John Wilkinson’s partial gloss on Word Order

I’m very grateful to Neil for alerting me to the latest edition of ‘Glossator’ which is exclusively devoted to Prynne. I haven’t read all of it yet but the first piece that caught my eye was ‘Heigh Ho: a partial gloss of Word Order ‘ by John Wilkinson.
Wilkinson is a fairly rare beast in that he’s spent most of his life working in the health sector and has nevertheless produced an impressive body of engaged political verse. He’s also a perceptive writer on the works of both Prynne and Sutherland- even if his fan letter to Sutherland re ‘Stress Position’ was a little disappointing. It just so happens that ‘Word Order’ is on of the first poems that I encountered on my way up Mount Prynne so I started ‘Heigh Ho’ with more than a little excitement.
Having now read the piece on several occasions I have to say the Wilkinson’s ‘Word Order’ isn’t the same as the one I have in my head so I’ve had to reconsider my initial reaction, which isn’t a bad thing.
Before I proceed with any further consideration of the dilemma I’m currently in, I’d like to insert a few words on the complex business of glossing poetry. First of all there’s the obvious- the verb to gloss is not a million miles from ‘gloze’ so glossing, or producing a glossary, may not be exclusively about producing an impartial guide but may indeed be about putting a specific ‘spin’ on something in order to present it in a certain light. Is this what Wilkinson means by ‘partial’ in his title?
The glossing of poetry can be very useful in helping us readers gain a little more context, Fowler’s gloss on ‘Paradise Lost’ is probably the best example of providing just the right amount of additional information without detracting from the reader’s enjoyment of the poem. It is also eminently possible to under-gloss, Carey’s work on Milton’s shorter poems and the various editions of Spenser’s shorter stuff are guilty of this. There’s also the problem of over-glossing, Bert Hamilton’s notes to the ‘Faerie Queen’ annoy me to death with his tendency to provide definitions of words and terms that are already familiar to those with a reasonable vocabulary whilst omitting explanations/context on the bits that I need a hand with. Then there’s the ‘completist’ gloss- Nigel Smith on Marvell comes to mind as providing more information on 17th century politics than my small mind can take but he is better than most others in demonstrating the ways in which ideology and verse went hand in hand.
I’ve looked through my copies of the above tomes and realised that I’ve spent more time making comments about the gloss than I have about the poems so perhaps that’s an indication that we readers like to keep tight hold of what the poems say to us rather than what eminent critics have to say.
Wilkinson builds a convincing connection between ‘Word Order’ and ‘Field Notes’ (Prynne’s work on ‘The Solitary Reaper’), pointing out that both highlight the close relationship between work songs and poetry. He also provides some useful clarification of a few of the more oblique references. He traces “rap her to bank” to a miners’s song from the Durham coalfields and postulates that this is a reference to the “defeat of historical traditions by financial ‘disciplines’ in the eighties. As someone who was involved in that particular coalfield during the strike, I remain of the view that we shouldn’t get in any way nostalgic for the British coal industry and that this ‘defeat’ was about forty years overdue. This is not the place to indulge in that particular debate but is to point out that there’s always more than one gloss.
Wilkinson also provides the source for “wer soll das bezahlen” (who is going to pay) which is another line of the fourth poem in ‘Word Order’ – he traces this to a German drinking song and makes a connection with stock market ‘adjustments’, pointing out that the poem was written in 89 when the various monetarist gurus had gained the ascendancy.
So far, so good. It can be recognised throughout Prynne’s work that he pushes a broad left position that most readers of the Guardian would be reasonably comfortable with. Some of us would argue (with more than a degree of passion) that it is precisely this attitude that was/is the problem rather than Friedman/Thatcher/Nozenck and the colllapse of state socialism. Anyway, whilst I enjoy the poetry because of what it does with language, I’m not at all sympathetic to this brand of sentimentalised politics.
This now brings me to my own reading of ‘Word Order’. The first thoughts related (somewhat foolishly) to a marriage that is torn asunder by one partner’s adultery. The first poem could be read as a wedding ceremony and the last good refer to the divorce papers going through with lots of bad things happening in the middle. As Wilkinson says “the themes of betrayal and ingratitude run sotto voce throughout Word Order”. They didn’t seem all that sotto voce to me at the time.
The other thing that struck me was the presence of Paul Celan, in particular the repeated references to the breathing processes being hurt or damaged. The other Celan conceit is the recurring ‘you’ as an anonymous (but usually female) other which Prynne also deploys in varying tones.
Wilkinson sees social Darwinian logic underpinning the “brief and robotically formulaic” shortish poems that crop up in ‘Word Order’, I’m afraid he’s going to have to spell this one out for me in greater detail because I identified a technique of verbal improvisation that we poetry jazz types have been using for years whereby you state the line and then break it down in a number of different ways until you return to the main theme. I’m not sure if I knew of the Peter Riley / Derek Bailey connection when I first read this but on reflection it makes even more ‘sense’ to me.
Wilkinson reprints the procedure for the administration of CPR and then tells us he has no idea whether Prynne has actually had personal experience of this but nevertheless asserts that this could be wrapped up in the use of the word ‘spike’ in the final poem. He also leaps from ‘the ethereal vapour’ to Zyklon B and from ‘wash house’ to the shower rooms where victims were taken prior to being gassed. Wilkinson describes these leaps as ‘unavoidable’. I’m not convinced, there may be a one-to-one relationship between the first poem and the Holocaust, as there may be with the last, it’s just that I don’t think Prynne works like that and that there’s too much going on which may point in other ways at the same time.
‘Heigh Ho’ is an important addition to the ‘Prynne-crit’ canon. I’m particularly grateful to Wilkinson for writing about difficult stuff with great clarity and for presenting me with the image of Prynne as the Albert Ayler of the recorder. Shouldn’t that be Evan Parker? Wilkinson has also added a new literary term to my vocabulary: ‘glosso-hectic’. Excellent, sounds like a band from Toronto…..


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