Using more of Prynne to read ‘Sub Songs’

A short while ago I came up with the bright idea of using Prynne’s essay on translating difficult poetry to read ‘Riding Fine Off’ from ‘Sub Songs‘. This produced some results in developing some idea of a theme but I’d made the mistake of avoiding ‘Poetic Thought’ primarily because it’s more complex and that I may encounter more rather than fewer problems in trying to get to grips with the poem.

The original intention was to try and work out why I don’t like the Sub Songs poems as much as the three or four preceding sequences. I think one of the reasons for this is the fact that they are deceptively baffling in that the austere form and flattish tone of ‘Streak~~Willing’ and ‘To Pollen’ at least signal that they are going to be fairly obdurate whereas the Sub Songs Collection looks more reader friendly until you start to pay attention to the words.

In addition to ‘Poetic Thought’, I’d like to include this paragraph from ‘George Herbert, Love III’:

Well language is imperfect and is damaged by sin, not least in relation to man’s conception of his own self, inner and outer, puffed up with tendency to vainglory and selfishness even in the most vehemently powerful moments of exchange with the divine. The very format of utterance grammar, with the subject-position in English syntax coming before and governing all by way of a sequent predicate, performs and expresses this vaunted, front-loaded selfhood. What the reader has in this poem is what is discoverable in its fallible language, and we are to reconstitute what may be its near full spiritual significance by linguistic acts, by scrutiny of searching and minute kind.

I’d like to ignore the ‘damaged by sin’ statement and point out that this be a significant key to the Prynne project in that the primary battle is the one with language which is never innocent and the construction of the English sentence in particular. The last sentence with its ‘fallible language’ and working towards understanding by means of both linguistic acts and diligent scrutiny perhaps offers us a strategy with which to read his later poems.

This close scrutiny isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. Prynne devotes 86 pages to ‘Love III’ and even this level of scrutiny doesn’t catch all that can be said about the poem, which is 18 lines in length. If my initial hunch is anywhere near correct, that at least some part of ‘Riding Fine Out’ is a further working through of Plant Time Manifold then I would need to take into account both the Maximus’ sequence and ‘Process and Reality’ in all their very detailed glory in order to get a full grasp of what might be going on. This would mean actually reading more than the first thirty pages of ‘Process and Reality’ which might take some time.

Then there’s the ambiguity problem with most words and phrases in Prynne requiring the closest scrutiny in order to dig out all the possible meanings and connotations and then identifying the ones that might make some kind of sense. This doesn’t just apply to definitions, it applies to the colloquial and the use of sarcasm to express total contempt, not to mention the hidden quotes and the awful puns.

So far, before we get to ‘Poetic Thought’, we’ve developed two ways of making progress, the first is about paying attention to the way that language and sentence structure are under attack and the second is to try and set sensible limits around the application of scrutiny.

I’m about to quote from ‘Poetic Thought’ but, for those who share my keen interest in thus stuff, it may be as well to obtain your own copy. It is available from the Textual Practice site, I’d be happy to send copies out to those who don’t have access as the aaaaarg link isn’t functioning.

The essay starts by explaining what isn’t meant by the term. Along the way we get this:

Separating from its origins in a life history (personal beliefs, memory, emotion, and physiology of personhood) is an essential step in the generation of poetic thought; but once again by negative description, it is necessary to understand how this step does not mean that prior activity in consciousness transfers into something less active, more like a result of activity. The case is quite the reverse: the focus of poetic composition, as a text takes shape in the struggle of the poet to separate from it, projects into the textual arena an intense energy of conception and differentiation, pressed up against the limits which are discovered and invented by composition itself.

To amplify these contrasts, we may recognise that some part of the constraints which give form to energy of conception are intrinsic to the specific character of poetic discourse, to the practice of poetry, which is always in some sense its own topic-focus; if only because it will be under intense pressure of innovation and experiment, not just wilfully crushing the natural grain and rhythm of language but discovering new reflex slants and ducts and cross-links that open inherent potentials previously unworked. Does this perhaps suggest that thoughtfulness can be an
accompanying posture and glint to strong new working with poetic language? Well maybe so; but thoughtfulness is just a colour of discourse, one of its moods or habits, not to be held equivalent to poetic thought in the sense being searched for here; indeed, thoughtfulness may be a kind of conscience-money paid for the tacit avoidance of ardent, directed thought.

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.

So, one aspect of a poem is as a site of struggle whereby the poet attempts to separate himself from it. This is repeated with greater vigour later in the essay and is clearly reflected in most of Prynne’s later work (with the possible exception of the very annoying ‘Triodes’ of 1999). The complete absence of the ‘I’ in ‘Riding Fine Off’ may indicate that the struggle in this textual arena has been won but it will be worth noting any obvious traces of authorial voice. We then get into one of those complex statements that sound better than it is. We are told that this process projects into the poem an ‘intense energy of conception and differentiation’ which press up against limits which are themselves the results of composition. This sounds great and I’m sure all us aspiring practitioners would want to identify with such a satisfying description except that we are not told how this process might function, nor are we given instances of poems where this is most evident.

