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…

16 responses to “Simon Jarvis’ Dionysus Crucified

  1. Yes, it sounds deliciously hard headed. If I want poetry, I’ll read a poet; if I want philosophy, then I’ll grit my teeth (or bite the bullet) and read a philosopher. Problem is, of course, that both fields are so problematic right now that, while I don’t want to say ‘anything goes’, I do want to say that outside the academy—you get your Ph.d, you get a tenured track position in a university, by god, you can call yourself a philosopher—one is free to shoot your mouth any which way you can and call it poetry or philosophy, and that this just might be a good thing. True epistemological anarchy at last, at last.
    I’d better quote Bob Dylan here. ‘To live outside the law you must be honest.’
    I’d better say that while definitions of self are fraught with peril, self definitions of self are downright scary. If I’m having surgery, I don’t want the surgeon to be self proclaimed. Peer review is a good thing.
    Except we do define ourselves—everyday, all the time—so the real deal may be how close you can come to reality in your definition. (I had a student doing a resume. For an objective she put CEO of a major corporation. For experience she listed—only—babysitting.)
    Anyway, I grow more and more convinced poems can do philosophy. The gap between the two may more a synapse than a canyon. The voice adopted, the form, that you are listening closely to you self, that you can assert into the void, as it were, that you can go on private voyages—all argue for it—or should I say ‘the hope of it’? Emerson will serve as a locus classicus here, I think. His essays read like poetry, read like philosophy.
    Do you have something of Jarvis’ to recommend that won’t take me 18 months to read? Not Dionysus Crucified. The cross thing: I’m afraid I’ll be thinking of someone typing ‘noel’ over and over in the shape of a Christmas tree. Maybe an essay?

    • Jim, thanks for making me think a bit harder, I’ll send you a couple of essays and also ‘erlkonig’ which won’t take longer than a couple of hours. I take on board what you say but I still don’t think that poems that are exclusively (or mainly) philosophical are very successful as poems. I also accept that this is a minority view, I’m probably one of the few people on the planet that actively dislikes the ‘Duino Elegies’ because I don’t think they are very good as poems. ‘The Four Quartets’ manages to be equally bad as both philosophy and as poetry, in fact both aspects seem to devalue the other. Of course, poetry can do philosophy but I don’t think that most poems that are exclusively philosophical are any good. There are exceptions, Celan’s terse later work seems to me to be successful at being brilliant poetry that is occasionally philosophically astute and useful. ‘Maximus’ takes it’s lead from Whitehead but also manages to incorporate many other themes.
      I like the Dylan quote.

  2. I agree re. the choice of ‘Erlkönig’ and would also add its ‘walking twin’ ‘Dinner’, a 24 page poem in the current issue of the Cambridge Literary Review II. 4 [Michaelmas, 2010] with its fitting epigraph re. your comments above, ‘We have eaten more than we can digest’.

    • Peter,

      I’ve tried really quite hard but I really don’t like ‘Dinner’ primarily because I’m not keen on the tone but also because I still don’t see the point of it although one of the characters does get a mention in ‘The Unconditional’. Nor do I see why it should be the ‘walking twin’…..

  3. I wonder if the editor’s made up the description of ‘walking twin’ – or if they got it from Simon. I agree that I also did not like it as much as ‘Erlkönig’, particularly in the early sections – but was one over by the time I reached the end. I feel a re-read is in order.

    I’ve not read either ‘The unconditional’ or ‘Dionysus crucified’ but both now on order (not much coming through in the post from barque for the last few weeks – suspect Andrea is away). I retire next month so I’ll now at last have much more time to give your blog far greater attention.

  4. Dinner might be about the eucharist possibly?

    It’s more remarkable, perhaps, that poetry was ever peeled away from philosophy than that they might be recombined.

    The reading at Sussex was incredible. Simon is really on to something special; no one’s doing anything like this right now. Remember that “The Unconditional” was a debut work, and surely there’ve not been many more remarkable first books, ever. I’d strongly recommend his second, “F0”, published by Equipage, as a starting point for getting into this extraordinary poet’s work. Exciting times.

