Tag Archives: archive of the now

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’.


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.


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….


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.


Archive of the Now and the poetry archive

Before I get on to the rest of the readings on the Archive site, I thought I’d take this opportunity to think about things archival. My interest in the archive is twofold, I recognise the creative potential for interrogating the status and position of that which is archived and I’m also attracted to the promise of completeness and authenticity that the archived dangles before me.

The pundits and experts tell us that the next ‘phase’ of the web will be about data and about being able to access data in ways that the individual user specifies. The other trend that applies to us creative types is what the web is doing to authenticity so there will be this increasing tension between poetry archives and the authentic.

To return to the Archive of the Now, what follows will be known from now on as the ‘Reitha Pattison Test’ and it will be referred to throughout the academy as definitive. Attentive readers will know that the last piece referred to my (personal, subjective, prejudiced, cantankerous etc) preference for having the text in front of me when listening to poetry. I also made the point that this was especially important with complex material. This particular entirely objective test requires you (yes, you) to go to the relevant page, play ‘Ah’ and listen to it as carefully as you can. Then play ‘Seven’ whilst reading the text that’s displayed towards the bottom of the page. I think this makes my point- you now have a much clearer idea of what the second poem might be about because you are are of line endings, capitalised text etc and you can go over the text again just as you can the recording.

I think I’ve said before, in the context of ‘Some Fables’ that Reitha produces some of the most intelligent poetry that we’ve got, a poetry that works firmly within the tradition/corpus/discourse/canon but in an incredibly contemporary way that also manages to be incredibly light and graceful. All of the poems here may be translations but they are also new and stunningly original pieces of work and anybody who is in the business of reviving sprezzatura deserves universal recognition and gratitude. I also need to confess that I haven’t yet read her essay on ‘The Corn Burned by Sirius’ (which I think was in Glossator’s Prynne issue) but it will be read this week as I now notice that the first heading is ‘Boethius’ who is referenced in ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ which is one of my current objects of struggle.

We now need to turn to the J H Prynne page, I’m pleased to report that the reading of ‘Refuse Collection’ is clear and more or less matches the poem in my head both in terms of pace and the level of anger. The introduction is remarkable for Prynne’s quasi-embrace of reader reception and his (more predictably) negative view of poets talking about their own work. I found these elements so striking that I will be addressing them at length in the near future. With regard to the reading, I’m prepared to accept that having the text to hand is not essential but (becuase of the fast pace) some of the words can be misheard. The text is available in Quid 13 which Barque are selling for £1.00 (although I can’t find how to place this in the basket) – the link to just a copy of the poem is now dead. I can forward a text copy to those who haven’t got a copy.

I’ve said in the past that ‘Refuse Collection’ is a superb piece of polemic and stands apart from the post-Brass material in terms of its unambiguous clarity and the palpable rage.

The Luke Roberts page is a reasonably representative selection of his very impressive work. The recordings are clear and of good quality but I would ask you to consider whether the or not the reading of the first two stanzas of ‘Terraform Lecture Notes’ is made more reachable by having the text at the bottom of the page.

The other really odd thing is the fact that the recording of ‘Colossal Boredom Swan Song’ is incomplete, the last three words (imitation of flight) are cut off/absent/not there so that the poem ends with ‘tiresome’ which doesn’t make very much sense especially as the ‘im’ of ‘imitation’ is recorded/audible.

Even though he chose not to take part, in my head Roberts is one of the brightest stars of what I think of as the Better than Language poets. Listening to these four poems has made me realise that I failed to do full justice to ‘False Flags’ in January and that I need to try again to give it the readerly attention that it deserves.

With regard to Keston Sutherland, I think I need to make a kind of retraction. At some time is the reasonably distant past I made the observation that Keston reads too quickly and that the force/gist of what is said thereby loses some impact. These recordings of some of the earlier work show a bit more balance but I think I’m now of the view that Keston’s occasionally ‘superabundant’ approach actually requires this kind of supercharged reading bacause one of the things that the superabundant is ‘about’ is the sheer impossibility of holding on to information/language/stuff that seems to bombard us to the point of submersion. I hadn’t thought of Sutherland as a sound artist but I will draw your attention to whatever is going on with ‘Deletes Sex’ and ‘Mincemeat Seesaw Fit B’. I am taking an increasing interest in the word/sound mode and these are both quite startling primarily because I’m only familiar with the ‘straight’ text versions and these do fundamentally change the way that I think about the poems.

It is a pity that nothing has been added since 2005 because he’s produced some of the most important material in the last seven years. I know that there are recordings elsewhere on the web but it would be good/appropriate to have these in one place. Listening to these has returned me to the texts with a fresh pair of eyes and I am grateful for the opportunity to pay more attention to the things that came before ‘Hot White Andy’.

In the very near future I’m going to reflect on those names that were unfamiliar and those that I should have paid more attention to, especially Peter Riley, John Hall and Holly Pester.

The Archive of the Now- listening to poetry

The image is more of a poem than just the words on the placard, juxtaposition of two faces and one arm....

