Is J H Prynne wrong enough?

Had I been asked this question at the beginning of last week, I would have had to think a lot and eventually and regretfully come down on the side of the negative. This week, having had ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ in my possession for three or four days, the answer is that not only is he wrong enough but he has now stretched the limits of wrongness far beyond the averagely wrong into the realm of the utterly and the completely- as in the Wild Man Fisher end of the wrong spectrum.

I’m trying hard to come up with a brief description that will give some flavour of what I might be talking about:

  • it’s in prose and can only be recognised as a poem by the way line occur at the end of some paragraphs;
  • the only other reason for identifying it as a poem is the fact that is listed as such on the newish Prynne bibliography site;
  • at the back of the book there is a list of ‘reference cues’ which are 22 publications ranging from “Condensed Matter Field Theory” to Parmenides’ “On Nature” with Skaespeare and Mao Zedong somewhere in between;
  • extracts from these publications are to be found incorporated verbatim into the text either as blockquoted paragraphs or inside Prynne’s text;
  • the subtitle is “or, on what there is”, there is a picture of what appears to be a wooden car with very small wheels on the cover which was apparently drawn in Angola in 1938;
  • reference appears to be made to John Skelton’s ‘Speke Parrot’ which is one of the wrongest of wrong poems in the English language;
  • the cliche count is much higher than usual;
  • one of the ‘reference cues’ is incorrectly cited, given what was Prynne’s day job, this is likely to be deliberate.

As can hopefully be seen, terms like ‘radical departure’ are inadequate to express the kind of shift that appears to have taken place but I am beginning to see glimmers of recognition, we have the keen interest in place and the physical experience of being in a place, we have an odd playing around with contradiction and the dialectic.

It’s also clear that the ‘I’ has in some way been reinstated which is at odds with what Prynne has said recently about the absolute need to ‘self-remove’ during the poetry making process.

Let’s now turn to wrongness, Keston Sutherland reports on the universally negative response to Wordsworth’s “I’ve measured it from side to side: / ’Tis three feet long, and two feet wide” which, in the context of early 19th century poetics was very wrong because of its literality. We, of course, like to think that we’re much more sophisticated than the Romantics and have a much broader and more inclusive view of things but I would argue that the school of innovation has established its own definition of wrong and not wrong. I would cite the ‘progressive’ response to Vanessa Place as the most obvious evidence of this.

The ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ wrongness exists on at least three levels, the first is the verbatim use of texts appropriated from elsewhere- “The original cremation Pyre was placed where the heavens met the earthand where the inhabitants of nearby settlements could observe smoke rising into the air. It was also located in the one place on the hilltop where the position of a distant mountain would correspond to that of the summer moon. The subsequent development of the site gave monumental, gradually focussing that particular alignment until it was narrowed to the space between the tallest stones.” The only archaeology text in the reference cues is an essay by Richard Bradley called “The Land, The Sky and the Scottish Stone Circle”. The Bebrowed quality control department has an excellent archaeological and Neolithic resource, this has been consulted and, apparently, Bradley meets with massive approval.

The sentence preceding this blockquoted paragraph is – “A language may die also from the record of currency exchange to the full pair-convert transumed in surrender value, decalibrated; or the travel line from matter to fancy of spirit is invert and pyretic: smoke for the mirror, tenant creamery.” The sentence following the paragraph is: “The corridor is and to be the avenue, from particulate vapour to consign into bedrock, transit of durance it is a formative exit in formative exit in naturalised permission, solemn grade – one rigmarole, batter Wiglaf’s rebuke and insurance payout.” As ‘Beowulf’ is not one of the reference cues, I’m taking it that only those texts that are directly quoted are considered cue-worthy. Incidentally, ‘durance’ is a Geoffrey Hill word. In years to come critics will spend many a happy hour debating the use of ‘transume’ in this particular context.

As for John Skelton, the two references so far identified are- “Nothing shall come of continuous diminish but across its boundaries if the exist for sure everything is possible and can be computed, speak parrot and to discernibly good approximations” and “Now goggle-eyes revert or new Poseidon nudging to click by its solar filtration charm of such birds take to wake and be taken, arm’s length residue output gravamen parrot dictum”. I’ll return to both of these once I’ve become more familiar with the rest of the poem.

