J H Prynne in the TLS

I was going to spend some time this morning writing about the way I feel about Geoffrey Hill (as opposed to think). This was going to be an entirely coherent and almost well-written follow-up to my debate on this blog with Tom Day. However, yesterday’s edition of the TLS contains an article/review on Prynne by Robert Potts.

I need to say at the outset that I’ve read this particular rag since I was 14 and it occupies an important part of my life.  I don’t read it for the poetry however as this is usually fairly drab although they did publish a John Kinsella poem the other week.

Potts’ article is quite lengthy and covers the Glossator Prynne issue, the Brinton book,  the Cambridge Literary review and ‘Sub Songs’.

Let’s start with the photograph, this is of Prynne riding a bike and is dated 2004. Suffice it to say that it doesn’t do him any favours but merely reinforces the ‘oddness’ image. There are much better pictures available and I have to question Potts’ choice (he is the TLS managing editor and therefore will have had a hand in this choice).

Potts starts badly but improves over the five columns. The first sentence is- “The poetry of J H Prynne is both obscure and difficult, qualities tolerated in canonical and foreign writers (Blake, Mallarmé, Celan, late Beckett), but treated with enormous resentment and suspicion in contemporary English poets”.  This requires a bit of sorting out, ‘late’ Celan (after about 1963) can be said to be difficult but the critical reception of the later works was not one of toleration and there are still those critics who view the later output as a story of progressive decline. When did ‘late’ Beckett begin and is it really considered both obscure and difficult?

There’s a long debate going on in my head about obscurity and Potts does redeem himself by quoting Prynne at length on this very subject in “Difficulties in the translation of ‘difficult’ poems” but to start with such a bland description will deter many readers from proceeding further.

Further into the article Keston Sutherland wins applause for his Glossator piece on ‘L’Exthase de M Poher’ and the ‘unwitty circus’ section is quoted at length and Justin Katko gets plaudits for his essay on ‘The Plant Time Manifold Transcript’ (which I must get round to reading.

Interestingly Potts proceeds with “One yearns for a reading – academic or otherwise – that would start to explain Her Weasels Wild Returning (1994) or the impenetrable STREAK~~~WILLING~~~ENTOURAGE~~~ARTESIAN (2009)”. I haven’t paid much attention to the first of these but I have read and written about the second. I really must take issue with the ‘impenetrable’ jibe because this isn’t the case. ‘Streak’ may be wonderfully and brilliantly austere but it isn’t beyond comprehension. I’m not suggesting that this is achieved immediately but it is possible to grasp the outline of at least one significant theme and to be thunderstruck by the poet’s ability to say complex things in a new and inspiring way- ‘Streak’ is the Prynne sequence that keeps drawing me back in. I’ve just spent a couple of days looking at the fourth poem and remain astounded at how much is packed in to such a small pace and how contradictions are exposed and played with.

With regard to ‘Sub Songs’, Potts refers to ‘As Mouth Blindness’ but only to explain the title rather than what the poem may be ‘about’ which again is unfortunate because I’d quite like to read what someone else makes of it.

Potts does not mention either ‘Mental Ears’ or ‘Poetic Work’ both of which provide a good insight into the nature of the Prynne project- both of these are now available on the web.

The last half of the final sentence reads “but as the “century of suspicion” ends, aptly and predictably, in a credit crisis, J H Prynne’s poetry may – like it or not – be most fully and restlessly the music of our times”. I have to ask: why on earth didn’t he start with that? I almost feel a letter coming on….

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16 responses to “J H Prynne in the TLS

  1. The piece is online, alas without the photo. He does write of the late poetry,

    It is still possible to say what these poems are about; it remains unlikely that anyone will or can be sure what they mean.

    which isn’t far from what you’re saying about STREAK — difference in emphasis perhaps.

    I’ll be interested to hear more about Hill. I’ve been reading him again — it had been a while — and find myself liking him less than I thought I remembered. Mercian Hymns is a strikng anomaly, partly in felicitously mixing old and new, partly in avoiding meter, which doesn’t now strike me as his strong suit. But these are partial, initial impressions — and I’m reading the Selected, an unworthy production, poorly edited (lacking not only an editorial apparatus but even an editor).

    • I should have put a link in to the article, I’ll do this shortly. I’m a big fan of ‘Streak’ because it manages to be austere and complex at the same time – I have to take issue with “impenetrable” because it’s a very big adjective – suggesting that it can’t be penetrated (either for subject matter or for meaning) no matter how hard we try. I think I’ve got my brain around at least some of the meaning of the fourth poem without delving too far into obscure areas of knowledge and I will write about both these findings and the process shortly. It is possible to get meaning out of some of the later stuff, ‘Refuse Collection’ and ‘As Mouth Blindness’ spring to mind as poems that we can be reasonably sure about. The again, ‘meaning’ is a bit of a complex term in itself.
      The Hill piece was going to be today’s task, I’ve been re-reading as well and I think I’ve come to be more aware of the blemishes in the work but like the poet (as a human being) more- if that makes sense. The Selected isn’t good for all kinds of reasons- not enough ‘Comus’, the wrong bits from ‘The Triumph of Love’ and too much of ‘The Orchards of Syon’…..