A few weeks ago I was approached by Andrea Brady asking for a link to the above which I was more than happy to provide because the archive does an incredibly valuable job of providing recordings of British poets reading their own work.

I’ve now spent some time with a number of the recordings and I’d like to draw attention to some of these.

I think I’ve said in the past that I’m not keen on listening to complex material without having the text in front of me as well. I also subscribe to the well worn but accurate observation that poets are bad at reading their own work although there are exceptions (Ezra Pound, John Matthias, Vanessa Place and Amy De’Ath spring to mind). I’m also disappointed about the sound quality of most of the readings on the web and won’t repeat here the rants that I have had in the past on this subject. All of this is counterbalanced by my recently renewed interest in how poems sound and might sound which was revitalised by Timothy Thornton’s account of the initial reading of ‘Dionysus Crucified’.

As a reasonably inept maker of poems I have a strong interest in all things archival so I want to spend some time here giving some thought to the idea of an archive of the present.

Before we get to the material, it seems that the site has had a fairly recent overhaul in terms of look and feel, it is a pity that nobody took the opportunity to update the links in each poet’s profile as many of these are either dead or redundant. The Simon Jarvis page doesn’t work at all.

There are a goodly number of what this blog considers to be essential poets reading essential poems and there’s also material that’s new to me that I need to pay more attention to. The ‘essentials’ are-

  • Caroline Bergvall;
  • Amy De’Ath;
  • Simon Jarvis (not working);
  • Francesca Lisette;
  • Neil Pattison;
  • Reitha Pattison;
  • J H Prynne;
  • Luke Roberts;
  • Keston Sutherland.

I have written before about my desire to be Caroline Bergvall and this recording intensifies that need. Some of the readings here can be listened to without the text but the brilliant ‘Chaucer’ poems would (probably) benefit from listeners having the printed version as well.

Bergvall’s work is marked by both commitment to what language can do and a readiness to experiment without losing either coherence or quality. The other observation that I need to make is that these readings are at variance with the poems that I have in my head, ie the way the poems ‘sound’ when I read them on the page. I wouldn’t read them as fast and I would be less emphatic- listening to these has made me reconsider (in a good way) how I’ve responded to the work as text.

I’ve written recently about the work of Amy De’Ath and have entered into some debate with the Harriet blog over the nature of her determined tulips and what they might signify and I don’t want to go over old ground. The readings here are from 2010 and demonstrate how poetry should be read. I first came across Amy’s virtuosity in this regard whilst listening to her read Jonty Tiplady’s ‘The Undersong’ which is a remarkable poem but made brilliant by the reading. The audio page of the current issue of the Claudius App also has Amy reading four of her own poems. Oddly, I don’t feel the need for the text for any of these even though some of these poems are at the complicated end of complex. If the archive really is about the ‘now’ then perhaps Andrea and co could commission a reading of the even-more-brilliant ‘Cuteness is a Landscape’.

I now need to register my personal disappointment at the failure of the Simon Jarvis page, particularly because I’ve never come across the first two poems and because I have a very clear idea of how ‘The Unconditional’ should be read. I think I’d also like to point out that there is absolutely no point in having a page that doesn’t function- it should be fixed or removed.

Francesca Lisette is another of our incredibly talented younger poets, she has this unerring ability to scare me and make me smile at the same time, there’s this mix of committed defiance and intellectual depth that is stunning. I remain of the view that anyone who can put ‘relinquish’ and ‘flounce’ together has got to be brilliant. The scariness also has some roots in a verbal density that really doesn’t see any need to compromise- this is one of those cases where having the text really helps. Incidentally, Mountain haven’t yet published Lisette’s latest collection but intend to do so in the fairly near future- according to their site it’s now called ‘Teens’. The relevant page does contain the text for ‘Icarus in Reverse’ which I think confirms my earlier assertion, even though her reading is perfectly judged and paced. I’d also like to draw attention to the link to Lisette’s reading at Greenwich in 2010 and ask rhetorically whether audio by itself is enough in an age where filming is incredibly straightfoward.

To conclude this part (of at least three) I’d like to observe that Neil Pattison has produced some of the finest and hauntingly brilliant poetry of the last ten years. I know this because I’ve been haunted by the ‘Preferences’ collection and by ‘Slow Light’ and ‘May Ode’. I’m going to omit the usual Pattison disclaimer and instead report that Neil is (or was) of the view that the audio version is somehow more definitive than the printed ‘Preferences’. I don’t hold to that view for two main reasons, the first is that this is complex and occasionally obscure/secretive material that repays readerly attention and there is a real danger that a first-time listener will be put off by the level of complexity that’s playing across a number of registers. This would be a tragedy because this is important/unique/groundbreaking stuff that we should all learn by heart. There’s also the issue of veracity, the first recording was made in 2005 and the collection was published in 2006 so I’m guessing that the differences between the two can be explained by re-drafting but the question then is (given Neil’s view) which should be considered authentic, or do we view authenticity as a movable commodity?

‘Preferences’ is still avaible from Barque but the link on the Archive page leads to an outfit wanting to sell me a domain name, this really isn’t helpful….