Prynne, Unanswering Rational Shore, and Paul Celan

The previous post went on a bit with regard to my new-found enthusiasm for the above poem (URS) and took issue with Michael Grant for making things more complex than they actually are. This is going to be an illustration of where complexity may be appropriate. I’ve recently amended the arduity page on ambiguity with regard to what Celan said about “ambiguity without a mask” and this has led me to consider whether there are closer similarities between Prynne and Celan than I’d previously recognised.
I want to start with a couple of quotes from Prynne’s “Difficulties in the translation of “Difficult” Poetry” because these seem to set out a view with regard to ambiguity:

A reader can move slowly through dense compositions of this kind, and pauses at moments of choice can enrich the activity of reading; it’s not necessary all the time to make precise decisions, because uncertainty may be intrinsic, to the text and its internal connections to its method of thought.

and-

But in a larger context within a poem a less “probable” may also open a semantic possibility that can give the overall meaning a richer sense, even (or especially) by irony or contradiction, so that often a very wide range of different senses can be found to be active and having an effect, maybe on different levels or discoverable in different stages of the poem’s development.

I think I’ve probably written about these passages before but now I want to add Celan into the mix. Before I do this I have to say that I recognise that it’s important for me to identify similarities between these two poets and I’m trying hard to avoid any wishful thinking but sometimes affinities hit me in the face and can’t be ignored.
Earlier this week I was doing Eliot and Jarvis avoidance behaviour and picked up an essay on Celan’s ‘Solve’ and ‘Coagula’ by Anders Olsson which spends a lot of time describing the ‘Rosa’ ambiguities in Coagula. In the course of this description Olsson quotes Celan in conversation with Hugo Huppert:

And as regards my alleged encodings, I would rather say: ambiguity without a mask, is expresses precisely my feeling for cutting across ideas, an overlapping of relationships. You are of course familiar with the manifestation of interference, coherent waves meeting and relating to one another. You know of dialectic conversions and reversals – transitions into something akin, something succeeding, even something contradictory. That is what my ambiguity (only at certain turning-points, certain axes of rotation present) is about. It stands in consideration to the fact that we can observe several facets in one thing, showing it from various angles, “breaks” and “divisions” which are by no means only illusory. I try to recapitulate in language at least fractions of this spectral analysis of things: related, succeeding, contradictory. Because, unfortunately, I am unable to show these things from a comprehensive angle.

I would argue that these two positions aren’t miles apart and that both Celan are interested displaying “several facets in one thing” and in setting up contradictions and ruptures within the verse in an attempt to show things “as they are”. One of the first things that I noticed about Prynne is the way he uses words to mean two (or three) things at once but I hadn’t (in forty years of reading) drawn the same conclusion about Celan – I’d joined in the spirited debate of what certain phrases may allude to but hadn’t considered that ‘Todtnauberg’ may be deliberately ambivalent or that ‘temple pincers’ could mean three things at the same time.
This does not mean that each poem is an open text and we are free to read whatever we want into it. Both Prynne and Celan seem to be setting up a variety of possibilities and inviting us to consider (at quite a deep level) the relationships between them.
Before proceeding to Prynne, I’d like to go into the ‘Rosa’ problem in more detail. Olsson offers four different identities for Rosa;
1. A figure from early Christian mysticism;
2. Rosa Luxemburg;
3. Rosa Leibovici;
4. The maid from Kafka’s ‘Country Doctor’
Pier Joris translates the poem as:

Your wound
too, Rosa

And the hornslight of your
Romanian buffaloes
in star’s stead above the
sandbed, in the
talking, red-
ember-mighty
alembic.

I’ll skip over the fact that I have four completely different translations of the last two lines and point out that the first and the fourth Rosas listed above seem a bit tenuous and that the two ‘real’ women do fit better with the Romanian buffaloes, especially as there doesn’t seem any other good reason for having these particular beasts in the poem. Luxemburg wrote a letter to a friend from prison which describes how these animals were abused as beasts of burden by the Germans. The second “real” Rosa had a short affair with Celan in 1940 and she came from Moldavia, the home of the buffaloes. The other two could of course be intended, as facets of the same thing, but we’d need to be more confident about the subject matter of both poems before that ‘thing’ could be identified, taking into account the Jewish mysticism alluded to in “Solve”.
Now, in contrast, here’s one of the more complex bits of “URS”:

Before this the custom of granite replicates
trademark parry for money, feel the stirring
of an earthly emotion on a fling. Hold still over,
time to strut and fret, you the debonair chicks
grabbing a tartlet, on a fashion spree. Licit
banter for an ardency to file acrostic intermission
as thousands would, the cynosure up to snuff

making steps on a hot station. Thereat hitherto both
under the chassis, checking off the empty cockpit
or the milk run see how, see where on balance
the main chance is blank and chancred so truly
in the hard morning light. Take a flutter it’s
about time vacant on either side, embroidered over
with excused panels advising early redemption.

