In my journey up Mount Prynne I’ve been looking at some of the academic work that sets out to elucidate the poems and place Prynne in a wider context. The Jacket site has been particularly useful in this regard but unfortunately most of the stuff on there is couched in dense and (to the lay reader) impenetrable terms which doesn’t actually elucidate the work but does serve to further mystify and complicate the business of climbing Mount Prynne. I cite as evidence Kevin Nolan who writes- “rather than a merely mechanical materialism or, even worse, a Heideggerian apophatics which would collapse the autonomy of the poem in the rush towards a negative theology of the unennhalte?” How many people, other than post-graduates, are going to be entirely familiar with the meaning of this?
There’s also the issue of value in poetry and the fact that an impossibly elitist and obscure discourse on poets and their work effectively destroys that value by means of exclusion. This is not to say that I am against theory nor am I against the various European brands of criticism per se. I do recall however watching with some dismay as deconstruction, post-structuralism and all things Foucault started to seep into the Anglo-Saxon world in the early eighties. This seepage has produced what is, at best, a bastardisation of the original ideas and, at worst, a complete travesty of what was meant.
I need also to say that there are some insights in Mr Nolan’s piece but the hapless reader does need to wade through the bullshit to get at them. Unlike David Harvey, I don’t think that Eng Lit has entirely lost it’s theoretical way but I do feel that attempting to be more ‘difficult’ than difficult poets themselves are does nobody any good. Criticism, if its any good, should provide readers and students with the wider context and provide the tools for us to appreciate the poems finer points. Alastair Fowler’s gloss on Paradise Lost, for example, tells me about the way Milton makes use of astronomy and of the significance of numbers in the poem’s construction. I can then choose whether or not to marvel at the astronmical invention and puzzle over the numbers but Fowler also lets me know that these are not barriers to understanding. George Steiner writes with great warmth and enthusiasm about Paul Celan but he does this with far more clarity than many members of the academy.
So, this is a plea for Eng Lit to sort itself out and to remember that obscurity and quality do not always go hand in hand and that ‘difficult’ poets do should not be written about in difficult terms.