J H Prynne and these Dreamboats

I’m now going to proffer a number of entirely tentative and provisional suggestions with regard to a partially successful reading of the first few pages of ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’. Some time ago I observed that the repeated use of ‘I saw’ could be a reference to medieval dream / vision poems such as ‘Piers Plowman’ or ‘Wynnere and Wastoure’. I didn’t connect this at the time with the title but have done so now and would like to attempt to connect it with a poem by Stephen Hawes, ‘The Example of Vertu’ which is more very Early Modern than Medieval. My only justification is that this poem is a dream poem that contains a voyage and that Hawes was more or less contemporary with John Skelton whose ‘Speke Parrot’ is referred to twice in the first three pages. I also recognise that ‘Piers’ is the only dream poem listed in the ‘Reference Cues’ at the end of the poem.

Given that this is Prynne, it would be too much to expect any kind of direct congruence with ‘Example’ or other poems in this genre but it might be worthwhile to consider the reasons why this particular conceit was used and why it was so popular. Starting with the obvious, we all dream and anything can happen in our dreams. Throughout most of history people have tried to extract meaning from dreams either from what they may portend but also for the underlying rationale for certain dreams. Because of their inherent oddness, dreams have this magical quality and the dream poems made use of this to say things about the present and to exhort us to do better. Dreams and visions were often a key component of bible stories usually as a means of transmitting messages from God. Helen Phillips has also pointed out that a dream poem enables the poet to make trenchant criticisms whilst remaining one step removed from them and thus avoiding the notion of direct responsibility. Boethius’ ‘Consolation of Philosophy’ is also listed as a ‘Cue’ and it is framed as vision rather than a poem.

There is a greater degree than usual of method in what follows, I like to think that I’m following Prynne’s advice to translators in his ‘Difficulties in the Translation of ‘Difficult’ Poems’ essay:

In strictly local context the surrounding sense may point strongly to one-word meaning rather than to another. different meaning of the same word. But in larger context within a poem a less ‘probable’ meaning may also open a semantic possibility that can give the overall meaning a richer sense, even (or especially) by irony or contradiction, so that a very wide range of different senses can be found to be active and having an effect, maybe on different levels or discoverable in different stages of the poem’s development.

I’m hoping that looking at the ‘I saw’ conceit might give some access to the ‘different senses’ that might be found.

It may be thought that I’m placing too much emphasis on the dream/vision poem conceit in ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ so I’ll now quote the relevant sentences and the page on which they occur:

Along the corridor of near frequency I saw willing and discrete the season not yet for sorrow, nearby not yet even so inference to claim.(p. 5)

On the plate in soft season to rise hungry semi-apt for supplement will to set affirm this wit at will for passion reflex acutely, I saw it amount in plenteous access burning by folly markers right to the crest. (p. 5)

At mass inlet dissent I saw ahead to eyeshot reach exacted coating fricative and locked parallel then tended, long for longing set-back, exhaled.(p. 5)

Who would save temporal occlusion no discount for loyal reckoning yet saw in this open flash delusion of false glory how ever else for sweet temper child indifference not to want to want this.(p. 5)

I saw the slide markers they were sticky and concluded what was, near enough mounting up as fast would say manifest enzyme in game reduced, stupefied like men braced for denial, each in proper step.(p. 6)

Some near witness now so wants to make it work, a most fantastic set-up!(p. 6)

I saw it upmost, to know partly is by now not to unknow else with borrowed light induced by origin perpetual, by passion flat lying and tumid for advantage, for all or nothing is the play sequence left over. (p.6)

For fields thus filled it was no dream if yet so dear I lay, pronate attempered pronoun sounded dear heart how succkled, hot pies! be blithe, for birth integer broad alleged awake among the things that are, in spoken footprint cordial how alike by probe to lit shelf grains.(p. 6)

I’m going to stop there because I don’t want to be too ambitious in what follows and because I think this kind of frequency makes my point – the first two quotes are the poem’s first two sentences and the seeing / vision device runs throughout the rest of the poem. It also gives me an opportunity to dwell on one or two bits that are beginning to make sense. The fourth quote might be an attack on what I’m now going to call retail culture. It is reasonable to suggest that one of Prynne’s recurring targets has been the slogans and jargon that retailers use to encourage us to part with our money- other poems have scathed the ‘buy one, get one free’ gimmick and other unsubtle ploys. The customer loyalty schemes provide a small discount in exchange for a customer’s shopping data which can then be used both to monitor performance and to ‘push’ products in the customer’s direction- hence ‘no discount for loyal reckoning’. The last part of the sentence might also infer that it is childish to be indifferent to the wider implications of such schemes, especially when bearing in mind all five of the main definitions of ‘want’ as a verb in the OED.

One of the other aspects of the dream poem was that it could bridge the increasing gap between the mundane and the celestial, S F Kruger in ‘Dreaming in the Middle Ages’ says- “Poems of this tradition simultaneously evoke opposed ideas about the nature of dreaming, and, by doing so, situate themselves to explore areas of betweenness – the realms that lie between the divine and the mundane, the true and the false, the good and the bad. They place their readers in a position similar to that of Gregory the Great’s dreamer, unable finally to pin down the poem’s status as revelation or deception, unable unambiguously to define its direction of movement as upward or downward”. I would argue that ‘Kazoo Daydreams’ does quite consciously resist readerly attempts to define status and probably cite the apparently superfluous inclusion of hot pies! as evidence of this tendency.

