Reading ‘Difficult’ Poetry with Success. Prynne, Hill and David Jones.

“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.”

But this is an important aspect of the question
Which I am not ready to discuss, not ready at all to
This leaving out business. On it hinges the very importance
of what's novel.
Or autocratic, or dense, or silly. It is as well to call attention
To it by exaggeration, perhaps. But calling attention
Isn't the same thing as explaining, and as I said I am not
ready
To line phrases with the costly stuff of explanation, and shall
not,

The first of these is from J H Prynne’s ‘Mental Ears’ and the second is from John Ashbery’s ‘The Skaters’ which was published in ‘Rivers and Mountains’ in 1966 and both appear to be saying the same thing. So, if two of the most important poets of the last fifty years have this lack of interest in the quest for meaning, what might a successful reading look like?

For me, ‘successful’ relates to feeling satisfied by the act of reading and this usually involves giving attention to a poem or part of a poem. It is the way I feel about reading attentively that is the marker for me. There are some contemporary innovative poets who produce work that doesn’t involve me, that doesn’t (for a variety of reasons) retain either my interest or attention. This is not to suggest that this work is inferior – it’s just that I’m not interested in it.

The problem of meaning (which used to concern me) is only one aspect of readerly attention/involvement and working out meaning tends to be a by-product of doing other things and being involved in other ways. I’m going to use the above poets to try and illustrate what I mean by this and how ‘success’ can occur in other ways.

Prynne is a good place to start and I’m currently paying attention to ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ because it seems to mark a significant ‘turn’ in his output and because I find it compelling. The first reward that I get is in responding to the challenge which, for me, is altering the way that I absorb information. Prynne’s work demands a less linear (for the want of a better word) kind of attention and requires this adjustment to be made before reading rather than after. I like this because I can do it and I find doing it utterly absorbing. I’ve also found that I can apply this kind of attention to other things unrelated to either poetry or reading.

This is one of the shorter paragraphs from ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’:

                                       Can this be or was it moreover
for this incision in dropsy yes not ventral not assented sold OUT
in mere song-like retrieval, give way with no-name in appearance
decking as a whirling swarm of gnats is soft summer sun at the
edge of the outward forest, infolded not time after time still less
perpetual by false appearance which is the true-fast semblance of
falsity, indued and ever-doubtful. Our morning hymn this is, and
song at evening echo confuted by shared antagonism, implicit not
by next coming-to-be as the world is transformed in feature full
of folk saying what is it not, time-locked against spokes in the cycle
of saying so. Indicative ridiculous also, won't you come home
Bill Bailey before a toast and tea, scumbags! reptiles! the old folks
just better stay at home or lose their reason too, mine and yours
loaned against non-interest, souls implanted by necessity smooth
turning upon an axle you'd not know was not granted its near life
to be there, on-site in foam, I saw no less than these things
right up on the peremptory shore line.

I’ve quoted this at length because I can now show different kinds of involvement. The first of these is about identifying the individual phrases and working out what they might be doing. The first phrase asks a question which then appears to be answered with some qualification. This process is less arduous here than it is for most of the more recent Prynne, this seems to be making an effort towards greater coherence but there are still challenges – deciding what the Bill Bailey and old folks at home references are doing is something that would need a different kind of involvement (checking song lyrics) than the rest. For me, the most satisfying part is engaging with the way that some phrases point in a number of different directions at once and then trying to apply these to the whole. This passage contains these that are crying out for this kind of involvement;

  • incision in dropsy;
  • mere song-like retrieval;
  • appearance decking;
  • the outward forest;
  • true-fast semblance;
  • song at evening echo confuted;
  • spokes in the cycle of saying so;
  • souls implanted by necessity;
  • on-site in foam;
  • peremptory shore line.

Some of this involves looking at secondary word meanings and derivations, checking how each of these might relate to what’s going on around them and (in this work) bearing in mind the ‘reference cues’ printed at the end. All of this is absorbing and rewarding because it is possible to gain a sense of progress and some insight into other ways of thinking generally and doing poetry in particular. I must also mention the feeling of success that I get when I begin to grasp the structure and direction of the whole.

It is also important to stress that meaning comes way down on the list, I’m very comfortable in not knowing what ‘this’ and ‘it’ refer to in the first paragraph and accept that this will only be made clearer by the kind of attention that I’ve just described.

A successful reading of Geoffrey Hill doesn’t have the same qualities but it still requires attention and involvement. My first encounter with Hill was reading the first few pages of Comus on the bus on the way to work and realising that this was a poet who was confident in his abilities and quite precise in what he had to say. This gives the reader a feeling of security – as if she or he is in safe hands. Success with Hill works on two levels, responding to what he says and considering the way that he says it. I occasionally try to write poetry and therefore have an interest in the practice and technique of those that I admire. One element of success with Hill is evaluating his technique and assessing whether the poem is both technically efficient and beautiful- his criteria, not mine. Success comes when I feel that I’ve made a reasonable assessment. Some of this doesn’t take long, ‘Oraclau’ is obviously less than technically efficient and this gets in the way of what Hill might be trying to say. Other judgements are more nuanced, I wouldn’t have addressed my critics from within ‘The Triumph of Love’ but that doesn’t stop it from being a brilliant piece of work. I admire ‘Clavics’ more than I did when it was published but I’m still not sure about the use of patterns. So, successful reading as a practitioner in the case of Hill is wanting and being able to continue to think about technique and tactics.

I’ve said before that I don’t have any kind of faith and that Hill and I occupy opposite ends of the political spectrum. I don’t feel challenged by his high Anglicanism nor by his odd brand of ‘hierarchical’ Toryism because both are wrong in the sense of being factually incorrect so success here is not about being challenged about my beliefs and prejudices but is more about what poetry can and should do. In general terms I agree with Hill about poetry and about literature and I like the way that he reads. Success here is about being able to place myself in the hands of a fellow traveller who knows far more than I about the things that interest me.

The sense of success that I get from reading Hill comes from this complex sense of identification and/or comparison which usually leads to other things. To give a recent example, reading ‘Clavics’ and Hill’s identification with Yeats has led me to look again at his work.

I’ve written before about the challenges presented by ‘The Anathemata’ and success here is more about throwing yourself into what’s been said and trying to get hold of the extent of Jones’ ambition. As with the work of Prynne, engagement is more about the way in which language is used and the variations in those techniques issues of meaning take a secondary place. In his introduction Jones indicates his intention to set out his personal cultural background and interests in poetic form so we have the Roman Catholic faith, Welshness, London, the Roman empire, prehistory and seafaring as well as material from various chronicles and romances.

Success with Jones works on two levels, the ability to immerse yourself in what is being said and the extent of your willingness to explore further some of the issues and subjects covered. I like to think that I succeed by the first criterion in that I can now, with the help of the notes, follow the flow of the poetry and visualise most of what is described. I have however ‘failed’ on the second standard in that after the first couple of readings I resolved to know more about Catholic liturgy as well as Welshness. I have the books sitting on my hard drive but have yet to look at any of them.

I think what I’m trying to say about all three of these ‘difficult’ practitioners is that successful reading starts with a degree of acceptance of them on their own terms and being interested in how those terms are involved in the poetry making rather than being primarily concerned with either meaning or intention.

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