This also enables me to have a small rant about paradox. I take it that this clash against limits that are themselves the product of the act that led to the clash is meant to be read as a dialectical process. I remain of the view that attempts to apply dialectical procedures to poetry only serves to further obfuscate what is already a complex procedure and that the above is an example of creating something that has no basis in reality in order to meet theoretical requirements. End of short rant and now for the obvious fact that Prynne is the best poet that we have and knows far more about poetry than I do.

What I need to take away from this is that the above is clearly the way that Prynne thinks that poems are made and this needs to be borne in mind regardless of my own view.

The first paragraph of the next sentence is horrendously convoluted but we are told that poetic discourse and the practice of poetry are under ‘the intense pressure of innovation and experiment’ which leads to the wilful crushing of the ‘natural grain’ and rhythm of language but bringing to light the (odd) ducts, ‘reflex slants’ and cross links that open up previously unworked potentials. This would be incredibly helpful if I was given some clue as to what these ducts and reflex slants might look like. The use of ‘wilfully crushing’ is probably significant and does indicate something deliberate and purposeful. I think I’m okay with unearthing ‘ducts’ and cross links’ because these seem to echo what Prynne say in the translating difficult poems essay. ‘Reflex slants’ however is a complete mystery to me unless he’s talking about things becoming oblique or slanted in reaction to the crushing process.
I’ve no idea at all about the ‘screen of poetic conscience’ and I can’t help thinking that it’s either a suitably enigmatic way of saying not very much or something really quite complex that could do with further elucidation. I can certainly see the ater work as hurling itself at the poetic niceties of ‘finesse and judgement’ and can also recognise that this may result in a more accurate way of expressing ‘how things are’ but I’m not yet convinced that this is done effectively in this particular poem. I think I’ve said enough about contradiction and the dialectic other than to note that poetry should be seen as a ‘marker for intrinsic anomaly’ which is a much more satisfactory description.
I’d also like to bear this passage in mind:

How does poetic thought achieve recognisable form and how is it shaped? The language of poetry is its modality and material base, but whatever its relation with common human speech, the word-arguments in use are characteristically disputed territory, where prosody and verse-form press against unresolved structure and repeatedly transgress expectation.This is a kind of dialectical unsettling because line-endings and verse divisions work into and against semantic overload, in contest with the precursors to unresolved meaning. The extreme density of the unresolved,
which maintains the high energy levels of language in poetic movement, its surreptitious buzz, may resemble unclarity which it partly is; but strong poetic thought frequently originates here, in the tension about and across line-endings, even in functional self-damage or sacrifice as the predicament of an emerging poem determined not to weaken or give
way. Thought in this matrix is not unitary (unlike ideas), but is self=disputing and intrinsically dialectical.

If we take out the ‘d’ word, this does make things a bit clearer, poetic endeavour seen as word-arguments over and around disputed territory which collide with structure and flout conventional expectations. This seems to be a neat encapsulation of the method underpinning the Prynne project and I’ll need to look for signs of these collisions and struggles in ‘Riding Fine Off’. The final and most intriguing point is the one about self sacrifice and damage. I’ve written in the past about the tendency of both Keston Sutherland and Simon Jarvis to do this but not in the way that Prynne describes. It does seem however that I need to pay more attention to line endings.

Because this is about to get complicated, this is the full text of the poem-

At the place new arduous and wrapped up generic trailing mock
persistent bay tell, dark shouts make final even decline to like.
Track fated to miss and sit out that's how to bat for both, few
for well all known all none, enough. They float over the start
grid order intimate personable inner logic, pin inducement to
the driveway, to rough trace the cloud line. For then or both
grew in ready plain view how invited too overlaid other volatile
front omission. That's how in
room from pair to base, time
to rise as raptors accept procession sated foodstuff late on late
in token region. Know the whole win lateral pin better blind-
sight agree, all seen much then reduce will finally not fill
partitive crew benefit. Want for lack for distance fuel project
duct violence resigned easily measure telic declination. Both
attractive sides habitat invaded folic austere too, grade them,

gradual amounts in what you want more,
take implant slope on wide array, wild
surmise for substitute time to say how
not affront yet, or fine oval form
playout alter reject,
each one by one,
window plan out visible twin acceptance
has been there, up to surface, ever wanting
few out that's for now don't pine gravitate
nor yet link, to get
fair assert pinny
tell them, code for count entire rapid
accident come on.

Further overgrown your own this time grimace insinuate how not
lined up for know better, chance derelict top planning loop first,
few all back assorted holding off. Held rough situate affirm cut
for cut down, to trim not yet fill we hold them, few enough. How
best to say up to mark falling, each time said level soil debated
swim fume eager to find
tell out plant limit, hormone refine
looking on forward bent foot want the strip forever, never less
over nor how best too and too for more
shadow infusion is
the truth declined. Lamps all lit up, cutting the skin graft
to lift off cell for cell, time yielded in open fit compulsion, defer for passing wants, rolling evermore. Expense of spirit
output grant the best scatter ferment insult, have enough slowly
react affirmative to meet, each to fill upper tract shout relaxed
by pretension. Return to refusal continue I heard them say so

in silicon versets did you, dapper onyx
fancy ride plentiful and apt to form
this rank of departure, trance state
muted by fugitive distracted cries. Hear
them all out picture that the kids
debate which door, what for tranquil
to play riot catchment
water slides up and up. Few hardly
here now do the rest wanting for extra
more spare to take and make, display
all tips by day
in daytime say
fear no more.

