Tag Archives: poetry

This blogging about poetry mularkey

I don’t understand the blog in that I haven’t worked out where it fits in the scheme of things and what it might do that’s different from a web site or a Facebook entry (or whatever they might be called). I’m also completely mystified by tumblr but I suspect that it might be this week’s future. In the interests of trying to keep up, I did ask someone about tumblr this morning but he wouldn’t tell me.

Prior to starting this blog I didn’t know that I could write about poetry. I knew that I could write and has a reasonably long list of subjects that I could write about but my thinking on the poetic seemed too wound up with and complicated by my own attempts at poetry making for anything remotely useful to emerge.

I still don’t think I can write about poetry at anywhere near the level that I’d like to (somewhere between Alastair Fowler and Helen Cooper) but the miracle that has occurred is that I can write stuff that other people take an interest in and feel sufficiently involved to make a response. The other miracle is that these responses are without exception both intelligent and (this is important) well-mannered. Some of these are so well thought out and expressed that I need to think long and hard about a suitable / appropriate response.

The other thing is that I read very few blogs and the majority of these aren’t about poetry. I look at Mark Woods, Mrs Deane and Rio Wang every day, I look at Dylan Trigg and Language Hat every other day and a number of photography and design mags every week but the attention I pay to poetry blogs is sporadic. I once had the Jacket site open whenever I was on-line but these days that honour has passed to the Claudius App and TEAMS Middle English index pages because they manage to hold my interest and Jacket2 doesn’t.

So, this is a digressive way of saying that what follows is highly speculative and probably badly worked out. The first of these relates to the difference between my web site, arduity, and these pages. I was going to say that I put more of myself into this and try to be more objective with arduity but that isn’t really what’s going on. The main difference is that I’ve got a plan for arduity and I don’t for bebrowed. They’re both ‘about’ difficult or complex poetry and they’re both intended to be useful but arduity is written with more focus on encouraging confidence to tackle this stuff whereas bebrowed follows the wavering fancies that occupy my head.

I’m now going to try and get technical. If we think of all things poetic as a relatively autonomous ‘information order’ as described by Sir Christopher Bayly then, right now, a lot of things / processes / events are taking place. The first and most obvious of these is the effect of the one to many gizmo which means that a poem can be circulated / displayed, responded to and that response can be responded to within a very short space of time. The other process that is taking place is that of circulation prior to whatever publication might mean. I and others have drafts and have commented publicly on these drafts many months in advance of publication, I have also written with puppy dog enthusiasm about at least one poem that has been circulated but probably won’t ever be published. There are parallels here with poetic practice before and after the printing press, both Donne and Marvell only had manuscripts in circulation during their lives, all their work (with a couple of minor exceptions) was published after their death

The second is the exponential growth in self indulgence. The web is now cluttered with poetry that has never been subject to the editorial glare. Last year I posted something that consisted entirely of Gillian Welch set lists in chronological order as well as the versification of the labels used on maps of Sector 5 for the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday. Neither of these would have ever been ‘published’ in the world of print and constitute an act of the worst kind of self-expression. The sad fact is that I don’t care, they’re on the blog primarily because I like them and feel they need to exist outside of my head. In mitigation I would say that I don’t do it very often and only when I feel that there is some kind of imperative.

Anyway, it now transpires that I have a readership and I try not to think about this because that might inhibit or modify what I want to say which is usually a blow-by-blow attempt to work out some kind of conclusion and / or structure. The blog also allows me to fly a number of intensely speculative kites safe in the knowledge that on or two readers will bring me back to ground- poetry as performance on the page being the most recent example.

