would argue is one that aims to unsettle but also to be clear about unsettling, a voice that is comfortable and relaxed about its intelligence and that wants to maintain a respectful distance. I was going to use ‘cool’ as the nearest reasonable adjective but that misses out on the intention to unsettle, ‘subversively cool’ doesn’t fit the bill either but it is fascinating to see how this voice develops over the sequence. I’m currently marking off the variations between Books 1 and 2.

Whilst thoroughly enjoying these elements of the performance, these two fables in particular have undergone many variations and improvisations over the centuries and there are allusions here which bring me to the emblem books and the arguments about Providentialism in the 16th century, if we’re thinking about meaning, the sequence can be read as a series of very accomplished riffs on the ways in which askesis may or may not work. Incidentally, things haven’t changed that much since Hesiod, the Muppet Show has ‘done’ the Ant and the Grasshopper.

To get back to performance, the announcement of originality and quality is made here in ways that aren’t that apparent on an initial or drive-by reading and the reader does have to pay attention to absorb the best bits. The use of ‘tight’ in this context is exceptional as is the move through dog-meat-evil and both of these whet the appetite for the rest of the sequence.

‘Some Fables’ is available from Grasp Press for £6.00 inc p&p. Buy it

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Reitha Pattison’s Some Fables

The above is available from Grasp Press for a mere six of your finest English pounds (including p and p). I know it may seem that I am gradually making my way through the entire Grasp catalogue but that is primarily because it contains the best of this year’s stuff (thus far). ‘Some Fables’ contains twenty fables each of which manages to be quietly unsettling and delightful at the same time.

The (by now) entirely predictable digression.

In my head fables occupy two distinct places, the first relates to Aesop and using animals and other ‘natural’ phenomena to make some kind of moral point. This is the standard or default place and is these days thought primarily as material for children. The second place is a bit more esoteric and relates to emblem books which flourished in Renaissance Europe and used images alongside text to make a moral point – this is a gross simplification but the point that I want to make is that, for me, the visual component is an important part of a fable.

The next point contains personal taste. Whilst considering my own reaction to ‘Some Fables’ it occurred to me that my taste for the odd or unusual may not be universally shared and that this particular collection may only appeal to those who share my delight in the out of the ordinary. I then threw this anxiety around in more abstract terms and decided that any attempt to reconstruct this incredibly ancient form has to be of wider interest because of what it says about fables and their often occluded place in contemporary culture.

Fables, politics and askesis.

Let’s start with the hare and the tortoise, one of Aesop’s better known tales in which the stolid and persistent tortoise triumphs over the flashy and arrogant hare. This simple tale may seem a million miles removed from modern politics but for thirty years a socially democratic Europe was able to represent itself as the more reliable and stable counterpart to it’s unfettered American cousin. It can be argued that in the last thirty years that we have all been sold on the flashy and unpredictable model because there is no viable alternative- the tortoise is seen as slow and inefficient rather than depndable.

The tortoise and the hare can also be applied to the process of moulding ourselves as individuals. As a manic depressive I am painfully aware of the pitfalls of the flashy brilliance involved in periods of mania and need at all times to try and instill some tortoise-like persistence and dependability.

Some Fables for Our Times?

Given all the above preconceptions, I think I had a bit of an idea what contemporary fables should set out to do, they should be angry self-righteous denunciations of what passes for the current economic and political consensus, they should attack in an Orwellian fashion the current disregard for notions of equity and justice and they should also poke a thumb in the eye of poetic complacency wherever it occurs.

Some Fables is more subtle and accomplished that the above, in fact I’m now a little bit ashamed of my own rather crass assumptions. Pattison has produced a series of twenty deeply intelligent and entirely relevant fables for our times and I want to set out why we should give them close attention.

Fable IV

Mistaken for fame, notoriety clings
tourniqueted in the height of guise.
Tis tumble in armour from the talons
of greed or want is highly instructive.
Some caress away the indelible mark
written broadside on the itching pelt.
In alien furs words reveal the pitcher
empty. Deceit in a dust bath there
on the lane often floors the moralist,
tricks the carrion’s rapt onlooker.

