J H Prynne in Paris pt 2

I’ve now had the opportunity to look again at the reading Prynne gave in Paris in 2009 to see if it has any effect on my understanding/appreciation of ‘To Pollen’. I’ve tried to keep in mind Prynne’s caveat in ‘Mental Ears’ which I’ll quote in full:

It’s from this distinction that my own lack of interest in the performance of poems in their author’s own voice takes its origin;
the specific occasional delivery is no more than an accidentalism of sound and behavior, since it is the language of the text that has and produces voice, and not the mere vocal equipment and habits of a speaker. An author-speaker of text in self-performance may seem to be a special case, in that features of such delivery can seem to be
communicating an authentic textual inwardness, from the stance of an authorized knowledge and self-interpretation. But such semblance is really delusional; this is to undo the work of mental ears, by a kind of primitive literal-mindedness: “Look, the poet is wearing red socks! Now at last we understand everything!”

At the risk of being flippant, the obvious response would be ‘Look, the poet is wearing a v-necked jumper, now we understand even less than we did before.
Prior to reading the sequence, Prynne does give us some context in saying that after ‘Refuse Collection’ he thought that he may not be able to write anything again and that ‘To Pollen’ starts obscurely and gets more direct towards the end. He also says that there are twenty three stanzas in the sequence although the published version has twenty two and he only reads twenty one. He also makes some changes to the text as he goes along which is his prerogative but it does throw up issues of authenticity and the need perhaps to accept that no poem is ever finally ‘finished’- I’ll return to this in the context of the third poem in the sequence:

Fault plane under treading lacks rip indelicate
path to its line, to the furnace. Soon by mistake
gains overfill commander to mother up fewer or
single nerve balances in averted along elate for
normal, drastic. Newer finding up reefs you see
slice first partition. Why should that work. Mean
passed over no vigil no truce grab for best there
and service altered runway. Truck hurt failed list
incident pacific not civil, render back on principal
hinterland allurement. Afferent side ripe on track
refix as, rose up in mossy fibres attuned, brimmer
won’t mix hand even extend. How could also not be
lesser. Stand nearby went off its oil trap refined.

I’ve chosen this because it is the first poem where Prynne alters the text and because I think it might be very good indeed. As usual, the following is entirely provisional and is intended to show aspects of the Prynne project rather than provide any kind of explanation.

In between the second and third poem, Prynne points out the Haditha quote in the second (“it hurt so much”) so it would seem that the sequence may be moving nearer to all things Iraq and the war on terror. Whilst fully appreciating the reservations about a poet’s spoken performance, listening to this has enabled me to put some additional commas into the text in accordance with his phrasing. This may not be reliable and may be subject to variation but ‘Afferent side, ripe on track’ for example does at least narrow down the options. Having inserted four or five commas, there is then the problem of the change from ‘extend’ to ‘extended’ in the penultimate line. There are a number of questions that this throws up-
Did Prynne always intend the word to be ‘extended’ and was this overlooked when the proofs were read?
Has he since decided that the change would be an improvement?
Did he decide to alter the word whilst in the process of reading it in public? (I do this a lot because it becomes apparent only in front of an audience what’s going to ‘work’ and what isn’t).
Was it simply a mistake- a misreading that signifies nothing at all?
There is one clear and unambiguous phrase in this- ‘Why should that work’ even though it’s missing the question mark and it isn’t clear what ‘that’ refers to. I think we can be fairly confident that there’s more than a little angry sarcasm in the question.
The other ting to note is the preponderance of ‘conflict’ words – commander, partition, truce, runway, pacific not civil, oil trap refined etc which would seem to point to Iraq.
The poem starts with geology – ‘fault plane’ being the area through which fault lines run and where earthquakes occur, I’m taking ‘under treading’ as referring to things that are underfoot and at the same time recognising that ‘tread’ can also refer to both a path and a way of life. Not wishing to jump to too many conclusions, improvised explosive devices (ieds) have been used in both Iraq and Afghanistan and are planted by the side of roads and paths with the intention of killing soldiers on patrol- does ‘rip indelicate’ refer to the wounds incurred by these devices or is it an echo of the Haditha atrocity alluded to in the previous stanza?
One definition of the verb ‘to path’ is “To make or beat down (a path or way) by treading” and the OED gives this lovely example from 1642; “[They] become more pathed in their sinnes by much beating upon” which may be helpful as we appear to be heading for the ‘furnace’.
One definition of furnace is ‘any severe test or trial’ and it could be argued that the invasion and occupation of Iraq was a severe test for the Iraqi people as well as a different kind of ordeal for the occupying forces.
It think it’s a mistake to expect absolute clarity from Prynne, he does seem to take delight in ‘meaning’ several things at once and giving the reader here an impression of condemnation rather than the outraged polemic evident in ‘Refuse Collection’. Having followed up the fault line reference I can now say that, although earthquakes do occur in Iraq, they tend to occur with greater severity in Iran and Turkey although some researchers think that Iraq’s next major quake is overdue.
The next sentence plunges us into another level of difficulty altogether. Listening to the reading, I couldn’t pick up any definite pauses so its difficult to pick out the individual phrases in this. I think that it’s possible to take the first phrase (Soon by mistake gains overfill) as being reasonably straightforward. To overfill is to fill something to overflowing, the primary definition of the noun relates to being overfull with food. So, in terms of Iraq, this could be pointing to early military successes creating too many prisoners for the occupiers to deal with. This would ‘fit’ with the secondary definition of ‘commander’ as “A work raised so as to command the adjacent works and country round;” perhaps referring to Abu Ghraib which was used as a military base as well as a prison.
‘To mother up’ seems to point in several directions at once. To use the ordinary meaning first, the child from Haditha (Eman Waleed) quoted in the previous poem lost all members of her family, including her mother. Lynndie England, one of the perpetrators of abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib became pregnant during the time that she was stationed there. Saddam Hussein used the phrase ‘Mother of all Battles’ to refer to the start of the Gulf War in 1991. The OED gives a definition of to mother upon as “To attribute the authorship of (a work) to a woman; (also) to ascribe the origin of (something) to a person, a cause, etc” and Brigadier General Janis Karpinski (who was head of all Iraq prisons at the time) was demoted and reprimanded for dereliction of duty following the atrocities at Abu Ghraib. A mother can also refer to a gay man who acts as mentor to younger men. Prisoners at Abu Ghraib were forced to perform sexual acts on each other whilst their guards took pictures. A less common definition of ‘to mother’ is to become full of sediment or dregs, to become mouldy. In the UK, prisoners are often referred to as ‘the dregs of society’.
I think this use of ‘mother’ is one of those instances which deliberately invites different readings and responses which are, to some extent, dependent on the reader’s choice of emphasis. My own preference would give greater weight to Abu Ghraib rather than Haditha and also to bear in mind the possible connection between being overfull and becoming mouldy.
I’m going to stop there and leave the rest of the stanza for another occasion. I do however want to come back to the extend/extended problem mentioned earlier. ‘Hand even extend’ does seem quite different (in terms of sense) from ‘hand even extended’ and puts me in a bit of a quandry. Do I try and keep both alternatives in mind or do I choose one or the other? What might be my criteria for making this choice given the possible reasons for the difference outlined above or do I just accept that both versions are valid (whatever ‘valid’ might mean) and try to incorporate this further level of uncertainty into my understanding. Any assistance with this would be much appreciated but it also calls into question whether a work can ever be said to be finished or complete. Jean Genet once expressed the view that we can only evaluate someone’s work after he or she has died and I can see the sense in that but I’m also coming to the view that the published version of a poem should be viewed as the latest draft rather than anything definitive.


