Successful reading and writing about poetry

“The discourse of poems is rather usually less directly able to be construed and normalized than the ordinary language of every day. The discourses of modernism in Western poetics make steeper descents into sub-intelligibility; and in my own case I am rather frequently accused of having more or less altogether taken leave of discernible sense. In fact I believe this accusation to be more or less true, and not to me alarmingly so, because what for so long has
seemed the arduous royal road into the domain of poetry (“what does it mean?”) seems less and less an unavoidably necessary precondition for successful reading. The task, however, is not to subside into distracted ingenious playfulness with the lexicon and cross-inflectional idiomatics, but to write and read with maximum focused intelligence
and passion, each of these two aspects bearing so strongly into the other as to fuse them into the enhanced state once in an old-fashioned way termed the province of the imagination.”

This is from Prynne’s “Mental Ears and Poetic Work” published in the Chicago Review in 2009. I’m starting with this quote because a recent post by Chris Fenwick on his lexipenia blog has prodded me into thinking about the various ways in which I read and write about poetry.

This was going to be a re-evaluation of the forensic line by line reading that I do with Prynne and Celan but on reflection I’ve decided to widen this out to think about what a ‘successful’ reading might look like in general terms and how such a reading might be usefully written about.

Chris focuses on ‘To Pollen’ and ‘Field Notes’ (the essay first appeared in ‘Oxford Poetry in 2008) and states in his preamble-

” I still can’t escape the feeling that the aesthetic strategies of ‘To Pollen’, and various other later Prynne poems, are too costly. Close-reading Prynne can sometimes ressemble unpacking a charades-style cryptic clue (indeed, there’s an essay to be written on the syntax of crosswords and that of avant garde poetry).”

I’ll get on to the ‘crossword syntax’ shortly but I’d like to start by addressing the issue of readerly ‘cost’ with regard to ‘To Pollen’ and the other ‘later’ poems. I started to read Prynne about two years ago, having previously held the widespread view about wilful obscurity and elitism. I didn’t have to read Prynne, nobody was twisting my arm but I’d just spent three years paying attention to Geoffrey Hill and felt that Prynne might give me something else to think about. I started with ‘News of Warring Clans’ and ‘Word Order’ and was gripped by both the startling use of language and the fugal things going on with meaning. At this stage I was able to look at the whole poem or sequence and then try and fit lines and phrases into that bigger picture. I found this activity to be both satisfying and rewarding

I then bought ‘Acrylic Tips’ ‘To Pollen’, ‘Field Notes’ and ‘Streak~~Willing~~ Entourage ~~Artesian’ all of which seemed to demand a much more focused word-by-word approach even if not as detailed as the one one deployed by Prynne when reading ‘The Solitary Reaper’. Over the past two years I’ve written a lot about all of these publications apart from ‘Acrylic Tips’ and I don’t propose to repeat myself. What I do want to do is try and work out whether this engagement has been too costly. I read poetry because I get bored quickly and verse is sufficiently complex and varied to keep me interested, I’m also quite tenacious and can get a little bit obsessive about working out how things function (which is different from what they might mean). I think that ‘Streak’ is more challenging than ‘To Pollen’ because it is more austere and its subject matter is more nuanced. I have paid a lot of attention to both poems but I’m quite comfortable with this because I recognise that Prynne is important and that we ought to try to keep up with him. of course there are things in both poems that are annoying and/or too obscure for their own good but thinking about these two does prevent me from getting bored and I do feel that the readerly activity that I undertake is a more than usually important component in the process of ‘doing’ poetry. The only other poet that I get that with is Paul Celan who also seems to invite far more participation than normal.

