Tag Archives: jeremy prynne

J H Prynne’s ‘Sub Songs’

The first thing to note is that this is a big book.  It contains only 22 pages and 9 poems but it is the size of a coffee table book with a cover that looks as though it’s been designed. This is in marked contrast with ‘To Pollen’ and ‘Streak~~~Willing’ which were small in size and defiant in their absence of design values. I have no idea whether this is significant or in any way relevant, I am merely stating the facts.

Barque Press said something about ‘Sub Songs’ marking a move a way from “stanzaic blocks” towards “more freely shaped individual lyrics” and this is certainly the case. There also seems to be a greater variation in tone between the individual poems and a wider range of difficulty ranging from the surprisingly accessible to the utterly baffling.

Because I’ve learned to take Prynne slowly, I’ve spent a fair amount of time with the first poem which is called “As Mouth Blindness”. I’ve tried to bear in mind what Prynne has said recently in “Mental Ears and Poetic Work” and about difficult poetry. I’ve also been mindful of the problems involved in reaching a conclusion too quickly. I’m not going to reproduce the poem in full here because some lines are indented and I haven’t yet worked out how to gain access to the WordPress style sheet.

As is usual with Prynne, there are large swathes of this poem that I have yet to grasp but there’s enough that’s clear to enable me to make an initial stab with regard to the subject matter. It would appear to have the recent recession firmly in its sights and to depict the social/human fall-out from this event. It would also appear to be quite angry in tone.

The poem begins with “Right now beyond the brunt yet afforded, gainsay now / for aspect close to residue…” I’m reading ‘the brunt’ as the worst of something (ie the collapse of the global financial system) and ‘yet afforded’ to the fact that tax-payers bailed out the banks and other institutions in order to prevent total collapse. Things get a bit more tricky with ‘aspect close to residue’ but I’m taking one of the OED definitions of aspect which is given as “The appearance presented by circumstances, etc, to the mind” and I’m reading residue as an adjective- “Remaining, surviving”. This could be taken as a reference that those of us who thought (hoped) that the recession would lead to a more equitable and rational system were mistaken.

Prynne does have a track record of ranting about the money-men and government fiscal policy which I have previously characterised as quaint and politically naive. This poem does seem to represent a more nuanced rant (although it’s still a rant) and it contains some quite telling points. Writing poetry about economics isn’t at all easy (I’ve tried) yet Prynne manages to combine perceptive analysis with an appropriate degree of anger.

I have read enough of Prynne to know that leaping to conclusions is a bad idea and to arrive at a hypothesis from the first line and a half is potentially disastrous. The rest of the poem does however contain elements that support this initial stab in the dark. A little further on we have “ridges debased fetch so plainly / or even gradual, nothing not due…” ‘ridge’, the OED tells me is a slang term used to denote “Gold; a gold coin” or any metal coin. If we take ‘fetch’ as a noun (a contrivance, dodge, stratagem, trick) then this would kind of make sense but so would reading it as a verb (restore to consciousness). ‘Nothing not due’ would seem to be the maxim that all debts must be paid, hinting that ordinary people will have to pay for this folly.

The next piece of evidence is “….Hateful repetition, fixed by / horror of its enclosing roulette chamber, echo of damage / renewed”. I don’t think I need the OED for this, I’m taking ‘roulette chamber’ to be a reference to financial and stock markets and read this as a depiction of the cyclical nature of the capitalist system and the fact that catastrophic crashes will recur as long as the system persists.

The last piece of supporting evidence is “…great lack breeds lank / less and less, claimant for right.” I want this to be a reference to the underclass and those who always suffer the most at a time of economic crisis although I haven’t fully thought through ‘claimant for right’ yet.

If this hypothesis is correct then Prynne is accurate in his analysis and justified in his anger. The poem ends with “Now get out.”

‘Sub Songs’ is available from Barque Press and I thoroughly recommend it.

Jeremy Prynne’s Mental Ears pt 2

I’ve been avoiding Mt Prynne for a while but it’s now probably time to get back into the fray. In preparation for reading the poem(s), I’ve had another look at ‘Mental Ears and Poetic Work’ which I wrote about some months ago and is still available from the newly revived AAAARG site.

Two things have struck me in addition to the stuff about phonology. The first is that the preamble contains a definition of poetry and it is reasonably clear -

This because for all the pungent games in which poetry can engage, it comprises at its most fully extended an envelope which finds and sets the textual contours in writing of how things are; whilst also activating a system of  discontinuities and breaks which interrupt the intrinsic cohesion and boundary profiles of its domain, so that there is constant leakage inwards and outwards across the connection with the larger world order. That’s an outline in broadest abstraction, for a start.

Although this is clearly expressed, it does require some careful thought. The first thing that strikes me is the notion that poetry can ‘engage’ a range of ‘pungent games’. Prynne always chooses his words very carefully and pungent (in the sense of  convincing, trenchant, biting, persuasive as well as painfully or strongly affecting the feelings) seems particularly acute given what he has to say about poetic work at the end of the essay. To describe poetry as engaging with games is more puzzling. Prynne is well known for his refusal to enter into dialogue with what he describes as ‘the witty circus’ and he may be attempting to contrast what he sees most poets doing with his own aspirations. There is also the possibility that he’s using pungent in the pejorative sense (smelly).

The next part presents us with the idea that poetry can be extended to find and set in writing the textual contours of  ‘how things are’. This is redolent of Prynne in China in 2006 when he said that poetry should aspire to radical economy and truthfulness. I do tend to stumble over this ‘how things are’ business because I still can’t see (and I’ve tried) how poetry is in a privileged position with regard to reality and describing it as it is. This is not to deny the importance of poetry, I understand and accept its potential to alter the way we view the world and the way we think about language but I do feel that this kind of rhetoric makes a claim that can’t be delivered. I also admit to being a Rortian relativist with a profound mistrust in the status of objective truth but that doesn’t prevent me from observing that poetry is no better at saying ‘how it is’ than any other form of creative expression.

