J H Prynne on ‘difficult’ poetry.

The third issue of the Cambridge Literary Review has published a ‘Keynote Speech’ given by Prynne in China in 2008 entitled “Difficulties in the translation of  ‘difficult’ poems” which turns out to be the best guide to Prynne’s practice that I have yet seen. What follows is a crude synopsis but I hope it gives more than a flavour of his analysis/argument.

He starts with a general description of modernism noting that:

“In difficult modernist poetry there can be obscure and complex aspects relating to thought and ideas, to imagery and structure, to condensed or broken linkages and to embedded references to other texts or works.”

I read this and realised that this wasn’t so much a general description of modernist poetry but a list of some of the main aspects of Prynne’s work, nobody else that I’m aware of combines all of these elements together. Prynne also talks about the difficulties that the reader/translator faces when trying to work out which of the many meanings of a word or phrase and which of the many pathways should be followed. This is very redolent of my own experience of reading Prynne’s work which is littered with moments of what he describes as ‘rich uncertainty’. He also makes the point that good difficult poetry is surprising and that this surprise sometimes takes our breath away. Geoffrey Hill makes a similar point in ‘Language, Suffering and Silence’ where he writes about ‘semantic shock’ being an important component of a successful poem.

I think the following usefully sums up the Prynne project:

” In a more technical way we can acknowledge that unfamiliarity plays an important part in pattern-recognition, and we can ask how this feature gains its effect. If two words are placed together that are not normally associated as from the same field of reference or meaning, a kind of semantic spark or jump may be created that is intensely localised within the continuity of the text process: it may be a kind of “hot spot” that burns very bright but which the reader can quite quickly assimilate within the larger patterns of composition. Sometimes these sparks can follow in quick succession, many of them, producing disturbance patterns of their own, extended trains of unfamiliar words and phrase which break the rules of local sense. Even so, a reader can feel carried along by the energy of surprise and unresolved ambiguity, and the translator can recognise the challenge to translating skills even if good solutions are hard to find.”

These ‘semantic sparks’ seem to be increasingly frequent in Prynne’s more recent work, ‘Streak, Willing, Entourage, Artesian’ appears to be littered with them. Whilst being surprised and carrying this level of ambiguity is very rewarding, I find the longer poems require me to hold a lot of these uncertainties in my head at the same time which can be quite intimidating. For example ‘Streak, Willing’ appears to have the recent civil war in Ulster as a major theme yet the third section contains a reference to an economic recession which doesn’t appear to occur elsewhere. This may be because I haven’t picked up these references yet but (because of its length) I do find it difficult to get the whole poem into my head but this doesn’t prevent me from trying because I know that I will eventually be familiar with all the cryptic phrases and allusions.

Having read and absorbed what Prynne has to say, I think that for me the biggest ‘attraction’ in reading him is the multi-dimensional quality of the work in that he makes full use of the modernist bag of tricks but there is also the additional elements of word sounds and form that come from much older poetic traditions. So, as well as surprise and uncertainty, I think I read Prynne because of the cognitive challenges that his work presents and the enjoyment comes in trying to put all the elements together.

Prynne rightly distances difficult modernist work from  post-modernist “playfulness where meaning is allowed to skim across the surface in a deliberately arbitrary way, because the use of difficulty as a method of poetic thought is different both in intention and effect from difficulty as a playground or a funfair.” We could argue whether this is a fair description of all post-modern verse or whether its just a bit of a dig at the work of John Ashbery but I think the line is properly drawn against those who think that Prynne is inviting readers to make their own poem when reading his work.

We now come to the thorny issue of the dialectic, regular readers will know that I groan inwardly when mention is made of the dialectic in relation to poetry primarily because I feel that this complex term with very many competing definitions is used as a kind of lazy shorthand by poets and critics who want to display their ideological credentials. Here’s Prynne’s use of the term:

“If these many directions are developed so as to produce strong contradiction and self-dispute then the method may become a dialectic practice, in which poetic form and expression are brought into internal contest with themselves and with each other.”

I’m not disputing that difficult poetry can produce both contradiction and self  dispute but I would like to query whether we need to describe such elements as “a dialectic practice” because the dialectic is about much more than just contradiction.

As usual with Prynne, the footnotes are almost as revealing as the text itself. There are references to Eliot, Empson, Ivor Richards and Sergei Eisenstein amongst many others.

In conclusion, this is essential reading for anyone who is serious about getting to grips with Prynne and may also serve to cut a much needed path through the critical obfuscation that continues to be produced by others.


9 responses to “J H Prynne on ‘difficult’ poetry.

  1. I’m glad Google directed me here when I was struck by a need to renew my acquaintance with Prynne. Years ago friends at Cambridge put me onto him (and said he was a lovely fellow) and I was entranced by Prynne’s poems, the shocks and the surprises, oracular and often oddly charming. Thanks for drawing my attention to his keynote speech. I’m inspired to read more.

  2. I’m pleased you found it useful, I have the other keynote speech (‘mental ears and poetic work’) in pdf, would you like me to send it to you?

  3. A pdf copy would be much appreciated. I’m organizing getting a copy of “Difficulties in the translation of ’difficult’ poems”… and have just purchased Sub-songs on your recommendation in a more recent post.

  4. A Prynne-feed has an addictive effect and should be banned; syntax violation effects ordered synapse cognition; imagery impulses are coordinated by erratic lightning flashes; disordered internal monologues furrow-brow and all this leads to pleasant sleepless nights. What can I say about Jeremy Prynne; an imagination elixir? a madness frolicking with logic? a mental cutis anseria? FEEEED ME!.

  5. Okay aye, I got the big sub songs sent, and I’m slow to read it, o so slow. And I love it o so slowly. Out of the incomprehension, moments of warmth… a troubled Romantic ‘downy scents’, ‘fever in crisis’….

    I generally like this book I bought, Sub Songs, for the obscurity of thought it has provoked in my brain.

  6. Where can I purchase Sub Songs? I can’t make contact with Barque Press in London by email, and I am in Wuhan, PRC….and would like a copy of the poetry sent to my Canadian address. Can someone help me? Xie xie!

  7. Vance Maverick

    Does their web site work for you?

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