Simon Jarvis, Dionysus Crucified and Performance

I’m currently trying to think about poetry in different ways and one of those ways is the poem as performance by which I mean the poem as is it read rather than heard. There are several candidates for thinking in this way- David Jones’ ‘The Anathemata’, charles Olson’s ‘Maximus Poems’, Geoffrey Hill’s ‘Mercian Hymns’ but the one that seems the most obvious is Simon Jarvis’ ‘Dionysus Crucified’ because of the dramatic elements that it contains, the references to Euripides, the dialogue, the echoes of the 17th century masque, the subtitle (‘ Choral lyric for two soloists and messenger’) and the faux hard-nosed monologue from somewhere in the Middle East. We also have the challenging use of the text on the page and the emphasis on the relationship between text and pattern.

I think I need to make clear that the primary meaning of performance in this sense is something that is carried out/executed/undertaken but also in the sense of carrying something out whilst being aware of an audience who will watch and judge that performance. In all cases the poetic performance contains an element of entertainment in that it holds our interest and keeps us amused. Attempts at entertainment vary from Geoffrey Hill’s bad jokes and his ongoing homage to British stand up comedy to Spenser’s bristling depictions of combat to Ezra Pound’s use of the theatrically demotic- all of which are conscious attempts to hold and retain our attention and to keep us amused.

I am aware that many will be a little put out by the idea of late modernist poetry as entertainment but I find some of it very entertaining indeed and I don’t read those poems or poets that don’t occupy and amuse me (this is a very long list). To continue with this a little further, I am a sucker for the novelty act. I am helplessly attracted to those poets that are trying to do something new or outlandishly different but I’m vain enough to think that I can work out the difference between good and bad novelty acts. I’m therefore very keen indeed on Caroline Bergvall, Vanessa Place and Erica Baum who are all doing new things really well.

This is a meandering way of saying that Simon Jarvis (except for ‘Dinner’) entertains me and I’m going to try and explain why ‘Dionysus Crucified’ is such an accomplished performance

Before we go any further we do need to think about the physical size of the book which is huge and has to be huge to contain the length of the lines and to give sufficient ‘scale’ to the patterns. The cover has the title and the name of the poet in big red letters, the publisher is identified in a black rectangle – another describes the work as ‘Choral lyric for two soloists and messenger’ in large block capitals. There are also a number of typographical conceits spread around the page as well as what looks like an extract from the poem which has an empty rectangle placed over most of the second line.

When I opened this my initial reaction was to smile because this kind of dramatic framing went against the ordinary way in which the previous poems had been packaged my attention was well and truly grabbed before I’d opened the book. There’s also a bit of a flourish going on with the cover and this didn’t really square with the Simon Jarvis that I had in my head. There’s also this underneath the title-

                          'You cannot walk
down two roads
at once, even in

Which would seem to be a slightly skewed version of Heraclitus with a Spenserian / Wizard of Oz dampener which is an intriguing choice of epigraph for the poem, if that’s what it is. The wider point is that the cover announces an entertainment, a ‘choral lyric’ and specifies the three performers. Of course, there are other aspects that aren’t mentioned on the cover, nothing about the early church, current western imperialist fiascos and very little about Euripides.

The dramatic flourish is followed by further flourishes within, there’s a wildly contrasting mix of forma and registers. If we take the music metaphor a bit further the pieces on display range from John Dowland or the Lawes brothers through to Luigi Nono or Gyorgy Ligeti at their most extreme. It’s this mix that’s intriguing because it is more extreme than ‘F subscript Zero’ and is also more successful because it adopts the dialogic and choral mode to great effect.

As well as holding my interest, a poem has to be what Geoffrey Hill describes as ‘technically efficient’ by which I think he means that it should conform to the unwritten ‘rules’ of the tradition. As an academic who specialises in these rules, the poem more than meets this criteria which is no mean feat considering the risks involved. As a sometime practitioner, there are a number of features that I find both intriguing and worthy of theft- in particular the use of two ‘voices’ at the same time and the skilled use of different/contrasting/contradictory forms.

Now comes the tricky part of my argument which is that this should be experienced as a performance on the page as well as a performance when read out loud. I readily accept that the first reading was intended as a performance of the poem but the way that the poem is framed and set out on the page is a performance for the eye and brain. By this I mean there’s the series of dramatic flourishes and moments of surprise which are more than sufficient to hold attention and this then leads to a degree of involvement where the real entertainment / performance begins.

Of course most modernist poems set out with more of an intention than to amuse or entertain and Jarvis is no exception, I’m now in the process of delving into Greek myth and tragedy, of various trips to hell and getting some kind of balance between the titular hero and Christ all of which gives me things to think about whilst being unlikely to change my fundamental views about anything.

The other point about this flourishing, this display of virtuosity is that it is asking for admiration on its own terms ie carrying something out in a manner that has skill and panache. Jarvis isn’t alone in this and in the coming months I hope to use Pound, Hill, John Matthias and Charles Olson in a similar vein as producers of poetic performance.

With regard to Dionysus, I intend on the next occasion to consider the God theme/aspect in much greater detail and in light of Neil Pattison’s view that ‘Dinner’ is about the Eucharist.

3 responses to “Simon Jarvis, Dionysus Crucified and Performance

  1. Via Google, the epigraph is a version of “But it was the fork of the road: and even in fairyland you cannot walk down two roads at once.” — Chesterton, “On Sentimentalism”, with reference to Peter Pan. This may well explain the phrase “Dionysus Crucified”.

    • Sorry, not to make mysteries, the fuller passage:

      Or [Peter Pan] might have chosen love, with the inevitable result of love, which is crucifixion–yes, if it were only crucifixion by becoming a clerk in a bank and growing old. But it was the fork of the road; and even in fairyland you cannot walk down two roads at once.

      That Jarvis should ally himself with Chesterton is striking.

      • and really quite bewildering but thank you for preventing me from going any further up the pre-socratic blind alley. Chesterton is wonderful in many, many ways but I’m really struggling to place this re Jarvis.

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