I’ve now decided to have a series of ‘weeks’ in the way that Radio Three has a composer of the week and some arthouse cinemas have a director’s season. I think I’m doing this because it gives me an opportunity to stay with one poet’s work over a number of posts rather than flitting from one to the other. This isn’t going to be easy because I am a lifelong flitter.
J H Prynne does however present a wide enough range of stuff to keep this tendency at bay and Biting the Air appears to be a good example of this. I will proceed with caution because Prynne’s work is generally tricky (technical term) but repays careful attention. Given the level of trickiness what follows is more than usually tentative, provisional and subject to radical change.
Biting the Air was published in 2003 and appears as the penultimate poem in the second edition and appears, in part at least, to have Big Pharma in its sights. I do know a little about the global pharmaceutical problem, I spent between 2004-10 writing about the inadequacies of the system of drug research, testing and marketing and remain of the view that producing misleading/false information that leads to death or premature death should be a criminal offence. Because I’m bipolar I’ll be taking drugs for the rest of my life so I also have an interest in how things are done.
This is a sequence of 12 poems, 11 of which have five four-line stanzas with the other one having a bit of variation in the middle. The epigraph is from Ockham- “Every property is the property of something, but it is not the property of just anything. This is the start of the first poem:
Pacify rag hands attachment in for muted counter-march or locked up going to drainage offer some, give, none ravine platter, tied up to kin you would desire that. Even hand bestowing pharmaceutical front to avoid. even flatline signal glitz perfection, slide under be- fore matter planning your treat advance infirm in legal glowing stunt. Enough out of one hand
And this is the final three stanzas of the sixth poem:
told to you, root and branch slope management at onrush unpaired and less compact, generic death as possession on nil return. Which way the novice points trail off, they say the same on the block new level rib, spit your lips. Be quick, be long to pump anger revivalism, percolate thick forest scarps dug yet deeper. Get a vaccine on shipment perish thread your face why yours if told more, stable on a tilted capital feed suspected more often. Give out a version amplified with strings to obligate a boundary check, felt damp echo ethic manipulate its life exemption.
There’s gloriously complex things that appear to be going on here. Starting with the obvious ‘medical’ words: pharmaceutical, flatline, infirm, generic, rib, lips, vaccine and life exemption- I’m taking this to indicate that the poem is making direct comment on the issues that beset modern medicine rather than using this particular malaise to talk about something else. Of course, he may be doing both but I’m going to stick with medicine as medicine for the moment.
I’m now going to be very brave and launch into some kind of close reading of the above few lines in order to see if bits can be extracted and refined. The reason for choosing two separate passages is to test out what Prynne says in his Difficulties in the Translation of “Difficult” Poems essay published in the CLR in 2010:
But in certain types of “difficult” poetry this corridor of sense is much wider and more open, more like a network across the whole expanse of the text, with many loops and cross-links of semantic and referring activity which extend the boundaries of relevance, and of control by context, in many directions at once. If these many directions are developed so as to produce strong contradiction and self-dispute then the method may become a dialectic practice, in which poetic form and expression are brought into internal contest with themselves and with each other.
This and the rest of the essay strike me as invaluable aids in dealing with this kind of material but then there’s a doubt for me about how many readers will be bothered to read the essays and the critical work on Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Herbert which demonstrate how this particular poet ‘does’ poetry. I’ve read these because I was already intrigued by the material and wanted to know more, as has also been the case with Geoffrey Hill and Simon Jarvis. Is this what the charge of elitism is about? Should readers need just the words on the page to get the full picture? I don’t think this is necessarily exclusionary, a fan of Liverpool football club may read players’ autobiographies in order to get some context from what they pay to see. I don’t think that I’m unique in wanting to know more about what my favourite writers think about writing and I don’t feel that this is an elitist pursuit.
So, is there a “corridor of sense” running through the above? I think that there might be but it might be best to take things reasonably slowly.
Even hand bestowing pharmaceutical front to avoid. At first stare, ‘front’ is problematic because it’s difficult to see how it can be described as pharmaceutical. It took me a little while but it may be that ‘front’ may refer to a cover or disguise for something else- usually a criminal activity. In New York, the Mafia has used garbage collection to disguise its main lines of business. The OED reminds me that ‘pharmaceutical’ is a noun as well as an adjective and that this has been used since 1829 to indicate a “pharmaceutical preparation; a medicinal drug”. No, one of the many problems with the drug industry are the intertwined problems of neutrality and objectivity. Time after time the biggest drug companies have been fined for presenting skewed and partial information when selling there products. They’ve marketed anti-psychotics as a beneficial treatment for dementia without disclosing the very much increased risk of stroke and the average shortening of life by about five years. This is bolstered by the publication of clinical trial results that are hopelessly compromised by the fact that they are funded by the company producing the drug.
So ‘even hand’ might be read as ‘even handed’, fair, balanced, impartial and these qualities are used by drug companies as a front to disguise the complex and often contradictory realities of new therapies.
Even flatline glitz perfection. The OED fives glitz as “an extravagant but superficial display” which characterizes the way drug companies flog their wares. A flatline on a heart monitor would indicate that the heart has stopped beating but on other graphs and displays it indicates a stable or unchanging state with no variation. The Prynne ‘even’ always presents me with difficulties but on this occasion it may be the verb as in to make level or equal or to describe something that has these qualities. With regard to flatlining, drug companies are particularly good at selling products that don’t make a blind bit of difference. There is currently a bit of a furore in the UK because it has been noticed that £300 million was spent on tamiflu even though the evidence for its efficacy doesn’t exist.
Slope management. One of the very many joys of paying attention to Prynne and Hill is the amount of time that you get to spend with the OED. Looking at the ‘slope’ variations I’ve just come across its use as an adverb, deployed by Milton in PL as That bright beam, whose point now raisd Bore him slope downward to the Sun which is wonderful and is obviously in need of revivial. However, I don’t think that there’s any need to get too esoteric in this instance. I’m taking ‘slope’ as being the opposite of the flat line in the first poem and ‘management’ as a euphemism for manipulation. This works in both ways- drug companies produce results that emphasise the benefits whilst minimising the likely risks. Incidentally, I’m not of the view that Big Pharma is the incarnation of evil but I am concerned that our political masters simply fail to understand the issues involved from the nature of objective knowledge and the intertwined relationships between academic and commercial research and health providers. I’ll also admit to be morbidly fascinated by these folding and re-folding processes.
I’m happy to acknowledge that I might be wrong here, especially as I can’t get to grips with “at onrush unpaired and less compact” but I don’t have any better points of reference at the moment.
Felt damp echo ethic manipulate its life exemption. This might take a little while. I’m going to take ‘manupilate’ to have its common definition and worry instead about exemption. This particular noun refers to setting an individual or entity outside a particular rule or code. The most obvious example that springs into this small brain is the exemption of diplomats from parking tickets. So, a life exemption may be an exemption from something that lasts for life or an exemption from the rules that normally pertain to being alive. It seems, for example, that we are living much longer than any previous generation and that this may be credited to advances in medical practice and treatments. The other exemption from life that can be exercised is the ability of the individual to choose to curtail his or her existence. I’m not going to amplify the minefield signalled here by ‘ethic’ but wish to point out that medical ‘progress’ (loaded term) has prolonged life but in some cases has simply extended an already unbearable existence.
I hope the above points to how a ‘corridor of sense’ may be obtained. I know that this particular take may be very wide of the mark but at least it does begin to tease out some of those boundaries of relevance that Prynne refers to. In the rest of this week’s posts I hope to put more of his description to the test.