Tag Archives: prynne

Poetry and Politics and Truth, a response to Tom Dunn

Tom,

Rather than respond to your recent comments re the above in the comments threads, I thought I’d attempt a more considered response here. It also gives me the opportunity to review the last stated Bebrowed position on this knotty conundrum. I consider myself to be deeply political, most of my adult life has been spent in various forms of what many would think of as ‘extreme’ political activity and I was a member of the CPGB (Gramscian/Marxism Today faction) for about five years until it disbanded even though I have never considered myself to be a Marxist. I also have a lifelong passion for poetry and have held the view that the two don’t mix in that I wouldn’t turn to a poem for ideological ‘positions’ just as I wouldn’t hope to find poetics in political activity. I also feel that there’s too much of the political in politics and too much poetry in poetry.

I really struggle with the fact that many poems are written about political problems that will have absolutely no influence whatsoever on those problems regardless of the stance that those poets take. I’m also deeply suspicious of poets that pick ‘easy’ targets and will shortly give some examples of these.

None of the above is helped by the annoying fact that most of the best poems currently being written do commit most of the above crimes. In my ideal world all poets would be working out the implications of what Levinas described as ‘the sadness of self-interest’ together with Foucault’s view that the primary struggle is with the fascist that lurks within each of us. I also accept that this isn’t going to happen anytime soon so I’m left with these vaguely marxian poets who are producing brilliant poems but dismal politics.

And then there’s Geoffrey Hill who has described himself as a ‘hierarchical Tory’ and whose work is a really fascinatingly incongruous mix of knee-jerk polemic and quite thoughtful analysis- but only when applied to events before 1670.

You say that there’s no space for God in this material yet there’s certainly a lot of God in Simon Jarvis’ ‘Dionysus Crucified’ and I think I could make a case for God in later Prynne. My own view is that poets are much better with theology than they are with politics and that the best God poems are those that express doubt rather than conviction (R S Thomas, Paul Celan, George Herbert). I’m also of the view that it is entirely possible to get pleasure from poems a standpoint that I find politically and morally repellent- Book V of the Faerie Queen and most of Pound’s Cantos spring to mind.

There is some work that is politically sophisticated and strategically correct and is being undertaken at the conceptualist end of the spectrum by Vanessa Place and Caroline Bergvall both of which make me feel more than a degree of what we used to call solidarity.

There’s also a younger group of poets who are in the process of recasting the personal and the political – I quote from some of these below.

With regard to Truth, I’m one of those intellectually flabby relativists that manage to be loathed by Richard Dawkins and the current pope in equal measure but there are Cambridge poets who are concerned primarily with truthful poetry and with a concern for authenticity but this usually coloured by dialectical processes and an interest in contradiction. My only excuse is Richard Rorty’s view that we should concentrate on that which is useful without too much regard for truth-value because doing things the other way round does get us into all kinds of trouble.

Incidentally, I really don’t want Bourdieu to be correct but he is- you don’t need to be a committed leftist to be persuaded. The escape from the iron cage is inevitably subjective but my money’s on Place, Bergvall, Neil Pattison, Johnny Liron and Jonty Tiplady- each of these for very different reasons (see below).

The Desire problem.

Bear with me but this does seem to get to the core of the poetry/politics problem. In 2010 Keston Sutherland began circulating ‘The Odes to T61LP’ which is the bravest sequence that I think I’ve ever read because it deals in an honest an open way with sexual identity and desire and childhood sexuality and confronts every single aspect of the British male persona. Timothy Thornton is an extraordinarily talented younger poet who is dealing with desire in a uniquely lyrical way.

I am and will remain critical of Sutherland’s Marxist certainty but (and this is the problem) I don’t know of anyone else with this degree of talent and critical insight.

The Polemic problem.

Poets, even Milton, are bad at polemic and shouldn’t do it. In fact, it is the repeated attempts to do this adequately that makes me most annoyed about things Cambridge/Brighton. I’ve been re-looking at some recent examples for this piece and they just make me unaccountably cross. Prynne’s ‘Refuse Collection’ doesn’t make me cross but it’s still an ‘easy’ target, isn’t it?

The Streak~~Willing~~Artesian~~Entourage exception.

