I bought the Bloodaxe Prynne collection ten years ago following recommendations from people that I admire (Carol Rumens, Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd). I started to read in expectation of something wonderful but found instead (apart from the very early stuff) a mass of words that made little sense and became increasingly perplexing with each reading. I did however note one very impressive poem dedicated to Paul Celan.
Lately I’ve been quite severely depressed and my normal source of consolation during recovery is to read Pepys’ diaries but on this occasion I finished the Arcades Project, re-read Boyd Hilton on 19th century England and then turned to Prynne.
I have to report that I have found the Prynne experience to be both frustrating and oddly involving, frustrating because initially some of the phrases don’t make any kind of sense but involving because the search for that sense leads you to think about the world and language in different ways. Reading Prynne has also led me to read Olson’s Maximus Letters (and for that I am profoundly grateful), Heidegger on poetry, Celan and Holderlin.
Whilst I can ‘hear’ the influence of Celan and late Beckett on Prynne I am totally deaf to the voice of Olson in his work even though Prynne is one of Olson’s biggest advocates and spent some time in the mid sixties trying to get the later parts of the Letters into a publishable format.
Prynne’s essay on Resistance and Difficulty is a densely worded argument that points out that every subject puts out various levels of resistance to being understood and that we experience difficulty when we encounter these resistances. He then goes on to say that it is the task of the imagination to gain access to ‘the resistance beyond our several difficulties’. Prynne ends with a quote from Rilke that he feels establishes his point about the quest for a fusion of resistance and difficulty. This seems fair enough to me and would seem to point out some kind of justification for the level of difficulty in Prynne’s work- which seems to be about using ‘difficult’ ways to speak about a world that is very resistant to our comprehension. Incidentally, in this essay Prynne refers fleetingly to the work of Gabriel Marcel. The only other person that I know who refers to Marcel is Geoffrey Hill, that other ‘difficult’ English poet.
I’ve been carrying the Prynne tome around with me and I’ve had a number of comments- “too obscure”, “too intellectual” and “the only poet that’s trying to do something different from the mediocrity that is English poetry but I only like the parts that aren’t incomprehensible”. I’d agree with all of these if I didn’t find reading him so absorbing and if I didn’t find re-reading the ‘incomprehensible’ bits so rewarding. After reading Resistance and Difficulty I then felt that I had to re-read Heidegger on the ‘Origins of the work of art’ which Prynne refers to (using the German title) as “brilliant”.
My relationship with Heidegger has changed a lot over the years. I started with ‘the greatest thinker of the 20th century’ view then moved on the “he was a Nazi but’ view rapidly followed by ‘Being and Time is brilliant but the rest is polluted by a weird kind of German mysticism’ view. My recent view is that worrying too much about the Being of beings is probably a waste of time but I am pleased that someone asked the question. My reading of the Origins this time around was disappointing. I don’t feel that poetry has a “privileged position in the domain of the arts” nor do I feel that “poetry is the saying of the unconcealedness of beings”.I think poetry may be many things but Heidegger fails to convince me (by means of evidence) that it has this privileged position and power.
Still, Jeremy Prynne thinks that this essay is brilliant and I therefore assume that he shares its view and has incorporated this in some way into his practice. This then brings me to the question of the relationship between poetry and philosophy. Should we view both activities as trying to tell some kind of truth? Has philosophy got anything to say poetry and vice versa? Are there dangers when poetry and philosophy get mixed up? I don’t have any kind of answer to these questions other than there is a real danger when any discipline tries to take itself too seriously.
In my attempts to make sense of Prynne, I’ve stuck with two poems- The Warring of the Clans and Word Order. I’ve been able to construe the subject matter in both but there are still bits that I’m falling over. I don’t understand how butter can be ‘bardic’ although I like the juxtaposition nor do I understand how a shadow can be ‘cardiac’ but that may be because I haven’t spent long enough with the OED.
The other question is should we all be following Prynne’s lead or should we be content to write in the ‘mediocre’ tradition? Is Prynne writing himself into obscure oblivion or will he be revered in fifty years time as the only serious English poet?
My view is that we all need to catch up with Prynne because his work is clever and radically different from anything else, I don’t think we should slavishly imitate him but allow his work to inform our own. With regard to posterity, I do hope he gets more notice than what passes for good in the current mainstream.
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