There’s an enormous amount of stuff going on in these 10 lines but I’ll try and pick out what seems to me to be important. First of all there’s this notoriety which is subject to a tourniquet (although we’re not told whether this is from clinical necessity or due to intravenous drug use) and is hanging on (to what isn’t entirely clear) in some extreme disguise. To most of us, notoriety is a sub-type of fame in that the word implies that a person is well known for having done a bad thing. It is therefore not easy to see the nature of the notorious/famous mistake. The next two lines also sound as if they are going to be pithy but end up describing the tumble as ‘quite instructive’ without giving any further detail unless the fall from greed or want is in itself an educational experience and there fore a good thing per se. The rest of Fable IV is a series of statements/observations ending with the defeat of the moralist (who I’m taking to be the maker of these fables) and the deception of a lover of carrion. Crows feature in several of the fables and I’m trying not to make the Hughes connection. This fable manages to be both direct and mysterious at the same time, I like the fact that this is achieved using reasonably plain language and yet manages to say a number of complex things about the power of appearances and our readiness to be fooled. I’m still working on the ‘itching pelt’ and ‘alien furs’ but I’ll enjoy getting there.

Fable XV

Inevitably, there is an apple tree
and a pomegranate: read falling
and rising both; but the bramble’s
interjection of vanity, that incision
cuts another way. Thorns truly
prick a tragic boast of a carpel
which is not one’s own, a coronet
of spite, and foment is its capitulation.
Like Knights in panther skins, mineral
Queens are lauded to pieces epically.

As part of the Bebrowed Reader Service, carpel is defined as “One of the divisions or cells of a compound pistil or fruit; or the single cell of which a simple pistil or fruit consists.” and foment as a noun is equivalent to fomentation- “The application to the surface of the body either of flannels, etc. soaked in hot water, whether simple or medicated, or of any other warm, soft, medicinal substance.” I have no idea what Fable XV amounts to, nor is it readily apparent where this ‘fits’ with the rest of the sequence but I love the way the whole thing is paced and I would draw your attention to:

  • the bramble’s / interjection of vanity;
  • a tragic boast;
  • a coronet / of spite;
  • mineral / Queens are lauded to pieces epically.

All of these are startling, sense-defying and utterly glorious. It shows an incredible amount of talent to have all of these carefully placed within a mere ten lines. What I particularly admire about the sequence as a whole is the way in which Pattison has managed to maintain a considered and wry ‘voice’ throughout without sliding into parody.

I’ll be writing about this sequence again but I think I need to reiterate that ‘Some Fables’ is unique and one step removed from all the various labels that we apply to contemporary verse. Read it.

A Dionysus Crucified Miscellany

The top half of page 9 of Dionysus Crucified


Bottom half of page 9 of Dionysus Crucified

The above images are cropped screenshots of the layout work done by Timothy Thornton prior to the publication of the poem. There is a Greek character missing from the top centre of the lower image but the rest is a faithful representation (with the exception of the outline of the cross) of the text as it appears in the printed copy. You’ll need to use your browsers zoom gizmo to get a better idea of the text.

In the book, the outline a cross is placed over the text obliterating or occluding some of it. The lower line of the right arm of the cross goes through the line that begins ‘It now to’ although it is possible to make out ‘the’ and ‘daughter collect’. The other word is unreadable. ‘ROME’ is split so that only the top two thirds are visible, The ‘L’ in ‘CURIAL’ is only discernible if you look very hard. Both the first and last ‘d’ in ‘Doesn’t understand’ have vertical line running through them. The ‘U’ in the curving ‘STRING UP’ is almost completely hidden.

I have no idea what this might intend or signify but, given the Jarvis track record, it is likely to be more than whimsical pretence.

It is possible to discern the following phrases from the top half of the page:

  1. STRING UP;
  2. error suspect;
  3. TIE HIM DOWN AGAIN;
  4. Petrine madrasa / Erastian patrols
  5. CODE RED;
  6. MEANS CURIAL ROME THREAT.