I’ll vote for this being the best political work of the last twenty years precisely because it refuses to simplify, take sides or otherwise pontificate and it is wonderfully austere. I also think it is politically important because it confronts some fundamentals that have been ignored by all shades of the political spectrum.

Examples.

I’ve attempted to put together a number of quotes to do with politics. This selection is based on my own reading and is entirely subjective but it does at least provide a bit of a map for further discussion / debate. I’ll do something similar with both God and Truth at a later stage

This is from ‘Statement of Facts’ by Vanessa Place-

Counts 10, 11, 12 and 14: Jane Doe #3: Marion J.

Marion J. was living alone in a house on Colorado Street Long Beach on July 31, 1998; around 1:30 or 2:00 a.m., she returned home with a friend from Ralphs. The friend left without coming inside the house, and when Marion J. went in, she noticed her five cats were under the bed and her back door was open. She closed and locked the door, and took a shower. Her friend called around 2:15 or 2:30 to let Marion J. know she’d arrived home safely; Marion J., who had been
laying on her bed waiting for the call, then fell asleep. (RT 866-868) She woke about 3:15 a.m. because someone’s hand was around her throat. The person took Marion J.’s glasses and told her if she screamed, he’d snap her neck. Marion J. said she wouldn’t scream, the man pulled her nightgown over her head and told her to open her legs, she did, and he put his penis in her vagina. The man then took his penis out of Marion J., lifted her leg and reinserted his penis. Next, the man turned Marion J. over and put his penis in her vagina a third time while pulling her hair back. Marion J. was bleeding; the man got a towel from the bathroom, wiped her, laid on the bed, and told Marion J. to get on top of him because it would be easier for her to “control it.” Marion J. did, and the man’s penis again went into her vagina. (RT 868-870, 875)

And so is this-

On Marion J.’s mixed breast swab sample, there are six peaks (11, 12, 13, 15, 16, 17) at D-8; Fedor’s handwritten notes indicate two of the peaks (11, 15) are possible stutter. (Defense Exhibit Y; RT 1570- 1571) Stutter is a PCR artifact, and does not represent actual DNA in the sample. Fedor wrote “possible” because those peaks could be
DNA, but did not report them as because he did not think they were reliably present, i.e., he thought they were stutter rather than additional DNA. His conclusion was based on the position of the alleles, and their shorter peaks; another analyst could conclude they were real. The Identifiler software has a Kazam macro which is to filter out stutter based on the manufacturer’s research; the macro did not identify 11 and 15 as stutter. Fedor did not know what the stutter limit is for D-8; there is no fixed laboratory standard. The Identifiler user manual indicates the limit at D-8 is 8.2 percent. (RT 1571-1575, 1577-1578, 1593-1594) Similarly, at D-21, the computer recognized an allele,
meaning there was an allele present of at least 150 RFU intensity. (RT 1579-1580)

This is from Caroline Bergvall’s ‘Fried Tale (London Zoo)’-

Dame Justice no longer worries unduly. She no longer gives a smiling sod about the moral attributes or social benefits of equitable share-out of wealth; or land; or health; or education or how to work out well-being for the mostest; or the bestest ways of valuing people’s skills or establishing fair and durable structures; or thinking long-term; or facilitating technological access; or revisiting the rules of international exchange; or the balance of import/export; or the value of local trade; or determining the boundaries between life and death; or between breathing and unbreathing; or feeling and unfeeling; or animate and inanimate; or how to get out of the deep labyrinthine social moral spiritual physiological bankrupcy engineered by the brutal omnipathological so-called transnational traficking bloodsuck oilsprung hyperdfunded plunderterprrize. Sgot to be said she can be pretty longwinded. Speaks in subsections.

1a. Must fall. 1b. Should fall. 2a. Could Fall. 3a. Will Fall.

