Tag Archives: kazoo dreamboats

Poetic rupture and innovation.

One of the many challenging things that Michel Foucault said was that progress or innovation proceeds by means of catastrophic rupture rather than gradual change and I’ve been thinking about whether or not this applies to poetry and why some ruptures succeed whilst others fail.

There are two kinds of ruptures:

  • those poems that represent a significant break with the accepted notion of what poetry is;
  • those poems that are a significant move away from the poet’s previous work.

Many would argue that Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ is the most obvious rupture in both senses and the most successful in terms of lasting influence. It is possible to see this poem as significantly and radically different from anything before it but I’ve always been of the muddle-headed view that there is a gradual and reasonably logicial progression from ‘The Love Song of Alfred J Prufrock’ through ‘Gerontion’ to the Ur-text itself. I’m not arguing that ‘The Waste Land’ wasn’t seen at the time as radically different from all that had gone before nor am I saying that it didn’t represent a significant break with the past but I don’t think that it came entirely out of the blue.

This is from ‘Prufrock’:

    My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
    My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin-
    (They will say: 'But how his arms and legs are thin!')
    Do I dare
    Disturb the universe?
    In a minute there is time
    For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

    For I have known them all already, know them all-
    Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
    I have measured out my life with coffee spoons, 
    I know the voices dying with a dying fall
    Beneath the music from a farther room.
       So how should I presume?

There’s a voice within ‘Prufrock’ that is both playfully and intently ambitious, a voice that has a keen interest in how the universe might be disturbed. I think I can also make a case for this early poem with its juxtaposition of the demotic and profound as more modernist than its successor. I’ll also confess to considering everything after ‘Prufrock’ as a bit of a decline.

Eliot had intended to begin ‘The Waste Land’ with ‘Gerontion’ but was dissuaded from doing so by Ezra Pound. I think this might illustrate the point that I am trying to make:

    The goat coughs at night in the field overhead;
    Rocks, moss, stonecrop, iron, merds.
    The woman keeps the kitchen, makes tea,
    Sneezes at evening, poking the peevish gutter.
                                     I an old man,
   
    A dull head among windy spaces.
    Signs are taken for wonders. 'We would see a sign!'
    The word within a word, unable to speak a word,
    Swaddled with darkness. In the juvescence of the year
    Came Christ the tiger.

Given Eliot’s original intentions, it isn’t altogether surprising that many elements of the Waste Land are presaged here, my point is that the rupture isn’t as suddenly as we might think.

By way of contrast, Geoffrey Hill’s ‘The Mercian Hymns’ was a complete break with what had gone before in his work and was completely out of step with the rest of English poetry of the time. The sequence is in prose and ostensibly concerns Offa, king of the Mercians, but does this by mixing the Anglo Saxon past with the 1971 present in a way that is incredibly accomplished and quite mysteriously evocative. Hill hasn’t published anything like it since and it doesn’t seem to have started any kind of trend. I was fourteen and busy reading ‘Crow’ in 1971 and completely missed this piece of brilliance until about 2005 but it still feels like a major break that should have had much greater effect.

The Prynne trajectory is much easier to trace. ‘Brass’ was also published in 1971 and contained this:

                 yet
    the immediate body of wealth is not
    history, body-fluid not dynastic. No
    poetic gabble will survive which fails
    to collide head-on with the unwitty circus
              no history running
                  with the French horn running
                         the alley-way, no
                  manifest emergence
              of valued instinct, no growth
                  of meaning & stated order:

Is a head-on collision with the unwitty circus also a rupture or is the essential thing about rupture that it renounces and/or ignores the circus? Does the recent publication of ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ mark another significant rupture in Prynne’s work?

Geoffrey Hill isn’t after collisions but he also seems to hold his peers at arms-length, I can make a case for ‘The Triumph of Love’ as a sequence that breaks (ruptures) most of the rules and conventions yet still manages to be defiantly wonderful.

What Foucault didn’t mention was the stupidly high proportion of failed ruptures- those breaks with the past that are not followed by others but are nevertheless just as brilliant as those that succeed. Into this camp I’d place ‘Piers Plowman’, ‘Speke Parrot’ ‘Sordello’ and ‘The Anathemata. There are those that would argue that Langland’s reputation is actually secure and the poem continues to attract critical acclaim but my point is that it wasn’t followed through by others in the same way as Chaucer, Hoccleve and Lydgate. John Skelton was probably deeply dislikeable as a man but his work stands apart from what preceded it and ‘Speke Parrot’ would mark a rupture in any decade but hasn’t influenced anybody since. ‘Sordello’ was a critical and popular disaster but it does shine out as the most ambitious and genuinely innovative poem in the Browning oeuvre- Ezra Pound claimed that he was the only person on the planet who fully appreciated it.

I’ve written many times about the criminal neglect of David Jones’ ‘The Anathemata’ but the fact remains that it hasn’t been followed and is currently in danger of being forgotten altogether even though some of us regard it as one of the very best poems of the last hundred years. The reasons for this are many and various but pride of place has been given to difficulty and/or obscurity. I’m more inclined to the view that it presented a major challenge to Eliot-inspired modernism and failed to find an audience because it didn’t ‘fit’.

We know come to the rupturist par excellence- Paul Celan’s later work marks a chasm between our current notions of what poetry can do and Celan’s view of what it must do. Most serious poets now recognise Celan as the greatest 20th century poet but few have been brave enough, with the honourable exception of Edmond Jabes to follow in his wake. It is impossible to overstate the violence of this particular rupture which began to tear its way to the surface in the late fifties and continued to Celan’s death in 1970. Suffice it to say that it’s body of work that rips apart all the usual notions of meaning and addresses language as a matter of survival and thinks of the poem carrying the quite desperate potential for an encounter in this struggle for life.

Both Prynne and Celan work at the extremes of ambiguity and allusion, both are rejected for their elitism and obscurity just as both are criticised for writing unpoetry. I’m still of the view that these are the names, above all others that we’ll remember in 200 years’ time.

J H Prynne, economics and the retail trade in this present crisis.

I think there can be little doubt that the free market ideology of the last thirty five years is having a few problems at the moment with most countries in the West experiencing the deepest and longest recession for over a century. For those of us on the left, the causes are reasonably clear and none of should be surprised at the tales of venality and corruption slowly emerging from the banks. The question is (as ever) what action to take because it is easy to provide the critique and point out the greed and exploitation at the heart of capitalism, it is altogether different to present a viable alternative because state socialism has an even worse reputation and track record.

I’ve remarked before on Prynne’s distaste for the fatuous tropes of the retail trade (‘buy one, get one free’, ‘three for two’ etc) and his use of these to express quite bitter sarcasm. This, together with an Old Left disdain for financiers, has run threadlike through the work since ‘Kitchen Work’ and it might be that things have changed a little with ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’.

I’ll start with a poem from ‘The Oval Window’ which was published in 1983:

What if the outlook is likely to cut short
by an inspired fear in the bond market.
The place itself is a birthday prank:
current past the front,
en premiere ligne
like stone dust on strips of brighter green.
Given to allergic twitching, the frame
compounds for invertible counterpoint
and waits to see. A view is a window
on the real data, not a separate copy
of that data, or a lower surplus in oil
and erratic items such as precious stones
aircraft and the corpses of men tigers
fish and pythons, "all in a confused tangle."
Changes to the real data
are visible through the view; and operations
against the view are converted, through
a kind of unofficial window on Treasury policy,
into operations on the real data.
To this world given over, now safely,
work makes free logic, joined to the afterlife.

