Prynne, “Unanswering Rational Shore” and Blanchot

Before I dive too far into what I need to say, there’s a precursor to try and demonstrate some method to this apparent leap. Some weeks ago I started reading Blanchot’s “The Writing of Disaster” primarily because of my abiding creative interest in Bad Things that happen. I then found my self both staggered and mesmerised by the first twenty five pages to such an extent that I’ve now re-read the first forty pages on about 8 occasions whilst resisting the opportunity to copy out (or learn by heart) every single word. The last time this kind of thing occurred was with Foucault in 1985 but this is much more intense and personal.
Because I’m really enjoying this process, I’ve resisted reading anything else by or about Blanchot except for one interview given by Levinas.
I’m also distracting myself from writing about Eliot for arduity (see the previous post) and I find Prynne, Celan and Sutherland to be the best way to fill up my head. The normal Prynne route is to re-read “Streak~~~Willing~~~Entourage~~~Artesian” but on this occasion I decided to have another look at “Unanswering Rational Shore” and surprised myself with how instantly good it is for reasons that I’ll attempt to explain below. I then did the Google thing and came across Ben Watson’s piece which was written as part of his “Art and Madness Circus” in 2001 and Michaels Grant’s blog on the poem which was written in 2008. Grant, among other things, quotes extensively from Blanchot to contextualise what Prynne might be about and then throws in Celan and Olson for good measure. I’ve never come across Grant before but it’s fairly clear that we share at least some of the same interests so I’ll need to catch up.
So, this is a blog that’s about not being able to get away from Blanchot and whether his views on poetry are helpful in getting to grips with Prynne. I’ll start with the obvious, “Unanswering Rational Shore” (henceforth “URS”) appears to be two sequences of seven poems divided by a single blank page. Each poem contains two seven-line stanzas. We are therefore led to infer that each sequence has a separate ‘theme’ (or that the blank page may be a blank page without significance at all).

I’ll get on to Grant and Blanchot shortly but I’d like to give one example of why I thinks “URS” is utterly wonderful. This is the sixth poem from the first sequence in its entirety:

On the track the news radiates like a planet auction,

for the best rates hard to chew. If it seems too good,
sucker, the pap is surely toxic, unless the glad
hand goes your way, soft as velvet. The strokes
of the palm not even touched, a waft of livid air
gives the take its donation, sexual preening overtly
lavish in symmetry: your flicker goes to mine and

locks into warranty, well why not. Over lush fields
a rising sun pitches out its sulky damp shadow, in
reminder of cost levels in the benefit stream. Oh
fight this fight or sleep when others wake, the
maze of a shining path leads on without a break:
count the steps in retrospect, burnt umber places
engrossed forever in dumb-struck dropped reward.

(There shouldn’t be a gap between the first and second lines but WordPress is being oddly difficult).

I find this to be everything a great poem should be, it’s beautifully phrased, has lines that I would kill to have written, is oblique without being obscure and is incredibly clever without any sign of pomposity. It also makes me smile.

I’m not going to make too many guesses as to ‘meaning’ but there’s fairly clearly references to corruption that’s inherent to capitalism. The “unless the glad / hand goes your way.” is a brilliant compression of our complicity in these tawdry practices and a fine example of what Prynne does better than anyone else. The “or sleep when others wake” takes some thinking about but is nevertheless sharp and to the point. The “well why not” embodies that degree of world-weary cynicism that pervades corporate life and I love/am staggered by “a rising sun pitches out its sulky damp shadow. The last line is a supreme example of how to end a serious poem, summing up how we live our lives in the current economic order. Or (of course) it could be ‘about’ something else entirely.

What I’d like to draw attention to most of all is the exuberant use of language, this is the work of someone who knows exactly what he’s doing and is revelling in his skill. Milton does this and it’s an indication of true value that we need to be able to recognise and celebrate. “URS” is also a powerful rebuttal to those who persist in maintaining an image of Prynne as “fearsome” and “impenetrable” (TLS 2010).