This is from Neil Pattison’s ‘Slow Light’-

Be housed, clutched, inert. Receive, that wave earthed
in keratin
Dark’s cuticle
then fastening dark hand, recede. Conductive, slow
strings waist, a focus vantage stills, in weaning light

that houses break. Elaborately plaited fingers
crack on a shell in the breech. By coastal
rolling, granules secure and justified, flowingly
the solvencies peak and burn in type ; infant salts
the branches feebly ripening, banded. Spines
unfold as, movable, suns inlet solutions of landscape,
savouring limit so warmly that to a fixed wing
you fled over

This is from Jonny Liron’s ’6.XII’-

                language and theories de cauterize
and un captivate the attention of a
child bent fixed hell for leather of
fucking like a pretend dog, this should
be what you stand for, not the press
or forgetting.

This is the end of Jonty Tiplady’s ‘Superanus’-

Nice to wonder about with you,
nice to stay fat,
nice never truly to be a polygraph.

Worth it that the woods be sovereign
what matters is that any of it
happened at all,
the children a little fucked (concept to pop to sex) up
and Formby in Albania like Big Bird to Catanou
did quite well with that toaster.

Around now climate change arrives.

Having just re-read the above, I worry that this selection might appear too wilfully oblique and insufficiently specific but I am trying to honestly highlight those things that make ‘sense’ to me and I really am far too old to worry about the niceties of correctness or the rigours of a party line.

Reading Prynne with Prynne

I’ve started this twice so far, on those occasions the title was “On not liking Sub Songs’” and it was going to be a longish description of my various attempts to get to grips with this particular collection. I was going to describe the difference between not liking and actively disliking and use ‘Oraclau’ as an example of an important poet producing something that I find very easy to dislike whereas the ‘Sub Song’ merely fail to engage me. I was then going to speculate about whether the slightly freer form and the reduced austerity may have something to do with my indifference. At this point I realised that this might be becoming more than usually self indulgent and that it might be more useful if I were to try and apply what Prynne has said about difficult poetry to one of these poems. What follows is another attempt on my part to engage with this stuff and an attempt to work through the readerly tasks that Prynne identifies in ” Difficulties in the Translation of ‘Difficult Poems’”.
I’ve chosen ‘Riding Fine Off’ because I think it contains most of the elements that Prynne identifies in his essay:

At the place new arduous and wrapped up generic trailing mock
persistent bay tell, dark shouts make final even decline to like.
Track fated to miss and sit out that's how to bat for both, few
for well all known all none, enough. They float over the start
grid order intimate personable inner logic, pin inducement to
the driveway, to rough trace the cloud line. For then or both
grew in ready plain view how invited too overlaid other volatile
front omission. That's how in
room from pair to base, time
to rise as raptors accept procession sated foodstuff late on late
in token region. Know the whole win lateral pin better blind-
sight agree, all seen much then reduce will finally not fill
partitive crew benefit. Want for lack for distance fuel project
duct violence resigned easily measure telic declination. Both
attractive sides habitat invaded folic austere too, grade them,

gradual amounts in what you want more,
take implant slope on wide array, wild
surmise for substitute time to say how
not affront yet, or fine oval form
playout alter reject,
each one by one,
window plan out visible twin acceptance
has been there, up to surface, ever wanting
few out that's for now don't pine gravitate
nor yet link, to get
fair assert pinny
tell them, code for count entire rapid
accident come on.

Further overgrown your own this time grimace insinuate how not
lined up for know better, chance derelict top planning loop first,
few all back assorted holding off. Held rough situate affirm cut
for cut down, to trim not yet fill we hold them, few enough. How
best to say up to mark falling, each time said level soil debated
swim fume eager to find
tell out plant limit, hormone refine
looking on forward bent foot want the strip forever, never less
over nor how best too and too for more
shadow infusion is
the truth declined. Lamps all lit up, cutting the skin graft
to lift off cell for cell, time yielded in open fit compulsion, defer for passing wants, rolling evermore. Expense of spirit
output grant the best scatter ferment insult, have enough slowly
react affirmative to meet, each to fill upper tract shout relaxed
by pretension. Return to refusal continue I heard them say so

in silicon versets did you, dapper onyx
fancy ride plentiful and apt to form
this rank of departure, trance state
muted by fugitive distracted cries. Hear
them all out picture that the kids
debate which door, what for tranquil
longing
to play riot catchment
water slides up and up. Few hardly
here now do the rest wanting for extra
more spare to take and make, display
all tips by day
in daytime say
fear no more.