Prynne and Geoffrey Hill both take poetry incredibly seriously and this is to be admired, I would never denigrate their lifelong dedication nor their skill as poets. I would however question their ability to present me with an objective statement as to how things are. Prynne’s socialism says very little to me politically and I already know that contemporary imperialism is a very Bad Thing. With regard to his devotion to Wordsworth, I’ll still need a lot of persuading although I do share his admiration for Olson.

Prynne is clearly one of the two finest poets writing in English and I read him because I find his poetry to be both challenging and rewarding. I don’t expect him or any other poet to be able to tell me how it is.

I’ll now turn to Prynne’s description of how poetry functions. He claims that it  ‘activates a system of  discontinuities and breaks’. This notion of activating, which I read as putting into operation or giving life to, is an accurate example of what some poetry seeks to achieve. It isn’t what all poets set out to do and again the implication is that only this kind of deliberately energising verse is somehow worthwhile. Causing ‘discontinuities and breaks’ would appear to be what Prynne is increasingly about as were the later poems of Paul Celan, both of whom have suffered critical opprobrium for their insistence on creating rupture as a decisive feature in their work.

These ruptures are said to contest the ‘intrinsic  cohesion and boundary profiles’ of poetry’s domain. I’m not sure that this is the case, poetry’s domain doesn’t appear to me to have that distinct a boundary profile, nor does it exhibit any kind of intrinsic cohesion. What’s good about poetry is its tendency to seep into other forms of expression. Many artists and musicians use poetry in their work, McDonald’s are currently using a poem to sell their wares so the boundary profile would seem to be fairly fluid. As for intrinsic cohesion, the world of poetry has always been riven by factionalism and their are poets working with many different kinds of verse so it’s difficult to see what there is that can be contested in any kind of focused way.

Prynne ends this telling paragraph by saying that these discontinuities  promote constant ‘leakage inwards and outwards across the connections with the larger world order’. I’d like to know how exactly this occurs, Prynne’s poetry is notorious in its refusal to engage with the wider world and the lay perspective of his work shows that this has been a success. The media response to Geoffrey Hill’s elevation shows that any leaking of serious verse is usually met with complete bafflement.

The end of the essay is also instructive in that Prynne makes a case for the poetic text  providing ‘the templates for ethical seriousness’ by being in dispute with its own ways and means. Prynne suggests that poetry must engage with the harsh reality of the world and have bloody hands in order to do worthwhile work. This harks back to something he said about twenty years ago with regard to the fact that language is never neutral, never pure but is always fully implicated and complicit in the deeds of men.

So, is this any help at all with the climb up mount Prynne? Perhaps it is but it also gives me a much clearer idea of how he views his work and how it may function in the wider world.

Jeremy Prynne in China

Barque Press have produced a dvd of a conference/reading held in China in 2005. In attendance were (among others) Jeremy Prynne and Keston Sutherland. The camera was held by John Wilkinson, so this can be said to be a 100% Cambridge School production.
As regular readers will know, I’ve spent the last few months wandering around the lower slopes of Mount Prynne and I remain very keen to obtain anything that will give me a clearer idea of where the man is coming from. The dvd also features a number of Chinese poets but unfortunately I have been unable to work out how to turn on the subtitles as instructed on the sleeve unless the one poem that has subtitles waving around at the top of the screen is all I’m going to get.
There a number of points that Prynne makes in the film that are worthy of comment:
1. English and Chinese cultures are very old but not as old as the Sumerian culture. When compared with China and Britain, the culture of the USA is a mere fledgling. This is Prynne being a little bit waspish and an attempt to score a small but unnecessary point, we all know that American written culture hasn’t been around for very long but it doesn’t follow that it isn’t any good. It could be argued that Americans are freer to experiment with the language because they don’t have that much history hanging around their necks.
2. Poetry has two essential features: radical economy and truthfulness. I don’t think too many people will disagree with the notion that most good poetry strives to compress complex emotions and ideas into a short space. Even very long poems can achieve this economy in a way that prose cannot. I have much more of a problem with truthfulness because it seems to give to poetry a power or strength that it doesn’t actually have. I admit that I’m a bit dubious about any claims to truth but it seems to me that to claim that poetry has some kind of privileged access to truth is making far too grand a claim. I would much prefer it if Prynne had mentioned honesty instead because that would come closer to the mark of what poetic endeavour should be about. Most of us who write poetry are painfully aware when a line or a phrase is dishonest or consciously manipulative and these are the lines that we normally exclude no matter how technically accomplished they may be.
With regard to ‘radical economy’, Prynne reads a Chinese poem in English translation and points out that the American translator should have struck out one ‘the’ because it is superfluous.
3. Prynne mentions ‘hybrid words’ during his reading and equates these with the corruption of language. I’m not sure whether he’s saying that these words should not be used and whether he is denoting a difference between hybrid and compound words.
He reads four poems of his own and the first three are read with remarkable clarity. The fourth, which he says was published in 2005, is read as an experiment, the audience is instructed to clear their minds of images and memories of images and to listen with eyes closed. The reading is very powerful with Prynne enunciating each word with care but his mouth is too close to the microphone which makes it difficult to make out phrases.
The dvd also shows Keston Sutherland reading from the ‘Antifreeze’ collection but, as with his performances on Youtube, his diction isn’t brilliant and the strength of the message is somewhat lost.
So, I’m a little clearer on Prynne’s modus operandi and the dvd has made me return to the work that was read.