I don’t intend to undertake any kind of attentive reading of the above, those wishing for a duller account of ‘The Oval Window’ might start with the Reeve and Kerridge essay on Jacket. I just want to note that this is, in part, concerned with the nuts and bolts of the dismal science, ‘fear in the bond market’ ‘a lower surplus in oil’ ‘the real data’ and ‘Treasury policy’ are all phrases that continue to make up our economic and fiscal discourse. Reeve and Kerridge refer to the ironic tone of this poem but I’m of the view that it’s angry sarcasm and that this is underlined by the last line reference to the genocidal thinking behind the Holocaust. I also need to say that I’m not a great fan of this sequence but this particular poem does seem to represent a reasonably clear ‘position’.

I am however an enormous fan of ‘Unanswering Rational Shore’ (2001) because it exudes technical skill and confidence and because (this is important) it makes me smile a lot. I could go on for a very long time about how this is the kind of stuff that everybody should be engaging with and responding to but, for the moment, I just want to focus on this:

On the track the news radiates like a planet auction,
for the best rates hard to chew. If it seems too good,
sucker, the pap is surely toxic, unless the glad
hand goes your way, soft as velvet. The strokes
of the palm not even touched, a waft of livid air
gives the take its donation, sexual preening overtly
lavish in symmetry; your flicker goes to mine and

locks into warranty, well why not. Over lush fields
a rising sun pitches out its sulky damp shadow, in
reminder of cost levels in the benefit stream. Oh
fight this fight or sleep when others wake, the
maze of a shining path leads on without a break;
count the steps in retrospect, burnt umber places
engrossed forever in dumb-struck dropped reward.

So, here we would appear to have a more grown up and considered economic thesis relating to some quite complex stuff, the ‘glad hand’ of corruption (or patronage systems) as the best way to avoid toxic ‘pap’, the rising sun of the developing nations and their ability to cut cost levels and the impact of consequential unemployment in the West on public finances. I’m reading ‘a shining path’ to those nice agrarian reformers in Peru who also happened to be murderous thugs with a very odd economic programme which, if successful, would have represented several steps backwards. I’ll save ‘fight this fight or sleep’ until later but the whole sequence is full of this kind of elegant / graceful detail.

In the interest of space I was going to skip over ‘Streak~~~Willing~~~Entourage~~~Artesian’ but I think this needs to be singled out from the third poem in the sequence:

Fix out gaze on this, on virtue. Acknowledge
skid forward or same fervid plastic embankment
her link antler, rising and drive. Above his
anthem converge tall preening slips to axial

The economic ‘aspect’ of this only becomes apparent with the knowledge that a subsidiary definition of ‘embankment’ is “A banking speculation; a bank account” which then makes sense of ‘fervid’ and ‘plastic’. There’s also the ‘preening’, sexual display link between this and the poem above.

This sequence is probably Prynne at his most austere and resistant and I’m not entirely clear why a reference to the banking crisis should be placed in a work that is mostly ‘about’ the civil war in Ulster with a particular focus on the Maze hunger strikes but I’ll continue to read it as economic rather than ideological.

‘As Mouth Blindness’ is the first poem in the ‘Sub Songs’ collection and reads as a response to the ongoing fiscal self-flagellation currently being promoted and/or practiced by people who really should know better. The poem starts with:

Right now beyond the brunt yet afforded, gainsay now
for aspect close to residue, you'll see it there. Not full
scanned at damage so far, ridges debased fetch so plainly
or even gradual, nothing not due. Lay a hand over plus
be level be sane two for one. Her voice was ever low, nil
transfusion plot negative to hum under par in the race
to tint and show a true recoil, you are there from the shot,
the star flinched openly.

This uses the ‘two for one’ device to scathe about our current economic dilemma and carries on in a similar vein until this conclusion:

Time in the news to be not silent indoors, mouth in thought
shut up chew it the choice separates its like or is lame for
wounding in what is due would tell you suffused. For both
market done and stunned in face of, great lack breeds lank
less and less, claimant for right. Flatter by great expectancy,
for so resemble by just match, no less than fitting the race
to birthright and natal place, our lingo.

The place-work of
willed repeats gains a familiar tremor in jointure, we say
sustainable our mouth assents slave dental unbroken torrid reason
will commute previous and lie down. None more credible, mirror
make up flat sat batch pinup gruesome genome. Now get out.

This is a similar analysis but with more of a focus on the fact that it is always the poor who suffer most in a recession and there is more than a little obscenity in the deeds of our political leaders to punish those already in poverty for the greedy stupidity of the rich.

The last three words signal a similar level of anger and ‘lack breeds lank’ seems to encapsulate what many of see as the hidden reality of where we are now.

We now come to ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ and what I’m thinking of as the ‘Hot Pie problem’. For weeks I’ve been flummoxed by:

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

Following on from Michael Peverell’s comment last month, I’ve being noticing just how much of ‘Piers Plowman’ there is in ‘KD’ and would like to suggest that this ‘Hot Pies’ is more than just a line from the initial scene of a “fair field of folk” but also an echo of Langlands more extended criticism of retailers and especially those that try to ‘corner’ the market in certain goods-

To punischen vppon pilories and vppon pyning stoles,
As bakers and breweres, bocheres and cokes;
For thyse men don most harm to mene peple,
Rychen throw regratrerye and rentes hem beggeth
With that the poor peple sholde potte in here wombe.

This is the first part of (in the ‘C’ text) of a 40 line digression about the greed and sharp practices of urban traders and retailer and does seem more or less at one with the Prynne perspective. Incidentally, ‘regratery’ is glossed by Pearsall as “buying up goods in the market at advantage (eg by setting up price-rings) and is defined by the OED as ” To buy up (commodities, esp. food) in order to resell at a profit in the same or a neighbouring market” and also notes that various laws were passed in a vain attempt to stamp out this pice of sharp practice.

Of course, price-rings continue to flourish in many areas from personal banking to airline tickets to gas and electricity with governments affecting to be shocked once these arrangements are exposed- it could therefore be that the hot pies refer to a disdain for these kind of practices.

Towards the end of ‘KD’ the call to arms seems to have modified. There are those of us who take the view that capitalism proceeds by means of long waves and that the end of a particular wave need not present a fundamental threat to the system. There is also a view that this particular crisis is so systemically threatening that the time could be ripe for a change.

Towards the end of ‘KD’ there is:

Taunting themselves with foresight badges, now is how to finish 
without fiduciary rank ending induced. Fractional deponent
closeness is not so hard too: when the time travel equals the
period of a sampling frequency, the contribution to the inter-
action is screened down to about half its unretarded strength.
Yet the recursion cannot be close since the stop key is well out
beyond reach, even in transform assignment.

I’m reading ‘the stop key’ as the point when the free market breaks down and the above suggesting that this moment is not going to occur as a response to the fiasco that is currently gathering steam. I’d agree with this and think it significant that Prynne has read this at an Occupy event which may well signal his approval of their quietist and undogmatic approach.

