Jeremy Prynne’s Mental Ears pt 2

I’ve been avoiding Mt Prynne for a while but it’s now probably time to get back into the fray. In preparation for reading the poem(s), I’ve had another look at ‘Mental Ears and Poetic Work’ which I wrote about some months ago and is still available from the newly revived AAAARG site.

Two things have struck me in addition to the stuff about phonology. The first is that the preamble contains a definition of poetry and it is reasonably clear –

This because for all the pungent games in which poetry can engage, it comprises at its most fully extended an envelope which finds and sets the textual contours in writing of how things are; whilst also activating a system of  discontinuities and breaks which interrupt the intrinsic cohesion and boundary profiles of its domain, so that there is constant leakage inwards and outwards across the connection with the larger world order. That’s an outline in broadest abstraction, for a start.

Although this is clearly expressed, it does require some careful thought. The first thing that strikes me is the notion that poetry can ‘engage’ a range of ‘pungent games’. Prynne always chooses his words very carefully and pungent (in the sense of  convincing, trenchant, biting, persuasive as well as painfully or strongly affecting the feelings) seems particularly acute given what he has to say about poetic work at the end of the essay. To describe poetry as engaging with games is more puzzling. Prynne is well known for his refusal to enter into dialogue with what he describes as ‘the witty circus’ and he may be attempting to contrast what he sees most poets doing with his own aspirations. There is also the possibility that he’s using pungent in the pejorative sense (smelly).

The next part presents us with the idea that poetry can be extended to find and set in writing the textual contours of  ‘how things are’. This is redolent of Prynne in China in 2006 when he said that poetry should aspire to radical economy and truthfulness. I do tend to stumble over this ‘how things are’ business because I still can’t see (and I’ve tried) how poetry is in a privileged position with regard to reality and describing it as it is. This is not to deny the importance of poetry, I understand and accept its potential to alter the way we view the world and the way we think about language but I do feel that this kind of rhetoric makes a claim that can’t be delivered. I also admit to being a Rortian relativist with a profound mistrust in the status of objective truth but that doesn’t prevent me from observing that poetry is no better at saying ‘how it is’ than any other form of creative expression.

Prynne and Geoffrey Hill both take poetry incredibly seriously and this is to be admired, I would never denigrate their lifelong dedication nor their skill as poets. I would however question their ability to present me with an objective statement as to how things are. Prynne’s socialism says very little to me politically and I already know that contemporary imperialism is a very Bad Thing. With regard to his devotion to Wordsworth, I’ll still need a lot of persuading although I do share his admiration for Olson.

Prynne is clearly one of the two finest poets writing in English and I read him because I find his poetry to be both challenging and rewarding. I don’t expect him or any other poet to be able to tell me how it is.

I’ll now turn to Prynne’s description of how poetry functions. He claims that it  ‘activates a system of  discontinuities and breaks’. This notion of activating, which I read as putting into operation or giving life to, is an accurate example of what some poetry seeks to achieve. It isn’t what all poets set out to do and again the implication is that only this kind of deliberately energising verse is somehow worthwhile. Causing ‘discontinuities and breaks’ would appear to be what Prynne is increasingly about as were the later poems of Paul Celan, both of whom have suffered critical opprobrium for their insistence on creating rupture as a decisive feature in their work.

These ruptures are said to contest the ‘intrinsic  cohesion and boundary profiles’ of poetry’s domain. I’m not sure that this is the case, poetry’s domain doesn’t appear to me to have that distinct a boundary profile, nor does it exhibit any kind of intrinsic cohesion. What’s good about poetry is its tendency to seep into other forms of expression. Many artists and musicians use poetry in their work, McDonald’s are currently using a poem to sell their wares so the boundary profile would seem to be fairly fluid. As for intrinsic cohesion, the world of poetry has always been riven by factionalism and their are poets working with many different kinds of verse so it’s difficult to see what there is that can be contested in any kind of focused way.

Prynne ends this telling paragraph by saying that these discontinuities  promote constant ‘leakage inwards and outwards across the connections with the larger world order’. I’d like to know how exactly this occurs, Prynne’s poetry is notorious in its refusal to engage with the wider world and the lay perspective of his work shows that this has been a success. The media response to Geoffrey Hill’s elevation shows that any leaking of serious verse is usually met with complete bafflement.

The end of the essay is also instructive in that Prynne makes a case for the poetic text  providing ‘the templates for ethical seriousness’ by being in dispute with its own ways and means. Prynne suggests that poetry must engage with the harsh reality of the world and have bloody hands in order to do worthwhile work. This harks back to something he said about twenty years ago with regard to the fact that language is never neutral, never pure but is always fully implicated and complicit in the deeds of men.

So, is this any help at all with the climb up mount Prynne? Perhaps it is but it also gives me a much clearer idea of how he views his work and how it may function in the wider world.


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