Prynne, Hill, Celan and the influence problem

I’ve been giving some thought to the poets that I most admire and the importance or otherwise of thinking about the poets that they most admire or can be said to have been influenced by. I’ve come to the conclusion that we can divide ‘influence’ into two distinct categories. The first of these relates to ‘voice’ by which I mean the way that a poem is phrased and the way in which the poet is heard. The second relates to ‘theme’ by which I mean the subjects that the poet chooses to write about.
Influence works in many ways, we admire the work of another and deliberately emulate some aspects of their work. This does not need to be a conscious process- I’ve been a lifelong fan of the work of R S Thomas but it is only very recently that I’ve realised that most of my stuff has been written in his voice. I wasn’t at all aware of this until I decided that I was beginning to get bored with what I was writing and looked again at thirty years’ output. Ridding myself of that influence has proven to be difficult, the temptation to reach for a hunk of Thomas syntax and/or rhetoric still persists.
On the other hand I have made a conscious effort on occasion to emulate Celan’s later work. So I’ve got notebooks full of allusive three line poems packed with as much ambiguity as I could manage. Needless to say, none of this stuff is any good but I don’t mind the many years spent proving to myself that I couldn’t get anywhere near the strength of voice that Celan possessed.
Then we come to the Eliot problem, I’m not one of those that thinks that Eliot is a universally bad thing. A good deal of my late teens were spent poring over The Wasteland and the Four Quartets and I can still see that the first of these is an important piece of work but I do despair at the influence that Eliot has had on subsequent generations without really moving anything forward. I thinks that Eliot’s influence falls almost completely into the ‘voice’ category although his muddle-headed judgements as a critic have certainly distorted our view of what poetry can and should do for far too long.
This brings me by way of contrast to other modernist strands. Discussion of Paul Celan too often revolves around his reading of and relationship with Martin Heidegger which is interesting but I’m not convinced that Heidegger had as big an influence on the work as Osip Mandelstam who Celan translated and admired. It is eminently possible to hear Mandelstam’s ‘voice’ in Celan’s work after 1965 and both poets are concerned with the same subjects- the first stanza of ‘The night is irredeemable’, written in 1916, could very well have been written by Celan 50 years later. In terms of how this ‘influence’ worked I’m guessing that Celan recognised what Mandelstam was trying to achieve, decided (correctly) that this was important and proceeded to take it further. This kind of influence is very different from imitation/emulation.

We now come to the Prynne problem. It is clear from my recent reading that Prynne is a fully paid-up and possibly founding member of the William Wordsworth fan club. It is also clear that he was one of Charles Olson’s keenest followers. As with all things Prynne, identifying any trace of other works is difficult and when these are found it’s often hard to decide whether or not their use is altogether straight faced.
The ‘Mental Ears’ lecture makes an oblique connection between Wordsworth’s notion of the sublime and Prynne’s occasional use of the word ‘lintel’ but it isn’t immediately apparent that this counts as influence per se. There is also Prynne’s use of ‘O’ which appears to signify the same ardency that it denotes when used by Wordsworth.
Thinking about Olson, I’ve come to realise that Olson’s interest in perception and perspective is one that is shared by Prynne but Olson’s ‘voice’ does not occur in Prynne- except for his first collection which he has since ‘repudiated’. I understand from Keston Sutherland’s Glossator essay on Brass that Prynne and Olson had a falling out just before Olson’s death but I don’t think there’s any doubt that Prynne still holds the work in great esteem- somewhere on the net there’s a pdf file of significant Olson criticism with Prynne’s name at the bottom- this is dated 2007. The other significant influences which aren’t often noted are Samuel Beckett and Paul Celan, both of whom have a strong interest in the language/discourse problem. This may be wishful thinking on my part but ‘Word Order’ contains imagery ‘lifted’ straight from Celan whilst the later work contains echoes of Beckett’s residua. None of this detracts from Prynne’s originality but does demonstrate that his work is part of a distinct poetic lineage.
We then come to Geoffrey Hill who is a keen advocate for the work of Hopkins and other, less well known, poets (Gurney, Rosenberg, Herbert etc). Then there is the Ezra Pound problem- the only discernible voice that I can hear faintly resonating around Hill’s finest work. Like Prynne and Celan, Hill is a political poet. He also has strong religious beliefs which he isn’t shy about sharing with the rest of us and his notion of poetry is (to say the least) idiosyncratic. That isn’t to say that Hill is immune to influence but I would suggest that it is more occluded than Prynne and Celan.
Then there’s the ‘horses for courses’ argument- I’m currently trying to write something based on witness statements presented to the Phillips and Saville inquiries and I like what Olson did with the archival records of Gloucester for ‘Maximus’. Am I being influenced if I follow his example and lift straight from the record? Or should I be more allusive? Another strong influence for me is the example set by Emile de Antonio’s documentary films of the sixties and I guess that we all have non-poetic figures standing over us as we write.

Jeremy Prynne’s mental ears

On Friday morning the essential AAAARG site sent me my daily missive which informed me that someone had uploaded several prose works by Prynne. One of the was “Mental Ears and Poetic Work” which was published last year by the Chicago Review and is a transcript (with notes) of a lecture given by Prynne last year.

Having downloaded and read this piece once, I have to announce that Prynne has now joined David Harvey in my pantheon of using the dialectic sensibly. To be fair, Prynne’s usage is not the core of the lecture but it does inform his reasoning in a remarkably clear way.

The core argument, which Prynne admits is tentative, concerns phonology which is the study of the ‘systematic use of sound to encode meaning in any spoken language’ (Wikipedia) although Prynne defines it as ” the system of sound forms in a speech practice that is structural to the coherence of a language and its evolution through time”. Prynne argues cogently that poetic practice must take more note of phonology because it isn’t variable, unlike metre, syntax, phrasing etc. all of which are subject to change and are dependent on the way things are read and received. This is a crude précis of the argument which doesn’t do justice to the way Prynne arrives at his point but is the best I can do without quoting him word for word.

