J H Prynne and the English Intelligencer

Plough Match 2012 Julian Winslow

I’m a bit worried about Mountain Press. I’ve got all four of their titles and I don’t see how they can possibly maintain this level of quality, unless Neil Pattison does the decent thing and publishes the work that he’s written in the last five years. Their current list has work by three of the very best poets under the age of thirty which I’ll be returning to in the near future and ‘Certain Prose of the English Intelligencer’ which is edited by Neil, Reitha Pattison and Like Roberts.

As with Pierre Joris’ work on Celan’s notes for the Meridian, all of us with any kind of interest in serious poetry owe the editors an enormous debt. This anthology (for the want of a better noun) contains material that is vital to a full understanding and appreciation of All Things Cambridge. It also opens up a challenge to those of us who like to think that we’re radical and engaged in our poetics. Because of this, I intend to try and deal with the material in a number of instalments because (as with Celan) a single account would be very long and doing this over time means that I can have the luxury of changing my mind.

In my head the English Inelligencer (EI) is a kind of Ur-text marking out the time at which British Poetry got serious. I’d come to this view by reading the views and memories of others as none of this material has been generally available. ‘Certain Prose’ (as you might guess) focuses on the prose as the majority of the poetry is available elsewhere.

Neil Pattison addresses the question of EI’s status in his introduction:

Its disintegrating pages have acquired a shabby mystique as avant-garde incunabula, and scholarly pearls extracted from its fugitive pages, along with items of gossip about its protagonists, have acquired a high value in some quarters. This unlikely glamour has not served the Intelligencer well, and has perhaps obscured the worksheet’s true value, which lies not just in the role it played in the lives of its renowned contributors, but also in its underexplored salience for our understanding of the contested place and role of literary poetry in the culture of contemporary modernity, the problems of which The English Intelligencer may pose more acutely than any other journal of its time.

One of the oddest contributions collected here is from Peter Riley entitled “Working Notes on British Prehistory or Archaeological Guesswork One” which treats the end of the Neolithic as the point where humanity took a wrong turn. It also surveys much of the archaeological of the time and puts forward a number of hypotheses. In his introduction Neil describes this as Riley’s “noble, askew and arguably isolated attempt” to translate his personal ‘treasured dream’ into a theoretical position. This may or may not be the case, my main interest is that it was responded to in some detail by Prynne.

Before proceeding, I need to make a personal disclosure. I know a bit about the Neolithic, my daughter spends her professional life prospecting potential Neolithic sites in Calabria and we have many interesting discussions about the period and what can be usefully said about it. These discussions (and some reading) have led me to the view that we still know very little and that there appears to be an inherent weirdness/otherness about what we do know. I am therefore immensely suspicious of any attempts to make concrete statements based (at best) on informed guesswork or from our perspective rather than theirs. Riley’s title does recognise the guesswork element but he also puts forward a narrative which is an extended guess. One of the more perceptive hypotheses that he puts forward is about the primacy of the circle and circularity and how this may be connected to the fat lady cult that characterises much of the period

This concern with the distant past may not appear to have much to do with poetry and this may well be the case. I would however draw your attention to the inclusion of a work about stone circles in the ‘reference cues’ list appended to ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ and that a paragraph is quoted in the last parts of the poem and to the related ‘A Note on Metal’ which first appeared in the EI and was published in the Bloodaxe ‘Poems’ even though it isn’t a poem. I’ll return to these shortly but first I’ll deal with Prynne’s response.

The first thing to note is his prose style hasn’t changed much over the years, we get the occasional sharp bite and the idiosyncratic use of certain words. The second is that his opposing view is quite clearly stated, he gently points out that trade rather than invasion is more likely to have been responsible for changes during this period- a view that has been reasonably standard for the last 50 years even though we still haven’t got our brain fully around what we might mean by ‘trade’ in the Neolithic.

The other good news is that I think that I agree with most of what he says although I’m still puzzling over his use of ‘motive’. Most discussion of the Neolithic revolves around two central concepts- landscape and ritual. The cynic in me would want to suggest that this is mainly because of the big Neolithic monuments/structures that are thought to have been constructed with reference to the surrounding landscape and that these very visible monuments are thought to have been a venue for ritualistic practices.

Let’s start with Prynne on the trap of imposing our own ideas and world-view on the past:

My instinct is that the distribution of local instances of fact which can be grouped (pot and implement typology, for example) has led to imposed ideas of region that are foreign in pre-literate landscape and which are (by unacknowledged retrojection) based on common-law practice concerning land-ownership.

This seems reasonably sensible although the explanation of how this mistake comes about is a little too refined for my liking- I don’t think ‘retrojection’ works in straight lines.

‘Motive’ appears to be a key term in Prynne’s response:

But we have no evidence at all for the tribal pressure of motive, especially when this related to magical practice and manic excursion.