Whether the sequence(s) require what Keston Sutherland calls “the work of interpretation” in the same way that “Streak~~~Willing” does remains to be seen but I’m certainly looking forward to alternating between the two.

“Unanswering Rational Shore” is in the 2005 Bloodaxe and should be read by everyone immediately.

I now turn to Michael Grant and Maurice Blanchot. Grant deploys Blanchot’s “The Space of Literature” to provide an explanation of what Prynne may be aiming for. The piece is full of inspiring ideas and embodies an attentive reading but is (probably) wrong.

I’d like to start with this:

Whereas discourse expressive of truth typically takes the form of propositions, whose structure can be fixed in advance, this is writing that would have us see it as errant and excessive. It is a poetry of exile, of wandering, and ‘where the wanderer is, the conditions of a definitive here are lacking’. The wanderer’s country, the dwelling-place of the nomad, is not a place of truth, but the abandonment of place altogether: such a figure ‘remains outside, on the hither side, apart’ [The Space of Literature, p. 238]. While reading Prynne’s book, one is made aware of language as though one were this side of it, this side of the process of its being uttered. Rather than passing through it to what is said or meant, one is struck by the visibility and fleshliness of it, as the event of it occurs in the here and now, in the singularity of the one, unique, repeatable, and unrepeatable, moment of it.

I quote this at length because I want to give one phrase it’s full context before looking at it more carefully. I’ve read and re-read the section of “The Space of Literature” that Grant refers to throughout his piece and I’ve reconsidered what I know of Prynne and I think Grant is incorrect on two counts. The first is the assertion that there’s an intention to make the reader aware of language “this side of its process of being uttered”. This sounds great and is conceptually intriguing but I think it’s wrong in this particular context and only serves to further mystify and complicate what is reasonably straightforward. I do think think Prynne has an interest in primary unmediated perception and expression and there is an “oh” in the poem above but I don’t think he’s aiming for some kind of primal language prior to it making “sense”. Such a project would seem at variance with Prynne’s repeated intended to say things “how they are”. The Blanchot quote isn’t given in full because, I suspect, it doesn’t say what Grant wants it to say. The last bit of the sentence reads “which is by no means a beyond, rather the
contrary.” which is typical Blanchot but also puts the excluded poet back in the middle of things.

Grant also makes use of Levinas, Celan and Olson in his reading and quotes more from URS than I have to support his thesis which is that the work has a double nature which is illuminated by Blanchot’s observation that the poem is ” the point from which words begin to become their appearance, and the elemental depth upon which this appearance is opened while at the same time it closes”, to which the obvious response is “no it isn’t”.


3 responses to “Prynne, “Unanswering Rational Shore” and Blanchot

  1. The “Oh” actually seems to introduce a patch of heightened artificiality, even jingly (Kiplingish?) iambic verse:

    Oh fight this fight or sleep when others wake,the
    maze of a shining path leads on without a break:

    The dual meanings are balanced so lightly throughout — here, to choose just one, the way he points out that the “sendero luminoso” is a maze without outlet both for those who tread it and for those who would cut it off. (Or “burnt” both for color and for real burning, or “giving the take its donation”, etc.)

    (Did you see that Richard Holbrooke’s last words, addressed to the surgeon (who happens to be Pakistani), were “You’ve got to stop this war in Afghanistan” ?)

    The form of URS, as you describe it, reminds me strongly of Zukofsky’s “A”-9, where the second half deliberately repeats the tight grid of the first — though in that case with a clear ideological difference across the gap.

    • Hmm, I’m not having any better luck than you were with the text formatting. Just in case it wasn’t obvious, then:

      Oh fight this fight or sleep when others wake, / the maze of a shining path leads on without a break:

    • I’m sticking with the “Oh” as ardency but I see what you mean.
      With regard to the dual meanings, I came across something Paul Celan said about “ambiguity without a mask, it expresses precisely ,y feeling for cutting across ideas, an overlapping of relationships” which seems to me to amplify what Prynne has been saying recently on the same subject. You are right – the balance is very light indeed and this takes an enormous amount of skill.

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