J H Prynne’s ‘Sub Songs’

The first thing to note is that this is a big book.  It contains only 22 pages and 9 poems but it is the size of a coffee table book with a cover that looks as though it’s been designed. This is in marked contrast with ‘To Pollen’ and ‘Streak~~~Willing’ which were small in size and defiant in their absence of design values. I have no idea whether this is significant or in any way relevant, I am merely stating the facts.

Barque Press said something about ‘Sub Songs’ marking a move a way from “stanzaic blocks” towards “more freely shaped individual lyrics” and this is certainly the case. There also seems to be a greater variation in tone between the individual poems and a wider range of difficulty ranging from the surprisingly accessible to the utterly baffling.

Because I’ve learned to take Prynne slowly, I’ve spent a fair amount of time with the first poem which is called “As Mouth Blindness”. I’ve tried to bear in mind what Prynne has said recently in “Mental Ears and Poetic Work” and about difficult poetry. I’ve also been mindful of the problems involved in reaching a conclusion too quickly. I’m not going to reproduce the poem in full here because some lines are indented and I haven’t yet worked out how to gain access to the WordPress style sheet.

As is usual with Prynne, there are large swathes of this poem that I have yet to grasp but there’s enough that’s clear to enable me to make an initial stab with regard to the subject matter. It would appear to have the recent recession firmly in its sights and to depict the social/human fall-out from this event. It would also appear to be quite angry in tone.

The poem begins with “Right now beyond the brunt yet afforded, gainsay now / for aspect close to residue…” I’m reading ‘the brunt’ as the worst of something (ie the collapse of the global financial system) and ‘yet afforded’ to the fact that tax-payers bailed out the banks and other institutions in order to prevent total collapse. Things get a bit more tricky with ‘aspect close to residue’ but I’m taking one of the OED definitions of aspect which is given as “The appearance presented by circumstances, etc, to the mind” and I’m reading residue as an adjective- “Remaining, surviving”. This could be taken as a reference that those of us who thought (hoped) that the recession would lead to a more equitable and rational system were mistaken.

Prynne does have a track record of ranting about the money-men and government fiscal policy which I have previously characterised as quaint and politically naive. This poem does seem to represent a more nuanced rant (although it’s still a rant) and it contains some quite telling points. Writing poetry about economics isn’t at all easy (I’ve tried) yet Prynne manages to combine perceptive analysis with an appropriate degree of anger.

I have read enough of Prynne to know that leaping to conclusions is a bad idea and to arrive at a hypothesis from the first line and a half is potentially disastrous. The rest of the poem does however contain elements that support this initial stab in the dark. A little further on we have “ridges debased fetch so plainly / or even gradual, nothing not due…” ‘ridge’, the OED tells me is a slang term used to denote “Gold; a gold coin” or any metal coin. If we take ‘fetch’ as a noun (a contrivance, dodge, stratagem, trick) then this would kind of make sense but so would reading it as a verb (restore to consciousness). ‘Nothing not due’ would seem to be the maxim that all debts must be paid, hinting that ordinary people will have to pay for this folly.

The next piece of evidence is “….Hateful repetition, fixed by / horror of its enclosing roulette chamber, echo of damage / renewed”. I don’t think I need the OED for this, I’m taking ‘roulette chamber’ to be a reference to financial and stock markets and read this as a depiction of the cyclical nature of the capitalist system and the fact that catastrophic crashes will recur as long as the system persists.

The last piece of supporting evidence is “…great lack breeds lank / less and less, claimant for right.” I want this to be a reference to the underclass and those who always suffer the most at a time of economic crisis although I haven’t fully thought through ‘claimant for right’ yet.

If this hypothesis is correct then Prynne is accurate in his analysis and justified in his anger. The poem ends with “Now get out.”

‘Sub Songs’ is available from Barque Press and I thoroughly recommend it.

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5 responses to “J H Prynne’s ‘Sub Songs’

  1. Interesting, thanks! What’s your theory about the size of the book? Why is it so big, do you think? That last line reminds me of the last line of _To Pollen_: “Try doing it now”. Both lines land you on the brink just as the poem disappears.

    • I don’t think there’s any significance at all in the size of the book unless it’s to make it for readers to carry around (which is certainly the case). With regard to “Now get out”, this could be an echo of ‘To Pollen’ although the subject matter appears to be different- it does have a similar level of anger but I’d need to thinks about this some more.

  2. I’ve spent a couple of afternoons and evenings worrying the OED and having some difficulty in reconciling Prynne’s title ‘As mouth blindness’ with market meltdown – assuming this to be a side of effect of radiation treatment – strong measures for the sick patient, perhaps.

    Sub songs – often twittered as a try-out (‘sotto sotto’ ‘Her voice was ever low’) but of no territorial significance. We have scans and surgery – ‘is this the mouth’.

    The size may not be significant – but even bigger than ‘Brass’ – a nod to the money theme. The red white and blue of the cover may be territorially significant, though.

    • Teeth and Prynne have remained a complete mystery to me ever since reading ‘News of the Warring Clans’ and here we have ‘our mouth assents slave dental unbroken’ which I’m going to have to spend a long time in a dark room thinking about. I’ve never been brave enough to tackle titles so I admire your reconciliation.

  3. ‘As Mouth Blindness’ as a title seems most clear in the poem with the phrase “…mouth in thought/shut up chew it…”.
    Beyond the recession, there seems a willingness in the poem to break with past examples, both economically and crucially poetically; “Hateful repetition, fixed by/horror of its enclosing roulette chamber, echo of damage/renewed…”. Constant re-invention of forms, day by day make it new, can lead to the “ardent sweet/relief of singularity”.
    Now is not a time to spit back out the things we already know, but to digest them fully, re-appropriate them, and utilise them to forge forward.

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