J H Prynne, Mao Zedong, William Langland and the difficult poem

Having spent most of last week polishing the arduity site, I’ve had the opportunity to reconsider the scope of the project, which was initially about encouraging people to tackle work that is usually considered to be difficult. Since then I think I’ve modified my own understanding of the difficult and become a bit less zealous about converting everyone to the joys of this material. In fact, I’m now seeing it as a more detailed and thorough mulling over of stuff that is often ignored because of the ‘D’ tag.

The other lesson learned is that it’s a mistake to worry about definition, to try and compartmentalise the various facets that people might find intimidating / obscure / baffling. It is probably best to try and give examples and to concentrate on how they work or function rather than what they might mean. This is the current premise and has so far resulted in pages on ‘Scenes from Comus’, ‘The Triumph of Love’, and ‘Mercian Hymns’as well as a long page on the first three parts / chapters of David Jones’ ‘In Parenthesis’.

All of this is a way of getting ready to re-write the Celan and Prynne pages, add something on the notes to the Meridian which was published last year and to try and say something useful about ‘Kazoo Daydreams’ without scaring off those new to either poet. I want to use this to illustrate some of the problems that ‘KD’ presents. In amongst the ‘reference cues’ at the back there is an apparently famous speech ‘On Contradiciton’ from 1937 which, Wikipedia tells me, “is considered his most important philosophical essay”. I’ll deal with what Prynne does with this in a moment but ‘Piers Plowman’ (in both ‘B’ and ‘C’ texts’ is also listed and these present a similar kind of difficulty.

I think I need to point out that I’ve never been keen on this Marxian contradiction rigmarole primarily because (it seems to me) that the selection of the contradictory elements needed to achieve a resolution is too arbitrary and has led (oddly) to the reification of dialectical materialism at the expense of other methods of analysis. The part of the speech that Prynne has included exemplifies this particular tendency.

The other part of getting some structure into life is to engage with the late Medieval period and Middle English. I started with Thomas Hoccleve and am now oscillating between him and Langland. I didn’t think there would be too much in Piers Plowman that would need unpicking but then (yesterday) I got to an extended grammatical analogy which is in the ‘C’ text but not in either ‘A’ or ‘B’. This relates to the nature of reward and is part of a fascinating debate reflecting the economic anxieties of the latter half of the fourteenth century and can be considered hard to grasp at a number of different levels.

So far, ‘KD’ has three themes / subjects which are reasonably clear, the first relates to being and un-being, the second to contradiction and the third is a kind of response to the current economic fiasco which continues to destroy lives across the planet.

The thoughts on contradiction take their cue from these extracts from the 1937 essay:

There is internal contradiction in every single thing, hence its motion and development. Contradictoriness within a thing is the fundamental cause of its development, while its interrelations and interactions with other things are secondary causes……It is evident that purely external causes can only give rise to mechanical motion, that is, to changes in scale or quantity, but cannot explain why things differ qualitatively in thousands of ways and why one thing changes into another. As a matter of fact, even mechanical motion under external force occurs through the internal contradictoriness of things. Simple growth in plants and animals, their quantitative development, is likewise chiefly the result of their internal contradictions.

and-

But is it enough to say merely that each of the contradictory aspects is the condition for the other’s existence, that there is identity between them and that consequently they can coexist in a single entity? No, it is not. The matter does not end with their dependence on each other for their existence; what is more important is their transformation into each other. That is to say, in given conditions, each of the contradictory aspects within a thing transforms itself into its opposite, changes its position to that of its opposite.

Prynne follows this with:

I saw these gaps of explanation rolling like wheels contrary within
themselves, alien motions on fire with coriolis demeanour. I saw
the grains self-rotate in their own amazement with noise of spheres
metallic and burnished, along the baseline it is by amount at
principle neither so nor not because contradiction is inherent and
not alternate in sense-ordering. I saw this notion in full fiery
finesse, alive alive-o.

( For the sake of accuracy, I’ve maintained the line breaks as published).

Both of these are blockquoted paragraphs, but there is also:

...............................................'External causes
are the condition of change and internal cause are the basis
of change, and external causes become operative through internal causes'.
Mourning does become the law but not this one, to be is not to
become or at fault with moment practice was what can I say I saw,
darker than ever dark to be'.

The dilemma here has a number of dimensions, the first concerns the Marx – Lenin – Mao lineage and the variations along the way and the second concerns the relationship between the quote and what follows. I’ve just had the dubious pleasure of wading through all of the essay and really wouldn’t want to inflict this on anyone else partially because people may be overwhelmed by the apparent density therein and because I’d be tempted to point out the very high nonsense factor. As the essay is used on three separate occasions however I will have to try and provide some context- including the fact that this made Mao’s reputation as an ideologue/theorist which was instrumental in his rise to power. I’ll resist the temptation to go on about the genocidal Great Leap Forward and his readiness to kill more than 40 million people for the sake of an ideological nicety but this won’t be easy.

I have no problem with identifying the ‘Molly Malone’ lyric and waxing eloquent about Prynne’s interest in the work song, nor with puzzling over the nature of the spheres, nor with speculating about the abiding presence of ‘sense order’ in Prynne’s work.

Given the presence of contradiction throughout ‘KD’, playing down this element and concentrating on the other concerns is nevertheless dishonest so I’ll probably try to present an overview, link to what David Harvey says about contradiction and leave readers to pursue this further if they so wish.

There’s also the sad fact that I’m both deeply partisan and opinionated and what I get from poems may not be a true reflection of what is probably available to others. For example, when Geoffrey Hill uses ‘self’ in any context I have this need to go into ‘selving’ and ‘inscape’ at very great length because that’s what I want to take rather than what might actually be there.

I’ll also indulge myself with extensive quotes from Gillian Rose on Poussin and on her debate with Sister Wendy and point to what Prynne said about Professor Rose at his reading of ‘Refuse Collection’- I may even bring Geoffrey Hill’s memorialisation into things and try and make some kind of point re Rose’s denunciation of all post-structural thought and Jacques Derrida in particular”.

‘KD’ is written mostly in the form of a medieval dream-vision poem with heavy use of the ‘I saw’ trope which is how ‘Piers’ starts. Prior to paying attention to Langland, I wouldn’t have seen the parallels between this and ‘KD’ but I now see that both are in part a response to changing economic circumstances and that neither take the easy option of presenting one ‘side’ or the other but leave readers to do the ‘thought work’ instead. As noted above, the poem does have remarkably obdurate sections but it is also a very real discussion of the anxieties and resentments that pervaded England at the time – for all kinds of reasons. This is how the grammatical analogy in the ‘C’ text of Passus III begins:

        Thus is mede and mercede as two maner
rellacions,
Rect and indirect, reminde bothe
On a sad and a siker sembable to hemsuluen.
Ac adiectif and substantif vnite aske
And accordance in kynde, in case and in nombre,
And ayther is otheres help - of hem cometh retribucuon,
And that is the gyft that god giveth to all lele living,
Grace of good end and gret joye aftur:

The problem here is about just how much context do people want and how much this may be of assistance rather than providing further obfuscation. I think it’s important to try and get this right if only to demonstrate that poetic difficulty isn’t confined to the modernist thread and because it’s a wonderful example of the poem as engaged political commentary. I don’t have problem with clarifying the language and elements of the analogy, nor with presenting an overview of the argument but I do get a bit unstuck with the detail of the economic realities, of ‘bastard feudalism’ and the workings of orthodox ideas about retribution and grace. This is because there needs to be a balance between enabling people feel confident about the poem and swamping them with (partisan and partial) context even though that might be useful.