Prynne provides the examples where phonetics are crucial- Wordsworth’s ‘Tintern Abbey’ and ‘Prelude’ and Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’. I’m not familiar with the first two- my only reading of Wordsworth has been ‘Solitary Reaper’ and what Prynne has to say about it. I am however very familiar with ‘Paradise Lost’ and the passage that Prynne uses- Eve’s description of being born into Eden. From the first poem, Prynne draws our attention to the line “Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart” and then launches into a deep and complex analysis of the words ‘felt’, ‘blood’, ‘along’ and ‘heart’, noting that along has a nasal ending whilst the other three have plosive endings. So far, so good. We then come to a brief history of the word ‘blood’ which Prynne derives from ‘bleed’ because ” ‘living blood’ precedes bleeding but our observationally confirmed knowledge of blood has until recent times been consequent on bleeding events”. For me, this confirms that Prynne does not think like the rest of us, there’s nothing at all wrong with this argument but it is the way that it is formulated and expressed that belies someone with a deeply idiosyncratic  way of thinking about language and the things it does. This is equally evident in Prynne’s recent work on ‘The Solitary Reaper’ which I now realise that I’ll have to read again with my mental ears firmly in place. This almost wilful determination to stand aside from any notion of mainstream lit crit is laudable especially when it produces such valuable insights and challenges, I just wish it was given a wider audience so Prynne’s criticism could more fully collide with the ‘witty circus’.

We now come to my problem with the Romantics and Wordsworth in particular. I’m more than happy to concede that Wordsworth is one of our finest poets and that some of his stuff contains really great lines but the ideology of Romanticism still offends the materialist in me, it’s not so much that I deny the power of nature to exalt the soul- I just don’t see that it matters very much. The cusp of the 18th and 19th centuries was a time of enormous upheaval and grinding poverty, what was needed was a poetry that engaged with these times in the manner of Godwin and Cobbett. What was not needed was a group of privileged young men going on about nature and their emotional response to it. I almost exclude Shelley from this but Wordsworth is firmly in the frame.

Prynne quotes another passage from ‘Tintern Abbey’ and examine the words ‘trust’, ‘gift’ and ‘blessed’. He points out that blessed can be traced back to blood which is linked by an early meaning of bless which is to “make sacred or holy by ritual shedding of blood”. There then follows an analysis of the word ‘sublime’ for which I am truly grateful. Prynne points out that ‘sub’ means “up to, as far as” and that ‘lime’ derives from ‘limen’ which is “the lintel or entrance portal to the spirit world of beatitude and love”. As an attentive reader of all things Prynne, I have frequently speculated and fretted over Prynne’s recurrent use of ‘lintel’  in his poetry. Now that the mists have cleared, I am able to return to the work with greater confidence although it isn’t yet clear that this definition will help. I also have to point out that it would have taken me years to get to this understanding without explicit help from the man himself.

In a paragraph which starts “See how this works”, Prynne lays out with great clarity the central ‘thrust’ of ‘Tintern Abbey’. Whilst I’m not sure that the end-stop in the word ‘heart’ signifies our mortality and feel that Prynne’s argument for phonology is still a little tenuous, the argument that the poem points to the potential of living souls to be transposed by nature even in the face of death is both cogent and forceful- it does not make me want to read any more of  Wordsworth however.

What does send me back to my worn out copy of Paradise Lost is Prynne’s analysis of Eve’s account of her birth- “That day I oft remember, when from sleep / I first awaked and found myself reposed / under a shade of flowers…”. As readers we are told at the very beginning of the poem that Eve is doomed and we read the description of the time in Eden with a sense of foreboding. Prynne points to the use of  hard end-stops (oft, sleep, awaked, found, reposed, shade) and speculates that these may point to the trap that Eve is already in. As an attentive reader of Milton, I find this wholly credible and realise that I’m going to have to pay attention to phonology the next time I read the work.

Prynne’s use of the dialectic is to be admired, he doesn’t over-elaborate nor does he drown his argument in cliché-ridden analysis. He does point out the contradiction involved in the root of ‘blessed’ being derived from blood sacrifice and he points out that ‘poetic form within the textual domain’ can disrupt apparent harmony and bring “discrepant aspects face to face”.

For those of us who are confirmed fans, the essay contains many delights. We get again the notion that language is compromised but also “clean hands do no useful work”. As an advocate of the (fairly) quietist approach to poetry, I’m probably going to give this more than a little thought. We also get “Language is itself an intrinsic fault system, and it is worse than a mistake not to understand this as best ever we can”. This is the final line and I wish to draw your attention to the contrast between ‘worse than a mistake’ and ‘as best ever we can”. The first phrase smacks of a rather aggressive piece of polemic whilst the second throws in a bit of humility, a case of Prynne wanting more than his cake?

I’ll finish with my favourite quote which is a kind of riposte to those critics (and there are many) who feel that Prynne has written himself into dark obscurity. He’s absolutely right both about his own stuff and that of others who are also considered to be difficult (Hill, Celan etc.).

“The discourses of modernism in Western poetics make steeper descents into sub-intelligibility; and in my own case I am rather frequently accused of having more or less altogether taken leave of discernible sense. In fact I believe this accusation to be more or less true, and not to me alarmingly so, because what for so long has seemed the arduous royal road into the domain of poetry (“what does it mean?”) seems less and less an unavoidably necessary precondition for successful reading”.
I know that I’ve gone on about this but I do see it as a bit of a landmark with many, many things for us practitioners to consider. I, for one, will try to apply my mental ears from now on.