On the top row do you already no time refine to disclose even of
the passion blank, plenitude allusion do you, otherwise stupidly
good enough to lift a brow, of daylight often saved, most served.
Average at the doorway grandly seized by shadow counting off, in
geminal readiness not to slip where possible if not permitted else
auto-set. Both in force how not, if else, for a few abrupt dative
intact prints, from one over line. Mind less overt lucid all brand
marking at the front cloud-light, permanent
will you say, admit
first ulterior structure indented to pay counting by darkness
shiny and visible up ahead. Go there free of room to say more
or less valuable, more taken back on time at this against what
follows on pitch, in front, normal accredited diminution would
be said profane intrinsic honest to batter off the other side.

(The formatting for this is about right with the exception of the first lines of the short line sections- these should be in line with the rest. I’m still blaming WordPress).

On the last occasion I had identified a number of apparent references to plants and other growing things. I worked through about half of these and got up to ‘Further overgrow your own’ which I’d now like to pay attention to. I’m taking it that there’s one of those bad puns at work here. To ‘grow your own’ can refer to growing food for your own consumption either in your garden or on an allotment, it can also refer to growing your own dope. The first meaning also has connotations of the ‘dig for victory’ campaign during the second world war where people were encouraged to grow their own vegetables. ‘Overgrown’ has three definitions in the OED- something that has grown too much, something that is covered in vegetation or an adult who ‘engages in childish pursuits’ as in ‘an overgrown schoolboy’. None of this seems to be at all helpful with the previous guesswork relating to Whitehead, plant time and genetics but it is followed by ‘this time’ and this is the third use of ‘time’ thus far in the poem- the previous two being ‘time to rise’ and ‘for substitute time to say’. There can also be a temporal aspect to ‘further’. None of this is helped by ‘grimace insinuate’ although grimace can be used as both a verb and a noun – as a noun it has a secondary meaning of affectation or pretence. The OED gives the primary definition of insinuate as ” To introduce tortuously, sinuously, indirectly, or by devious methods; to introduce by imperceptible degrees or subtle means.” and then goes on to give several subsidiary definitions on a similar theme. So there would appear to be a link between the two if we accept that affectation or pretence does have an element of the devious.

So, this still appears to be baffling and it’s quite difficult to erect linkages between this and the other identified plant/growth phrases. ‘This time’ may refer to ‘now’ or to a particular moment or either forward or backward time but it isn’t easy at this stage to identify which. The use of overgrow to indicate and adult acting in a childish manner could be related to ‘to know better’ in the next line, as in being old enough to know better than to act like a child. So this may relate to an immature act carried out in an affected and devious manner which is some distance from plants.

I do of course need to bear in mind that I may be looking at the results of a quite violent struggle with language and poetic convention, that what is being presented is the surviving residue of this struggle which is also a statement of ‘how things are’.

Things might be a little more straightforward with the next phrase which is ‘cut for cut down’. Given the general drift of ‘As Mouth Blindness’ and Prynne’s known antipathy for all things capitalist, I can make a reasonable stab at this being a statement about the so-called ‘austerity’ cuts actually leading to the destruction of services rather than just a reduction in them and ‘to trim not yet fill we told them’ could refer to the Labour policy of delaying cuts until the economy had recovered. If this is the case then it is deceptively forthright and either destroys the initial hypothesis or just throws in another theme. ‘Few enough’ may also point to the fact that the previous government had already introduced savage new cuts into the benefits system. Without widhing to get too carried away, although ‘held rough situate’ looks typically austere and obdurate, if we take ‘held’ as in to hold a view or opinion and ‘rough’ as approximate with situate as to contextualise then things may begin to look a little clear with regard to things political and/or economic.

So, thus far I’ve identified two possibilities. At the moment the economic seems to be winning over the biological. Before I write any more I will go back to look at ‘Plant Time Manifold’ and Justin Katko’s gloss. Which might take some time.

I also need to pay more attention to line endings and the quite regular ‘shape’ of this particular poem. What is also of interest is just how much of himself Prynne has removed from the poem and whether this has been successful given that his ‘voice’ is unique and carries with it all the things that we think we know about him. I also have to say that I’ve now given this a fair amount of attention which might be beginning to pay off….


2 responses to “Using more of Prynne to read ‘Sub Songs’

  1. Doesn’t ‘mouth blindness’ allude to Milton’s Lycidas:
    Blind mouths! that scarce themselves know how to hold
    A sheep-hook, or have learn’d aught else the least
    That to the faithful herdman’s art belongs!

  2. This is very likely but it is also the term used to describe the damage done to the sense of taste after chemotherapy. Although the last two lines of your quote are wonderful…

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