J H Prynne’s Unanswering Rational Shore (again)

Eighteen months ago I wrote with more than a little enthusiasm on the above and have been intending to take this a bit further since then. This may have been a productive gap because I’ve since discovered more aspects of URS to be enthusiastic about.

URS was published in 2001 and consists of 14 poems each of which has two seven line stanzas. There is a completely blank page between poem 7 and eight and rhyme does occur at least once. I’m making the assumption that this is a sequence and not simply a collection of unrelated poems and I’m trying to consider what the poem does rather than what it might mean in an attempt to respond to and build on Ben Watson’s remarkable ‘Madness and Art” which focuses on URS.

I’m also very grateful to Ben for explaining the ‘lo mismo / lo mismo’ epigram- ” a compacted lettrist sonnet made of Francesco de Goya’s despair of finding anything other than the Spanish words for “the same” to title his endless pictures of the horror of war” which has (at last) unlocked for me the recurring use of ‘same’ in ‘Streak~~~Willing~~~Entourage~~~Artesian’. URS entertains me and this is part of Prynne’s intention. I need to add that this isn’t just about making jokes, like most serious poets his jokes are invariably bad, it is about gaining my interest and then involving me in a satisfying dialogue or conversation about what language might be doing. I get annoyed when John Ashbery and Geoffrey Hill attempt to engage me in this way because they don’t deploy much verbal dexterity whereas with Prynne the potential for dexterity may very well be the ‘point’ or at least one of them.

I’ve also found that the way I read this material has changed. Two years ago I think I was still looking for clues that might help with gaining more of a foothold but now I’m trying to absorb stuff for the sense of involvement that it brings because it’s that involvement that is the attraction.

I want to use several bits from the sequence to try and illustrate what I mean about involvement and why URS makes me smile. This is from the second stanza of the ninth poem (unless we’re counting the blank page as a poem):

Elastic bravery tell your friends, profile margins
dilate the soft annular parallax. In such due process
with a furry wrap the favourite minces a hot share
of the pie, the offertory selection hoarded at par
for dark x-linked transfer......

One of the cleverer aspects of this is the things that aren’t said, those things that are nearly said that would allow us to make a bit more ‘sense’. Profit for profile, granular for annular, diligence for process, cake for pie and collection for selection would combine to make a much more straightforward reading which raises the possibility of a ‘shadow’ text running alongside the one that it on the page. This aside, there’s more than
enough here to hold my attention.

The first two words raise the obvious question about whether and in what circumstances bravery or courage or fearlessness can be described as elastic or stretchy or pliable?

A reading of the OED clarifies a few things about ‘elastic’ which I should have been able to think through. The main feature of elasticity is that it is pliable under pressure but springs back to its original shape and size once that pressure is removed. On a very basic level, an elastic band can be stretched but will revert to its original position once we’ve stopped stretching it. The OED also reminds me that it can be used to describe personalities- “Of feelings, temperaments, etc., hence, also, of persons: Not permanently or easily depressed; buoyant” which relates better to bravery in its primary sense. This is of no apparent help with ‘tell your friends’ which brings us back to the recurring retail trope that I wrote about last week. I have read this particular device as a sarcastic comment on and protest against the facile and unsubtle way that retail sloganeering plays upon and exploits our baser instincts but this may not be the case in this instance. “Tell your friends” can carry a number of different connotations but in a retail sense it is a term used to encourage marketing by word of mouth whereby satisfied customers are urged to recommend a particular shop or service to others. This is of course fraught with danger because you don’t have any control over what is ‘told’ although it does help a new business develop a customer base- I speak from personal experience.

To make any real sense of what might be going on, the best place to start is probably at the end, x-linked diseases are so-called because they are “single gene disorders that reflect the presence of defective genes on the X chromosome. This chromosome is present as two copies in females but only as one copy in males”, one of these diseases is muscular dystrophy in its Duchenne and Becker forms.

With this, things begin to fall into place thus:

  • muscles function because they are elastic in that they return to normal after stretching or being made tense;
  • myscular dystrophy is a degenerative condition that is characterised by changes to the shape and size of muscles;
  • ‘parallax’, as well as the astronomical senses, can also mean a distortion;
  • ‘annular’ has a secondary definition of ” esp. in Physiol. of ringed or ring-like structures. annular ligament: a strong muscular band girding the wrist and ankle”;
  • for anybody who may be carrying this genetic disorder, there is an obvious imperative to inform partners of this fact prior to making a decision about having children.

Working this out, making the connections, is satisfying especially for those of us that get easily distracted and need a bit of a challenge to ‘engage’. It’s also intriguing to see how this theme of disability and genetics relates to the rest of the sequence and whether any of this is any help at all with the still baffling first part of the second sentence which will need further attention even though there’s the potential Langland connection with hot pies and the proceeds from the offertory….

The reason that URS makes me smile is that it is packed with verbal ingenuity and forces me to think in a completely different way- a way that has to carry several dimensions at once and it’s this, rather than the ‘message’ which brings on a reconsideration of the wider world. For example, what does it require to run a ‘ghost’ text alongside the main event? Can the workings and logic of capital be compared to the resistance to treatment and relentless degeneration of MD? The list is endlessly absorbing.

URS is in the 2005 edition of the ‘Poems’ which is available from the usual suspects and I believe the original is still available from Object Permanence.

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2 responses to “J H Prynne’s Unanswering Rational Shore (again)

  1. You make reading URS seem quite an absorbing pastime.

    Couple of additional thoughts.

    1. There is a term “annular parallax” in astrometry, though it isn’t widely used (Astrometry, I quote from SUNY’s web page – http://www.astro.sunysb.edu/fwalter/AST443/astrometry.html – , is the science of measuring positions of objects on the celestial sphere). So far as I can understand it, annular parallax means adjusting observations of stellar objects to take account of the earth’s annual elliptical orbit round the sun.

    This is not to dispute the relevance of the muscular flexings and witherings that you wrote about, it is evident that in Prynne’s poems the words are “over-determined” , like the action in dreams according to Freud.

    2. “Bravery” , around the time of Shakespeare, also has a meaning of dashing effect, splendid appearance, being decked out in your party clothes. Frequently refers to spring flowers and good-looking noble youths.
    e.g. Sonnet 34:

    Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day,
    And make me travel forth without my cloak,
    To let base clouds o’ertake me in my way,
    Hiding thy bravery in their rotten smoke?

    This sense of “bravery” comes into my mind because it seems to connect both with advertisement (Tell your friends) and with the fur-wrapped court favourite who appropriates all the offertory monies (to wantonly extract a far-too-straightforward reading).

    • Thank you for these, both of which I’ve added to my understanding of what might be going on. URS is a compelling read and every time I look at it I promise myself to devote more attention to it. This might be easier now that i’VE DECIDED TO BLOG LESS FREQUENTLY.

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