I like to think that the well mannered responses are in part due to my decision to only write about poetry that I like and to try and pretend that the rest doesn’t exist. There are exceptions to this (Jarvis’ ‘Dinner’, Prynne’s ‘Sub Songs’) but they prove the rule. This isn’t formulated froma moral stance, it’s simply that I don’t find it very interesting demolishing poems even when they thoroughly deserve to be so treated. I have set myself this challenge of writing enthusiastically about material that I feel deserves to be better known and appreciated and I don’t have any problem at all with the fact that I am occasionally in a very small minority. I know from bitter personal experience of bulletin boards and blogs in another sphere that things can rapidly become needlessly conflictual and I’m very pleased that this hasn’t occurred here.

There’s also this feeling that something really important is happening to this particular information order but we only catch glimpses of what this might be, I keep trying to list the things that blogging has made me think about and discover, I try to examine my traffic stats as if these might give me more of a clue but most of the time this is just a collection of instinctive stabs in the dark unless I get prodded into elaborating on the technical prowess on display in ‘The Anathemata’ which means that I have an excuse to read it again…

A final point, this tries hard not to be either lit crit or the reviewing of books, what it does attempt is an honest statement of the fruits of readerly attention and I am very pleased that others find bits of it to be useful- in the sense that Richard Rorty intended.

Poetry and the revolution

There’s a Godard movie (probably ‘British Noise’) where one character asks the other if intellectuals can also be revolutionaries. The question that I’d like to ask is whether poets can be revolutionaries and intellectuals. Some months ago on this blog I made a glib and entirely gratuitous remark about poems not being very effective at changing things, I’ve now had some cause to re-think this observation.
Let’s start with some definitions: the intellectual usually works in the academy and thinks about theory and is comfortable with theory; the revolutionary is convinced that the world must change and will do whatever he or she can to effect that change; the poet writes poems.
I think most of us would agree that these are not good times for political revolutionaries, the ‘old’ revolutionary movements in Europe have been decimated in the last thirty years by the effects of the current long wave of capitalist development, the success of the state’s infiltration of subversive groups and the eternal revolutionary habit of self-destruction by factionalism.
Things are equally bad for contemporary poets who aren’t read except by other contemporary poets (and those who aspire to write contemporary poetry) and academics who gain professional status by writing about them. The revolutionary potential for poetry is further compounded by Bourdieu’s analysis of how creative expression functions in society today. Poetry also suffers from factionalism and what some would see as wilful obscurity.
Intellectuals, on the other hand, are thriving. Anxiety about poor standards of education in the West has led to the state throwing huge amounts of money at higher education which has led to the proliferation of theorising and endless pontification. Most ‘serious’ poets work in the academy, mostly because they can’t earn a living from book sales.
I’m not a revolutionary, most revolutionaries that I’ve met (and conspired with) are so driven by the absolute need for change that ‘the revolution’ becomes the only objective without too much consideration given to what may ensue from that event. I’m more attracted to the radical position which acknowledges that things do need to change but is deeply sceptical about iconoclasm for its own sake.
I do read poetry and (occasionally) I try to make poems but I’m not entirely sure that the current poetry game is a game that I want to play because the framework in which it operates is fundamentally flawed. However, I do keep getting drawn back to it because of its strength and power to challenge the way that I think and use words.
As one of the self-taught, I reserve the right to be sceptical about intellectuals and especially the role of intellectuals in a state sponsored academy. There’s a nagging suspicion in the back of my head that ‘important’ thinkers achieve their importance because they merely appear to pose a threat to the status quo.
So, is poetry a useful tool in the struggle? I think poetry can be quite good and effective at revolting against itself (The Waste Land, The Cantos, Atemwende, Brass etc.) but that it takes far too long to have an effect on the world psyche. It can be argued that the poetry of Wordsworth has now reached public consciousness ( a belated interest in the power and importance of the natural world) but two hundred years is simply far too long.
Poets can be revolutionary poets and reactionary ideologues but this shouldn’t deter us from the potential of poetry for effecting radical change. In fact, poetry can re-engage us with the world at a time when the established order is pushing us towards rampant individualism with its consequent sense of alienation.
In order to break out of the current malaise and to act as a part of the struggle poetry needs to change the frame in which it operates. To do this it needs to recognise the poem is a commodity that exists in a market and that it competes with other commodities in terms of reception, value and effectiveness. It needs, in short, to sell itself and it needs to articulate that value in a much more direct way. Its current structural weaknesses need to be quantified, e.g. does its incestuous relationship with the academy do it any favours, is the teaching of creative writing really a good thing, is difficulty a mark of quality?
I have to believe that a poetry that is truly as ‘impossible as reality’ is a feasible possibility but those that produce and proliferate verse needs to change the nature of the frame.