Reading Prynne closely, a vindication

Approaching passion freak intact prime falter
for segment same-front glide to fill conduce
suffuse give or give. Plenteous flake arm folly
to love acre the same rivet the front broken

Prolusion, stay near ever dry. Few tap transfer
second charge you let off stop surrender for
disarm, oh grant that, leave the grain why ever
less now less green took life by the tongue lit

In low pale extradite. A day this one assign
yours grow up to main, leaf round and round lie
cost plus crush split stamina. Me such unarm
same peril fovea pass fire mantle and glib overt

Tie to air close to, to disclaim that for. More
flute ignite nul wants subsume trill earlier ban
wrist digit restive to same. Be all best profane
broken tenuous, each strand as fine torrid at

Leave to play stare to east, ease denied off
by rush fracture on dismounting the pelmet crab
out over the foreland, the annexe. Moulded
profile accepts on its lateral crystal mistaken

Fragment at level counterparty brushed, mend
up to shock, same till fallen till to breach
its promise mine for spent at duration, noted
way ever on transit long for this and similar.

I started reading this poem in part to test Keston Sutherland’s assertion that Prynne’s work demands readers rather than consumers of poetry, those who are prepared to work at the task of interpretation and so achieve a level of intimacy with the poem.  Since my last post on this poem from Streak, Willing, Entourage, Artesian I’ve given myself a bit of a rest (I’ve got my own stuff to write) but I have had a flash of inspiration which vindicates my original hunch that this work is ‘about’ the recent Troubles in Ulster.

This was one of those 2 am moments as I was trying to get to sleep. In the 5th stanza I’d worked out that there isn’t such a thing as a pelmet crab but there is a helmet crab, for some reason I extended this ‘sounds like’ principle to ‘foreland’ and came up with ‘four lands’ somewhere in my brain I knew that Ireland was historically divided into provinces but couldn’t remember how many these were. The next day Wikipedia informed me that there were once five provinces- Meath, Leinster, Munster, Connacht and Ulster. This was a revelation comparable only to the discovery that Cern cuold be described as ‘ultramont’ in ‘To Pollen’.

According to the OED, an obscure definition of ‘crab’ is to “go counter to, to cross, to put out of humour or temper, to irritate, anger, enrage provoke.” The Troubles were characterised by one side wanting Ulster (the ‘annexe’) reunited with the Irish state and the other side wishing to remain part of the United Kingdom.

With regard to dismounting from the pelmet and sustaining a fracture I can only take this to be meant literally and to refer to the contortions readers have to put themselves through to gain some understanding. If that’s the case then it isn’t very funny. ‘Rush’ may refer to a specific type of robbery common in the 17th and 18th century whereby a group of men would rush past the householder and steal all his goods- this is pure speculation for the moment.

I still haven’t much of a clue about the first and last stanzas, in particular I don’t know why ‘same-front’ is hyphenated and I’m troubled by ‘suffuse’. The last stanza is even more problematic ‘mend up to shock’ defies my small brain and I haven’t a clue what we’re supposed to be longing for.

Keston Sutherland’s Stress Position pt2

I’ve now spent a bit more time with Stress Position and feel able to say a bit more about this remarkable work. I haven’t yet mentioned the wedding reception which occurs during the second part of the prose section. I’m not entirely sure who is addressed in this but it’s a very  penetrating depiction of rage expressed in a dream-like manner.  What this has to do with the rest of Stress Position isn’t entirely clear unless we are being taken on a tour of the inside of Sutherland’s head in order to be reminded of our individual complicity in the scheme of things.

There are a number of proper nouns in Stress Position, some of which may need explication. Al-Mansur was the founder of Baghdad in 762 and controlled all of the Muslim lands from North Africa to Pakistan.  Diotima also makes an appearance, she was the name Holderlin gave to Susette Gontard, the love of his life, who was the wife of his employer. She is addressed both in Holderlin’s poetry and his novel ‘Hyperion’. Holderlin named her after Diotima of Mantinea, who was a seer in Ancient Greece and is mentioned in Plato’s Symposium, scholars aren’t sure whether or not she was a real historical character but Plato attributes to her the concept of Platonic love. Diotima doesn’t make a big appearance- Sutherland refers to her as ‘anagrammatic’ and I’m still trying to work that one out.

Diotima occurs on the same line as ‘Vietstock’ as in “To the anagrammatic Diotima I am a bare intuition of Vietstock / so we split” Vietstock is the name given to the Vietnamese stock market and I’m a little concerned that the line is included because it sounds good rather than having any ‘real’ meaning. It could of course be that Sutherland is just too clever for my limited brain. I just don’t see how anyone can be an intuition of a stock market.

Hakagawa also gets a mention, the only reference that I can locate to him is in Eliot’s Gerontion. In Stress Position he grimaces in sympathy but not much else, unless Sutherland is referring to Eliot’s interest (via F H Bradley) in how the internal workings of the mind relate to reality. If that is the case then it’s reasonably clever but I’m not aware that Sutherland is overtly sympathetic to Eliot’s particular brand of modernism.

We now come to the hadjiavatis- Wikipedia tells me that the name refers to a character in Greek shadow-puppet theatre who “has a tendency to flatter the powerful and his name in Greece is associated with the eternally compliant person towards the occupying and dominant establishment”.  The hadjiavatis appears first in quotes- “the hadjiavatis who stands / for sacrifice whether he eats or is famished, the need whatever his need / absorbed into or when you disappear, for passion in everything / where you disappear”. Sutherland refers to these as ‘famous words’. They’re not famous enough to me. The second occurrence is in the last section of the poem- “Akinfemiwa: all the better to ignore you with / hadjiavatis vaticilectrix vs Barbie arbitration / the apparition of a frozen heart  grasped in fish fingers”. Akinfemiwa is a fairly common surname in Nigeria, which is referred to in an earlier stanza, but I’m not going to speculate further. Barbie could refer to the doll or Klaus Barbie (the ‘butcher of Lyon’) who was put on trial in France for war crimes. I’ve got a feeling that it refers to the latter but it could be both. Vaticilectrix is a compound word (vatic and ilectrix) but I’m still working on the second part.