I think the above quotes also say something about the relationship between perception (sight in this case) and knowledge, as if Prynne is playing with our notions of the obvious. In the ordinary world we tend to ‘believe’ what we see and draw inference from this. For example, if I see a number of cars skid on ice it would be reasonable to infer that cars don’t function well on icy roads. It isn’t too much of a leap from this piece of common sense to the prevailing view of capitalism and the neo-liberal ‘free’ market as the only viable/inevitable economic system even though most of the hard evidence points in more or less the opposite direction. This might be what’s going on with “I saw it upmost, to know partly is by now not to unknow” quoted above and may also explain the tone of some of the other ‘seeing’ pieces.

Most of the others above remain closed to me although I will spend more time on these and report back when/if things become a little clearer.

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5 responses to “J H Prynne and these Dreamboats

  1. Tarok Marooka

    This kind of poetry seems bad to me for the following reasons:

    1.) While it depends for its status, indeed for its existence, on readerly perception of it as radical, it repeatedly and innately rejects commitment to any particular viewpoint and leaves not only the act but also the responsibility of radicalism in the hands of an implied reader who is condescended to in the very moment of being electively empowered.

    2.) The act of avoiding statement altogether – of passing responsibilty under another head – is a ruse that allows for the prestige of radicalism without assuming the attendant risk. This creates, if you like, an anodyne radicalism that is actually serviceable to power – it locates radicalism in a “closed circle” of elitist context that by its hermetic nature reifies the exclusions and privileges of power, while assuming the intellectual rewards of the radical stance.

    3.) It is implicitly defamatory of actual radicalism, which would presumably manifest itself through the crassness of affirmation. Its etymological gambit situates it in a properly emotional sphere of what F.R. Leavis referred to as “attitudinizing” – i.e. undeniably perfect political poise with no active humanity beyond its presumptively neutral and generalized compassion, which in fact neutralizes the potential in compassion, by being utterly implausible.

    4.) J.H. Prynne’s Poems is a major disaster for English verse. 6 – 700 pages of technically formidable (not to say unimpeachable) verse output whose mathematical perfection is never troubled, and indeed is made possible, by a radical absence of identifiable empathic content, which gets itself represented, in a truly negative shadow of genius, as precisely the most irreproachable emotion: this, for sheer vacuity combined with extrinsic fervour, approaches religious intensity, in the most ritualized connotation of that expression.

    5.) In 700 pages of verse, Jeremy Prynne expresses precisely two human emotions: political compassion and irony. Furthermore, both of these are so well poised as to require no level of commitment or belief. It is, however, no doctor who passes off the virus as the remedy.

    7.) Contrast the formalized and narcotic equivocations of a Prynne with the passionate eloquence of, say, Sor Juana InĂ©s de la Cruz, who loses not one iota of her matchless formal impeccability by espousing an undeniable voice, and by doing so with all the passion of a woman speaking to women – and to men.

    Now, that’s cleared that one up – as I think you may feel almost forced to agree. This little screed shows you just what the resurrection of actual criticism (as opposed to formalized scraping for book-hawkers) could do for English. It could, for instance, do what could easily have happened in this connection years ago – establish the requisite distinction between the likes of Prynne and a truly great poet such as T.S. Eliot, whose work is loved only in part for its cutting-edge modernist aplomb. Or W.B. Yeats, an equivocator if ever there was one, but also a foolish, passionate man.

    • I’ll try to address these in order but I’d like to begin by saying that I’m not, by any means, a cheerleader for Jeremy Prynne but I do find that some of his stuff attracts and rewards the attention that I give it. I’m not terribly interested in whether it is radical or not primarily because I’m uneasy about that particular adjective but also because it doesn’t equate with the Prynne material that manages to keep me interested.
      Your second and third ‘points’ may have greater validity if it was directed towards many other poets within the Cambridge Tendency and beyond but I don’t think they can be applied to an attentive reading of ‘Streak~~~Willing~~~Entourage~~~Artesian’, ‘To Pollen’ or ‘Kazoo Dremboats’. One of the things that Prynne avoids in these is attitudinising and there is a growing awareness that readers should do their own ‘thought-work’ rather than have trendy ‘positions’ rammed down their throats. This position is neither elitist nor is it difficult to grasp but is probably a better subject for critique than the ones you haved selected.
      I don’t have any problem at all with the disaster that Prynne offers to English verse, in fact I’m of the view that there are not enough disasters confronting the dismal mediocrity that currently embodies that out-dated notion.
      I’m not overly concerned about comparisons but I would make the small point that T S Eliot (truly great or not) was a completely different poet writing at a different time and for different reasons. Incidentally ‘truly great’ is a it silly, isn’t it?

  2. I’m not sure how far Prynne spells this out (I don’t have a copy of KD), but in you second quote from p. 5 there’s a cluster of Piers Plowman references, namely “soft season” (Reference to the Prologue’s first line) “wit” (the character Wit – Passus IX ish) “will” (the narrator Will, passim) and “passion” (Passion of Christ – Passus XVIII).

    There’s a second cluster in the sentence from p. 6 that begins “For fields”
    In this case the cluster includes “fields thus filled” – reference to the “fair field full of folk” in the Prologue, and “hot pies” (reference to the street cries at the end of the Prologue).

  3. I forgot to say, I think this dream vision connection is quite a fruitful one.
    One theory of the popularity of dream visions in the Dark and Middle Ages is that it was a way of accounting for a fictive space. (I forget who originated this though, but I associate it with J.A Burrow.) i.e. The idea of “making something up” was not readily available to writers, perhaps because of moral confusion with lying, so you either claimed that your story was true (as, e.g. the Arthurian romances) , or that it was taken from some other authority (e.g. Wolfram’s Kyot) , or else you claimed that you’d dreamt it.

    Anyway, it’s a suggestive view of what might be concerning Prynne in the most fictive of his recent poems.

  4. Coinidentally, I’m currently taking a break / holiday and have brought Piers and KD in print and am having immense fun alternating between the two.- have clocked the hot pies line in Piers but am still no clearer what it’s doing in Prynne

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