Geoffrey Hill explains ‘Annunciations’

I first found out about poetry in 1968 at the age of thirteen. I’d read ‘Welsh Landscape’ by R S Thomas and suddenly discovered how poetry worked and that it was somehow important.

In 1969 I bought ‘The Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse’ edited in 1962 by Kenneth Allott. I didn’t read much of it primarily because my eye was drawn to more ‘modern’ poets. I picked it up again yesterday because of the time that it spans (1918-1960) and then noticed that the last poem in the collection is ‘Annunciations’ by Geoffrey Hill which was published in ‘King Log’. I’ve read this poem before so wasn’t particularly excited until (out of curiosity) I looked at Allotts introduction where he praises Hill’s earlier work and complains about the “crabbed density” of some of the later poems in ‘For the Unfallen’. He says-

I find the darkness of many of the later pieces so nearly total that I can see them to be poems only by a certain quality in their phrasing.

Allott then quotes Hill as ascribing this ‘formality under duress’ to the influence of Allen Tate. A debate between editor and poet is then alluded to, Hill wants to be in the anthology but would much rather his latest work is included. Allott goes on  -

I understand ‘Annunciations’ only in the sense that cats and dogs may be said to understand human conversations (i. e. they grasp something by the tone of the speaking voice) but without help I cannot construe it.

To resolve this stand-off, Hill agrees to supply notes to help with this construal.  These run to one and a half pages and, as far as I know, are Hill’s only attempt to explain a poem in detail. The poem is in two parts, one concerning the ‘Word’ and the other concerning ‘Love’. Hill begins by describing the common theme -

I suppose the impulse behind the work is an attempt to realize the jarring double-takes in words of common usage: as ‘sacrifice’ (I) or ‘Love (II) – words which, like the word ‘State’ are assumed to have an autonomous meaning or value irrespective of context, and to which we are expected to nod assent. If we do assent, we are ‘received'; if we question the justice of the blanket term we have made the equivalent of a rude noise in polite company.

It could be said (and I will) that Hill’s career can be seen as an ongoing series of rude noises in polite company. He continues to question, gnaw away at, dissect a wide range of terms that most of us take more or less for granted- justice, spirit, forgiveness, love to name but a few. I think it’s also important to note Hill casting himself as the outsider, as the one who dares to question and so is not ‘received’.

Hill goes on to describe the first poem and points out the ‘key antithesis between lines 6 and 7 -

The loathly neckings and fat shook spawn

(each specimen jar fed with delicate spawn)

Line six, Hill contends, stands for ‘ pain, lust in the blubbery world’ whereas line seven describes pain and lust after it has been distilled by the ‘connoissseurs’. We aren’t told why the world might be blubbery but we are told that the connoisseur may be the poet or the critic. The choice of blubbery is instructive because of it’s obvious whaling connotations and because there is a quote in the OED which goes- “Democracy is the blubbery spawn begotten by the drunkenness of aristocracy”. It almost goes without saying that Hill is an exceptionally close reader of the OED and probably expects the rest of us to do the same.

Hill ends his notes to the first part with -

By using an emotive cliché like ‘The Word’ I try to believe in an idea that I want to believe in: that poetry makes its world from the known world; that it has a transcendence; that it is something other than the conspicuous consumption (‘the banquet’) that it seems to be.

