J H Prynne from the front, a reader’s report

alan thomas, lake & wells #2 2006

The Archive of the Now has a recording of Prynne reading ‘Refuse Collection’ with an introduction in which some Important Points are made. For the Prynne completists, the excellent Prynne bibliography states that this was recorded in December 2006 at the University of Sussex. The Important Points seem at first to be at variance with equally Important Points elsewhere and this was going to an incisive analysis of these inconsistencies. On a second and third listening however these turn out to be less obvious. What does seem to be important is the notion of authority with regard to the poem and the importance/centrality of what the reader makes of the material. He also says that he doesn’t believe in poets or poetry but that he does believe in poems.

He makes the reasonably obvious point that authorship does not entail authority over a piece of work and that poets will usually talk about how a poem is put together rather than the thing itself- they are speaking from the back of the poem whereas readers speak from the front and it is this speaking that counts.

I have a few issues with this, looking at and thinking about how a particular poem came to be done can enhance and inform a reading from the front and can also be deeply disenchanting. I’ll try and give a couple of readerly examples- initially I was very, very impressed by the ambition and verve of ‘Stress Position’ by Keston Sutherland. One of the many reasons for this was the inclusion of Black Beauty, the fictional horse, in the ‘plot’ and for this not to seem strange. Another piece of brilliance is the lyrical description of male rape by a group of soldiers. I now know where both of these came from because I’ve discussed them with Keston. Neither of these insights help with my understanding of the poem but they do provide context and this context might be another part of the picture of how poems ‘fit’ (or not) into our respective lives and worlds.

I’m not sure that this is to disagree with Prynne’s stance but I feel that he might be missing out on the provision of context. This can have unforeseen consequences, my intense admiration for ‘The Four Quartets’ was destroyed by reading about the process of composition and looking at the drafts. On the other hand Celan’s notes for the Meridian address have challenged and enhanced the ways that I think about poetry at a very deep level.

I can’t claim that what follows is a pristine and pure view of the poems from the front because I have read a lot of Prynne’s prose on the doing of poetry and his analyses of the work of others but what I can do is provide an honest account of what ‘Streak~~Willing~~Entourage~~Artesian’ and ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ look like from this particular ‘front’.

Introduction.

Readings from the front don’t occur by themselves and this is especially the case with complex poetry so this needs to begin with a brief account of what led me to pay attention to Prynne. I bought the first Collected because Peter Ackroyd and Ian Sinclair came on to Radio 4 to say how good Prynne was. Like many others I made a real effort with some of the poems and then gave up. About five years later I started to pay attention to Geoffrey Hill and found to my surprise that I enjoyed the process. At this point ego kicked in and I felt that if I could get to grips with Hill then I could engage with Prynne. The first problem in this encounter is the charge of charlatanry and whether or not this stuff is a gigantic lifelong hoax. This suspicion has been largely overcome but traces can still come to the surface (see below).

Once I was ‘over’ the charlatan hurdle it became clear that this material demands (as with Celan) years of attention and that this could become quite obsessive because it never feels complete. I know that this can be applied to most serious work but I feel that these two are particularly demanding and rewarding over the very long term in a way that other poets aren’t.

The other facet that became apparent was/is the paucity of helpful material to assist with engagement. in fact I have used these pages to rant and despair at some of the excluding and elitist stuff that the academy insists on churning out about Prynne. I now accept that there are notable exceptions but at the time I felt (ego again) that I could try my hand at writing usefully about this material. Over the last three years I’ve found that I really enjoy writing about poetry, I find that I love finding different ways to say different things about this stuff and my ongoing engagement with Prynne (and others) increases my confidence in the validity/integrity of what I think.

Streak~~~Willing~~~Entourage~~~Artesian

I recall the day that this arrived (along with ‘Stress Position’ and ‘The Unconditional’) in the post from Barque Press. The cover looks and feels cheap and is green. Each page contains six quatrains and appears to be a poem in its right. The subject matter at least in part relates to the recent civil war in Ulster and to the hunger strike in particular but there are also many other things referred to. Each poem looks like a series of statements that don’t make any kind of sense as if a relentless disordering is taking place. If I am allowed a look from the side then I would observe that ‘Streak’ is more austere than the rest of Prynne’s work in terms of the relative shortage of reader-friendly footholds but that this should not imply an equivalent level of difficulty- I find ‘The Oval Window’ and ‘Triodes’ much more baffling.

I have an interest in the debate about the nature of the Tudor presence in Ireland and whether or not this can be said to be imperial, I also have some residual guilt for not being involved in the politics of the ‘Troubles’ as they were occurring. This focus (if that’s what it is) is much more challenging and absorbing for me than stating the obvious about fiascos in Iraq and Afghanistan especially when the horrors of Ulster are being airbrushed out of our collective memories in a very deliberate way.