Poetry and crisis, the case of Better than Language and Kazoo Daydreams

The question here can be briefly formulated: does poetry get better as things get worse?

Others have remarked here that we are especially fortunate to be living through a period in the UK where a great deal of excellent work is being produced both by ‘established; poets and a younger group of rising stars. There may be all kinds of reasons for this but I’m increasingly of the view that the above correlation might be a major factor.

This is prompted by a view I came across this morning that ascribes the flowering of poetic and dramatic endeavour of the 1590s as a response to the many religious upheavals of the previous fifty years. My initial response was to reject this and replace with something about the much improved teaching in grammar schools of the period or the growth in the legal profession or the rise to dominance of the mercantile class or colonial adventuring by grammar school boys on the make. I then paused and tried the ‘crisis’ thesis out on other periods. The flowering of what J A Burrows has described as Ricardian verse occurred after the Black Death of 1348 which decimated the population and emptied large parts of our countryside, the reign of Richard II was (to put it mildly) politically fragile and the practices of the church were being challenged by Wycliffe and the Lollards.

The 1590s pale in comparison with the latter half of the fourteenth century but they were nevertheless difficult times. The church was making reasonably draconian attempts to enforce some kind of orthodoxy, military campaigns were being pursued in the Low Countries and yet another futile war was being fought in Ireland, the monarch was getting older and no-one knew who would succeed her, there was famine in the middle of the decade and the elite were more paranoid than usual about domestic unrest. These were not the easiest of times.

So, the hypothesis gathers a strength that is reinforced by the Romantics who first flowered in the aftermath of the political angst brought about by the French Revolution and who flourished during a period of enormous social and political upheaval.

There is also the argument that Paradise Lost could only have been written after the various traumas of the previous thirty years.

But before I get carried away, it might be as well to consider what I might mean by crisis. The third OED definition is:

A vitally important or decisive stage in the progress of anything; a turning-point; also, a state of affairs in which a decisive change for better or worse is imminent; now applied esp. to times of difficulty, insecurity, and suspense in politics or commerce.

I want to put a slight twist on this and point out that the anxiety-inducing experience of being in a crisis stems from the uncertainty of how things will turn out. Those living through the latter half of the fourteenth century were acutely aware that disease could strike at random and with enormous force and were living through a chaotic ‘re-balancing’ of social and economic forces which are reflected in the vibrant poetry of Langland, Chaucer and others. What I’m trying to get to is that crisis is characterised by societal and individual anxiety stemming from this not knowing.

It seems to me that we are in a period of not knowing which is manifested by the rise of China and India and the consequent decline of the West together with the slowly dawning realisation, especially in the UK that the elite are both corrupt and dismally incompetent. This is matched by the massive changes wrought by the internet which do throw many prior truths into question (privacy, authenticity, ways of doing science etc.). There are also the challenges posed by an aging population and climate change.

I’m going to start with Better than Language, Chris Goode’s magnificent anthology of younger British poets. In his astute introduction Chris writes:

To write a poem is to to want to see something in the world that isn’t yet in it, however direly complicated or conflicted that wanting might be and however ungraspable the author’s sense of the lack of the poem before it’s made. And from its earliest intimations, the poem is asking questions about what will and will not be included in its compass. Which voices will be heard, what life-paths will cross within its system, whose desires can be admitted? To which areas will the reader have access? How tall must you be to ride this attraction? What moments will amount to to the constructed event in which author and audience encounter each other? How much language can this poem bear? And of course all these questions point to another: on what basis, and in the light of what responsibilities, will the poet attempt to answer as she proceeds? Which is partly to ask: What don’t I know yet? What are the known unknowns, those Rumsfeldian phantoms, that negatively shape the composition of a particular poem at a particular time and place? And what do we do with the impossibility of an approach to these questions that takes us even a whit beyond tolerable insufficiency? – Believe me, not every poet now at work is aware these are real and present questions. Here are thirteen who are.

Whilst wholeheartedly agreeing with all of the above, I’d like to argue that this awareness is bound up with and is directly related to this wider sense of crisis fuelled by the many (too many) Rumsfeldian phantoms inm the wider world.

The other point that I’d like to throw into the mix is that Prynne read ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ to a group of Occupy activists and that the Occupy movement does seem to be the most sensible political response (with its refutation of dogma and refusal to promote ‘easy’ solutions) that we currently have. I’d also like to point out Prynne’s use, in ‘Kazoo Daydreams’ of ‘Piers Plowman’, one of the great poems of the Ricardian period and concerned with all aspects of crisis as discussed above and one (in any of the three texts) that doesn’t present solutions.

I’m not suggesting that good poetry now is a direct reflection of these phantoms but what I am considering is that crisis throws things into a state of flux and that there are a number of very talented poets that have used this as a tool and are producing work of tremendous strength and depth with it as opposed to trying to make ‘sense’ of it.

In a recent discussion about readerly anxiety with John Boomberg=Rissman, John made the point that “RA may be the only response that can be made although I’m not sure that we want to make the “unjudgeable space” bearable. I think we want to bear its unbearableness, so to speak. It seems honorable, if I can still use a term like that”. I’m now of the view that these poets are engaged in this ‘bearing’ with more than a little honour.

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.