We now come to Lucas Manyane Fritzl, type this into Google and you get loads of stuff on Josef Fritzel, the Autrian who raped and kept his daughter captive for 24 years. Two lines later he is referred to as ‘Joey’ but I’m still fairly mystified.

There’s also Black Beauty (the horse) who appears as part of the funniest line in the poem and the al-Rashid which is a posh hotel in downtown Baghdad. Mention must also be made of various generals whose names always appear in block capitals- VAMPIRE, GAS ECHO HEDGE TRIMMER etc. ‘Vampire’ seems reasonably straightforward but the second is far too oblique for me.

Sutherland is known as the main Prynnist, if that’s the right noun, and Jeremy appears as a footnote in the fourth part of the prose section. This is a rewrite of part of the prose in verse form with ‘Prynne’ inserted. The entire footnote is crossed through as if we aren’t meant to read it. Sutherland is either being far too self-aware or just precious- the vast majority of people who read ‘Stress Position’ will be aware of the Prynne/Sutherland lineage anyway and will have made their own minds up on that particular score. If the act of elision is meant to be clever then it isn’t clever enough.

Meat Loaf gets a mention because Bat Out of Hell was played whilst the Americans were torturing prisoners in Abu Ghraib. Sutherland asks rhetorically which of the various versions of this album were used.

There are other names which I haven’t started to tackle yet and there’s an inevitably lyrical description of the dialectic which I’ll deal with next time. The work itself is mentioned as not being available in WH Smith which may or may not be a reference to the Prynnist stance on publication or may refer to the fact that Sutherland runs Barque Press (with Andrea Brady) and is therefore part of the ‘witty circus’.

I’ll finish this with a quote from the last section- “Because the first metaphor is the deepest” which is only funny if you like the song from which it is stolen.

Stress Position is available from Barque Press. Try buying it now.

Doing politics with poetry

Robert Archambeau kicked off a debate in the first issue of the excellent Cambridge Review by attempting to analyse what he sees as the political strategy of Jeremy Prynne and his advocates. Predictably, the debate got quite rancorous quite quickly but it did get me to thinking about the relationship between politics and poetry.

I’ve been politically active since I was sixteen and have participated in all the activities that are traditionally thought of as radical practice. I’ve been on demos, written subversive leaflets, created havoc in supermarkets, stood on picket lines, had my phone tapped and a few unsolicited visits from Special Branch. I’ve also fed stories to the national media. I was an active member of the Communist Party of Great Britain for five until it disbanded itself.  I always thought that if I was doing enough to merit the covert attention  of the state then I was somehow ‘winning’.  I now see this as hopelessly naive.

However, because I’ve always understood politics in terms of the above activities, I tend to compartmentalise my efforts at poetry at some remove from my politics. Reading a number of French writers has convinced me that doing politics against an inherently violent state has to be a bit more subtle, so I have another blog sponsored by the state whose function is to explain what the state’s social policy actually means and the ideas behind it to our customers who tend to be elderly and have long-term health problems.

The blog is read by 200 people a day and every month I send out a digest to 35,000 customers. The response from these is overwhelmingly positive because they are in a language that people can readily understand rather than the elitist jargon of the state. I am able to do this because money generated by our e-commerce site is sufficient to fund it.

Turning to the Prynne tactic, I don’t think that it is at all elitist or Messianic nor am I bothered that the poems don’t reach many people. One of the problems, as Archambeau acknowledges, of putting stuff in the public domain is that it gets appropriated and used in inappropriate ways. The other issue is that you can’t really have a body of work that is about destroying the current dominant discourses and then enter that work into that arena. Publishing work via a small outfit like Barque Press does at least ensure that your readers will be those who are sufficiently interested to find you. Even this doesn’t guarantee against appropriation, the web contains several different interpretations of  ‘To Pollen’ for example. As for not giving interviews, how exactly do you explain the nature of the work in easy soundbites?

I was one of those who bought the 1st Bloodaxe edition and decided that it was too obscure for me- and I like ‘difficult’ poetry. I only returned to Prynne after I’d worked through the poetry of Geoffrey Hill and decided that Prynne might provide an equally enjoyable challenge.

The political Prynne I have taken issue with, describing his criticisms of money markets and fiscal policy as ‘quaint’. His more recent work on the role of American imperialism in the Middle East is ideologically laudable but aimed at another easy target.  Even my parents know that American Imperialism and the money markets are bad things, almost everyone is against torture so writing poems,  no matter how brilliant, runs the real danger of confirming existent middle class beliefs.

I am however much more impressed by Prynne’s work on Ulster precisely because it isn’t easy. The CPGB worked for years to develop a cogent analysis of  the Troubles and failed because the dimensions are many and varied and because the sight of members of the working class intent on killing each other was deeply troubling to class warriors. Reading “Streak, Willing…” has inspired (yes, inspired) me to return to a long-standing work on Bloody Sunday and Bloody Friday based on witness statements to the Inquiry and material from the Cain archive. I read an early draft of one section at an open mic the other night and was gratified by the response in that it made people remember those events and perhaps encouraged them to think about them in a different way.

There’s also a difference between doing politics and doing ideology. Politics involves active and deliberate engagement with the world and usually involves the difficult art of compromise. Doing ideology is a much more passive and analytical activity, producing critiques and indicating possible ways forward. I would argue that Prynne does ideology far more than he does politics (with the exception of ‘Refuse Collection’) and is therefore not really interested in rousing his readers to the barricades.

With regard to appropriation, it’s always struck me as odd that both Foucault and Derrida complained long and loud about the many misinterpretations of their work, as if they felt that their own theories shouldn’t apply to them. Hill, in his own way, and Celan write political poetry and both have complained about being misinterpreted and misrepresented so the problem is not confined to Prynne and his response should be respected as a tactic rather than as an elitist or Messianic position.