One of my more obvious problems is that I don’t apply enough rigour when thinking about readerly authority but this does have a number of advantages in that the only status that I can claim is that I have read something which has prodded me into trying to write something honest and heartfelt about it. So, I don’t think that this particular reader has anything definitive or significant to say, the hope is rather that others will be encouraged to read the same work and that some will want to write about their experience of it but this still isn’t about authority but simply taking the poem into the world. I think I also need to say that I’m never entirely clear whether I believe in belief so I can’t relate to or properly agree with belief in the poem.

The first thing to be said about ‘Streak~~~Willing’ is that there is a marked contrast between the sparse format/language use and the complex cavalcade of things that might be being said. These only slowly become apparent and really do require the reader to think/listen in different ways at once. Cutting across (through) the sequence there are necks, sames and hungers, key parts of each poem are made ambiguous and there are some parts that are surreal in their excess of bafflement (‘steep-side / per macro run by dozen oh warship guage silent / elated regimen’). There are also moments when things are said that carry enormous precision and make other ways of saying these things appear useless.

Because of the verbal austerity then a front only reading involves thinking about other meanings and possible homophones, it also involves thinking about the relationships that are set up within the sequence rather than with individual poems and this involves getting a reasonable overview of all 12 poems. This isn’t easy as there doesn’t seem to be an order of events or a sequence of ideas so my current approach is to try and sketch in elements as they become apparent. It is this activity that I know will keep me busy for several years to come.

Kazoo Dreamboats

I think that most of us are still in readerly shock over this, there is a picture on the front of a wooden or cane car which was drawn in Angola in 1936. There is a list of ‘reference cues’, extracts from these works are placed directly into the text which appears to be in prose.

The view from the front indicates that some of this may be more readily accessible and some of it appears to be quite witty. Their are a wide range of explicitly stated poetic tropes, conceits and devices and obvious references to not so obvious things. At this early stage of our acquaintance/encounter, I’m not having problems working out what is being said but much more in figuring out the cognitive sense or thrust of the message(s). The use of many sources and the absence of apparent connection between most of them is beginning to engage my small brain and I’ve even felt the need to make a start on ‘The Consolations of Philosophy’ which is a good thing although I don’t think I’ve got the stomach for Mao in 1937 on contradiction.

The view from the front also states that, once the initial shock has been overcome, paying attention requires less of a cognitive shift than ‘Streak’ even if it does appear to collide head-on with 40+ years of material which was itself designed to collide with what most of us think of as poetry….

Conclusion

I can provide a readerly from the front account of most poems because most poems don’t challenge me. The material that is challenging benefits from context, it helps me as a reader to know Geoffrey Hill’s view of Pound and Yeats, to be aware of what Celan might have meant by ‘encounter’ just as it is useful to know that Prynne doesn’t attach enormous significance to meaning. The other thing that I need to note is that none of us are innocent readers and I am less innocent than most because I read with a view to writing about what I come across and, as an occasional doer of poetry, to see if there are any ideas or conceits that I can usefully steal.

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2 responses to “J H Prynne from the front, a reader’s report

  1. Sinclair did a talk on Olson and related to him at the Cape Ann Museum in Gloucester last year. He mentioned his visits to GB in late 60’s listing british poets influenced by him like JH Prynne , Tom Raworth, Eric Mottram, R. F. Langley, Allen Fisher and Chris Torrence. It was interesting when he came out with (rather unknown now) ideas from those times like putting an sort of english version of Black Mountain College in Cambridge with JH Prynne as it’s rector and boss, if all that would has happened back then… Sounds quite obscure now, wondering how much it was close (or impossible) to materialized in 70’s, anyway Dorn and Creeley with Mottram’s help were often visitors teaching and lecturing. While talking John Clare in relation to Maximus (Anyway, wasn’t he inspired by Ashbery’s new reading of Claire in his “Other traditions” book, from the Norton lectures he did? Might be worth an investigation) he calls for return to Open Field as technique and form of writing nowadays (Sutherland? Bonney? Jarvis? Rest of continent and globe elswhere in poundian flow chart too?). Still Olson industry wins, endlessy, for the change. The main risk is self-parody, making Dodd And the neo-projectivism of course, as variousy as possible. Grace?

    • This is very enlightening- I’m currently looking at the new English Intelligencer anthology from the mid sixties and it occurs to me that this group, with Prynne as a prominent member, was far too fractious and disorganised to put together anything except one weekend in Northumberland. The success of Black Mountain was due to a range of creative activities and the astounding level of talent that it attracted- it would have been difficult to replicate in the UK- wouldn’t it?

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