J H Prynne, Mao Zedong, William Langland and the difficult poem

Having spent most of last week polishing the arduity site, I’ve had the opportunity to reconsider the scope of the project, which was initially about encouraging people to tackle work that is usually considered to be difficult. Since then I think I’ve modified my own understanding of the difficult and become a bit less zealous about converting everyone to the joys of this material. In fact, I’m now seeing it as a more detailed and thorough mulling over of stuff that is often ignored because of the ‘D’ tag.

The other lesson learned is that it’s a mistake to worry about definition, to try and compartmentalise the various facets that people might find intimidating / obscure / baffling. It is probably best to try and give examples and to concentrate on how they work or function rather than what they might mean. This is the current premise and has so far resulted in pages on ‘Scenes from Comus’, ‘The Triumph of Love’, and ‘Mercian Hymns’as well as a long page on the first three parts / chapters of David Jones’ ‘In Parenthesis’.

All of this is a way of getting ready to re-write the Celan and Prynne pages, add something on the notes to the Meridian which was published last year and to try and say something useful about ‘Kazoo Daydreams’ without scaring off those new to either poet. I want to use this to illustrate some of the problems that ‘KD’ presents. In amongst the ‘reference cues’ at the back there is an apparently famous speech ‘On Contradiciton’ from 1937 which, Wikipedia tells me, “is considered his most important philosophical essay”. I’ll deal with what Prynne does with this in a moment but ‘Piers Plowman’ (in both ‘B’ and ‘C’ texts’ is also listed and these present a similar kind of difficulty.

I think I need to point out that I’ve never been keen on this Marxian contradiction rigmarole primarily because (it seems to me) that the selection of the contradictory elements needed to achieve a resolution is too arbitrary and has led (oddly) to the reification of dialectical materialism at the expense of other methods of analysis. The part of the speech that Prynne has included exemplifies this particular tendency.

The other part of getting some structure into life is to engage with the late Medieval period and Middle English. I started with Thomas Hoccleve and am now oscillating between him and Langland. I didn’t think there would be too much in Piers Plowman that would need unpicking but then (yesterday) I got to an extended grammatical analogy which is in the ‘C’ text but not in either ‘A’ or ‘B’. This relates to the nature of reward and is part of a fascinating debate reflecting the economic anxieties of the latter half of the fourteenth century and can be considered hard to grasp at a number of different levels.

So far, ‘KD’ has three themes / subjects which are reasonably clear, the first relates to being and un-being, the second to contradiction and the third is a kind of response to the current economic fiasco which continues to destroy lives across the planet.

The thoughts on contradiction take their cue from these extracts from the 1937 essay:

There is internal contradiction in every single thing, hence its motion and development. Contradictoriness within a thing is the fundamental cause of its development, while its interrelations and interactions with other things are secondary causes……It is evident that purely external causes can only give rise to mechanical motion, that is, to changes in scale or quantity, but cannot explain why things differ qualitatively in thousands of ways and why one thing changes into another. As a matter of fact, even mechanical motion under external force occurs through the internal contradictoriness of things. Simple growth in plants and animals, their quantitative development, is likewise chiefly the result of their internal contradictions.


But is it enough to say merely that each of the contradictory aspects is the condition for the other’s existence, that there is identity between them and that consequently they can coexist in a single entity? No, it is not. The matter does not end with their dependence on each other for their existence; what is more important is their transformation into each other. That is to say, in given conditions, each of the contradictory aspects within a thing transforms itself into its opposite, changes its position to that of its opposite.

Prynne follows this with:

I saw these gaps of explanation rolling like wheels contrary within
themselves, alien motions on fire with coriolis demeanour. I saw
the grains self-rotate in their own amazement with noise of spheres
metallic and burnished, along the baseline it is by amount at
principle neither so nor not because contradiction is inherent and
not alternate in sense-ordering. I saw this notion in full fiery
finesse, alive alive-o.

( For the sake of accuracy, I’ve maintained the line breaks as published).

Both of these are blockquoted paragraphs, but there is also:

...............................................'External causes
are the condition of change and internal cause are the basis
of change, and external causes become operative through internal causes'.
Mourning does become the law but not this one, to be is not to
become or at fault with moment practice was what can I say I saw,
darker than ever dark to be'.

The dilemma here has a number of dimensions, the first concerns the Marx – Lenin – Mao lineage and the variations along the way and the second concerns the relationship between the quote and what follows. I’ve just had the dubious pleasure of wading through all of the essay and really wouldn’t want to inflict this on anyone else partially because people may be overwhelmed by the apparent density therein and because I’d be tempted to point out the very high nonsense factor. As the essay is used on three separate occasions however I will have to try and provide some context- including the fact that this made Mao’s reputation as an ideologue/theorist which was instrumental in his rise to power. I’ll resist the temptation to go on about the genocidal Great Leap Forward and his readiness to kill more than 40 million people for the sake of an ideological nicety but this won’t be easy.

I have no problem with identifying the ‘Molly Malone’ lyric and waxing eloquent about Prynne’s interest in the work song, nor with puzzling over the nature of the spheres, nor with speculating about the abiding presence of ‘sense order’ in Prynne’s work.

Given the presence of contradiction throughout ‘KD’, playing down this element and concentrating on the other concerns is nevertheless dishonest so I’ll probably try to present an overview, link to what David Harvey says about contradiction and leave readers to pursue this further if they so wish.

There’s also the sad fact that I’m both deeply partisan and opinionated and what I get from poems may not be a true reflection of what is probably available to others. For example, when Geoffrey Hill uses ‘self’ in any context I have this need to go into ‘selving’ and ‘inscape’ at very great length because that’s what I want to take rather than what might actually be there.

I’ll also indulge myself with extensive quotes from Gillian Rose on Poussin and on her debate with Sister Wendy and point to what Prynne said about Professor Rose at his reading of ‘Refuse Collection’- I may even bring Geoffrey Hill’s memorialisation into things and try and make some kind of point re Rose’s denunciation of all post-structural thought and Jacques Derrida in particular”.

‘KD’ is written mostly in the form of a medieval dream-vision poem with heavy use of the ‘I saw’ trope which is how ‘Piers’ starts. Prior to paying attention to Langland, I wouldn’t have seen the parallels between this and ‘KD’ but I now see that both are in part a response to changing economic circumstances and that neither take the easy option of presenting one ‘side’ or the other but leave readers to do the ‘thought work’ instead. As noted above, the poem does have remarkably obdurate sections but it is also a very real discussion of the anxieties and resentments that pervaded England at the time – for all kinds of reasons. This is how the grammatical analogy in the ‘C’ text of Passus III begins:

        Thus is mede and mercede as two maner
Rect and indirect, reminde bothe
On a sad and a siker sembable to hemsuluen.
Ac adiectif and substantif vnite aske
And accordance in kynde, in case and in nombre,
And ayther is otheres help - of hem cometh retribucuon,
And that is the gyft that god giveth to all lele living,
Grace of good end and gret joye aftur:

The problem here is about just how much context do people want and how much this may be of assistance rather than providing further obfuscation. I think it’s important to try and get this right if only to demonstrate that poetic difficulty isn’t confined to the modernist thread and because it’s a wonderful example of the poem as engaged political commentary. I don’t have problem with clarifying the language and elements of the analogy, nor with presenting an overview of the argument but I do get a bit unstuck with the detail of the economic realities, of ‘bastard feudalism’ and the workings of orthodox ideas about retribution and grace. This is because there needs to be a balance between enabling people feel confident about the poem and swamping them with (partisan and partial) context even though that might be useful.


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