‘Erastian’ relates to the ‘superiority’ of the state over the church but the notion of an Erastian patrol is mystifying and I’ll take a long while to get to grips with ‘Petrine madrasas’.

What might also be relevant is that this occurs after a lengthy dialogue between Dionysus and Pentheus at the end of which Pentheus appears to meet his unfortunate end. The prose section after this is a monologue from some kind of security officer in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

There are other parts of the poem that can’t be read from left to right and there are also parts which are intended to be read out loud by two voices together. In order to make more sense of this aspect of this remarkable poem, I’ve obtained this report from Timothy Thornton who provided the second voice when the poem was given its first public reading in July-

just a few notes, from my point of view, on what Simon and I got up
to. It wasn’t announced that we were reading together, which I think
Simon probably quite liked, as the whole thing was probably quite
surprising: he was careful that we made no introduction beforehand,
but launched straight in with the reading. The first two syllables
were, as rendered in the international phonetic alphabet on the front
of the book, “ssh”. He also performed the schwas — everything on the
cover was read except the title, subtitle, publishing information, and
author name. Simon said he wasn’t sure how to “perform” the box
cutting through SUBDITHYRAMB-TRAP-COMPONENT, but the first
struckthrough “abk” he simply said while clamping his mouth shut with
his hand.

We stood very still throughout, at the back of the stage, and someone,
I forget who, pointed out that we were both following the score very
intently even when not performing, except for one moment in particular
(I’ll mention it later). It was deliberately a fairly dramatic reading
— Simon is capable of an extremely hushed but still very
well-projected tone, which, from Pi’s phrases beginning “What’s that I
can hear?”, made for a truly intense and arresting sound. Certainly
these are long stretches of text, and he read page two very slowly.

I read the opening of page one — in fact, throughout, I read Delta
and Simon read Pi. In the dialogue sections we ended up modulating
tone instinctively, I think, though Simon pointed out that by the
exchange of “Peacekeeper” / “Beekeeper” it should almost have reached
a level of jeering, playground-taunt hoquetus.

Simon had suggested beforehand that one of the chorus sections (the
one beginning halfway down the first page) we actually read together,
with him leading, and my starting each line as soon as possible after
he had. In the end, having tried this, I found it instinctively easier
to try to match him, syllable for syllable as much as I could. Simon’s
delivery here was extraordinary and was a kind of fevered
sprechgesang, probably in quite a high baritone but with extreme
variations in pitch that I wouldnt know: in any case, what he’d
suggested is that I speak the lines, contrastingly, as
matter-of-factly as possible. In the brief run through which we had, I
found, again by instinct, that I wanted to speak these lines as a kind
of drone or pedal, getting my voice as low as possible while still
being loud enough to match Simon. I found I liked the sound this made
so much I suggested doing it for the third chorus as well (halfway
down the page with the cross); Simon agreed.

For the second chorus (top of p.3), Simon recited, in German, the poem
of which the section is “a mutated double translation” —
http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wandrers_Nachtlied#Ein_Gleiches.

What else? The cross page: Simon requested that the top section of
this page was one in which I showed audible disinterest (clearing
throat, coughing, whistling if I could — I can’t — humming —
whatever it was “in as desultory a fashion as you can manage”), while
he whispered the text as loudly as he could. Then, straight back into
another chorus section.

For the lines on the messenger page, the layout of which I’ve
mentioned before — probably easiest to quote Simon exactly on this:
“Page 9: Messenger’s speech. I will read the main body of this,
prefacing it with the announcement ‘Messenger’. But you will read the
small fragments of interrupting text which appear at the right margin
(viz. from ‘impaled on the fir’ to ‘final & cold demise’). In each
case you will read each phrase as soon as I have finished the line to
the left of it, whilst I shall continue on to the next line
regardless.”