11 responses to “J H Prynne in Paris pt 2

  1. It’s just the sort of writer who demands our most meticulous attention who tends to keep fussing with the text, deferring the final recension.

    Not sure how literally to take your comment about adding commas. There’s only the roughest of equivalences between pauses and commas, I think. (I wouldn’t make a pause before “I think” there.)

    • I am being a little facetious but it does occur to me that some additional clues for the longer sentences would be useful, especially in the later poems. When I get to the second half of the stanza I’ll try and show what I mean.
      With regard to this ‘fussing with the text’ business it does raise questions about how to rank versions or am I being old-fashioned? This is also an issue for me because of Sutherland’s various drafts of the Odes sitting on my hard drive and the fact that I’ve written quite a lot about versions that are very different (in some areas) from the finished ‘product’.
      Neil Pattison also made the observation that he viewed the recording of a particular reading as more ‘authentic’ than the published text- although I’ve never checked to see if the two match up.

      • Vance Maverick

        I don’t have a good answer. Consider your favorite poet, Wordsworth, and the radically different versions of The Prelude. (True, it’s a special case because he held off publishing it, but I believe he revised published poems too.) Or, in prose, Henry James — when he had the chance to republish his novels, he substantially rewrote them, more drastically in the case of the earlier ones: generally the original texts are preferred, but the revisions are at least interesting. (Or Bruckner — the emblematic crux is the cymbal crash in the slow movement of the 7th, but the problem goes much further.)

        Practically I suppose this means that if you write on Prynne (or any poet who’s been successful but not yet rigorously edited) you have to lay out your textual assumptions before any exegesis.

      • I know that my favourite poet was a chronic reviser and Prynne is exceptionally keen on him. Missing out the penultimate stanza and the changes in the other words as well as ‘extend’ may of course be to underline the point about the unreliability of poetry readings… He should read ‘Streak Willing’ to see if there are any changes there as well. At the beginning of the reading he says that there are 23 stanzas when there are only 22 and he misses one of these out- is this revision or game-playing?

  2. Revision, game-playing, or a simple error. Even God couldn’t keep the order of the commandments straight.

  3. Also worth noting: the choice of nouns that can be read as verbs and vice versa is close to a well-known feature of Anglo-American headline writing. It’s one that leads to puzzles in interpretation — garden-path sentences of the form known (on Language Log, at least) as crash blossoms. “May axes Labour police beat pledge” is their most concise classic (naturally from the Guardian).

  4. Yes, it’s a risk not just for copy-editors but for poets inclined to follow Bunting’s “cut out every word you dare”.

    I wonder what’s the first instance, in English poetry, of deliberate ambiguity as to parts of speech. Shakespeare obviously gloried in repurposing words, but I don’t know a case where he teases you like Hopkins with “where springs not fail”.

    • Edmund Spenser reveled in ‘amending’ the language, I’m currently paying attention to the Mutability cantos so I’ll see if there’s any examples…..

  5. Pingback: J H Prynne: To Pollen / Field Notes: ‘The Solitary Reaper’ and Others | lexipenia

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