    • It’s the recurring symphilosophists that completely throws me, there is an extended bit of male self loathing that gets in the way too but I’ll give the eucharist some consideration.
      Was the reading recorded? Is there a couple of points in the penultimate section where the words are read by both voices at the same time? This is only of importance to me but it is quite important to me.
      Has there ever been a time when somebody has done something quite like this? Peter made the observation earlier this year that we are privileged to be living through this period in English poetry- I thought he might be exaggerating but after this and the Odes and Jocund Day I think he might be right.
      Further thought, the prosodic ‘distance’ between ‘The Unconditional’ and ‘Dionysus’ isn’t that great….
      I think I might also begin to agree with you re philosophy but this may take some time.
      With regard to ‘Proof’, The Equipage site isn’t working- any ideas?

  5. John,

    Help me out here please – has ‘Jocund Day’ appeared from Mountain Press yet? I’m slowly putting together the bib trail of Odes…


    • It’s my understanding that Mountain Press (see Timothy’s response below) are going to release Jocund Day in the next couple of weeks, but I’ll check this out. I don’t know anything about Keston’s intentions with the Odes but I’ll ask.

      • Timothy Thornton

        John, hello:
        I just typed out, in response to the above comments, a sort of write-up of how Simon and I read his poem on Saturday, but my browser just lost it all. I’ll come back this evening to do that. Meantime, just to say that it’s not Grasp publishing Jocund Day, but Mountain Press, based in Cambridge. The book is pretty much done; there are delays, though, because I am being intransigent and difficult about some large-scale typographical hiccups, and I don’t know what if anything is going to happen yet.

      • Thank you for the clarification, I’ve now amended my response to Peter. I should really have checked with you first. Anything on the reading would be very much appreciated.

  6. Hullo,

    Mountain Press has indeed just published Timothy Thornton’s wonderful “Jocund Day”, though it’s not been announced yet for various reasons. You should be able to order a copy via, or try mountincantax at gmail.

    For Equipage books, try emailing the editor Rod Mengham direct, his address can be found easily by a google search. His whole list is wildly good — ask him to send you a copy and take a careful seat before broaching it. He just also published a new book by John James, “In Romsey Town”, which is obviously brilliant.

    There were indeed dual-voiced sections of the reading, at the beginning and at the end — the penultimate section perhaps, yes. I don’t have my copy here, so I can’t get more specific, I’m afraid. There was a video recording; but I don’t know what plans, if any, have been made for its distribution.

    Interesting about the prosody of “The Unconditional” and “DC”. Would need some careful listening and experiments with performance to figure out their points of contact, but it does seem to my ear that there are things “DC” has permission to do which “The Unconditional” did not and that this permission is not *quite* a two-way street. There are certainly metres used — no matter how the things sound — in “DC” that aren’t to be found in “The Unconditional”

    On “F0”, by the by, just to whet your curiosity:

    • Thanks for these clarifications Neil, I’d made the assumption that Timothy was going to use Grasp for ‘Jocund Day’ but I hadn’t bothered to check this out with him. Simon’s sending me a copy of ‘F subscript zero’ but I will ask Rod for his list. I made the point about prosody in both because I was in the process of completing ‘The Unconditional’ when I received my copy of ‘Dionysus’ and spent some time alternating between the two- I am now re-reading both and this view is beginning to take more concrete form but I’ll need to put some more flesh on the bone before committing myself further to print but it is about what the metre allows Jarvis to do in each rather than any direct equivalence.

  7. “it may be worth pointing out that Geoffrey Hill is the only other contemporary poet that I know of who makes use of kenosis”

    Prynne’s _Red D Gypsum_ includes this:

    “Temper casting promotes kenotic revamp cross to plant / latifundia at a division line”

    Great blog dude.

  8. Tarok Marooka

    What are you going to do about Nietszche, who wrote literature that was also philosophy? About Lao-Tze and the I Ching? Are you going to argue that the Baghavad Gita is not philiosophy or is not poetry? Or the conceptual intelligence of Blake, maybe unique among poets? Interestingly, Blake is precisely a poet for whom the text is never enough, since he constantly carries it away into a world of visionary images where he grafts it into the page.

  9. Far from poetry being univocally something of itself in relation to philosophy and theology, I’d like to think — and do proceed as if at my blog– that poetry should be read as between philosophy and theology. That may strike many as tendentious but then try reading Hill this way or Alice Oswald etc etc and the poems come alive in new ways. These disciplines can’t be essentialized but they do cohere across time, so my proposal is pretty traditional. Jarvis on Wordsworth pushed me in this direction, as does Hill. Not to mention bebrowed!

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