On the top row do you already no time refine to disclose even of
the passion blank, plenitude allusion do you, otherwise stupidly
good enough to lift a brow, of daylight often saved, most served.
Average at the doorway grandly seized by shadow counting off, in
geminal readiness not to slip where possible if not permitted else
auto-set. Both in force how not, if else, for a few abrupt dative
intact prints, from one over line. Mind less overt lucid all brand
marking at the front cloud-light, permanent
will you say, admit
first ulterior structure indented to pay counting by darkness
shiny and visible up ahead. Go there free of room to say more
or less valuable, more taken back on time at this against what
follows on pitch, in front, normal accredited diminution would
be said profane intrinsic honest to batter off the other side.

(The formatting for this is about right with the exception of the first lines of the short line sections- these should be in line with the rest. I’m still blaming WordPress).

My normal default mode with Prynne is to try and identify fragments that might provide me with a foothold or two and then proceed (or not) from there. When this strategy fails I seek refuge in clarifying the meaning of the words that I don’t understand. The first of these is ‘telic’, the OED has two definitions ” Grammar. Of a conjunction or clause: Expressing end or purpose” and ” Directed or tending to a definite end; purposive.” So he may be referring to a declination towards some specific end that requires measurement or evalution. The second is ‘versets’ The OED gives the first definition as to be a form of ‘versicle’ which is defined as “Liturg. One of a series of short sentences, usually taken from the Psalms and of a precatory nature, said or sung antiphonally in divine service; spec. one said by the officiant and followed by the response of the congregation or people; often collect. pl., a set of these with their accompanying responses.” The second definition is “A little or short verse, esp. one of the Bible or similar book; a short piece of verse.” Which further complicates ‘silicon versets’ but might be more helpful If I can get more of a grip on the wider context.The last of these is ‘geminal’ which the OED defines first as a noun meaning a pair and also (as an adjective) to be equivalent to ‘geminate’ which is given as ” Duplicated, combined in pairs, twin, binate. geminate leaves, leaves springing in pairs from the same node, one leaf beside the other.” The last part of this may be useful if the initial hunch works out.
This relates to the third strategy which is to try and identify words that may pertain to a particular theme or themes. The first one that comes up seems to relate to plants and growing things. We have ‘grew in ready plain view’, ‘sated foodstuff late on late’, ‘habitat invaded folic austere too’, ‘implant slope on wide array’, ‘Further overgrown your own’, ‘cut for cut down’, ‘said level soil debated’, ‘tell out plant limit’, ‘cutting the skin graft / to lift off cell for cell’ ‘output grant the best scatter ferment insult’ ‘fill upper tract’ ‘of daylight often saved’. No doubt some of these will be rejected and others may be brought in (the two ‘cloud’ references spring to mind) but that does at least provide something to work with.
I’m using the ‘Translation’ essay because it is the clearest statement by Prynne that I’ve come across as to how this kind of work functions and how it should be approached. The first quote may be helpful in tackling the above phrases:

What is probable and can be predicted by following normative links in meaning and structure, including the regular completeness of grammatically well-formed sentences and consistency of topic reference, is frequently split apart in poetic composition, so that disorder and anomaly crop up all the time. Poetry is surprising and good difficult poems sometimes surprise us so much we can hardly breathe.

I think inconsistent ‘topic reference’ and less than ‘well-formed sentences’ pretty well sums up this particular poem but I’m not yet convinced to its ability to surprise me. With regard to plants, there is ‘Plant Time Manifold’ from the early seventies which (according to Justin Katko’s excellent essay in Glossator) puts forward the hypothesis that “there exists a form of temporality specific to all plants, wherein the plant’s upper half (or stem) moves forward in time, and the plant’s lower half (or root) moves backward in time all of which is very complicated but it does give me the excuse to read the essay again.

So, does ‘For then or both grew in ready plain view’ make any kind of sense? Is then referring to some time in the past or is it being used to denote some kind of consequence as in ‘if it’s raining then we will get wet’? The latter would make slightly more sense in the context of ‘or both’ because that might relate to two possible consequences but I really am stabbing in the dark here. ‘Grew’ marks a change in tense from ‘float’ and ‘pin’ in the previous sentence. If we are in ‘plant time’ territory then ‘both grew’ could refer to plants growing forwards and backwards in time which would also give ‘then’ the possibility of both meanings. In this context (or thereabouts) ‘from pair to base’ may refer to the base pairs that hold two strands of DNA together in the double helix.