Readerly anxiety- a dialogue

I first identified readerly anxiety in something I wrote about the Emily Dorman poems on the Claudius App site and since then have been in correspondence with John Bloomberg-Rissman with a view to thinking more generally about this particular response. The following is an edited record of the discussion thus far:
JA I experience RA as as a number of intellectual variations around the status of what’s in front of me and the shifting nature of what I do when my eyes move across the words. I’ll try and give an example of RA other than the Dorman thing- I fret about both John Ashbery and about Paul Muldoon in that I think I know what they might be about and I recognise their abilities but I am completely at sea when it comes to deciding how I might feel about them. I can also read both as ‘just words’ and find myself often just staring bleakly at the text. This is also an itch that I cannot scratch, I continue to buy the books on publication but no longer open them.
Because I’m self-taught I do become more anxious than I should about the nature of a text- part of me still thinks that ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ is either a parody or a hoax and I do sometimes feel that I’m missing the ‘point’. Reading Blanchot has helped with this because I find that I need to approach his later material as a child would without any prior notion of context or background- I’m now trying to apply this to poetry that remains beyond my reach.
J B-R I think everyone is self-taught when it comes to contemporary poetry, really. There are no authority figures who can tell us what to do with Kazoo Dreamboats, at least none I believe know any more about the text in front of them than I do … expect perhaps in the sense they’ve spent a lot more time with his texts than I have – as you’ve obviously done with Hill … but that doesn’t mean they can do my reading, have my experience for me. You write “part of me still thinks that ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ is either a parody or a hoax and I do sometimes feel that I’m missing the ‘point’.” A friend of mine from Nottingham, Alan Baker, told me that Lee Harwood believe that Prynne is entirely a … well, not a fraud, but just uh meaningless air or something. But I can’t believe Harwood, either. I have no reason to “believe” anyone. All I have is who I am and what I know and the text in front of me.
You describe RA as “a number of intellectual variations around the status of what’s in front of me and the shifting nature of what I do when my eyes move across the words”.
I think that describes my own RA as well.
I think there are two “sides” to it. Both are readerly, but one is social and the other is more phenomenological, so to speak. The social side has to do with what you call status. In spite of the “death of the author” I do think authorial intention comes into play (e.g. is this a feminist poem? is this satire?, is this a mashup?, is this to be read as fast as I can or as slowly as I can? etc etc. All of those are authorial or public or community determinations … (for instance, it wasn’t til heard Tom Raworth out loud that I understood how to read him (fast fast fast). The other side is what I’m clumsily calling phenomenological, tho I’m sure there’s a much better word for it. And that’s what am ***I*** doing when I read, that shifting nature thing. Am I looking up words in the dictionary? Am I trying to find a narrative line (narrative used loosely, to mean something like “one words follows another and is tied to it, and the next word is tied to that chain, somehow, etc etc etc, i.e. that the words are syntactically/semantically connected somehow no matter how they first hit me”)? What am I doing with the images? the line breaks? the music?
The anxiety from the social side is easy to understand: am I reading a satire seriously? Am I missing something everyone else in the room so to speak is getting?
The other anxiety is worse, tho. Sometimes I wonder whether I’m reading at all, actually, or whether I’ve turned the poem into some sort of mirror, and am just projecting onto it (what if I’m finding a narrative thread? Am I constructing it out of nothing that’s actually there? What if I’m not finding a narrative thread and there is one?) … the real question is: how do I know whether e.g. narrative [or whatever] is even relevant when I think about this thing in front of me?
This is all a way of saying that when you write, re Prynne, e.g., “I find that I need to approach his later material as a child would” there’s a little voice w/in my saying, even if that brings me to a more satisfying experience, can I call that experience **reading*** – or must I call it something else?
I don’t think Kazoo Dreamboats is a hoax, by the way. I think it was an odd sort of poem to perform at Occupy, surely; I don’t now what people thought, because it’s sure not obvious what he’s “saying”. But when I got my copy I sat down and read the first half-dozen pages without stopping. Did I get it? Depends what “it” is (which is where the anxiety comes in). But I enjoyed the hell out of it, and couldn’t stop marveling at the way each sentence of bit started one place, and ended someplace else, and took me on a journey which was delightful.
I’m reading a book about Sherrie Levine right now and came across a bit I want to quote. But first a little background. Clement Greenberg and then Michael Fried attempted to define modernism as a “space” in which each art was true to its own inner necessities; it was a failure of some kind when one art made use of a technique or an aspect of another art. Fried called this impurity “theatricality” and saw it as a real negative. (I’m simplifying to the point that I’m losing all the subtlety and interest of their arguments, so I’ll quote Fried a little to be fairer: “the concepts of quality and value – and to the extent that these are central to art, the concept of art itself – are meaningful, or wholly meaningful, only within the individual arts. What lies between the arts is theatre” …). In any case, a bit later Rosalind Krauss wrote a piece called “Sculpture in the Expanded Field”. The author of the book I’m reading (Howard Singerman) suggests, “Her ‘expanded field’ maps out and articulates that frighteningly unjudgeable space **between** the arts – and perhaps between art and criticism – that Fried dismissed as theater.”
When I read “that frighteningly unjudgeable space” I immediately thought of RA and began to wonder – maybe RA is the only truly appropriate response to art now. Maybe a Greenberg/Fried kind of purity that will enable us to categorize/assimilate/”get comfortable with” the kind of poetry we’re discussing is over. Maybe that was modernism. Maybe we’re somewhere else now. Maybe the problem with trying, e.g. to classify Kazoo Dreamboats is the attempt to read it as a modernist poem. Maybe it, and Ashbery, and Muldoon, and Hill, and Anne Boyer (nice post, by the way) etc etc etc are all working in “that frighteningly unjudgeable space” and we simply have to live with anxiety of not KNOWING – which is different than not reading, of course. As Thomas Pynchon wrote at the beginning of Gravity’s Rainbow: “It’s all theatre” … [tho not quite in Fried’s sense of the between or bastardized, except to note that we are “always already” between …]
JA I think there is a case for thinking that we are somewhere else now and one of the things that might concern me is that RA might be not the appropriate response but the only response of any kind that can be made. I’m also coming to the view that this might be more about what’s happening to the act of reading than about the material and much more about the ‘figure’ of the reader in the wider scheme of things.
A further thought is that elements of RA have been addressed by poets down the ages. I’ve just spent the afternoon in the 16th century and this got me to thinking about EK’s commentary or gloss on the Shepherd’s Calendar whereby Spenser placates anxiety by providing some context and also manages to draw attention to his many gifts. David Jones’ notes to ‘The Anathemata’ are extremely detailed as if to compensate for the complexity and obscurity of the text.
One of the things that it beginning to help is to try and widen the frame to think about the ‘work’ in a wider and perhaps less cultural context as in (for example) the place of reading poetry in the national psyche or the relationship between the teaching of expression (and the ways in which this is funded and marketed), the production of expression and its consumption more in the style of Bruno Latour than Derrida or Fish.
The final thought for this evening is the nature of the value of RA and whether it can be the itch that can be productively scratched. I like to think that my recent experience has kick-started a process of different modes of reading (as a child, as a writer, as a mentor etc etc) which might just make the ‘unjudgeable space’ a bit more bearable.
J B-R Maybe we readers are catching up with the kind of dark ecology / black metal nihilism that the speculative realist philosophers like Ray Brassier, Quentin Meillassoux, Nicola Masciandaro, Reza Negerastani etc have been working with the last few years. I mean, if “god is dead” then all values have to be created – by us … something like that. [And we’re too hip to believe ourselfes, our self-created values] Question: where did you find Readerly Anxiety in Blanchot? I’d like to read that.
Some material makes us more anxious than other material. I think we do still have culture that appears to cohere (even if it’s only running on fumes and momentum ..) so a kind of writing that “looks normal” allows us to play readerly games we already know how to play … of course keeping our anxiety tamped down some.
I agree with you that RA may be the only response that can be made although I’m not sure that we want to make the “unjudgeable space” bearable. I think we want to bear its unbearableness, so to speak. It seems honorable, if I can still use a term like that.
JA I’m really struck by your notion of honourably bearing the unbearable- this resonates with me on quite a deep level because I think I feel the need for a way to be within RA rather than to try and struggle outside it.
The other thing that strikes me is that Prynne might be right and it is the reader’s view/response that matters then RA becomes a creative force for change, even if that entails more than a degree of Brassier’s blend of activism- which could be what’s required in the poetic networks in which we ‘operate’.
I don’t want to get hung up on the Latour/Derrida thing because I think they both point in the right direction, I just feel that I can do more with Latour. Hardcore Blanchot is to be found in the utterly brilliant ‘Writing the Disaster’ which (for me) sets out some of this territory.
J B-R I too think we need to be within RA rather than to struggle to get outside it. As far as I can tell, there is only one type of person today that has no RA, so to speak, and those are the types who have an absolute book [whether scripture or capital or race or nationality or …] to do their thinking for them, to ground their being – a grand récit; the rest of us aren’t so lucky (or unlucky, rather) (no, or lucky).
I think that to be within RA is to be within a state of negative capability. But not quite Keats’. I’m sure you recall his slightly sexist definition: when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without an irritable reaching after fact and reason. I only repeat it here to emphasize the “without any irritable reaching” bit. I think that’s what problematic …
I’ll take myself as example. Last nite I picked up the Blanchot and found myself “irritably reaching” – I, like the translator, wanted to pin ‘the disaster’ to B’s “The Death Sentence” – which would, of course, remove my irritable reaching, as I’d then know what the “disaster” is. Which would, of course, also destroy the power of the text, which demands RA, utterly (in the most utterly utterly meaning of utterly) demands it, is nothing without it.
I think that irritable reaching is a difficulty we don’t want to transcend.
I’ll get back to the Prynne notion of reading in a second, but I want to note that I believe that RA and negative capability (with irritable reaching – reaching without grasping) and Derrida’s différance all point us in the same direction.
Re: Prynne: yes, I think that “the reader’s view/response … matters”, but that’s only part of the story. After all, all responses are not equal.* There is a text that we must face (honorably). Which would mean, I think that we can’t privilege our role in the process as a palliative for our RA.
*What I mean is e.g. a reading of the disaster text that simply substituted “death sentence” for “disaster” would be a less honorable (worse) reading that one in which I “stay irritable” if need be in order to remain in RA.
It suddenly occurs to me that Socrates thought his wisdom was based in his knowledge that he knew nothing. But he always seemed a little too proud of the fact, a little too smug, for me. It’s as if he treated that knowledge the way the folks above treat their base text. We don’t even have that “knowing we know nothing” to fall back upon.
You write: “RA becomes a creative force for change, even if that entails more than a degree of Brassier’s blend of activism- which could be what’s required in the poetic networks in which we ‘operate’.” I’m very interested in this notion. I’d like you to elaborate on it. What kind of change are we talking about? How is RA instrumental?
Which is another way of asking: if poetry (writing it or reading it) changes anything, what does it change and how does it do it? I think that’s a question that [almost] torments me …


