Jeremy Prynne in China

Barque Press have produced a dvd of a conference/reading held in China in 2005. In attendance were (among others) Jeremy Prynne and Keston Sutherland. The camera was held by John Wilkinson, so this can be said to be a 100% Cambridge School production.
As regular readers will know, I’ve spent the last few months wandering around the lower slopes of Mount Prynne and I remain very keen to obtain anything that will give me a clearer idea of where the man is coming from. The dvd also features a number of Chinese poets but unfortunately I have been unable to work out how to turn on the subtitles as instructed on the sleeve unless the one poem that has subtitles waving around at the top of the screen is all I’m going to get.
There a number of points that Prynne makes in the film that are worthy of comment:
1. English and Chinese cultures are very old but not as old as the Sumerian culture. When compared with China and Britain, the culture of the USA is a mere fledgling. This is Prynne being a little bit waspish and an attempt to score a small but unnecessary point, we all know that American written culture hasn’t been around for very long but it doesn’t follow that it isn’t any good. It could be argued that Americans are freer to experiment with the language because they don’t have that much history hanging around their necks.
2. Poetry has two essential features: radical economy and truthfulness. I don’t think too many people will disagree with the notion that most good poetry strives to compress complex emotions and ideas into a short space. Even very long poems can achieve this economy in a way that prose cannot. I have much more of a problem with truthfulness because it seems to give to poetry a power or strength that it doesn’t actually have. I admit that I’m a bit dubious about any claims to truth but it seems to me that to claim that poetry has some kind of privileged access to truth is making far too grand a claim. I would much prefer it if Prynne had mentioned honesty instead because that would come closer to the mark of what poetic endeavour should be about. Most of us who write poetry are painfully aware when a line or a phrase is dishonest or consciously manipulative and these are the lines that we normally exclude no matter how technically accomplished they may be.
With regard to ‘radical economy’, Prynne reads a Chinese poem in English translation and points out that the American translator should have struck out one ‘the’ because it is superfluous.
3. Prynne mentions ‘hybrid words’ during his reading and equates these with the corruption of language. I’m not sure whether he’s saying that these words should not be used and whether he is denoting a difference between hybrid and compound words.
He reads four poems of his own and the first three are read with remarkable clarity. The fourth, which he says was published in 2005, is read as an experiment, the audience is instructed to clear their minds of images and memories of images and to listen with eyes closed. The reading is very powerful with Prynne enunciating each word with care but his mouth is too close to the microphone which makes it difficult to make out phrases.
The dvd also shows Keston Sutherland reading from the ‘Antifreeze’ collection but, as with his performances on Youtube, his diction isn’t brilliant and the strength of the message is somewhat lost.
So, I’m a little clearer on Prynne’s modus operandi and the dvd has made me return to the work that was read.

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4 responses to “Jeremy Prynne in China

  1. Thanks for this. Interesting stuff.

    I think that can’t be _Hot White Andy_ that Keston Sutherland is reading. He hadn’t written it by then.

    A transcript of Prynne’s talk is available in Sutherland’s journal QUID.

  2. You’re right, it’s ‘Delete Sex’ which I’ve got in the Antifreeze collection- don’t know if it’s been published anywhere else. He does read other poems as well. The point that I was trying to make re the reading is that he’s an excellent poet but the strength of the work goes a bit awry when he’s reading it.
    I’ve got a number of issues of Quid on my hard drive, I’ll have a look for the lecture.

  3. Curious you don’t find Keston’s readings equal to the work. Lots of listeners esteem his readings: I think he’s one of the best performers of his own work I’ve ever heard; his readings have been instrumental in developing my approaches on his poetry. The recordings, perhaps, don’t do him justice? Hope you get to hear him sometime soon — he’s reading at University of Surrey this Thursday…

    I don’t think Prynne’s any kind of English anti-American of the obvious kind; I expect he’s being mischeviously ingratiating to his Chinese audience. His enemies routinely accuse him of an Americanisation of English poetry, importing inimcal American experiment and abstraction. All pretty preposterous. His relationships with Charles Olson and Ed Dorn were really important to him; and he had a fellowship at Harvard back in the day.

    That DVD is a curious thing: yes, 100% guaranteed authentic Cambridge Poetry Product. It makes me a little squeamish too.

    Anyway, I understand there’s a new JHP out imminently — I’ll look forward to reading your thoughts on it!

    • I know that I’m in a minority of one with regard to Keston’s readings. I should probably hear him live before rushing to judgement but I just think he reads too quickly to get across all that’s going on in his work- perhaps I’m expecting too much. I am aware of the ‘Americanisation’ critique thrown at Prynne (which is entirely wrong-headed) but I just thought this point was a bit unnecessary- the use of English by other nations is far too complex a subject to be dismissed in a one-liner.
      Earlier this week someone responded positively to a piece I’d done on the Maximus poems and this sent me back to all things Olson. I couldn’t see the similarities between Prynne and Olson before but now I think I can- they’re both very very good at depicting a range of perspectives at once and I’m beginning to realise how much technique that requires. I also have a friend who is an enormous Dorn fan and I’m trying really hard to convert him to Prynne on the strength of this connection- so far without success.
      I’ll continue to watch the dvd because it’s the only ‘live’ access to Prynne that I’m likely to get.
      Incidentally, my Wordsworth avoidance behaviour continues but I am reading the Simon Jarvis tome – will that do?

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