Now we come to ‘procession sated foodstuff late on late’, I’m taking ‘foodstuff’ to have its normal meaning but everything else probably needs closer scrutiny. The OED has a single definition for sated- ” Glutted, satiated; cloyed or surfeited by indulgence of appetite” which seems straightforward. As well as the standard usage of procession, the OED reminds me that in a theological sense it can mean “The action of proceeding, issuing, or coming forth from a source; emanation; esp. of the Holy Spirit”. So, what is being sated and how? It reads at first glance that a procession is being sated by a foodstuff which is described as being ‘late on late’. There are two common meanings for ‘late’, when something occurs after the agreed, expected or usual time then it is said to be late- in this way late can also apply to someone who has died. It’s also worth mentioning that it can also refer to phases as in ‘the late Tudors’ and that Prynne’s poetry has been described as ‘late modernist’.

In the past the word has also been used as a noun with three distinct meanings- “Look; appearance, aspect; outward manner or bearing”, ” Looks, manners, behaviour; hence, actions, goings-on” and “voice, sound”. As an adjective it can also mean broad or wide but the OED says that this usage is both obscure and rare and only provides one example. The use as a noun seems to have died out around 1500 ish. None of this is really helpful because the phrase, in which ever permutation you decide to put it, doesn’t make sense. This is where I go out on a bit more of a limb, one of the ways that ;late; is used is to denote when a crop has been late to ripen and is not ready to be harvested at the usual time. So, if we take ‘foodstuff’ to denote a type of crop (wheat, maize, rice etc) then this could refer to a crop that has the appearance of being late. I’m going to leave that there because I haven’t yet decided whether ‘procession’ denotes a group of people, the forward passage of time or an emanation. If Katko is right in asserting that “Whitehead’s “philosophy of the organism” is at the heart of Prynne’s hybrid science,” then ‘procession’ might also be a reference to ‘Process and Reality’ which is Whitehead’s key text. This does not mean that I’m going to have another attempt at reading that particular book even though I know that I should.

The next phrase is even more baffling, ‘habitat invaded folic austere too’ doesn’t make any sense by itself (does it?) and may benefit from extending it back to the start of the sentence. ‘Both attractive sides’ give me bit more to play with and the phrase is closed by the helpful comma after ‘too’. Regular readers will know that there isn’t either a scientific or technical bone in my body and I am happy to confess that all my knowledge of genetics comes from Adam Philips’ volume on ‘The Science’ in the BSE inquiry report which is now very out of date and was written by a judge. So, the appearance of ‘folic’ raises all kinds of anxieties. A cursory glance at Wikipedia reveals that folate ( the naturally occurring form of folic acid) is

“…necessary for the production and maintenance of new cells, for DNA synthesis and RNA synthesis, and for preventing changes to DNA, and, thus, for preventing cancer. It is especially important during periods of rapid cell division and growth, such as infancy and pregnancy. Folate is needed to carry one-carbon groups for methylation reactions and nucleic acid synthesis (the most notable one being thymine, but also purine bases). Thus, folate deficiency hinders DNA synthesis and cell division, affecting hematopoietic cells and neoplasms the most because of rapid cell division. RNA transcription, and subsequent protein synthesis, are less affected by folate deficiency, as the mRNA can be recycled and used again (as opposed to DNA synthesis, where a new genomic copy must be created). Since folate deficiency limits cell division, erythropoiesis, production of red blood cells, is hindered and leads to megaloblastic anemia, which is characterized by large immature red blood cells.”