(There is more of this discussion but I’m going to leave it there for now to see if it strikes a chord with others. I hope the above makes clear that both John and I experience RA as something real and almost tangible and that the response would seem to be the development / deployment of ‘honourable’ reading.)

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.

Geoffrey Hill, J H Prynne and Gillian Rose

Plough Match 2012 Julian Winslow

In an effort to counter the liking-Prynne-means-that-you-can’t-like-Hill (and vice versa) syndrome I make sporadic attempts to identify similarities/affinities between the two. So far the primary one is admiration for the work of Paul Celan. I’ve recently come across another mutual affinity in Gillian Rose. Hill’s poem, ‘In Memoriam Gillian Rose’ was published in ‘A Treatise of Civil Power’ in 2007 and Prynne speaks about his friendship with Rose in his introduction to the reading of ‘Refuse Collection’ which is on the Archive of the Now. ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’, the latest and strangest Prynne offering contains a reference to Rose’s ‘Mourning Becomes the Law’ which is described as the philosophical version of her ‘Love’s Work’.

For those who don’t know, Rose was one of our brightest academics until her early death from cancer at the age of 48 in 1995. Up until the end of her life she wrote with enormous clarity and a fierce commitment to the ethical strengths of the European tradition which she saw as being undermined by the post structural and the post modern. ‘Love’s Work’ is a kind of autobiography which includes an account of her intellectual development and a brutally factual description of her battle with cancer. It is beautifully written and incredibly moving. I can say this because I was moved and this doesn’t occur very often.

Rose was also the finest writer of polemic that I have come across. Her demolition of Derrida’s ‘Of Spririt’ is a delightful example of how these things should be done- and I speak as one who is sympathetic to Derrida. I readily concede that ‘Of Spirit’ is probably his weakest work and that it’s a relatively (pun intended) easy target but the level of destruction wreaked is extreme, no prisoners are taken and it is a pleasure to watch an expert at work. She’s even better than Alistair Fowler in full flight. Incidentally, something very similar to the Rose position can be found occasionally in the poetry of Keston Sutherland and Simon Jarvis but neither come close to Rose’s verbal ferocity and wit.

Hill’s poem is remarkable because it is clearly heartfelt and that it probaly reveals more about the poet than it does about Rose. The poem recognises that Rose would have responded negatively to his wooing and “wiped me / in the championship finals of dislike” which is very, very likely but he also has this:

5
Your anger against me might have been wrath
concerning the just city. Or poetry's
assumption of rule. Or its role
as wicked governor. This abdication
of self-censure indeed hauls it
within your long range of contempt

6
unlike metaphysics which you had time for,
rewedded to the city, a salutation
to Pallas, goddess of all polemics
to Phocion's wife - who shall be nameless -
in Poussin's painting, gathering the disgraced
ashes of her husband. As you rightly said,
not some mere infinite love, a finite act
of political justice.
Not many would see that.

This might just be my perspective but isn’t the last phrase massively patronising? Isn’t it likely that Rose would have taken greater exception to being patronised by Geoffrey Hill than being wooed by him? The Poussin reference is an allusion to the first chapter of ‘Mourning Becomes the Law where Rose makes a case for the action of the wife’s servant in anxiously watching over her mistress as signalling an act of justice.

Moving on to Prynne, I have remarked before that we are assisted by the inclusion of a list of “reference cues” at the end of the poem yet neither John Skelton (two references to ‘Speke, Parrot) nor Rose are included. ‘Mourning Becomes the Law’ is referred to with unusual clarity:

.......................................Look out for dread it's your
letter speciality, bunk of delirium day-trading. 'External causes
are the condition of change and internal causes are the basis of
change, and external causes become operative through internal causes'.
Mourning does become the law but not this one, to be is not to
become or at fault with moment practice was what can I say I saw,
darker than ever dark to be.

This may or may not be helpful but the quote is from Mao Zedong’s ‘On Contradiction’ essay from 1937 which is one of the listed reference cues. The ‘I saw’ motif that runs through the poem is likely to be an allusion to Middle English dream poems.

I do not want to get bogged down in the finer points of Marxist debate but would like to note that “not this one” refers to the quote which is part of a much broader thesis. It’s also useful to note how Rose explained her title:

Post-modernism in its renunciation of reason, power, and truth identifies itself as a process of endless mourning, lamenting the loss of securities which, on its own argument, were none such. Yet this everlasting melancholia accurately monitors the refusal to let go, which I express in the phrase describing post-modernism as ‘despairing rationalism without reason’. One recent ironic aphorism for this static condition between desire for presence and acceptance of absence occurs in an interview by Derrida: ‘I mourn therefore I am’. by contrast Mourning Becomes the Law affirms that the reassessment of reason, gradually rediscovering its own movable boundaries as it explores the boundaries of the soul, the city and the sacred can complete its mourning. Completed mourning envisages the creative involvement of action in the configurations of power and law: it does not find itself unequivocally in a closed circuit which exclusively confers logic and power. In the title, Mourning Becomes the Law, ‘Become entertains the gradual process involved, and the connotation of ‘suiting’ or ‘enhancing’ in the overcoming of mourning.