The next page, the canticle, Simon sung in a strident, loud voice,
those parts taken from the Magnificat in the Book of Common Prayer;
the tunes were improvised and dodecaphonic. I spoke, intoned, let’s
say “bellowed”, the other words in the canticle, without much
expression or inflection, just trying to be loud enough to be heard.
In the run-through we decided it’d be good to carry the tone I was
having to adopt in the canticle back into the short phrases with which
I was interrupting the messenger’s speech — so they were pretty
violently delivered too. (Simon marked up a copy for me; I wouldn’t
have known which sections of the canticle to read, otherwise). We did
not make /too/ much effort to synchronize, here, but I paused
occasionally so that we were, for the most part, in the same place on
the page, and both finished the oval-shaped block of text at the top
of the page at around the same time.

The melody-fragments to which Simon sung his parts of the canticle
were improvised but I think did have a logic to them in terms of a
lasting interest in the settings of the canticles; he mentioned having
listened to many of them, and, specifically “World without end” he
sung to a phrase from a setting by Kenneth Leighton. The last two
lines were sung in the usual style, but with a deliberately bum note
on “queen”. Then we quickly closed the book at the same time
(throughout, I’d found myself trying to match the timing of such
page-turn gestures as closely as possible, the tightness and
synchronization appealed to me) and ducked back into the audience.

I enjoyed it tremendously; certainly it’s one of the oddest
performances I’ve ever been involved in — and Simon’s readings of
pages two and three were genuinely spooky. I was almost derailed at
one point because I’d forgotten that the poem is also funny.

Timothy tells me that another reading is in the offing and that Jarvis intends to do it differently. I’ve included the above because of the additional musical and performative elements that aren’t obvious from the text. This brings into question whether the performed poem takes priority over the printed version and whether the poet needs to be involved in the reading/performance on every occasion. Timothy’s account also gives a clearer indication of some of the intention/method behind the poem which is an additional help for those of us who are still getting to grips with it. Whilst I think I’ve got the main themes worked out and understand how the sections relate to each other, I now need to add the musical dimension nd rethink the poem as a whole with performance more to the fore….

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.

Simon Jarvis’ Dionysus Crucified

The above was published a couple of weeks ago by Grasp Press and costs 11 quid and should be read by all those who claim to have an interest in poetry.

