J H Prynne on Poetic Thought

The important news of this week is not the publication of Hughes’ ‘Last Letter’ nor is it the award of the Nobel prize to Vargas Llosa. The really important event is the publication of the above essay in the latest edition of ‘Textual Practice’.
‘Poetic Thought’ derives from a lecture given by Prynne in China in 2008 (with footnotes added later) and provides us with a reasonably clear insight into his practice and the rationale behind his work. It proceeds by negative definition, Prynne tells us what he doesn’t mean by ‘thought’ and then does the same for ‘poetic’. He tells us that “The activity of thought resides at the level of language practice and is in the language and is the language; in this sense, language is how thinking gets done and how thinking coheres into thought, shedding its links with an originating sponsor or a process of individual consciousness” and later on: “but before the work is completed, the poet must self-remove from this location, sever the links not by a ruse but in order to test finally the integrity of the result”.
It is recognised that in most of Prynne’s work ‘self-removal’ is an important component but I have a number of lingering doubts. ‘To Pollen’ contains an address to readers (the ‘resilient brotherhood’) which doesn’t feel like self-removal. The same can be said for the angry “Now get out” at the end of ‘As Mouth Blindness’. So, is Prynne saying that these poems aren’t very good because he hasn’t managed to completely remove himself from the text? I’m not sure that he’s right about this imperative either, ‘Paradise Lost’ contains lots of Milton, ‘The Prelude’ contains lots of Wordsworth and both of these are enhanced by the presence of the poet. I’m not saying that self-removal isn’t effective, ‘Streak~~Willing~~Entourage~~Artesian’ is magnificent in part because of the absolute absence of Prynne from the work, it’s just that I don’t think self-removal is essential in the business of making good work.
Prynne does seem to acknowledge that this is problematic when he says “the focus of poetic composition, as a text takes shape in the struggle of the poet to separate from it, projects into the textual arena an intense energy of conception and differentiation, pressed up against the limits which are discovered and invented by composition itself.” It would therefore seem that this self-removal is a struggle which may or not be won and that this struggle is waged against the limits of composition, this feels a bit woolly. I’d need to know how exactly composition discovers and invents these limits and how many other poets are as acutely aware of the need to self-remove.
We now come to dialectics which Prynne defines as “the working encounter with contradiction in the very substance object-reality and the obduracy of thought”. I’m not a fan of the ‘d’ word primarily because it is over-used and has become more and more of a clich√© in the academy. I’m also never entirely clear which flavour of the dialectic is being referred to although the footnotes do refer Walter Benjamin’s notion of “the dialectic at a standstill” which is wrong (as in factually incorrect). This is odd because Prynne’s work shows that he knows that contradiction must go hand in hand with process for this kind of analysis to function.
We do get something of a definition in “Thus, poetic thought is brought into being by recognition and contest with the whole cultural system of a language, by argument that will not let go but which may not self-admire or promote the idea of the poet as arbiter of rightness.” I like the compulsive nature of the argument that won’t let go and think that the warning against self-admiration is worthy but I come back to the fact that some of our greatest poets advertise their skill and firmly proclaim themselves as arbiters of rightness. I can’t dismiss ‘Paradise Lost’ just because Milton flaunts his skill so brazenly and extols to the nth degree his own brand of rightness.
These quibbles are minor, the essay is full of insight and useful provocations and must be read by all who have an interest in poetry and the difficult business of making good verse.


3 responses to “J H Prynne on Poetic Thought

  1. I see I’ll be able to read this through my local library subscription…after the year’s embargo is over. I’ll try to remember to look it up then.

    “Mental Ears” was good — my only complaint was that he seems to be claiming that the way of reading he propounds is based in phonology, which is actually rather different. His sudden production of the rabbit from the hat (the French Revolution) was quite satisfying.

    (Also, of course, Prynne’s prose has a savor all its own. Beerbohm would have known what to do with it.)

  2. I’m not sure about the phonology claim either but it has made me think much more about how words and lines sound and how they are formed in the mouth.

  3. ‘My topic is poetic thought, in its more or less modern aspect or at
    least from a modern point of view.’

    I think perhaps it is more the case that Prynne understands the contingency of poet’s presence/absence within the textual arena. Rather his idea of the extrication of/by the poet is informed by a very modern conception of the construction of a poem’s voice. Under this conception it is simply not true to say that Milton is in PL or that Wordsworth is in the Prelude, any more than it is true to say that the trees outside their houses are in these poems.

    Rather the dialectical energy arising between such opposites as
    semantic surplus and line/stanza breaks
    echo used to juxtapose apparently oppositional semantic derivations
    overtakes anything that is conceptually pre- the poem. We can say that the poet is pre-poem in the most defined sense: he is pre-, and only pre-, because he has been superseded by the text.

    Rhetoric of ‘presence’ is as textual as any other rhetoric.

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