All of this seems eminently sensible and the correct response to the post-modern absence of substance and there is no doubting Rose’s sincerity in making her case. As with all of these arguments however I still get the impression that there’s too much protesting going on coupled with a failure to set forward a credible agenda. It’s also telling that the focus of most of this opprobrium is on Derrida whose long term influence may not be as great as either Foucault or Deleuze.

I’ve said in the past that I’m not convinced that philosophy is a fit and proper subject for poetry. I’ve since modified that position and am now of the view that only those poems that are exclusively philosophical are bad poems. For example, the Mutability Cantos at the end of ‘The Faerie Queene’ would be bad if they weren’t viewed as part of that magnificent epic. Hill’s poem is a poem about a philosopher rather than a philosophical poem and is therefore excluded. ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ contains a wide range of elements, some of which relate to philosophy and one of the main themes (non-being) is more than a little philosophical but I’ll continue to give it the benefit of the doubt.

So, another similarity even though Hill may also have been motivated by Rose’s ‘deathbed conversion’ to Christianity, both will have recognised a formidable talent regardless of ideological stance.

Incidentally, Simon Jarvis also acknowledges her support in his book on Adorno.

Kazoo Dreamboats- why bother?

I like to think that I’m pretty good at not bothering with some poems/poets, I like to think that I recognise quite early on when it’s time to walk away (Rilke, Baudelaire, Wordsworth, Samson Agonistes, Paterson and many more) but I’ve been dithering with the above for a couple of weeks. Of course, ‘bothering’ with anything by Prynne requires a degree of commitment both in terms of time and applied concentration- I’ve been bothering with ‘Streak~~~Willing’ and ‘To Pollen’ for over two years and still have some way to go. I’m not of the view that anything by Prynne must be good – I’ve decided that I don’t like and can’t be bothered with ‘Sub Songs’ but ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ (KD) is presenting additional problems because it is a significant departure from what’s gone before.

I set out below what I see are the two sides of this particular dither.

Reasons for not bothering.

  • it’s by J H Prynne who has a reputation for both elitism and obscurity and who may be a charlatan;
  • at the back are twenty two ‘reference cues’ which consist of a wide array of texts ranging from Ancient Greek Philosophy to the finer points of quantum mechanics, this should be enough to deter most right-minded people;
  • the first fourteen pages seem to descend into increasing levels of incoherence, on page 14 there is ‘they did to have not break’, ‘is so joint to yet not did’ and ‘don’t flew foregone alterior nail up’
  • KD is 22 pages long and is written in prose paragraphs, this is a lot of material to keep in the head at once;
  • the first half of KD does contain at least one coherent phrase- “you get triple points if you guess the connection” which might be an echo of ‘To Pollen’s’ “or does that tell you enough, resilient brotherhood”- if this is the case then members of said brotherhood might be offended;
  • there seems to be a higher than usual emphasis on scientific theory which will take many hours to decode
  • the references are not limited to the cues and some of these are reasonably obscure and not identified as references, Gillian Rose, John Skelton, Mandy Rice Davies, and T S Eliot are alluded to and there may well be many others;
  • there may be a problem with pretentiousness, ‘Empty truth s a medicine without a sickness, no time like the present tense of absolute ionic discharge’ is one of several sentences that might be trying too hard to say not very much;
  • Some of the sentences are incredibly complex and require huge amounts of concentration with little reward.

Reasons to bother

The first and most obvious point to be made is that this is a significant departure made by our most important poet. The second point is that it isn’t too difficult to ‘reach’, the subtitle is ‘On What There Is’ and much of it appears to be a working through of existing and not existing. There are a number of repeated words and motifs running through the text together with the expected polemic against the financial elite.

It is true that there’s a lot to get immersed in and that some bits might be quite annoying. In terms of complexity, this gives a flavour and is also one of the clearest parts of KD:

Yet for not tell is possible as cannot be in a world by zero
frequency across bounded separation its fringe charge return con-
tour, biplane rotation never breviate over its own pitch, or
'there is no place void of being, for the void id nothing; but
that which is nothing could not exist; so then being is not moved;
it is impossible for it to go anywhere, if there is no void.' And
by the line of correction if the void is nothing, is nothing what
by self-likeness the void is and so by necessity to have this field;
of being; and is it full or empty or changing through time and if
hardly can be spoken of this as what also is, must that also set
limit to thought itself and is the limit finite or would be. If
the void does not exist it must be full of non-existence, out to
the brim which must exist in its location since not all is void,
thus it is the void is not nameless but at its natural frequency
else generic within limitless non-existence it could not be named,
into its proper non-being. The song of birds that do not sing,
because there are none where else would they sing, not from distance
nor migrancy, the not-song is from not-being and not merely not
there nor not-possible not silentness failing rapt upon attentive
deaf ears.

The paragraph then proceeds with a scientific quote about electromagnetic fields and ‘vacuum devoid of matter’. The quote included above is from Melissos of Samos whose ‘On Nature’ is listed in the reference cues. I’m sure that most will agree that this is remarkably clear and direct when placed against the rest of Prynne’s recent work. It’s also very clear when compared with the rest of KD. There is a debate to be had as to whether ‘straight’ philosophy can be done by means of poetry and I remain to be convinced. I think poetry can be philosophical or have a philosophical aspect or dimension but I have yet to encounter a successful poem that is exclusively focused on a philosophical issue or thesis.

I readily acknowledge that Oslon’s ‘Maximus Poems’ has Whitehead’s ‘Process and Reality’ at its core but the argument is never forced and is only occasionally directly addressed. Prynne seems to be aware of the dangers inherent inherent in the philosophical poem by his use of the very poetic birdsong as example. The move from the 5th century BC to the present on the same theme is indicative of this intriguing philosophy/science mix throughout. The most recent philosopher in the reference cues is Boethius from 6th century Rome although Hegel’s negation of the negation gets a mention in the text.

Of course, most of the rest is incredibly dense and resistant to most modes of reading – “My sunshine parlance would be donative adoring laterally, raise spirits in water egg cancelled, the tense ever deceptive never topaz febrile shift.” This doesn’t need to be off-putting, it is more amenable (pliable?) than some of the more austere recent work and the use of quotes does at least give some direction to work around. It would appear that Prynne is using the quotes to develop and amplify his own train of thought and the voyeur in me always enjoys watching someone else think.

Other reasons to bother would include: the oddness of the enterprise; the fact that nobody else is doing this in this way; to reject the meaningless charges of elitism and pretentiousness and to celebrate what seems to be a new variation on the collision with the unwitty circus….

J H Prynne from the front, a reader’s report

alan thomas, lake & wells #2 2006

The Archive of the Now has a recording of Prynne reading ‘Refuse Collection’ with an introduction in which some Important Points are made. For the Prynne completists, the excellent Prynne bibliography states that this was recorded in December 2006 at the University of Sussex. The Important Points seem at first to be at variance with equally Important Points elsewhere and this was going to an incisive analysis of these inconsistencies. On a second and third listening however these turn out to be less obvious. What does seem to be important is the notion of authority with regard to the poem and the importance/centrality of what the reader makes of the material. He also says that he doesn’t believe in poets or poetry but that he does believe in poems.

