The ‘Prynne project’ is a phrase I’ve thrown out on several occasions in the last few months almost as if I knew what I was talking about. I’ve recently noticed that Keston Sutherland uses the same noun in his Glossator essay-:
It is a way to model lyric, to make a language for fact without desire. The poem implicitly announces a shift in the moralism of knowledge away from anything like eidetic phenomenology, with its bracketing of affectivity along with ontic commitments, toward the project of a lyric beyond subjectivity, that is, beyond memory, appetite, greed, and all the other consolations for predatoriness that make up the spiral curve of bourgeois autobiography, a project that would come into full view only much later in Prynne’s work.
A lyric beyond “memory, appetite, greed and all the other consolations for predatoriness” sounds about right but I wonder if it does justice to other aspects of the work. Prynne’s recent essays on what poetry may be about provide some details of other aspects of the project and an idea of how these aspects might fit together.
It also has to be said before I get any further that the publication of ‘Sub Songs’ with its apparent move away from radical austerity throws the spanner in the works of those of us who like a straightforward chronology but I’ll try and deal with this later.
I think of ‘project’ as denoting some kind of forward looking plan which has a number of objectives. I don’t believe that any serious poet puts pen to paper without some idea of what they want to say and how they want to say it. In the case of Prynne, I think we can see a variety of different strategies deployed to challenge and undermine the “unwitty circus” and to ensure that his ‘gabble’ will indeed survive.
Prynne’s ‘Mental Ears and Poetic Work’ essay in the Chicago Review is a good place to start identifying the contours of the plan. He writes-
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; while also activating a system of discontinuities and breaks which interrupt and contest 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.
The aspect that I think is crucial is the emphasis on ‘how things are’ juxtaposed with contesting the structural profile of poetry’s domain. As I’ll try and show later, Prynne has a strong sense of the ability of poetry to tell the truth and a lot of his best work has been about depicting the truth as it is and not as Prynne or anyone else would like it to be. This is of course a fairly mainstream ambition, many poets would claim to be about digging up the truth and depicting it as it is. The second part of the statement about taking apart poetry from within is much more ambitious and is only achieved by the very few and it is interesting to note that Prynne is doing this to promote some kind of dialogue with the wider world.
I’ve paid a fair amount of attention to ”Streak~~Willing~~Entourage~~Artesian” and the issue of ‘truth’ in a complex situation like the Troubles is handled in a oddly objective kind of way. “Grow up to main”, which I read as a depiction of the Protestant community’s fear of being demographically overtaken, is a good example of telling an objective truth in a radically different kind of way that challenges most aspects of current poetic discourse.
Later in the essay Prynne almost acknowledges that his project is not without its pitfalls-
To build a writing framework over
an extent of regular practice, across many years, accumulates a profile
more and more singular. Even family likeness may not be sufficient to
accomplish recognition in full detail. At the same time the isolation of
a self-interior retrospect is highly dangerous, because an encroaching
narcissism of preoccupation will promote unrecognized claims of endorsement from chance occurrence, locked into the habits of procedure. Or maybe this is not exactly a danger, depending on point of view.
I read this as saying that even when you’re trying to be as radical as possible it is likely that your work will come to be seen as predictable and structured by what were once innovative ways of expression but have now become merely habitual. I like the way he hedges his bets with the last sentence which leads me on to his view that considerations of meaning are “less and less an unavoidably necessary precondition for successful reading” whilst taking care to distance himself from postmodern “playfulness” (he does this a lot).
This is where what I see as the coherence of the project begins to unravel a bit. I’m not personally that interested in notions of ‘truth’ but I think Prynne is and I do not see how you can aspire to write about how things are and not be concerned about meaning. My fairly limited but careful reading of the work leads me to believe that words and phrases are used precisely and relate to some aspect of the world rather than being placed for effect. It would be more understandable if he were acknowledging that different kinds or levels of meaning can be obtained but he isn’t, nor does he give us what the preconditions for successful reading may be.
I see the following rather lengthy extract from ‘Mental Ears’ as one of Prynne’s most explicit descriptions of what he’s about-
The very medium of poetic textuality incorporates and instantiates the features of breakage at local and microscopic levels, as discoverable by phonological and other types of analysis, into a dialectic which may look arbitrary or merely optional but which polarizes the task of poetic composition. Formal and structural features within the language system, the selective-discourse system, the prosodic and formal verse system, all within the contrastive perspectives of historical development, compete to provoke the formation of shifting hybrids across boundaries of sometimes radical counter-tension. The active poetic text is thus characteristically in dispute with its own ways and means, contrary implication running inwards to its roots and outwards to its surface proliferations: not as acrobatic display but as working the
work that, when fit for purpose, poetry needs to do. These are the
proper arguments of poetry as a non-trivial pursuit, the templates
for ethical seriousness. As just one example, the condoned spillage
of innocent blood is everywhere around us, now, and the artificers
of consolatory blessing who are the leaders of organized religion are
up to their dainty necks in this blood. I have believed throughout
my writing career that no poet has or can have clean hands, because
clean hands are themselves a fundamental contradiction. Clean hands
do no worthwhile work.
I’ve quoted the last bit of this before primarily with reference to the ‘clean hands’ quip but now I want to draw attention to the dialectical aspect which does seem to dominate Prynne’s thinking about poetry, especially when he talks about poetic composition being in dispute with itself with ‘contrary implication’ traversing the body of the text. In terms of my own reading I’m not entirely sure that his use of ‘breakage’ in this sense is entirely successful in this sense, I can think of one or two examples of where thematic and structural contradiction seem to coincide especially in the work produced in the last twenty years but this does not strike me as the main characteristic. This could of course be due to the fact that I haven’t yet paid enough attention.