I’ll freely admit that the ‘Streak’ sequence has at times occupied large parts of my thinking in the past and would be doing so still if I hadn’t dragged myself away to read other things. This isn’t something that I resent or regret because the pay-off seems to be worth the effort. Things also linger around, after reading Chris’ piece I had another look at the first poem in the ‘To Pollen’ sequence which reminded me that I hadn’t yet got yo grips with “could level cell tropic” in the third line. The following day I was looking at Lord Phillips’ magisterial BSE Inquiry Report and came across a series of diagrams which now leads me to believe that this may refer to mitosis or the way that cells multiply by dividing in two. I may be completely wrong about this but I will enjoy working this out.

Whilst I’m not sure what for me constitutes a successful reading, I do know that the line by line, word by word approach over a sequence of poems such as ‘To Pollen’ or ‘Streak’ can result in the loss or dimunition of any wider context. As Prynne himself has pointed out in his translation essay, this bigger picture is also fairly mobile and fluid but it does seem that it is more conducive to the prospect of success if we can hold both sets of ambiguities in mind.

A conventional definition of a successful reading would have something to do with ‘meaning’ or at least the intention of the poet (wouldn’t it?). I think I’d like to distance myself a little from that and suggest that bafflement can be a good thing. My interest, I think, lies primarily in the nuts and bolts of the poem, word choice, line endings, imagery, metre, rhyme and all the other tricks of the trade that make up what we call poetry. I get more pleasure from poets showing off their tricks than from working out what the ‘message’ is. For example, the brilliance of ‘The Triumph of Love’ lies in its confident exuberance and Hill’s ability to play in a number of registers rather than the (rather thin) underlying meaning. Unlike C S Lewis and Bert Hamilton, I don’t read ‘The Faerie Queen’ for its guidance on how to live but I am endlessly impressed by its confidence and by the fact that it doesn’t actually ‘work’. So, given that I think I can grasp the broad thrust of the Prynne project, I am more interested in what is done and how this is intended to create an effect. I’d currently like to know, for example, ‘To Pollen’ appears to contain a direct address to readers and what Prynne hoped to achieve by its insertion.

I have a few problems with regard to applying the crossword analogy to Prynne. His work may appear to be cryptic but there is a method in his madness- which relates more to a struggle with the structure of the language than the construction of a puzzle.

We now come to the successful writing issue. I have a number of confessions to make. The first is that I write about this stuff because I enjoy writing about it, the second is that I quickly get bored of my own voice and the third is that I don’t have a plan other than to write about what I’m reading. Given that I think I view this space more for thinking out loud rather than elucidation then success would be being clear about those thoughts. I am aware that I’ve given quite detailed readings, especially of ‘Streak~~Willing’ but I think these are more about trying to think through my own response rather than to provide an explanation. I also find that I’m interested in trying out new ways to say things about poets and poems. The last blog on Francesca Lisette was an experiment in saying something of importance in a different way.

During the past two years I’ve also been guilty of taking myself far too seriously, the realisation that people were reading this stuff has caused some strange notions of responsibility and purpose that I’m only now beginning to overcome. The last period of depression has underlined the need for me to get on with the writing and not to dwell too long on what people might make of it. I do however feel that my enthusiasms might kindle interest in others and that this would be (is) a good thing.

Successful writing about poetry for me involves accuracy and honesty and I think that’s all I can hope for. There are a few writers whose work on poetry I really admire- Derrida on Celan, Prynne of George Herbert, Helen Cooper on Spenser and the Romance tradition and all of these produce a degree of ‘success’ but in utterly different ways. Prynne has made me read the rest of Herbert and reading Cooper has led me to pay attention to ‘Guy of Warwick’ and ‘Bevis of Hampton’- isn’t that how it works? Isn’t that what we do? If I pay attention Geraldine Kim as a result of reading something by Vance Maverick and he reads something by Simon Jarvis as a result of something that I’ve written then isn’t this successful?

So, successful reading does depend on a line by line approach tempered by keeping an eye on the wider context. The problem I have with this is that my small brain sometimes finds it hard to ‘carry’ or even grasp this wider field but that won’t stop me from trying.


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