The only meaningful thing that I’m able to take away from this is that folate deficiency is really quite bad for a number of different reasons. I’ll have to go back to Phillips to clarify RNA transcription and ‘hematopoietic cells’ but I think I’m reasonably okay on the creation of proteins. Still this does seem to point in the right direction. This extended phrases now begins with ‘both’ which has been used twice before. An initial reading might now come up with both aspects of something having their habitat invaded and suffering folate depletion at the same time.
The only thing I’ve thus far been able to discover about ‘implant slope on wide array’ is that ‘implant slope is usually used in medicine to refer to the angle of the tibial implant in whole knee replacements given to people with osteoarthritis which might go some way to explaining ‘lateral pin’ at the start of the sentence. Unfortunately I haven’t a clue how this ties in with the rest of the poem although Prynne does say in his essay that “In a more technical way we can acknowledge that unfamiliarity plays an important part in pattern-recognition”. So that gives me some comfort.
I’m going to leave it there on this occasion but will return to the rest of the terms in the near future. I’d almost forgotten how involving Prynne is but I’m still not sure that I ‘like’ this particular poem. Incidentally, at the prompting of Luke McMullan, I’ve just updated the Arduity page on ‘As Mouth Blindness which is the first poem in this colection.

Adorno, Prynne and Lyric Poetry

This is going to require a preamble, I’ve said before that I have no problem with poets who write with a political objective nor would I denigrate a poem just because I don’t hold with it’s political stance. My two favourite contemporary English poets, Prynne and Hill, write from opposite ends of the political spectrum and I’m comfortable with that because I don’t read poetry to be politically persuaded. I’ve also said before that I think it’s a mistake to endow poetry with powers that it doesn’t actually have. By this I don’t in any way wish to deny the power of poetry to enable us to radically challenge the way that we think about things. I also recognise that poetry is immensely influential in shaping the culture of any society but let’s not forget that it is one of many forms of creative expression and each of these has its own strengths.
Now for the confession, I’ve been on this planet for 54 years without reading any Adorno. Unforgivable, I know, but I’ve never felt the need to get to the bottom of Critical Theory even though the Frankfurt School has a reputation for intellectual rigour and ‘sound’ Marxian thought.
Being aware of this lacuna in my reading, I’ve been psyching myself up to start working out the finer points of negative dialectics. The other reason for tackling Adorno is that I’m various types of dialectical analysis since reading Benjamin’s ‘Arcades Project’ last year. I’ve re-read David Harvey’s description and examples, I’ve also read Stalin’s explanation and examples. I have to say that I’m not convinced by any of these, Benjamin seems to miss the point whilst Stalin is incredibly facile. David Harvey (who is a personal hero) tends to over complicate things and throws in elements that shouldn’t really be there. Adorno therefore is my last hope in getting to the bottom of dialectics but then I came across an essay entitled ‘On lyric poetry and society’ which seemed to offer a useful short-cut.
I got through the first few pages without finding any thing too disconcerting then; “My thesis is that the lyric work is always the expression of a social antagonism. But since the objective world that produces the lyric is an inherently antagonistic world, the concept of the lyric is not that of a subjectivity to which language grants objectivity.” Adorno goes on to point out Romanticism’s link with the folk song, Prynne makes the same point in Field Notes and John Wilkinson has pointed out the importance of work songs and sea shanties in Prynne’s poetry. I don’t however accept that lyric work is always the product of social antagonism, nor do I accept Adorno’s view that some lyric poets are privileged because they are capable of grasping the universal through ‘immersion in the self’ or ‘to develop as autonomous subjects capable of freely expressing themselves”. This seems more than a little far-fetched, I’d need to know precisely what is meant by ‘immersion in the self’ and isn’t ‘autonomous subject’ an oxymoron? Nevertheless it is clear to me that Prynne’s view of the Romantics is very close to that of Adorno.
The essay continues with the introduction of two poems which Adorno says he will treat as philosophical sundials telling the time of history. The first poem is “On a walking tour” by Edward Morike which is ostensibly about a visit to a small town and the poet’s experience of happiness. Adorno commends it as it skilfully blends the classical elevated style with the romantic private miniature and is particularly impressed with the tact by which this is achieved.
At the end of this discussion Adorno writes: “In industrial society the lyric idea of a self-restoring immediacy becomes- where it does not impotently evoke a romantic past – more and more something that flashes out abruptly, something in which what is possible transcends its own impossibility”. Normally I would groan at this point and despair of ideologues ever getting rid of tautology but I have to ask whether this transcending the impossible business is at the heart of the Prynne project. We know that he has an antagonistic relationship with the ‘witty circus’ of discourse which he sees as corrupted and I now have to consider whether the poems are actually striving for the impossible by means of a ‘self-restoring immediacy’. It does appear to explain the very enthusiastic and detailed analysis contained in ‘Field Notes’ as well as some of the more lyrical (if truncated) passages in the later poems.
Adorno then introduces a poem by Stefan George which is a kind of pared-down love song and remarks that it is written in a kind of German that could be a foreign language to German speakers. He refers to the use of the word ‘gar’ in the poem and concedes that critics have said that it serves no purpose in the lyric. Adorno counters this by remarking that “great works of art succeed precisely where they are most problematic”. Adorno concludes by saying of George “this very lyric speech becomes the voice of human beings between whom the barriers have fallen”.
Is this what Prynne is after? His work is recognised as problematic and his project would seem to be about creating a discourse that is less corrupt.
I have to say that most of this essay is far removed from my own views on the place of poetry, I also have to say that I still don’t understand the Romantics but it does enable me to understand a bit more about Prynne’s motivation in writing the way that he does. The essay is available for download on the incomparable AAAARG.org site.

