Is J H Prynne Worth the Bother?

I’ve spent some time recently glancing through everything I’ve written on Prynne here and on my arduity site. There’s a lot of it and I find myself asking whether paying this amount of attention to his work has been Altogether Worthwhile.

This might seem strange for one who has advocated Prynne’s value and championed his cause very much against the prevailing mainstream scorn. However, I know that I will spend my life with Hill, Celan, Jones, Milton and Spenser by my side, I can’t say the same for Prynne. Because I’m a stubborn bastard, I enjoy worrying verse into submission,in opening it up picking over the entrails and seeing where its bodies lie. Prynne offers more opportunities than most for this kind of obsessive ferreting but I’m not sure that I read him for pleasure any more.

My route to the Prynne foothills was from Milton via Geoffrey Hill. About 20 years ago I got over a period of Poem Disenchantment with Milton which led to Geoffrey Hill’s Comus and the rest of his obdurate oeuvre. Patting myself on the back I decided to have another look at Prynne as the other but even more difficult late modernist. As this blog and arduity show, there’s been a lot of tussling mostly until my latest disenchantment in 2015. The high point of these encounters was opening Streak Willing Entourage Artesian for the first time and getting immediately dragged in to its many delights. Conversely, the low points have been my disappointment in Kazoo Dreamboats. These lows aren’t the reason for my uncertainty, I’m probably more disappointed by Hill’s Day Books Than anything that Prynne’s ever done.</

Regular readers will know that I’m of the view that serious poetry rewards the serious attention that a reader may give to it and that poetry that can be fully grasped in a single reading usually isn’t very rewarding at all. So, if my problem with Prynne isn’t the amount of time and brow furrowed puzzling required, what then might it be?

The easy answer is that the work promises more than it delivers. The harder answer is that doesn’t make me re-think my beliefs and opinions. The others provide much more food for thought and, in the process, challenge my well developed and even better defended opinions and prejudices. Prynne delivers a kind of euro-lefty polemic that just seems quaint. It’s not that I have any major objections to this but it is a set of beliefs and ‘positions’ that were outdated in 1975. For me the response to the ‘message’ is to sigh and shrug because these rules no longer apply, if they ever did.

Hill on the other hand had a set of political and theological tenets that I could never share, as did Jones and Spenser but they make me reconsider, at least, my views on being English, on God and the church and (this is important) on the way I relate to other people.

My introduction to Prynne on arduity has this;

You’re either up for these kind of skirmishes or you’re not. I find that I am and my admiration for Prynne has grown as I have gone further in. If you choose to participate you are likely to find that engagement with this body of work will force you to question not only language but also the way in which you experience the world. You will also begin to find that the vast majority of contemporary poetry is intensely mundane and ordinary. If you write poetry then you may find that your voice will be radically altered, this is a good thing providing it’s not just a pale imitation of the man himself.

Re-reading the others still forces me to reconsider how I experience the world but Prynne doesn’t. Streak Willing…. had that effect and still draws me in but it no longer pulls me out of my cognitive and ideological comfort zone in the way that Mercian Hymns or Celan’s Atemwende collection or Jones’ Middle-Sea and Lear-Sea do. This is a personal disappointment mainly because I expected to be equally absorbed and affected by most of the rest of Prynne’s body of work and I’m not.

I’ll try and give a couple of examples, over the past few years I’ve attended reasonably closely to the Biting the Air sequence (2003) and to the Al-Dente collection (2014). From the latter, I’ve attended at some length to infusion, a poem that I provisionally and tentatively identified as having to do with the Grexit crisis:


This mercy will replace to them near first
exactly, as taken from clear at new payment
tacit doesn't reduce the few. Natural as due
not meaning to align song even reverted by
fixity, grant is yours.

                       Is description as
assert this brand get into advancement offer
agree to credit, must agree even so offset
along the close margin, is yours.

                                    Watching
is the site when agreed to break outward pass
claimed in front by either filter, in promise
adept cede a pledged condition willing to
give prominence flat-long fall. Walk over
quickly is yours.

                    However and so far, as or
will accept without presume limit, or foremost
latitude, will discover to steady if brilliant
sky gets easily by admit from iron former melted
intermit. Will line for, is yours.

                                         Does this
scrape or grate whenever veering to harbour
a fusion incline yet to feel redress faction,
in link acceptance, grant is yours.

                                         Be given
is yours, grant for this, is so quickly to be
is too and for, is yours.

For the arduity piece, as can be seen, I paid a lot of attention to the first stanza in order to:

  • demonstrate that is was about Grexit;
  • provide detailed examples of Prynne’s use of ambiguity;
  • demonstrate that his later work isn’t all that impenetrable after all.

Like most of us, I have my own views on this particularly vicious farce and they’re not either changed or challenged by the above. Europe is not yet a federal state and therefore Greece and Ireland and Portugal are all sovereign states. The ECB and the IMF, pushed by the German government, have spent most of this decade walking all over Greek sovereignty and forcing pernicious ‘reforms’ on a population that had no choice but to accept them. I’m aware that my views on this and other EU matters are inconsistent (for a federal Europe but against the current economic and social regimes) but the above doesn’t provoke me enough to think again.

The bebrowed method with Prynne is to think laterally, take note of the commas, look our for puns and spend much time with the OED. The fourth stanza above, for example, only begins to yield sense if I take into account subsidiary definitions for ‘foremost’,’former’ and ‘intermit’ as well as the regional meanings of melt as a verb. Doing this is intellectually satisfying but a bit mechanical. This isn’t because it’s insufficiently poetic or lyrical, I’m moved and challenged by the some of the conceptual work of Vanessa Place, even though it’s ‘simply’ repurposed prose without any kind of personal voice or interjection. With Prynne, I care about his subject matter(s) but he doesn’t reach me the way that others do.

Whilst the above may seem unduly negative, I must emphasise that I still take pleasure from the work. I can well recall the delight I felt when I realised that ‘foreland’ in the second Streak~Willing poem referred to the Irish provinces rather than a piece of coastline. I still get a kick from working this kind of stuff out and some of the verbal dexterity involved is technically brilliant. I still rate the work very, very highly because of its originality and the audacity of its challenge to our dismal mainstream. In the future however I’ll read him for the mental tussle rather than any likely impact on my thoughts and feelings.

In conclusion, it’s always been important for me to feel that I’m in a relationship with a body of work. I expect it to give me the same respect that I give it and I try to be open to genuine encounters (in the Celanian sense) with individual poems. I don’t have that with Prynne, sadly.

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3 responses to “Is J H Prynne Worth the Bother?

  1. Clark Allison

    I think for me Prynne remains very relevant for the radical, innovative strain of British poetry ‘60s and ‘70s and he does intently investigate how and what it is possible to express in language. The Prynne ‘Poems’ is still, from my perspective, one of those musts. For me ‘Not-You’ etc remains a point of reference for the late style. It is difficult to think about where innovative British poetry has gotten to without Prynne as a highly significant part of the picture.

  2. I don’t think that I’m disputing any of that and would make the case for important innovation up to and including this decade. What I think I’m trying to say is that, for all its value and ongoing relevance it doesn’t reach me in the way that a very few other poets do. Thank you for taking the time to respond, I’ll have another look at ‘Not-You’.

    • Clark Allison

      I doubtless haven’t addressed it enough, but I think there may be a kind of evolution from Prynne’s fluent style of ‘White Stones’ into early ’70s giving over to, though not completely, a terse mode that’s definitely getting in there by about ‘High Pink on Chrome’ (75) and ‘Down Where Changed’ (79). More real, in a sense, but less pleasing?

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