What I say in the section is , I think, that I don’t believe in the Word. The fact that I make the poem at all means that I still believe in words.

Trying to believe in an idea is a difficult activity and I wonder whether some of Hill’s later work continues to reflect this attempt to believe in the ‘special’ power of poetry. With this in mind, I’m going to have to re-read some of the even more crabbed later stuff.

I have to confess that I’m not terribly keen on the second part of the poem because I don’t think it does what Hill describes. I also find its use of quasi-religious terms and phrases rather tiresome. Hill finishes his notes by saying:

But I want the poem to have this dubious end, because I feel dubious; and this whole business is dubious.

Which sounds like a bit of a cop-out, the poem finishes with a portentous flourish that doesn’t sound at all hesitant but might just be empty…. the kind of thing that Hill complains about in his introduction.

Making money and poetry

This is by way of a digression and is more about thinking out loud than but putting forward a coherent view.

I’ll start with stating the obvious, nobody gets rich from the writing of poems. Even the finest and most respected poets have to earn an income from a day job.

This is a fact.

However, I currently find myself in an odd position. The company in which I held a 50% share has just been sold to a large national retailer which means (my partner tells me) that I don’t need to work any more. Because of my mental health issues and the niggling protestant work ethic, I do actually want to continue to earn an income. I also find that I have a bit of entrepeneurial ability.

So, whilst I have a few potential projects to keep me busy for the next few years, I’m attracted to testing out the monetary value of doing ‘something’ with poetry. To start with I need to put together an analysis of poetry as product. This may seem crass but it does help to clear away a lot of the fluff and get down to basics:

  1. poetry has the potential to change lives in a fundamental way;
  2. poetry has a really bad reputation/image in the commercial world especially when compared with other forms of creative expression;
  3. there is a market need for poetry, many, many people are dissatisfied with what popular culture has to offer and would welcome the opportunity to have their view of the world challenged;
  4. most poems can be learned;
  5. the fundamental task would be one of market creation which would involve prising poetry away from the academy (this must not involve any kind of ‘dumbing down’);
  6. marketing would involve challenging the current poor image that poetry has and encouraging poets to talk about their work in clear and unambiguous terms.

The aim would be to make poetry as popular as soccer within a generation and to start this off by running a series of television programmes on poems and what they can do. For example, it would be good to film Kenneth Goldsmith talking about conceptual poetry and compare this with Keston Sutherland talking about political poetry. I also have in my head a pastiche of Grand Designs called Grand Conceits where a film crew follow a respected poet through the arduous business of writing a poem.

Once you start thinking about poetry as product you begin to realise that some poems have more commercial value than others. The Maximus Poems have enormous potential as does Triumph of Love but I’d have to try a bit harder to extract value out of  Breathturn or Comus.

My role in this? I’d like to have a go at market creation, for a very small percentage…..