Jeremy Prynne’s mental ears

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Prynne closely, a vindication

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keston Sutherland’s Stress Position pt2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doing politics with poetry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Prynne closely pt2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reading Prynne very, very closely

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

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

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

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

Set out below is the poem in its entirety-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeremy Prynne and readers of poetry

In 2008 Robert Archambeau quoted Keston Sutherland making a distinction between readers and consumers of poetry. Sutherland defines readers as those who engage carefully and closely, “staking an intimacy on the work of interpretation in some way perhaps even needing that intimacy or submitting to it as a sort of definition of oneself,  or the component of  a definition”.

Keston identifies Prynne’s work as that which requires this sort of attention. Consumers are people who read poetry without engaging with it on this level and it is these who are attracted to ‘mainstream’ poetry because it doesn’t make those kinds of personal demands. Sutherland also points out that poets would prefer to have readers rather than consumers.
I suppose we all would rather see ourselves as readers and as being committed to the wok of interpretation, I think that I’d probably dispute whether or not this work (which may or may not be ‘intimate’) should lead to a clearer self-definition. Whilst it is true that some poets demand and repay close attention, it is also true that there is some great poetry that can be ‘consumed’. Elizabeth Bishop wrote some poems that I find both inspiring and beaautiful but I wouldn’t claim that her work demands the close attention of Hill or Prynne. I don’t think that this implies that Bishop’s work is inferior, it’s just different. I’m also of the view that poetry is a very broad church and critics should pay attention to this rather than manning the various factional baricades. The writing and reading of poetry is too much of a minority activity for it to be divided by the bad tempered snipings of various factions.

Reading Hill and Prynne does cause me to reflect on my own ideas about language and the wider world. I spend more time reading them than I should but I don’t identify with either any more than I do with Milton and Spenser, my other great obsessions. Whilst I get a lot from poetry, my day to day life is more informed by thinkers like Foucault, Lefebvre and Rorty than it is by poets.  What I’m trying to say is that there is a danger in some circles of poets and critics taking poetry a little too seriously. A poem is a means of expression but it isn’t the only one and to privilege it over others is to give it more credit than it deserves.

I’m not sure what Sutherland has in mind when he advocates ‘submitting’ to the intimacy involved in  the work of interpretation. This would seem to imply a degree of passivity before the text. Working out the nuances of ‘difficult’ work surely requires a more active approach if we, as readers, are to be successful in our work.

With regard to Prynne, Sutherland is right to say that he demands very close attention in that his radical use of language and his breadth or references require a commitment to the belief that the work of interpretation will be worthwhile. Whether this can be described as intimate is another matter. I feel myself to be in a more intimate relationship with Hill and Celan, this may be because I’m more familiar with the work but also because their particular brands of modernism contain a greater degree of personal humanity.

I think I also need to poiint out that I think Sutherland is an excellent poet and critic, one of those few who is prepared to say difficult things with great clarity. I just wish that he hadn’t over-egged this particular pudding.