Let me say at the outset that I have not one clue as to what this might be about but that doesn’t matter too much because all I want to do is point out the various ambiguities and how they might relate to each other.
The first problem is to identify which phrases/words are intended to be ambiguous and which aren’t. Fairly obvious candidates for intentional ambiguity are:
file acrostic intermission
the milk run
custom of granite
a hot station
it’s about time
a fashion spree
excused panels.
The candidates for being read ‘straight’ are:
parry for money
strut and fret
debonair chicks
an ardency
the hard morning light.
With the rest somewhere in between. As well as ambiguity there’s also what might be a number of allusions- does “time vacant on either side” refer to ‘Plant Time Manifold’ and to Whitehead? Is “the hard morning light” a nod towards Blanchot’s “unchanging morning light”? I suggest this because I’m still being mesmerised by most things Blanchot and because the previous poem in the sequence contains the word ‘demise’ which is a Blanchot word – as in “demise writing”.
There’s several other things of interest going on. Nobody uses either “debonair” or “chicks” in everyday speech any more (do they?) so I take it that the tone of the phrase is meant to be either ironic or sarcastic. “tartlet” is a bit odd unless he’s quoting, aren’t tartlets a Victorian confection? Or, is tartlet being used in a more pejorative sense? “Fashion spree” completely eludes me, it sounds as if it should make sense until I try to explain it to myself although there seems to be a bit of a fit with “strut and fret” in the previous line.
The search for ambiguity (and contradiction) is further compounded by the use of demotic speech and by whatever “thereat hitherto both” may allude to.
The next step will involve working through the above ambiguities in conjunction with reading the rest of the sequence in greater detail to get more of an idea of what Prynne refers to as “context”.
I also need to say that paying this kind of attention is immensely pleasurable and rewarding especially when reading Prynne and Celan.

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8 responses to “Prynne, Unanswering Rational Shore, and Paul Celan

  1. I like this first move of listing the bits that seem to ask to be approached a certain way. I would add a couple more colloquial or period items: “take a flutter” I know from English novels, I think meaning “make a bet” (and thus sorting with “fling” and “spree); “milk run” is a phrase used in Catch-22 at least, for a flight that is not expected to be dangerous. (“chancre” would fit into that novel’s other preoccupations.) “Main chance” is an old Americanism that I’ve never clearly understood — to have one’s eye on the m.c. is to be an opportunist.

    Having started, it’s difficult to stop. “Time vacant on either side” sounds like Eliot’s ecstasy in the rose-garden in the Four Quartets (“Ridiculous the waste sad time / Stretching before and after.” — I had to look it up.) “Strut and fret” suggests transience too, if you pursue the allusion, so maybe the datedness of the slang (“up to snuff”, etc.) is point, rather than “irony”.

  2. I read “take a flutter” as to take a bet (as a bookmaker would) rather than to make one but I’m open to suggestions.
    It is difficult to stop but it’s great fun to speculate, I hadn’t noticed the Eliot connotation and will now have to think about this which is another great way of not writing about Eliot.
    The initial tone I got was a kind of angry, impatient sarcasm but I’m now going to read the rest of the sequence to try and make a bit more “sense”.

  3. Hmm, this may be a duplicate — I thought I had successfully commented.

    I’m pretty sure the “flutter” is the risk, the gamble. The first hit for the phrase on Google Books is from Wodehouse, confirming my memory. (And the first hit for “trademark parry” is this poem.)

  4. My only meagre authority for ‘flutter’ who used to speak (frequently) of having a flutter rather than taking a flutter. Wodehouse and Prynne? The mind boggles.

  5. ‘Granite’ could be Northern Rock’s securitisation vehicle set up in 1999 and based for obvious tax reasons offshore – and therefore an ‘Unanswering Rational Shore – in Jersey. As URS was written, I guess, sometime round 1999- 2000, this would make Prynne’s concerns in this stanza prescient to say the least, but, then, knowing Prynne’s interest in high finance – dreadful pun – not that far-fetched. ‘custom’ then opens up to various interpretations, and ‘trademark parry for money’ chimes nicely with the manoeuvres of financiers and bankers as they sell off mortgages and bonds. The ‘earthly emotion’ is the need for security, the ground beneath our feet, solid as Northern Rock, as granite. From such security we venture ‘on a fling’.

  6. I can see that ‘granite’ chimes with parts of the second and sixth poems in the series. The second has “…..the debate for hate / to make open clause upon renown in folded paper / dirt cheap, split-option pudgy cheeked. Costive / profane credit….” all of which seems to ‘fit’ with financial tomfoolery. URS was first published in 2001 but I can’t find (from an initial glance) when the Granite vehicle was put together, nor can I discover when this first cam e into the public domain. Other banks had similar scams going at the same time.

  7. Well, perhaps it is a little far-fetched after all. The Granite vehicle was put together in 1999. And Prynne does seem to be very well informed of such matters, but I really have no idea when this information came into the public domain. I’ll try a geological /petrological reading and see what happens.

  8. Granite could be used here as an adjective meaning hard and/or unyielding with custom in the sense of ‘trade’ as a noun

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