Keston Sutherland’s Stress Position

I was going to write this in the manner (style?) of the prose section of this poem but then I realised that this would only make any kind of sense to those who had read it and that only I would be amused.
Let me start by saying that Stress Position is a major piece of work that makes a significant contribution to current debates about language and its relationship to the ‘real’, compromised world. Bits of it are also very funny with extraordinary images.
The poem is ‘set’ in Baghdad and features the poet, a number of historical and fictional characters and Black Beauty. Rumsfeld and Cheney also get a name check and the sky makes several appearances.
If Keston was bipolar (which he isn’t), I’d be gently telling him to increase the lithium because the poem manages to hover on the bridge between mania and psychosis but is probably an attempt to express dialectical consciousness and produce poetry that is “as impossible as reality”.
So, the poem would appear to be a radical critique of American imperialism particularly with regard to torture but it also sets up a particular ‘metric’ (a term much used by Prynne) between aspects of the external world and the inside of Sutherland’s head. This is incredibly successful in that it takes the reader on an exhilarating ride through dystopia and manages to throw out a broad range of ideas at the same time.
I have a personal rule when reading poetry which is to count the lines that I wished I’d written. Stress Position is full of these so I should be overcome with envy but I’m not because Sutherland has thrown down the gauntlet to those of us who aspire to write poetry and change the world (not always at the same time).
Sutherland doesn’t have a good time in Stress Position, he gets gang raped in a toilet cubicle in McDonald’s and loses a leg but the overall tone is rhapsodic rather than brutal. A gastro yacht is also featured along with references to number of dishes- the significance of this escapes me but I’m working on it.
Sutherland has made a distinction between ‘readers’ and ‘consumers’ of poetry and made a passing swipe at mainstream poetry in the process. He was using Prynne as an example of a poet who demands very close attention and scorning those poets whose work can be read and fully understood in one go. With regard to Stress Position, the poem does demand attention but it’s of a different order to that demanded by Prynne, there’s no need for a word-by-word examination nor is their as much ambiguity but there’s still work to be done. The “anagrammatic” Diotima makes an appearance, certain words and phrases are italicised, a lot of compound words are used and I’m not at all sure about the presence of Black Beauty nor the presence of Sutherland’s mother before he gets gang raped. So the attention is more about the poetic structure rather than what the words may mean. Some words are printed in block capitals with numbers attached and I will need to work out what that’s about. There’s also bits of French and German that will require my attention.
The poem is also immensely quotable I’ll just give three lines as an example-

That means that he that the dots are all joined up in a skeleton already

and that skeleton is publically wanked off, into the open darkness

and the darkness spits its wet dust on a sticky mirrorball.

The other thing that the reader gradually realises is that the poem is tightly structured. Sutherland spent a long time thinking about this before putting pen to paper and it has paid off because we stay with the various threads rather than reading the various episodes as random and chaotic.

Ideologically, Sutherland and I are miles apart. I don’t share his Marxist/Hegelian slant on things nor do I have much faith in the dialectic but I do share his outrage at American foreign policy and the forces of late capital. I also share his concerns about the way that language gets appropriated by the impossible world. I don’t read poems to agree with them, I read them to be challenged and to steal ideas and Stress Position more than meets those criteria.

There is a bitchy dig at Derrida that is overly simplistic. If you are going to take on Grammatology then you need to be very clear what you are taking on and why.

Sutherland will hate this but I think the whole world should read Stress Position – it’s available from Barque Press for £6.

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……..

How to read Jeremy Prynne

I approach this with some trepidation because I am not yet anywhere near the peak of Mount Prynne but thought a few words may encourage others to undertake the climb.

1. The first thing you will need is regular access to the OED. It isn’t so much that the poems are packed with hard and difficult meanings but Prynne likes to use secondary definitions that you may not be aware of.

2. Wikipedia is your friend because it often gives a useful overview of terms or concepts that may be new to you and frequently gives links to more in-depth information. Google (unless you are very careful with search terms) can sometimes lead you astray- you should always try to make use of the advanced search feature.

3. Know that early on you will decide either that the poems are just  a bunch of words which you don’t have either the time of the inclination to decipher or you will be intrigued and want to know more. Both decisions are entirely valid.

4. Start with one of the Bloodaxe editions. A lot of people start with the earlier stuff in the hope of following a chronological progression. This is a mistake. You should start with the poems that interest you most.

5. Prynne has no interest in making things easy for his readers. There is no single ‘key’ to any of the poems after ‘White Stones’. The perspective of each poem moves about and there are often multiple things going on in the same line.

6. Learn to think laterally, to consider what language can do rather than what it does. Know that Prynne is deeply distrustful of the western consensus view of reality and the role that language plays in that view.

7. At first try not to read too much of what others say about Prynne. This is often a case of academics trying to impress other academics with their erudition and doesn’t provide any kind of help for us readers. It is best to try and make some progress in terms of your own personal response to the poems first.