      • Vance Maverick

        Just to be clear, by “liking him” I meant his poetry. It’s perfectly consistent to find, as you do, that the author or author-figure seems more likable, while the text is flawed. That’s how I feel, for example, about Gary Snyder. I don’t really have any feelings about Hill the person or figure (though the perpetual enacting of seriousness does seem to force a choice between irritation and amusement).

  2. I hadn’t thought about how I feel about poets until Tom Day pointed out that Hill wants his readers to like him so that he can then despise us for doing so. My current re-reading of the early stuff is making me annoyed at the pompous tone of some of it which seems to want to hide the fact that some poems aren’t very good. I do, however like the man who wrote ‘Comus’ and ‘Without Title’ and ‘Treatise’ for reasons I’ll explain when I write the blog- these later works also run counter to Prynne’s view on the importance of self-removal.

  3. Was struck just now, reading Hill lying on my daughter’s bed, while she fell asleep in the next room on mine (complex arrangements for a sick child), how much Olson there may be in Mercian Hymns. The closing could come right out of “The Kingfishers”, not just the matter but the clipped syntax.

    • This is an interesting train of thought, I’ve just looked at “The Kingfishers” and the voice seems quite similar. Or is it that there’s a lot of Pound in both of them?

      • That’s the parsimonious explanation. The few references to Pound I’ve read in Hill’s poetry are deprecating, and a bit superior, but of course that doesn’t exclude an influence.

        Pound I think had a great gift for late-Victorian-style musicality alla Yeats (but also Dowson, Swinburne, and back further, not to mention troubadors). Not many people could do, say, the Envoi from Mauberley. Olson had little of this — I have the impression he came to poetry late, without having passed through a Romantic phase — so he built on other aspects of Pound, making a consistent surface style from that slightly dry discursive, conversational voice. (Some find Pound’s demotic to be “off”, perhaps because he spent so little time after 1910 in the US.)

        Hill clearly wants that order of musicality — in some of the late poetry, he’s unmistakably working after Hopkins — but I’m unpersuaded (yet) that he achieves it.

  4. I’ll admit to the sin of parsimony, Hill’s essay on envoi shows a careful and admiring reader and I like to think that the influence on some of the work is pretty clear (although I also accept that any notion of influence is complex and provisional).
    I don’t like Hopkins and I’m not too keen on Hill’s attempts at emulation- Orchards of Sion, strikes me as the weakest of his later tomes. With regard to Olson- I like to think that the conversational style is fairly unique without any precursors. I think Olson took Pound’s ambition (to write ‘the whole shooting match’) and made it his own

    • I meant parsimony in the philosophy-of-science sense — no sin at all. Thanks for the pointer to Hill on the “Envoi”. Judging by the pages visible through Google Books, he’s acute, and just (though his prose leaves something to be desired).

      I’ll get back to you on the conversational style in Olson. I agree it’s distinctive, though maybe not unique. Are you familiar with archy and mehitabel? Probably not a direct model, but there was something in the air.

      • Thanks for the link, I see what you mean. I’m incredibly biased towards Olson because he uses that conversational style to express complex stuff. There’s a couple of poems in ‘Maximus’ where this is done to perfection. I think John Matthias has the same talent. When Hill tries to do this, he lets you know that he’s trying and it doesn’t work.
        There’s probably a whole sub-branch of modernism- the conversationalists?

  5. (Weird to have “threaded” comments if they can only go three deep.)

    Conversationalists, yes. The basic starting point would have to be Williams. I was looking now at some of Stephen Crane’s work, and while it’s certainly not formal poetry, it is somewhat formal, not to say stilted, as diction.

    • I’ve been trying to think of British conversationalists in the same league but can’t. Is it because of some cultural repression- we feel the weight of ‘Poetry’ and tradition upon us?

      • How about the Lawrence of “Snake”? (Don’t know if he’s on your index, like Plath….)

      • I hadn’t looked at “Snake” since school (many years ago) and had forgotten how good it was. I think it would fit the bill if he’d left out the exclamation marks and “I think it did not hit him” which seems out place with the tone of the rest. Thanks for reminding me of this one.

  6. Also, of course, archy refers to himself as a “vers libre” poet, suggesting that the French models were well-known at the time to US newspaper readers (!), so if we were up to scratch as readers (in addition to mastering the majority of poetry in English) we would know. Any idea who would be the models here? I’ve read a bit of Apollinaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé etc., but they don’t fit the bill.

    • Wikipedia points me in the direction of Gustave Kahn but the translations I’ve looked at don’t seem to fit in with the conversational voice, this could be because I’m not French. There’s also Jacques Laforgue who seems closer to Baudelaire but not conversational.

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