The quietist strategy has a long and noble tradition and is based on two main strands. The first is that the world is an incredibly complex place and it is very difficult to ensure that your work will be disseminated in the way that you wish and the second is that by entering the public arena you become part of the thing that you are analysing. I call this one aspect of the ‘St Francis Position’ because its more often used by those with a strong faith. There’s nothing wrong with it so long as your expectations are fairly minimal.

There’s another line of thought that says that there are many different ways to do politics and many different ways to do poetry and we should celebrate the fact that this diversity exists rather than indulge in mutual mudslinging. Our political and creative lives should be spent improvising and trying out ways that work for us and we should respect each other for that. I hate with a vengeance most of what is produced by the mainstream and despair of the stuff that is churned out by creative writing courses but I respect those practitioners for at least trying to make a contribution. I don’t agree with Prynne’s politics and I find Hill’s hierarchical Toryism absurd but both get my respect for the contribution that they make to the discourse.

Reading Prynne closely pt2

Approaching passion freak intact prime falter
for segment same-front glide to fill conduce
suffuse give or give. Plenteous flake arm folly
to love acre the same rivet the front broken

Prolusion, stay near ever dry. Few tap transfer
second charge you let off stop surrender for
disarm, oh grant that, leave the grain why ever
less now less green took life by the tongue lit

In low pale extradite. A day this one assign
yours grow up to main, leaf round and round lie
cost plus crush split stamina. Me such unarm
same peril fovea pass fire mantle and glib overt

Tie to air close to, to disclaim that for. More
flute ignite nul wants subsume trill earlier ban
wrist digit restive to same. Be all best profane
broken tenuous, each strand as fine torrid at

Leave to play stare to east, ease denied off
by rush fracture on dismounting the pelmet crab
out over the foreland, the annexe. Moulded
profile accepts on its lateral crystal mistaken

Fragment at level counterparty brushed, mend
up to shock, same till fallen till to breach
its promise mine for spent at duration, noted
way ever on transit long for this and similar.

I know that I said I would concentrate on the first and third stanzas of this (the second poem in ‘Streak, willing, entourage, artesian’) but further reflection tells me that this is a flawed approach to something this non-linear. I will therefore try to point out the bits that can be gleaned with a degree of attention and those that are utterly resistant.

My hypothesis (guess) is that this poem is ‘about’ the recent civil war in Ulster although I am still prepared to overturn this guess if I come across anything that points in another direction. To this end I have begun to delve into the Cain archive and to read witness testimony given to the Bloody Sunday Inquiry and I am amazed about how much I had forgotten.

I’d like to start with ‘Be all best profane / broken tenuous’ from the fourth stanza. I’m taking ‘Be all best’ as an instruction to do your best which seems fairly clear but ‘profane’ is causing me problems. As a noun profane means someone or thing which makes something secular or unholy, as a verb it can also mean to desecrate, abuse or insult whilst the adjective can be used to someone who is uninitiated in religious practice. Throughout the Troubles, Ulster was sunk deep in religious issues, from the casting of hunger strikers as martyrs to the anti-catholic rants of Ian Paisley and his ilk the conflict was mired in arguments about God with each side viewing the other as (at the very least) profane.

This use of the word to refer to the conflict doesn’t help very much with this part of the poem, it occurs to me that these words could be an address to the reader. Prynne has done this before in ‘To Pollen’ with its reference to the ‘resilient brotherhood’ and the question about ‘the one inclined’. I’ll try and show how this reading makes more sense than does a reference to the Ulster conflict.

‘Be all best’ could be an instruction that recognises that all readers can only do what they can because the full meaning of a poem will always remain elusive. ‘Profane’ as a verb may be an instruction to overlook the religious elements of the conflict in favour of a more materialist analysis. Part of the first stanza reads ‘folly to love acre the same’- if we give acre its subsidiary meaning of ‘land’ then this could point to the fact that the fundamental political difference separating both sides was (is) whether the six counties should become part of the Irish Republic or remain as part of the United Kingdom. This would seem to make sense but taking religion out of the equation overlooks at least some of the fuel that lit and sustained the fire.

‘Broken’ and ‘tenuous’ are words that have a direct bearing on Prynne’s work. Many writers have commented on the fragmented nature of poems where competing discourses collide with each other and I’ve found this one of the most attractive (if that’s the right word) aspects of the work.

I’ve used tenuous to describe my own reading of Prynne and others have stated that readers are only ever likely to get a partial understanding of what’s going on. Some have pointed out that readers should construct their own meanings from the poem, treating each piece as an open text. I don’t hold with this view because I find that there’s enough in even the most obscure poems to glean what Prynne may be about.

‘Tenuous’ could also refer to the actions involved in writing the poem. The disaster that was the Ulster conflict was multi-faceted and does not lend itself easily to analysis. There are territory, religion, civil rights, colonial and military dimensions to consider as well as the fact that the working class of both sides were intent on killing each other in large numbers. So, any analysis will be tenuous at best- is this what Prynne is saying?

We then have a comma- these are often missing from Prynne’s work and they are often used to introduce a new line of thought but on this occasion I’ll try and show that the line continues to make some kind of sense. ‘Each strand as fine torrid / at leave to play’ refers to the poem and the act of reading it. I’m taking the primary meaning of each and strand to indicate that both the elements of the conflict and the various dimensions of the poem are being referred to. ‘Fine’ as a noun can mean the end of something and the verb can mean bringing to and end so this may be an instruction to follow both types of thread to their conclusion.

