Tag Archives: sub songs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Towards the end of ‘KD’ there is:

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

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

Poetry and the profound

I’ve spent today trying to get the honesty / puppy dog, tail beating enthusiasm balance right when writing about ‘Triumph of Love’ and found myself describing one poem as ‘genuinely profound’. I then realised that I wasn’t completely clear on what this particular adjective might mean even though I am prone to throw it out with some frequency.

On further reflection, it’s one of those words that I have a personal definition of which might in fact differ from the ‘real meaning. It then struck me that we expect profundity from ‘serious’ poetry as if poetry that doesn’t have this quality is somehow diminished or less important. This might not be an entirely Good Thing’.

I think that I take profound to mean somethings that describes a great or fundamental truth and that this truth has implications for the wider world. On the other hand, the closest that the OED gets to this is “of personal attributes, actions, works, etc.: showing depth of insight or knowledge; marked by great learning” which doesn’t quite hit the mark because ‘depth’ doesn’t always equate with ‘truth’.

I probably need to be more specific, I was referring to poem LXXVII which contains these lines:

I know places where grief has stood mute-
howling for a half a century, self
grafted to unself till it is something like
these now-familiar alien hatreds,

Hill is referring to the lasting damage done by the countless deaths that occurred during WWII and ‘mute-howling’ is an accurate / true description of what has been experienced in my family through successive generations since the Somme offensive of 1916. So, it is profound for me because it describes succinctly and accurately a condition that I know to be very real. This, therefore is profound as well as almost perfectly phrased. You will note that I’m gliding over the ‘self’ bits because they don’t, to my ear, carry the same level of truth even though they may be learned and erudite reworkings of whatever Gerald Manley Hopkins might have meant by ‘selving’ and ‘inscape’. I readily accept that this whole self mularkey has / holds / carries more than a degree of accuracy and truthfulness for Hill, it’s just that it doesn’t do anything at all for me.

I’ll try and give another example of the profound at work, in ‘Paradise Lost’ Milton depicts Satan on his way to Eden and describes his logic in choosing to do evil. This description ‘fits’ with my experiences of working with disturbed young offenders and the thought patterns that lead them to do Very Bad Things, is brilliantly expressed and is therefore profound.

It occurs to me that there are very few examples of profundity in the poetry of the last hundred years. The ‘Four Quartets’ are an example of a poet attempting profundity but missing the mark and resorting to a weird kind of quasi-mystic mumbo jumbo instead, ‘Crow’ again aims to be profound but is let down by the device/conceit and the variable strength of the language used.

The most obvious candidate for profundity is Paul Celan and there are a few poems where the match between truthfulness and eloquence is made- I’m thinking of ‘I know you’ and ‘Ashglory’ in particular. I never thought I’d say this but there are times when Celan can be too concerned with ‘truth’ / ‘accuracy’ and the language almost disappears into itself. There might be a debate to be had about whether the price of extreme profundity is, simply, too high.

The price of extremes seems to lead naturally into a consideration of the profundity quotient present in the work of J H Prynne. The two phrases that immediately spring to mind are ‘grow up to main’ from ‘Streak~~~Willing~~~~Entourage~~~Artesian’ and ‘lack breeds lank’. The first of these (probably) relates to the demographic pressures that influenced the Ulster Loyalist’s participation in the peace process. It’s a pressure that is also felt in Israel and other parts of the Middle East so it is both accurate (true) and widely applicable but it is still incredibly terse. The second comes from ‘As Mouth Blindness’ which was published in the ‘Sub Songs’ collection and is a comment on the fact that the poorest members of society always suffer the most during a recession and/or a period of austerity. As an ex-Marxian agitator, I think this is a bit self-evident when compared with the first and also loses out because it is so compressed. Of course, the Prynne project is not concerned primarily with the profound but is much keener on describing things as they are and mostly succeeds in this aspiration in ways that other poets can only think about.

I think I need to do down the learned or erudite aspect of profundity a bit more. Sir Geoffrey Hill’s brief discussion of Bradwardine’s refutation of the New Pelagians is immensely scholarly and (selectively) accurate but it can’t be applied to the vagaries of the 21st century and is therefore unprofound.

Charles Olson’s ‘Maximus’ sequence does have moments of great profundity especially when Alfred North Whitehead’s work on process and temporality is illustrated or exemplified by the magical descriptions of the realities of life in Gloucester. In fact, ther is an argument to be made that Olson’s combination of intellectual strength and technical skill make him the most profound of the Modernist vein. To try and show what I mean, this is a longish extract from ‘OCEANIA’:

     As a stiff & colder
wind too, straight down
the river as in winter
chills cools
the night people had sd

earlier they'd hoped
wld have been a
thunderstorm I had sd no
the wind's still
where it was

Excuse please no boast
only the glory of
celebrating

the process
of Earth
and man.