8. Read as much prose by Prynne as you can find. The latest piece on ‘The Solitary Reaper’ is available from Barque Press and it is an invaluable indication of the way that he thinks about poetry. The AAAARG site has ‘Resistance and Difficulty’ and ‘Tintern Abbey Once Again’- registration required but all their stuff is free.

9.  It will soon become clear from the poems that Prynne’s politics are based on a Marxist analysis and that he’s against most of the things that most of us class warriors are (any form of capitalism, imperialist adventures in far flung places and the fraudulence of bourgeois culture).  This stuff won’t hit you like a sledgehammer but it will crop up from time to time. You may find some of Prynne’s comments on the workings of capital markets to be quite quaint.

10. It is eminently possible to over-read Prynne. I’m currently reading to Pollen and am almost convinced that it refers to his readers as ‘the resilient brotherhood’ and asks whether he is the one ‘inclined’ which I am currently taking to be a reference to Celan’s Meridian Address. I see this as extraordinary but am also well aware that I may be barking up the wrong tree. The word ‘ultramont’ from the opening of the first section I’m taking to be a reference to CERN’s particle accelerator because it is  the only way that the rest of the sentence can ‘work’. Early on, I spent a lot of time worrying about “gross epacts” but have now happily given up.

Prynne likes ambiguity and is careful with his word choice so that nouns could also be verbs and vice versa. He also is prone to Latinity which is about constructing phrases according to Latin rather than English grammar. Great poets have been doing this for centuries- Milton was a major culprit.

You’re either up for these kind of skirmishes or you’re not. I find that I am and my admiration for Prynne has grown as I have gone further in. If you choose to participate you are likely to find that engagement with this body of work will force you to question not only language but also the way in which you experience the world. You will also begin to find that the vast majority of contemporary poetry is intensely mundane and ordinary. If you write poetry then you may find that your voice will be radically altered, this is a good thing providing it’s not just a pale imitation of the man himself.

Somewhere on the web there’s Prynne on “Harmony in Architecture” which is a speech given in China a few years ago. It says nothing about architecture but is a scathing attack on China’s rush for growth. It doesn’t address poetry but it is very witty and completely correct.

Be aware that there will be some days or weeks when the stuff becomes just words. At this point you need to take a break but you will come back for more.

Jeremy Prynne and Geoffrey Hill compare and contrast

Prynne and Hill have many things in common, both have taught at Cambridge, Hill is only four years older than Prynne, both admire Paul Celan and both write poetry that is said to be difficult. They are also the two most important poets in the English language.

If ‘difficult’ means that they write poems that require more than 30 seconds’ attention, then they are clearly difficult. I would argue that ‘difficult’ isn’t a particularly useful term and that we should use ‘complex’ and ‘absorbing’ instead. Both Prynne and Hill are important because they challenge the safe mediocrity that passes for English poetry these days and because they remind us of the possibilities of language.

I’m much more familiar with Hill than I am with Prynne but it has taken four years to achieve an understanding of what Hill may be about. This has been an immensely rewarding experience helped along by frequent reference to the  OED, DNB and Wikipedia. I like to know the politics of the poets that I like and Hill has described himself as a hierarchical Tory and a 19th Century Red Tory. I take him  to mean members of the Ultra Tory faction that aligned themselves with Cobbett at various points during the 1830s. In 2009 this is obviously a minority position to take but it does give a flavour of Hill’s eccentricity.

Both Prynne and Hill are critical of the money markets.  Such vilification has a long and noble history in English politics – we all like to castigate those who appear to do very little for their wealth but Prynne especially goes for knee jerk easy options rather than presenting a more nuanced analysis. In ‘News of the Warring Clans’ he has a go at option trading in this manner and in ‘The Oval Windows’ he has a more obscure go at the manipulation and control of economic data which he describes as ‘work makes free logic’. Work makes free was emblazoned on the gates of Auschwitz and is a phrase that shouldn’t really be used lightly. There is a huge gap between the workings of capitalism and the eliminationist impulse that motivated the Nazis. This aside, Prynne does redeem himself with ‘Refuse Collection’ which is his response to the atrocities committed at Abu Grhaib, a searing indictment of western imperialism and one of the best political poems that I’ve ever read.