He makes the reasonably obvious point that authorship does not entail authority over a piece of work and that poets will usually talk about how a poem is put together rather than the thing itself- they are speaking from the back of the poem whereas readers speak from the front and it is this speaking that counts.

I have a few issues with this, looking at and thinking about how a particular poem came to be done can enhance and inform a reading from the front and can also be deeply disenchanting. I’ll try and give a couple of readerly examples- initially I was very, very impressed by the ambition and verve of ‘Stress Position’ by Keston Sutherland. One of the many reasons for this was the inclusion of Black Beauty, the fictional horse, in the ‘plot’ and for this not to seem strange. Another piece of brilliance is the lyrical description of male rape by a group of soldiers. I now know where both of these came from because I’ve discussed them with Keston. Neither of these insights help with my understanding of the poem but they do provide context and this context might be another part of the picture of how poems ‘fit’ (or not) into our respective lives and worlds.

I’m not sure that this is to disagree with Prynne’s stance but I feel that he might be missing out on the provision of context. This can have unforeseen consequences, my intense admiration for ‘The Four Quartets’ was destroyed by reading about the process of composition and looking at the drafts. On the other hand Celan’s notes for the Meridian address have challenged and enhanced the ways that I think about poetry at a very deep level.

I can’t claim that what follows is a pristine and pure view of the poems from the front because I have read a lot of Prynne’s prose on the doing of poetry and his analyses of the work of others but what I can do is provide an honest account of what ‘Streak~~Willing~~Entourage~~Artesian’ and ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ look like from this particular ‘front’.

Introduction.

Readings from the front don’t occur by themselves and this is especially the case with complex poetry so this needs to begin with a brief account of what led me to pay attention to Prynne. I bought the first Collected because Peter Ackroyd and Ian Sinclair came on to Radio 4 to say how good Prynne was. Like many others I made a real effort with some of the poems and then gave up. About five years later I started to pay attention to Geoffrey Hill and found to my surprise that I enjoyed the process. At this point ego kicked in and I felt that if I could get to grips with Hill then I could engage with Prynne. The first problem in this encounter is the charge of charlatanry and whether or not this stuff is a gigantic lifelong hoax. This suspicion has been largely overcome but traces can still come to the surface (see below).

Once I was ‘over’ the charlatan hurdle it became clear that this material demands (as with Celan) years of attention and that this could become quite obsessive because it never feels complete. I know that this can be applied to most serious work but I feel that these two are particularly demanding and rewarding over the very long term in a way that other poets aren’t.

The other facet that became apparent was/is the paucity of helpful material to assist with engagement. in fact I have used these pages to rant and despair at some of the excluding and elitist stuff that the academy insists on churning out about Prynne. I now accept that there are notable exceptions but at the time I felt (ego again) that I could try my hand at writing usefully about this material. Over the last three years I’ve found that I really enjoy writing about poetry, I find that I love finding different ways to say different things about this stuff and my ongoing engagement with Prynne (and others) increases my confidence in the validity/integrity of what I think.

Streak~~~Willing~~~Entourage~~~Artesian

I recall the day that this arrived (along with ‘Stress Position’ and ‘The Unconditional’) in the post from Barque Press. The cover looks and feels cheap and is green. Each page contains six quatrains and appears to be a poem in its right. The subject matter at least in part relates to the recent civil war in Ulster and to the hunger strike in particular but there are also many other things referred to. Each poem looks like a series of statements that don’t make any kind of sense as if a relentless disordering is taking place. If I am allowed a look from the side then I would observe that ‘Streak’ is more austere than the rest of Prynne’s work in terms of the relative shortage of reader-friendly footholds but that this should not imply an equivalent level of difficulty- I find ‘The Oval Window’ and ‘Triodes’ much more baffling.

I have an interest in the debate about the nature of the Tudor presence in Ireland and whether or not this can be said to be imperial, I also have some residual guilt for not being involved in the politics of the ‘Troubles’ as they were occurring. This focus (if that’s what it is) is much more challenging and absorbing for me than stating the obvious about fiascos in Iraq and Afghanistan especially when the horrors of Ulster are being airbrushed out of our collective memories in a very deliberate way.

One of my more obvious problems is that I don’t apply enough rigour when thinking about readerly authority but this does have a number of advantages in that the only status that I can claim is that I have read something which has prodded me into trying to write something honest and heartfelt about it. So, I don’t think that this particular reader has anything definitive or significant to say, the hope is rather that others will be encouraged to read the same work and that some will want to write about their experience of it but this still isn’t about authority but simply taking the poem into the world. I think I also need to say that I’m never entirely clear whether I believe in belief so I can’t relate to or properly agree with belief in the poem.

The first thing to be said about ‘Streak~~~Willing’ is that there is a marked contrast between the sparse format/language use and the complex cavalcade of things that might be being said. These only slowly become apparent and really do require the reader to think/listen in different ways at once. Cutting across (through) the sequence there are necks, sames and hungers, key parts of each poem are made ambiguous and there are some parts that are surreal in their excess of bafflement (‘steep-side / per macro run by dozen oh warship guage silent / elated regimen’). There are also moments when things are said that carry enormous precision and make other ways of saying these things appear useless.

Because of the verbal austerity then a front only reading involves thinking about other meanings and possible homophones, it also involves thinking about the relationships that are set up within the sequence rather than with individual poems and this involves getting a reasonable overview of all 12 poems. This isn’t easy as there doesn’t seem to be an order of events or a sequence of ideas so my current approach is to try and sketch in elements as they become apparent. It is this activity that I know will keep me busy for several years to come.

Kazoo Dreamboats

I think that most of us are still in readerly shock over this, there is a picture on the front of a wooden or cane car which was drawn in Angola in 1936. There is a list of ‘reference cues’, extracts from these works are placed directly into the text which appears to be in prose.

The view from the front indicates that some of this may be more readily accessible and some of it appears to be quite witty. Their are a wide range of explicitly stated poetic tropes, conceits and devices and obvious references to not so obvious things. At this early stage of our acquaintance/encounter, I’m not having problems working out what is being said but much more in figuring out the cognitive sense or thrust of the message(s). The use of many sources and the absence of apparent connection between most of them is beginning to engage my small brain and I’ve even felt the need to make a start on ‘The Consolations of Philosophy’ which is a good thing although I don’t think I’ve got the stomach for Mao in 1937 on contradiction.

The view from the front also states that, once the initial shock has been overcome, paying attention requires less of a cognitive shift than ‘Streak’ even if it does appear to collide head-on with 40+ years of material which was itself designed to collide with what most of us think of as poetry….

Conclusion

I can provide a readerly from the front account of most poems because most poems don’t challenge me. The material that is challenging benefits from context, it helps me as a reader to know Geoffrey Hill’s view of Pound and Yeats, to be aware of what Celan might have meant by ‘encounter’ just as it is useful to know that Prynne doesn’t attach enormous significance to meaning. The other thing that I need to note is that none of us are innocent readers and I am less innocent than most because I read with a view to writing about what I come across and, as an occasional doer of poetry, to see if there are any ideas or conceits that I can usefully steal.