Tag Archives: kenosis

Superabundant thought, an open letter to Simon Jarvis

Dear Simon,

Thank you once again for responding to my questions, I know that (for the right reasons) you had some anxiety about this and I’m sure that many of the bebrowed readers found your answers both enlightening and stimulating, I know that I did. In response I’d like to expand a little on my poorly framed observation about the amount of thought that goes into your work. I’m going to try and avoid the philosophy and theology words in what follows because they’re not helpful to me in this instance and I don’t want to get bogged down in abstraction.

I like poetry that makes me think and challenges me to think in different ways and some poetry is very good at kicking off thoughts that feel as if they’re cascading through my head. There’s a passage in Paradise Lost that does this, one or two Celan poems, some late Prynne and some John Matthias as well as ‘Mercian Hymns’. So, I know this process, I’m familiar with it and obtain great pleasure in reading and re-reading. ‘The Unconditional’ does this and so does ‘Dionysus’ but in a different way.

I want first to talk about the effect of ‘The Unconditional’ which I’m now reading slightly obsessively for the third time. First of all there’s this very atmospheric depiction of provincial England in the rain which informs the ‘action’ as it unfolds, then there’s this middle-aged, middle class sense of defeated self-loathing together with the fact that each character is a cypher with more fallibilities and anxiety about those fallibilities than strengths. The depiction of Agramont’s inner workings is especially astute.

These factors set the ‘tone’ and provide a sullen backdrop to the extraordinary digressions that fill all 242 pages of this obstinately metrical work. As you know, I found the digressions initially quite difficult to negotiate but now they seem to make complete sense and my initial bewilderment has changed into what feels like the start of a serious engagement. The thoughts cascade and go to a range of different places raising for me questions of identity, my own entirely ambiguous relationship to this country which is now undergoing a kind of nagging re-evaluation and the knowledge that many of us of a certain age go on in our ways with no expectation of change, the way that you suggest that life becomes process.

There’s also my love of the long poem and the things that have been done with it since Homer started the Western ball rolling. I am going to use this platform at a later stage to develop my feelings about what ‘The Unconditional’ does to the genre / breed but I am very fond of the way that the poem undoes much of the contemporary vein. I haven’t yet mentioned the road and it’s speaking role which is both startling and accomplished (if a little bonkers (in a good sense)) and I’m very grateful for your eloquent explanation of your rationale.All of this is more than enough to be going on with but I know that I am going to have to start to pay attention to the music.

Turning now to ‘Dionysus’, the effect is different, in that there’s almost too much stuff going on for my brain to cope with. I’m thinking of this as a kind of extended christology which uses the figure of Dionysus as a way of talking about some aspects of faith and how these might apply in the present but I’m also very conscious of the literary tradition which seems to be a continuous presence. I’ll get on to the Dionysus/Christ device shortly but there’s also Dionysus’ foundational role in Greek drama and the relationship between classical devices and the 17th century masque together with the use of dialogue in Dante to make a point. This, as a setting, is more than enough for my small brain but we also have the ‘past in the present’ monologue and the radical use of form throughout.

In terms of thematic concerns, there’s the figure of the returning / sorrowful god and godly sorrow and kenosis and the workings of grace together with liturgical practice, the role of the cross in contemporary culture, concerns about imperialism, the compromises that we all make with the current economic order. There’s also the underlying anxieties about the preservation of the authentic but this is probably straying into areas that I’d rather avoid just now.

I want to use one specific example from the dialogue between Dionysus and Pentheus as an illustration of superabundant thinking-

ORIGEN, great in kenosis, knew how Christ emptied himself into Hell and there crucified you, the 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 Sat Nav? Where are my wounds?

(I have retained the line length but the WordPress monster won’t let me do the Greek characters which denote that the first line is spoken by Pentheur and the second by Dionysus).

In these two lines you cover a huge swathe of Christian debate and controversy. Initially I thought that the sat nav conceit was more than a little naff but (because the thoughts have cascaded) it now makes more than a degree of sense about the past in the present, about forgetfulness, about guidance in the afterlife etc etc. The line also has the perfect finish in terms of a reminder of what’s at stake and the nature of the scorn poured on both Pentheus and Origen (as you might have gathered, I tend to be on Origen’s side which is where the element of challenge comes in). There was a time when I thought that kenosis was too obscure a subject for contemporary poetry but now I think that it might be more relevant than ever, especially in terms of emptying out self-interest so as to better heed the demands / needs of the other so I’m intrigued by this occurring prior to the harrowing of hell.

These two lines are representative of the superabundance that occurs throughout ‘Dionysus’ and, for this reader at least, this must be seen as a significant and lasting achievement because you manage to point in many directions at once without losing sight of the ‘thrust of the whole’.

And, I haven’t mentioned the colours of the cars……

John

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…