By motive here I don’t mean anything like that legal-ethical notion of willed predisposition, based on the idea of extension dominated by acts of choice. I mean much more the recognition of possibility as a source of compulsion, pointing one’s body towards the land of the dead or what other definition the guardian decrees. And in this sense the divination of purpose is mantic, as it was for Ezekiel, what a man does is what he thus comes to understand he has always desired. The question of future time (what next) is a specific dimension of landscape, which is the magic of parts locked into the physical extension of the whole.

I freely confess to getting lost just after ‘a source of compulsion’. A few paragraphs later there is this:

I think in that sense that the stone circle or avenue is a very discreet and accurate adjustment of these two forces, of presence as the ritual consecration of motive (in the sense I’ve explained earlier). If both movement and memory are sacred arts, then a place which is the same place accumulates special force, just as the body does for the variety of conditions it can reach out for (Shammanistic transport, for example, or starvation or sexual fulfilment). A stone circle at the intersect of several movement-patterns was thus already ritualised, as an act of recognition repeated to the point where it became socially valid, the social disposition of megaliths rehearsing the interchange between accident and purpose carried to its highest pitch. I could see that as a mechanism for hanging on to sanity, or at least for doing so without collapsing into gutless boredom. As you say, movement and situation incorporated, unlike the utterly trivial predictive charades enacted (so it seems) at Stonehenge, by some Gaullist astronomer. That kind of fixation on calendrial accuracy is the deadly enemy of quality: the middle-class merchant fingering his wrist-watch.

I’d like to point out that Avebury is more attractive than Stonehenge because it is more complex and even weirder. Speculation about both sites is good fun and can be quite entertaining but it is always going to be speculation simply because the evidence can be read in so many competing ways. This isn’t to say that I dislike the above speculation primarily because it indicates that an amount of original thought has gone into these issues. This concern with the landscape and the quality of human activity in it is reiterated in ‘News of Warring Clans’ from 1977 and ‘Field Notes’ which is Prynne’s detailed commentary on ‘The Solitary Reaper’ which shows a great deal of careful thought about these issues, especially about the physical experience of being situated in and embodied by the landscape.

We now come to ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ and Richard Bradley’s essay, ‘The Land, the Sky and the Scottish Stone Circle’ which is one of the reference cues and is quoted verbatim at the end of ‘Dreamboats':

Yet the recursion cannot be close since the stop key is well out
beyond reach, even in transform assignment. A language may die
also from the record of currency exchange to 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 original cremation pyre was placed where the heavens met the earth
and 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 expression to this relationship,
gradually focusing that particular alignment until it was narrowed down to the
space between the tallest stones.

The corridor is and to be the avenue, from particulate vapour to
consign into bedrock, transit of durance it is a formative exit
in naturalised permission, solemn grade-one rigmarole, better
Wiglaf's rebuke and insurance payout. To be this with sweet
song and dance in the exit dream, sweet joy befall thee is by
rotation been and gone into some world of light exchange, toiling
and spinning and probably grateful in this song.

As might be expected, Bradley’s essay says more about this particular stone circle than appears in the quote but the extant evidence does suggest a conscious link between the circle/pyre, the mountain and the sky. The mountain (Lochnagar) is also significant because it is the only visible peak that retains its snow for ‘much’ of the year.

I’ve said in the recent past that I haven’t worked out what Prynne may be intending with ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ but I continue to feel that being and non-being are an intertwined theme. The above seems to confirm that and to underline Prynne’s long-standing interest in bodies and monuments in the landscape. Incidentally, the ‘sweet joy’ quote is from Blake’s ‘Infant Joy’ and Wiglaf was king of Mercia in the ninth century but I have no idea what his ‘rebuke’ might be about…….

On the next occasion I think that I might have to address Neil’s claims about the contested role of literary poetry and try and work out the difference between the literary and the non-literary- any ideas on this would be wamrly welcomed.

About these ads

4 responses to “J H Prynne and the English Intelligencer

  1. Wiglaf’s rebuke is in Beowulf, beginning with line Lines 2821: quoting something called Spark Notes:

    Beowulf lies dead, and Wiglaf is bowed down with grief at the loss of his lord. The dragon, too, lies slain on the ground. The poet briefly commemorates the beast’s end. Slowly, the Geatish warriors who had fled from the battle straggle back to the barrow to find Wiglaf still vainly trying to revive their fallen leader. The men are ashamed, and Wiglaf rebukes them bitterly, declaring that all of Beowulf’s generosity has been wasted on them. The cost of their cowardice, he predicts, will be greater than just the life of a great ruler. He suggests that foreign warlords will be sure to attack the Geats now that Beowulf can no longer protect them.

    • Thank you, guess it’s my fault for using the DNB rather than google. The passage is beginning to make more sense….

  2. The fifty thousand year survival of Australian Aboriginal culture might suggest that they did not take the ‘wrong turn’ since they remained committed to the neolithic existence

    • I’m not at all sure that the notion of a ‘turn’ (wrong or otherwise) is particularly useful, nor do I think that nostalgia for some idealised European Neolithic is appropriate….. but people still do it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s