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.
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4 responses to “Jeremy Prynne’s mental ears

  1. This is really interesting: at the risk of being glib, though, I think you need to read more Wordsworth!

  2. Both good places! Don’t neglect ‘The Excursion’, though: the kind of political anxiety you are interested in — and avow — is manifest there. Wordsworth won’t satisfy you, I think, but you ask for similar things from the world.

    That volume of Prynne commentaries is out in digital form, pretty amazing stuff:

    http://ojs.gc.cuny.edu/index.php/glossator/issue/current/showToc

  3. The Excursion it is then- any decent editions? Thanks for the Glossator link.

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