Reading J H Prynne, an open letter to Neil Pattison

Dear Neil,

I’ve spent some time reading your remarkable response to John Stevens with regard to approaching ‘The Oval Window’ and I feel the need to respond here rather than in the thread, mainly because it is more likely to be read by innocent passers-by. When I’d overcome all the initial scepticisms and suspicions and had begun to pay attention to Prynne (as opposed to looking at the words) I wrote a short blog entitled ‘How to read Jeremy Prynne’ which was one of my glib lists which makes the mistake of glossing over the big stumbling block by encouraging interested parties to ‘think laterally’ which is probably the least helpful thing that I could have written. I’ve been thinking a lot about your landscape image/analogy and I want to take it a bit further but first of all I’d like to introduce you to ‘Rawhide Harangue of Aching Indices as Told by Light’ by Jessica Stockholder.

You now need to bear with me for a while. Stockholder is a Canadian artist who rearranges our fundamental ideas about space and what space does and can do. ‘Rearranges’ is a polite term for ‘dismantles’ and/or ‘destroys’ and this is achieved with incredibly banal and ordinary materials. The initial effect of a Stockholder installation is one of disorientation and bafflement because of the assault on our many taken-for-granted notions about three dimensional space and about aesthetic judgement/value.

It would be utterly crass to suggest that reading Prynne is like confronting a Stockholder installation but I would like to suggest is that Prynne’s work has this same ‘dimensional’ aspect in that we are encouraged to allow the poems to take us into areas where we need to consider length, breadth and depth at once and take into account the different materials from which these things are made.

As with Stockholder, it is also important to think about isolated aspects quite hard but also to try and relate these to the work as a whole. This is a wider shot from the same installation-

In the first image, I would suggest, our focus is on the neon tubes on the floor primarily because they shouldn’t be there, in the second image our attention shifts to how a range of different elements might relate to each other and the light tubes seem less important (but still part of the piece).

When I’m reading Prynne, I’m conscious that I’m persuading my brain to do things that it doesn’t normally do. This is where it gets difficult for me to make general statements about reading this stuff because I only have my own subjective experience to rely on but the first thing that my brain needs to do is to grab and retain as much as possible of the poem, as in ‘As mouth blindness’, or the sequence as in ‘Unanswering Rational Shore’ and then to think about potential ‘connections’ across this rugged terrain. Going a bit further with your ‘lights’ analogy, I’d want to add that some of these connections produce only an intermittent light, others produce a flickering but constant light and very few produce a steady beam and that the ‘important’ element may be in the means by which these connections are made and unmade rather than in the lights that are produced.

I think I’d also like to add that my brain really enjoys these different tasks and perspectives and there have been times when I’ve become a bit addicted and have had to wean myself off from the Prynne Habit because there are other things in life that I need to attend to. If managed correctly, engaging with Prynne is immensely pleasurable and amusing, there are many things about the work that make me smile and the experience informs my reading of other material which is always a good thing.

The other aspect that I’d like to emphasise is that I do get the feeling that I’m in the presence of serious poetry when I’m looking at this stuff. By ‘serious’ I think I mean work that doesn’t compromise and is completely focused on what it does. There’s a degree of absolute concentration that I only experience / am aware of with Prynne and Celan. This extreme refusal to make concessions and to focus exclusively on the making of poetry (which is common to both) is, for me, the marker of lasting value / worth. Reading the poems chronologically, it’s reasonably clear to me that Prynne’s encounter with poetry has become increasingly focused and intense and one of the interesting aspects of the later sequences has been the insistence on the use of traditional verse forms so that the poems look like they belong within the scope of poetry although they operate at its very edge. All of this is a Very Good Thing.

I think I’d also like to say a bit more about the ‘understanding’ issue which was certainly enough to deter me for a number of years. I think that it’s really important to recognise that it is eminently feasible to take serious pleasure from a poem even if we ‘understand’ very little of it. There’s also the vexed question of what it is that we’re trying to understand, is it the ‘message’ of the poem or the poet’s intention in writing it? So, I think I still maintain that it’s okay to be baffled and that working with bafflement is one of the many pleasures of doing Prynne.

You are absolutely correct in placing emphasis on thinking about the relationship between work that we are drawn to and that which repels us, I think this applies to most stuff and not just Prynne. I’m also conscious that there is some of Prynne’s stuff that (at the moment) I can’t be bothered with because it would take too long for me to work out whether I ‘liked’ it.

The other thing that I think might be helpful is to look at the Shakespeare/Wordsworth/Herbert commentaries because they give a reasonably clear account of how Prynne responds to and thinks about poetry. It’s also worthwhile to look at ‘Mental Ears’, ‘Poetic Thought’ and the essay on translating difficult poetry because they do give a fairly clear context for Prynne’s practice. I read and paid attention to some of the poems first however and this gave me more of a starting point.