Some of this reads as a parody of Prynne, the puns are worse than ever and the playing around with negation and contradiction is much more explicit than before whilst the tone is much more direct- “Wave good-bye don’t be stupid, the location is obscure because coherence is not spatial and is without meaning beyond its scrap value, every fly on the wall could tell you this.” What I’m trying to do at the moment is to try and get some kind of handle on the whole work but there are sentences like this that compel me to dive in and get to grips with the particular. I’m reasonably okay with the coherence and meaningless thing but I do need to worry ‘spatial’ to death especially in the light of the documentary allusion and some anxiety about whether or not anybody actually uses this particular term any more.

As a reader, I am still disappointed with ‘Sub Songs’ for all sorts or reasons but primarily because I was hoping for more austerity and an even more pronounced collision with the ‘unwitty circus’, but I can see that this does (if nothing else) set a different set of quite startling challenges. I also have to confess that I don’t have the science to do justice to either Van der Waals forces or condensed matter field theory but I am making (some) progress with pore geometry…..

What might be said is that ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ is wrong in several senses:

  • it contradicts a lot of what Prynne has said in the recent past;
  • it makes literal use of apparently disparate texts;
  • it plumbs new depths of oddness, and;
  • the references to Skelton’s wrong poem and to the dream trope from Langland and many others signal a desire to be wrong in terms of what we think of as canonical verse.

I think I’d argue that this is wrong enough both in terms of the literal and the oppositionally odd. As you might expect, I’m completely addicted and will probably continue to read nothing else for the foreseeable future.

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7 responses to “Is J H Prynne wrong enough?

  1. Right, I’ve bought it. You’re to blame for that, I warn you. Actually, thanks. I’ve not bought a Prynne book since, well, the second edition doorstop, because although everyone was always talking about how ethical it all was, I couldn’t see where he grounded the ethics. Which is my beef with Marxism, really – there is a moral decision made at some point, maybe a single critical decision, but surely that belongs to one person in the last analysis, and on what is it based? Heidegger, more radically an amoralist than Nietzsche, would surely find Prynne’s comments on the moral problem inherent in the idea of a hut vastly beside the point. And to think of Prynne wasting a reading and a book launch in the Red Guard environment of an Occupy demo – ugh. But then KD looks like no one’s idea of a dignified professorial late style. A major problem with your blog, I have to say, is that your posts tread on such serious topics that those of us using up our coffee break by hurriedly posting from work with half an eye on the manager can only ever fail to engage in the way we hope to or remotely do your thoughts justice. And then by the time we do find the time, the conversation is way down the feed line. But silence does not mean a lack of appreciation, as I hope your analytics show!

  2. Delighted to take responsibility, I would be very keen to know what you ‘make of it’. With regard to the politics, I view most of the Cambridge faction as more than a little single track and naive but I tend to get my political fix a long way from poetry.
    Having said that, I think that ‘Streak Willing’ is his strongest sequence because it avoids the easy choices. I find the Occupy thing more interesting from a strategic perspective than the tired old posturing from what remains of the British left.
    I do take poetry quite seriously and recognise this as a fault and I’m still getting used to the idea of having a readership for this stuff but I don’t feel responsible for the coffee break/manger problem.

  3. I don’t know what my analytics show because the WordPress machine is very very thin in this department, I have to infer a lot from the arduity traffic, which I pay for…

  4. Thanks again. I shall read it as intently as I can. I took the opportunity to get A manner of utterance too, just to get up to speed with some of the surrounding thinking.

  5. It’s interesting that you flag up ‘being in a place’ and ‘self-removal’ – I heard Prynne read from this and he spoke about writing it – he said he went to Bangkok (the key being that he doesn’t speak the language) and barely left his hotel room and wrote it in three weeks. Taking only the Van der Waals forces textbook, so the notes must have come after. I know this story could like as not be fabricated and that stuff can’t be relevant to a reading, but it intrigued me that you brought up those things.

    I like Kazoo Dreamboats? At the time I responded to all the joy in it even though it isn’t joyful as such.

    Also “the Red Guard environment of an Occupy demo” fails to do justice to the messy, complicated, local nature of this particular occupation or the reading at it.

    • I’ve been carrying it up and down Scottish hills for the last ten days and alternating between delight and exasperation which is probably the intention. I’m also carrying the gloriously flawed ‘Piers’ with me as kind of antidote which seems to be ‘working’.
      For what it’s worth, when I went to school, Maoist had a specific and reasonably clear definition and the use of this and related terms as forms of generalised abuse does seem rather lazy and I’m always intrigued as to how these remarks seem to make some people feel better. Occupy is the only beacon of promise on my current horizon…

  6. surfing dao

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