Before I get on to the oddness that is ‘Dionysus’, I have an announcement to make. I have now finished reading ‘The Unconditional’ after eighteen months and several attempts. I’m particularly pleased about this because it turns out that it’s a deeply subversive piece of work and more than rewards the attention that I’ve given it.
As I’ve said before, Jarvis is of the view that poetry can ‘do’ philosophy and has written at length on the way in which poets can use rhyme and metre to enhance philosophical poetry. I think I need to reiterate my view that poets are best at ‘doing’ poetry – I don’t read a poem for the strength of its philosophic point nor do I read a poem because I agree with its politics. I read poems for the quality of the poetry and the subject matter is very much secondary. If I want to read about philosophy then I will read something written by a philosopher, if I want to read about politics then I will read something by someone with a professional understanding of how politics works. This isn’t to say that poems with philosophic themes are bad poems, the ‘Maximus’ sequence is brilliant and contains a re-working of Alfred North Whitehead’s later thinking but if I want to know about this then I will read ‘Process and Reality’ rather than the broad brush that Olson applies. ‘Stress Position’ and ‘Refuse Collection’ are both brilliant indictments of the imperialist fiasco in Iraq but I read these because they are very good poems and not because of the accuracy or otherwise of their analysis. I don’t share, in any shape or form, the political views of Geoffrey Hill but I continue to read him because of the brilliance of the verse. I’m also not going to stop reading Edmund Spenser because of his genocidal views about the Irish people.
On the other hand, theology can be done very effectively in verse and this is probably because religious experience is quite intense and subjective. Religious poetry also has a long and noble tradition and seems to me to be reasonably successful in expressing quite complex theology. There does however come a point where perhaps the more arcane theological issues are best left alone.
I’ve been waiting for ‘Dionysus Crucified’ for about the last six months- Timothy Thornton was doing the typesetting and told me how good it is. I must admit that I couldn’t work out why typesetting should take so long but I know now.
The first thing to say is that this is an object as well as a poem. The second thing to say is that, at first glance, it’s a complete break with the metrical verse that’s gone before. The third thing to say is that it features a cross or the outline of a cross with words interspersed over and around it. The fourth thing to say is that this object is printed on card and is the same shape (but larger) as an old lp cover.
The reason that the pages are so broad is because some of the lines are very, very long and a decision has been taken not to break these lines for the sake of them fitting a more normally sized page. This only makes sense when you start to read the poem and then the width of the page seems absolutely inevitable. The cross is a different matter, I’m not a fan of visual images being used to supplement or inform the text, this is partly because I don’t have a particularly visual imagination but mainly because I don’t think that it works all that often because the image distracts me from what’s being said. So, my first reaction was disappointment that ‘page’ 6 should have a cross and letters/words going in a number of different directions. Now, after four or five readings I’m coming round to the idea but I’m still not convinced.
As for subject matter, we start with a riff on the opening of Euripides’ ‘Bacchae’ and the Dionysus / Pentheus relationship recurs throughout but there are also references to early Christian theology and to the destructive nature of the contemporary economic order. The theological references are direct but I’m not all that sure that they are accurate. My familiarity with the teachings of the early church is limited but I do have a bit of an interest in Origen and what is said doesn’t quite Tally with what’s in my head. These are all given as part of a dialogue between one character and Dionysus- “Origen, great in kenosis, knew how Christ emptied himself into Hell and there crucified you, thew 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 satnav? Where are my wounds?” Putting aside whether or not Origen said anything about Christ’s trip to hell prior to reincarnation, it may be worth pointing out that Geoffrey Hill is the only other contemporary poet that I know of who makes use of kenosis- unless there’s a group of devotees that I’ve entirely missed and this relates to my earlier point about theological obscurity, kenosis is the subject of some fairly arcane controversy within Christianity but is it a fitting subject for poetry, even when done with a heavy dose of irony? I guess that most readers will nod sagaciously at the references to Pseudo-Dionysus, Augustine, John Chrystosom, Origen and Aquinas and then move on to the next section whereas I’ll continue to worry these lines to death. The other point about the above quote is that ‘Lethean satnav’ is about the only conceit in the poem that (to my ear) doesn’t actually work. Whilst it is true that Jarvis writes very well about the British road network, I do feel that this reference and the “derived traffic island” quip in the third line may be taking things too far.
As well as Euripides and the early church there’s also some kind of nod towards the idea of the dying god which I’m not familiar with but is featured in ‘The Golden Bough’. There are many, many good lines and phrases in this poem, a far higher ration than in Jarvis’ previous work. There’s a brilliant section on the current economic order which ends with “the person I wear to the bank” which is a really telling encapsulation of the situation that we are all in.
Incidentally, Jarvis and Thornton are reading ‘Dionysus’ this afternoon (2/7) at the Sussex Poetry Festival at 3pm (at the Nightingale Theatre in Brighton)- I do hope that this is recorded because reading this poem presents a number of challenges- how do you read a cross out loud, how do you read words and phrases that are split by other words? I also need to know whether the ‘separate’ line in the penultimate section are meant to be read simultaneously with the rest of the text. So, a report from anyone in attendance would be most welcome.
At this early stage it can be said that ‘Dionysus Crucified’ represents a significant shift from the defiantly metrical earlier work and that it is startling both in what it says and the way that this is presented. Like ‘The Unconditional’ it doesn’t make any compromises and has a kind of determined oddness that I really like. As with Sutherland’s ‘Odes’ it is also a significant contribution to English poetry and it will keep me busy for the next several months.
One final note, the main similarity with ‘The Unconditional’ is Jarvis’ tendency to push lines of thought as far as they will go. Reading the very long lines does give me the feeling that I’m about to fall off the edge of something – I get this with ‘The Unconditional’s’ digressions too and it is both deeply disconcerting and effective…