‘Torrid’ is interesting because, in addition to its normal meaning, the OED states that it can refer to the atmosphere affecting those at risk of religious persecution. It may therefore allude to Ulster Catholics feeling persecuted by the Protestant majority or to loyalists feeling that they are being killed because of their faith. On the other hand it could refer to the position Prynne feels himself to be in as a poet. It is true to say that Prynne has been more vilified by the poetry establishment than any other writer in the last thirty years and that this has often taken the form of puerile personal attacks which could be seen as a form of persecution. Whilst this may or may not be correct, it is interesting to note that Paul Celan (a major predecessor in the difficulty stakes) had a persecution complex too.

‘At / leave to play’ I’m taking as a description of the activity of the reader who is free to construct her own reading of the various strands. I don’t think this is a reference to Prynne because his work suggests that he takes himself far to seriously for that.

I’m going to leave this theme for a while primarily because I want to write about Keston Sutherland’s ‘Stress Position’ and the thorny matter of dialectical consciousness but also because I need a rest before I tackle rush fractures and pelmet crabs……..

Reading Prynne very, very closely

A few weeks ago I penned a slightly tongue-in-cheek guide to reading Prynne, so I thought I give a practical demonstration of the technique. Being ever up for a challenge, I’ve chosen the second poem from “Streak, willing, entourage, artesian” which is Prynne’s latest work and probably one of his most dense. I started this exercise by reading all of the poems in sequence. One of the first things that struck me was that most of this is very abstract with very few ‘obvious’ phrases or sentences to hang on to. The second thing that struck me was the use of certain words- ‘blanket’, ‘hunger’, ‘grand rubble’ which pointed me in the direction of Ulster and what we refer to as ‘the Troubles’ and what Prynne referred to as a civil war.

I must stress that this is a very early and tenuous hypothesis and I have learned that hanging on to first impressions can often lead to a lot of wasted effort. The blanket protest that morphed into the hunger strike (in which ten men died) and the Brighton Bomb (the hotel was called the Grand Hotel) are all I’ve got to go on so I proceeded with this and re-read the first poem which may or may not be about bomb making.

I have a view that successive British governments have, for the last five hundred years, failed to understand Ireland and the Irish and that this is also true of ordinary people. We view the anti-Catholic rhetoric on one side and the fervent republicanism on the other with a mixture of impatience and incomprehension.

The other ‘point’ of this is to test out Kerridge and Reeve’s hypothesis that secondary meanings “accumulate and fill the poem in an unmanageable excess of meaning which reveals the repressed and concealed relations between discourses”.

Set out below is the poem in its entirety-

Approaching passion freak intact prime falter
for segment same-front glide to fill conduce
suffuse give or give. Plenteous flake arm folly                                                                to love acre the same rivet the front broken

Prolusion, stay near ever dry. Few tap transfer                                                   second charge you let off stop surrender for                                                          disarm, oh grant that, leave the grain why ever                                                          less now less green took life by the tongue lit

In low pale extradite. A day this one assign                                                                   yours grow up to main, leaf round and round lie                                                             cost plus crush split stamina. Me such unarm                                                                   same peril fovea pass fire mantle and glib overt

Tie to air close to, to disclaim that for. More                                                                  flute ignite nul wants subsume trill earlier ban                                                                 wrist digit restive to same. Be all best profane                                                                   broken tenuous, each strand as fine torrid at

Leave to play stare to east, ease denied off                                                                     by rush fracture on dismounting the pelmet crab                                                            out over the foreland, the annexe. Moulded                                                                profile accepts on its lateral crystal mistaken

Fragment at level counterparty brushed mend                                                                    up to shock, same till fallen till to breach                                                                       its promise mine for spent at duration, noted                                                                    way ever on transit long for this and similar.

(Many apologies for the crap formatting, there aren’t supposed to be the gaps in lines set out above but WordPress won’t do what it’s told)

The first thing to notice is that it looks like a poem, all the poems in this collection are made up of six quatrains. This one also contains some poetic touches- “oh grant that” and the use of the verb ‘long’ in the last line. The disappointing thing is the absence of handholds which can usually lead me into a way of making sense.  Some phrases are particularly odd- ‘ dismount the pelmet’, ’round lie cost plus crush split stamina’ at first sight defy logic but there is at least one reference which may fall in with the Ulster hypothesis. ‘In low pale extradite’ may refer to the English Pale which is an area of the Irish Republic that includes Dublin.

I seem to recall that in the seventies one of the bones of contention between the UK and Irish governments was the difficulties involved in extraditing republicans from the Republic to stand trial in Belfast.

There’s also ‘grow up to main’ which may (or may not) be a reference to the fact (once explained to me by a friend with greater knowledge of these matters than I) that the Catholic population was growing faster than the Protestant who would be overtaken as the majority in a generation or two. This demographic trend explains why loyalist politicians became much more keen to reach a settlement in the nineties.  I’m very aware that this is fairly tenuous and I may have to rethink at a later stage.

There’s a couple of difficult words that we need to get out of the way, ‘fovea’ is latin and one of its meanings is ‘pitfall’ which would tie in with ‘peril’ that accompanies it. ‘Trill’ as a verb can mean to turn around which would kind of fit with ‘earlier ban’.

The reference to ‘flute ignite’ is more problematic because it could refer to weaponry (pistols, rifles, pipe bombs etc) or it could refer to the musical instrument played on the Orange marches designed to intimidate the Catholic minority. ‘Nul wants subsume trill earlier ban’ could be saying ” don’t give up on your ancient rights and overturn the ban on marching”.  Again this is just guesswork at this stage and may need to be reconsidered later.

That’s probably enough for now, in the next post I’ll have a go at the first and fifth stanzas, both of which strike me as particularly tricky. I’ll leave to others to judge whether the above meets Keston Sutherland’s criteria for reading rather than consuming Prynne, all I will say is I think this is one of Prynne’s most important poems to date.