Starting to read Prynne can be a daunting experience wherea Hill is intimidating. Prynne is daunting because of the use of words- ‘shut inch’, ‘tree glide’ are examples of the kinds of phrases that I’ve been engaging with in recent weeks which I find oddly involving. Hill is intimidating because of the breadth of his references. ‘Triumph  of Love’ is the only poem that I know of to contain reference to both Gracie Fields and Michel Foucault.  These aren’t particularly obscure but the are others that are (the Lawes brothers, Hallgrimur Petursson, Immelmann to name but three)  which is why Wikipedia and the DNB are so helpful.

One difference between the two is in the use of foreign phrases, Hill tends to translate these as he goes along within the poem whereas Prynne doesn’t. My poor French can make sense of the phrases in that language but I can’t do this with the German. I’m also a bit concerned at the almost random way that Prynne uses French phrases when there are perfectly adequate English ones available.

In terms of the work, I would nominate ‘Mercian Hymns’,  ‘Triumph of Love’ and ‘ Scenes from Comus’ as the finest of Hill’s output, I would nominate ‘Brass’, ‘News of the Warring Clans’, ‘Word Order’ and ‘Refuse Collection’ for Prynne.

What I’m also grateful for is that both have broadened my horizons. Reading Prynne has led to Charles Olson (a revelation), Ed Dorn and Robert Creeley which has caused e to be more sympathetic to American poetry. Reading Hill has led to Hopkins, Southwell and Henry Vaughan. I still don’t like Hopkins but Hill has made me work out why.

Both poets have written poems dedicated to Celan and Celan looms large in their work. Prynnes technique of using words that have multiple meanings and of putting words together in odd ways is redolent of Celan at his best. Hill makes the most direct reference to Celan in ‘The Orchards of Sion” where he has several goes at translating ‘atemwende’  and then speculates about Celan’s taste in women. All of this feels a bit gratuitous.

Who is the best? This depends on what you want poetry to do, if we wish to be reminded of the complexity of reality then Prynne is your man. If we want poems to remind us of our moral obligations and the importance of the natural world then Hill is way out in front. There can be no denying that these two are writing poetry that puts the rest in the shade.