I could spend a lot of time with this extract but I’ve written before on Prynne’s view of compromised language and I think what he says here on the subject requires little further elucidation.
“Difficulties in the Translation of “Difficult” Poems” provides further clues as to the nature of the project. In this essay Prynne makes the following point-
But often difficult language in poems accompanies difficult thought, so that the difficulty of language is part of the whole structure and activity of poetic composition. Shakespeare’s Sonnets are certainly of this kind; and I have to admit that many of my own poems are like this, with the result that I do not have a wide readership and translators of my work have to confront an extra-hard struggle.
Anyone who has read any Prynne since 1971 must agree that the work does combine difficult language with difficult thought and that this has had a negative effect in terms of sales and readership. He goes on to talk about word choice, noting that alternative meanings can bring in “difficult fields of specialised usage and also historical or textual allusions in several different directions”. This brings to mind the use of “sound particle” at the beginning of the “To Pollen” sequence. An ‘ordinary’ reading would suggest that a sound particle is simply a small part of something heard but a brief look on the web reveals that sound particles are hypothetical units without either mass or dimension. As a reader I’m then faced with the choice of either pursuing this further or just accepting that this validates the ‘ultramontane’ reference to CERN in the next line. Prynne recognises this kind of problem when he says “In a poetic composition that is dense with this richness of semantic complexity these tasks of meaning-choice present one challenge after another, in close succession, and each choice when made will affect all the consequent such choices and thus the connective tendency of the text as a whole.” In my reasonably attentive reading of ‘Streak’ I think I can appreciate the extent of these challenges and the way in which choices become interrelated. The use of a single word (’embankment’) has caused me to reconsider not only what is being said but the subject matter of the entire sequence. This isn’t a bad thing because it does mean that all previous assumptions have to be challenged but it takes time.
Prynne points out that the ‘key’ to comprehension is often context goes on to say that “difficult” poems often disrupt any sense of linkage between one word and the next creating strong surprise and rich uncertainty in the reader. He observes that “Not only is poetry characteristically condensed, so that some semantic links may be cut off or completely absent, but also a diversity of apparently incompatible references is often deliberate and a valued feature of complex poems”. There’s a sentence in the “Streak” sequence which reads “At for to.” Is this an example of extremely absent semantic links that we’re supposed to value?
Prynne describes “difficult” poetry as having a very wide corridor of sense-making “more like a network across the whole expanse of the text with many loops and cross-links of semantic and referring activity which extend the boundaries and relevance, and of control by context, in many directions at once”. It’s this multi-directional aspect of the work that I find so fascinating and rewarding but it does lead to an array of different interpretations- perhaps this is what Prynne is referring to when he says that the quest for meaning isn’t a pre-condition of successful reading. In this essay he also talks about the dialectic and how form and expression are brought into internal conflict with each other.
I’ll finish by looking at a few passages from the “Poetic Thought” essay because I think that they enable me to pull out a few useful threads. This is the first-
To work with thought requires the poet to grasp at the strong and persistent ways in which understanding is put under test by imagination as a screen of poetic conscience, to coax and hurl at finesse and judgement, and to set beliefs and principles on line, self-determining but nothing for its own sake merely; all under test of how things are. Nothing taken for granted, nothing merely forced, pressure of the composing will as varied by delicacy, because these energies are dialectical and not extruded from personality or point of view. Dialectics in this sense is the working encounter with contradiction in the very substance of object-reality and the obduracy of thought; irony not as an optional tone of voice but as marker for intrinsic anomaly.
I’d like to draw attention to “all under test of how things are” which is a direct echo of “Mental Ears” but this seems stronger – the use of ‘all’ ie everything in the work being put to the test of objective truth. Given what’s said above about multiple references and meanings, isn’t there a bit of a (I hesitate to use the noun) contradiction here? If you’re aiming to apply ‘all’ to this test then shouldn’t you resist loading every page with a variety of meaning choices?
With regard to the dialectic, I don’t have any problem with contradiction in object-reality but I do think we begin to swim in very murky waters when we try and apply this to “obduracy of thought”. Still, the paragraph does provide a baseline for what the project might be about.
We now come to the reader’s part in the project and this very telling sentence-
There is also not too much cause to worry about the reader, since if these efforts produce composition of durable value the reader will catch up in due time.
The social worker in me really wants to take this apart. Of course, Prynne thinks his work is of durable value and has also noted that he doesn’t currently have a very wide readership so there’s a reliance on posterity that is more than a little poignant. To say any more would probably drag me into areas that aren’t appropriate for this blog but I do think it’s very revealing.
I’ve commented before on Prynne’s view of the need for ‘self-removal’ so I won’t do so again. He goes on-
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. Whatever the users of language claim as their rights to effects of meaning, language is produced by meaning habits but resists definitive assignments of motive and desire. This is a root counterforce of energy in language itself as a scheme of activity in social practice: it is the placement-station of the poet whose argument here will generate poetic thought.
Poetic thought in contest with the whole cultural system of a language does seem to encapsulate the means by which the description of how things are is to be achieved. I still have to question the consistency in portraying objective truth whilst not presenting oneself in any way as the “arbiter of rightness”. This may be because of my own sceptical views about the veracity of a single ‘truth’ but I do think there’s something a little bit ingenuous around this- similar to having your cake and eating it.
So, there does seem to be a project and it has discernible features that we can race from Brass onwards. The last twenty years have also seen an increasing austerity and less reliance on ‘conventional’ forms of expression (with the possible exception of ‘Triodes’). As I said at the start, this pattern has been disrupted with the publication this year of ‘Sub Songs’ which feels a bit like a step backwards.
The active ingredients in all the work appear to be a concern with telling how things are, an interest in contradiction, the use of poetic convention to disrupt itself and a personal commitment to continue to plough this particular furrow regardless.