And no one
to tell it to
but you for
Robert Hogg, Dan Rice and
Jeremy Prynne

And the smell
of summer night
and new moan
hay
And the moon
now gone a quarter toward
last quarter comes
out

Regardless of the fact that the rest of this poem is just as beautiful and understated, regardless of the reference to Prynne, this ticks all my boxes for profundity. Whitehead’s later work on process is complex, demanding and radical, his ideas are also eminently and universally applicable, Olson’s example of how the Whitehead thesis works in real tangible ongoing life is a technical masterpiece as well as being both lyrical and combative in equal measure. In short, Charles Olson did profound to perfection and continues to put the rest of us to shame.

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.

J H Prynne in the TLS

I was going to spend some time this morning writing about the way I feel about Geoffrey Hill (as opposed to think). This was going to be an entirely coherent and almost well-written follow-up to my debate on this blog with Tom Day. However, yesterday’s edition of the TLS contains an article/review on Prynne by Robert Potts.

I need to say at the outset that I’ve read this particular rag since I was 14 and it occupies an important part of my life.  I don’t read it for the poetry however as this is usually fairly drab although they did publish a John Kinsella poem the other week.

Potts’ article is quite lengthy and covers the Glossator Prynne issue, the Brinton book,  the Cambridge Literary review and ‘Sub Songs’.

Let’s start with the photograph, this is of Prynne riding a bike and is dated 2004. Suffice it to say that it doesn’t do him any favours but merely reinforces the ‘oddness’ image. There are much better pictures available and I have to question Potts’ choice (he is the TLS managing editor and therefore will have had a hand in this choice).

Potts starts badly but improves over the five columns. The first sentence is- “The poetry of J H Prynne is both obscure and difficult, qualities tolerated in canonical and foreign writers (Blake, Mallarmé, Celan, late Beckett), but treated with enormous resentment and suspicion in contemporary English poets”.  This requires a bit of sorting out, ‘late’ Celan (after about 1963) can be said to be difficult but the critical reception of the later works was not one of toleration and there are still those critics who view the later output as a story of progressive decline. When did ‘late’ Beckett begin and is it really considered both obscure and difficult?

There’s a long debate going on in my head about obscurity and Potts does redeem himself by quoting Prynne at length on this very subject in “Difficulties in the translation of ‘difficult’ poems” but to start with such a bland description will deter many readers from proceeding further.

Further into the article Keston Sutherland wins applause for his Glossator piece on ‘L’Exthase de M Poher’ and the ‘unwitty circus’ section is quoted at length and Justin Katko gets plaudits for his essay on ‘The Plant Time Manifold Transcript’ (which I must get round to reading.

Interestingly Potts proceeds with “One yearns for a reading – academic or otherwise – that would start to explain Her Weasels Wild Returning (1994) or the impenetrable STREAK~~~WILLING~~~ENTOURAGE~~~ARTESIAN (2009)”. I haven’t paid much attention to the first of these but I have read and written about the second. I really must take issue with the ‘impenetrable’ jibe because this isn’t the case. ‘Streak’ may be wonderfully and brilliantly austere but it isn’t beyond comprehension. I’m not suggesting that this is achieved immediately but it is possible to grasp the outline of at least one significant theme and to be thunderstruck by the poet’s ability to say complex things in a new and inspiring way- ‘Streak’ is the Prynne sequence that keeps drawing me back in. I’ve just spent a couple of days looking at the fourth poem and remain astounded at how much is packed in to such a small pace and how contradictions are exposed and played with.

With regard to ‘Sub Songs’, Potts refers to ‘As Mouth Blindness’ but only to explain the title rather than what the poem may be ‘about’ which again is unfortunate because I’d quite like to read what someone else makes of it.

Potts does not mention either ‘Mental Ears’ or ‘Poetic Work’ both of which provide a good insight into the nature of the Prynne project- both of these are now available on the web.

The last half of the final sentence reads “but as the “century of suspicion” ends, aptly and predictably, in a credit crisis, J H Prynne’s poetry may – like it or not – be most fully and restlessly the music of our times”. I have to ask: why on earth didn’t he start with that? I almost feel a letter coming on….

J H Prynne’s ‘Sub Songs’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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