Catching up with Jeremy Prynne

I bought the Bloodaxe Prynne collection ten years ago following recommendations from people that I admire (Carol Rumens, Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd). I started to read in expectation of something wonderful but found instead (apart from the very early stuff) a mass of words that made little sense and became increasingly perplexing with each reading. I did however note one very impressive poem dedicated to Paul Celan.
Lately I’ve been quite severely depressed and my normal source of consolation during recovery is to read Pepys’ diaries but on this occasion I finished the Arcades Project, re-read Boyd Hilton on 19th century England and then turned to Prynne.
I have to report that I have found the Prynne experience to be both frustrating and oddly involving, frustrating because initially some of the phrases don’t make any kind of sense but involving because the search for that sense leads you to think about the world and language in different ways. Reading Prynne has also led me to read Olson’s Maximus Letters (and for that I am profoundly grateful), Heidegger on poetry, Celan and Holderlin.
Whilst I can ‘hear’ the influence of Celan and late Beckett on Prynne I am totally deaf to the voice of Olson in his work even though Prynne is one of Olson’s biggest advocates and spent some time in the mid sixties trying to get the later parts of the Letters into a publishable format.
Prynne’s essay on Resistance and Difficulty is a densely worded argument that points out that every subject puts out various levels of resistance to being understood and that we experience difficulty when we encounter these resistances. He then goes on to say that it is the task of the imagination to gain access to ‘the resistance beyond our several difficulties’. Prynne ends with a quote from Rilke that he feels establishes his point about the quest for a fusion of resistance and difficulty. This seems fair enough to me and would seem to point out some kind of justification for the level of difficulty in Prynne’s work- which seems to be about using ‘difficult’ ways to speak about a world that is very resistant to our comprehension. Incidentally, in this essay Prynne refers fleetingly to the work of Gabriel Marcel. The only other person that I know who refers to Marcel is Geoffrey Hill, that other ‘difficult’ English poet.
I’ve been carrying the Prynne tome around with me and I’ve had a number of comments- “too obscure”, “too intellectual” and “the only poet that’s trying to do something different from the mediocrity that is English poetry but I only like the parts that aren’t incomprehensible”. I’d agree with all of these if I didn’t find reading him so absorbing and if I didn’t find re-reading the ‘incomprehensible’ bits so rewarding. After reading Resistance and Difficulty I then felt that I had to re-read Heidegger on the ‘Origins of the work of art’ which Prynne refers to (using the German title) as “brilliant”.
My relationship with Heidegger has changed a lot over the years. I started with ‘the greatest thinker of the 20th century’ view then moved on the “he was a Nazi but’ view rapidly followed by ‘Being and Time is brilliant but the rest is polluted by a weird kind of German mysticism’ view. My recent view is that worrying too much about the Being of beings is probably a waste of time but I am pleased that someone asked the question. My reading of the Origins this time around was disappointing. I don’t feel that poetry has a “privileged position in the domain of the arts” nor do I feel that “poetry is the saying of the unconcealedness of beings”.I think poetry may be many things but Heidegger fails to convince me (by means of evidence) that it has this privileged position and power.
Still, Jeremy Prynne thinks that this essay is brilliant and I therefore assume that he shares its view and has incorporated this in some way into his practice. This then brings me to the question of the relationship between poetry and philosophy. Should we view both activities as trying to tell some kind of truth? Has philosophy got anything to say poetry and vice versa? Are there dangers when poetry and philosophy get mixed up? I don’t have any kind of answer to these questions other than there is a real danger when any discipline tries to take itself too seriously.
In my attempts to make sense of Prynne, I’ve stuck with two poems- The Warring of the Clans and Word Order. I’ve been able to construe the subject matter in both but there are still bits that I’m falling over. I don’t understand how butter can be ‘bardic’ although I like the juxtaposition nor do I understand how a shadow can be ‘cardiac’ but that may be because I haven’t spent long enough with the OED.
The other question is should we all be following Prynne’s lead or should we be content to write in the ‘mediocre’ tradition? Is Prynne writing himself into obscure oblivion or will he be revered in fifty years time as the only serious English poet?
My view is that we all need to catch up with Prynne because his work is clever and radically different from anything else, I don’t think we should slavishly imitate him but allow his work to inform our own. With regard to posterity, I do hope he gets more notice than what passes for good in the current mainstream.

Poem on the recession

This is a poem by Vimalesh Kumar. Vimalesh is from Kerala in India and is currently working in Muscat, Oman. Vimalesh has so far written just a few poems in English.

Recession

Oh recession you come to this crowd
Like a blackbird singing in a calming night

You threw our nights in filthy water
You swallowed our happy mornings
You took our bagpipe and castle

Oh recession you are so cruel
You dried our gardens, our dreams
You brought summer in your hand
You swore ice in cold, rain in water

Oh recession you come like hurricane
You hold our ways to sky and sea
You put our flights in dark clouds
You shake our island and wiped

Oh recession you come at right
You took us hard to restrict
You made us to believe in god
You stopped our hurry tides

Oh recession you are true
You shown us mere and myth
You bargain on our dreams
You make us to live for a future

Oh recession you are so proud
You save our children to live
You teach them to live in the real

You took their wheels to walk

Oh recession you are so humble
You made us to thank for goodness
You made us not to be pompous
You made us to survive in troubles
You opened our eyes to the future.