The last thing I want to say here is that these poems deal with grown-up subject matter and that issues are addressed in a way that gives an account of the complexities involved. Even in the most outraged polemic (Refuse Collection) there is, as well as condemnation, an attempt to depict the various perspectives and contradictions involved.

This is an extended way of thanking you for you insightful and provocative contribution which has brought me back to the work with a fresh pair of eyes. These are currently being applied to ‘To Pollen’ with surprising results…..

Thanks,

John

(Sorry, couldn't resist)

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8 responses to “Reading J H Prynne, an open letter to Neil Pattison

  1. I’m not going to comment on Prynne, but I love Jessica Stockholder, even if I despair of ever ‘getting’ what she does.

  2. I wanted to find something that worked across a number of different spatial dimensions and with different materials and Stockholder came to mind because of what she does to the inside of my head and the fact that I do ‘get’ it.
    I probably should have extended the analogy a bit further by pointing out that most of the objects are not used in conventional ways and often point to other ‘meanings’ but this would probably put most people off. I’m thinking of making much more use of the imagae at the end of the blog. Because I can. Obvs

  3. John, I can’t help but add a little coda to the exchange in ‘Difficult Syntax’.
    First, look at you. All of you. From John Stevens, to Thomas Dunn, to John Stevens again, to Neil ( I assume Neil Pattison) and of course back to Bebrowed himself…this is an amazing exchange. When the gods gave us the Internet, this is surely what they had in mind.
    John Stevens I think articulates quite well one side of the issue. One should try to express complex thoughts with clarity and simplicity. Poetry is no different than writing an essay on foot and mouth disease. Nothing is gained by being not clear. In truth, everyone who contributed to this blog entry did aspire to such a goal. In our daily life, we (mostly) do practice being clear and being understood. It won’t help you get breakfast if you twist your syntax to the waiter. (In the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that John Stevens has been commenting on my oftentimes not-so-clear poetry for some time now, and I value his thoughts greatly.) Poetry might be thought of as an articulation of our utmost being, the place where we must live. Why not strive to get a clear picture of this place?
    Thomas Dunn takes an interesting next step. Language has been corrupted. (He takes a side step which is also interesting: the involvement poetry has with music.) Therefore we have to wrestle with it, expose its weaknesses, generally rake it over the coals, in the hope the flame will make it pure again. It is so nice to see Capitalism being put to the blame (uh, flame). Here in the States, nobody quite takes that position.
    Actually I think Thomas Dunn’s greatest insight is in his last sentence: ‘It may be more that you do not agree with the poetry and it refuses you in its turn.’
    Neil’s thoughts are of course extremely pertinent. Live with it. Fly over it. Bomb the hell out of it. (Okay, he doesn’t say that.) ‘Might we imagine the poem like this: as the shape determined by a group of coordinates, isolated and connected within the whole structure of the language itself?’ (And is that Finn, again, coming over the hill?) Structures other than sentences, structures akin to sculpture…sure, why not—though I don’t think the sentence is going to leave us alone any time soon.
    I have not heard of Jessica Stockholder, but the reference seems apt. Pictures of such work don’t even begin to do it justice. Let me also reference the sculpture of Fred Sandback. You can look up pictures of his work, but…you really have to be there. I am fortunate to have the Dia Beacon museum nearby, which has devoted several rooms to his work. It’s amazing.
    Okay. My purpose is to pat everyone on the back, not solve the issue. Maybe Wallace Stevens was right, maybe the poem is the growth of the mind of the world. Maybe we just put life and breath and structure back into it.
    Jim

    • Jim,

      Thank you for the pat, it’s certainly one of the most productive debates/discussions that we’ve had here. Your point about the internet has set off a train of thought which I’ll post as a blog in the next day or so. Incidentally, I see what you mean about Sandback- some poetry does have this spatial/dimensional quality that we don’t often talk about/recognise.

  4. I am loving the stingingly sarcastic and self aware use of ‘obvs’.

    • I like to think of it as a marketing tool, have found that it needs to be used sparingly and in the ‘right’ context for full effect.

  5. I’m glad you’ve taken this theme a bit further and stimulated such a discussion. Jim Kleinhenz is right: the internet and the use to which we put it are indeed extraordinary.
    I’m going to have to ponder these ideas. Meanwhile, I think your pictures of Jessica Stockholder’s installations provide a rather neat insight (an extra simile perhaps?) – especially as (Kayt’s point) we might not ‘get them’ but we can like them lots.
    Let me try to use your metaphor a bit further. It’s true that I prefer clarity and simplicity in language but I’m willing to be disoriented and baffled, as you put it, so long as I can move beyond that. The Stockholder installation you show us is strange, but I’m not left in the dark (sorry!) for long because I love those colours and imagine the views and perspectives constantly change as you walk around it all. With Prynne’s poems (and I had another go earlier this morning) I haven’t yet found the equivalent of those colours and perspectives. Not yet, anyway.

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