Tag Archives: as mouth blindness

Poetry and the profound

I’ve spent today trying to get the honesty / puppy dog, tail beating enthusiasm balance right when writing about ‘Triumph of Love’ and found myself describing one poem as ‘genuinely profound’. I then realised that I wasn’t completely clear on what this particular adjective might mean even though I am prone to throw it out with some frequency.

On further reflection, it’s one of those words that I have a personal definition of which might in fact differ from the ‘real meaning. It then struck me that we expect profundity from ‘serious’ poetry as if poetry that doesn’t have this quality is somehow diminished or less important. This might not be an entirely Good Thing’.

I think that I take profound to mean somethings that describes a great or fundamental truth and that this truth has implications for the wider world. On the other hand, the closest that the OED gets to this is “of personal attributes, actions, works, etc.: showing depth of insight or knowledge; marked by great learning” which doesn’t quite hit the mark because ‘depth’ doesn’t always equate with ‘truth’.

I probably need to be more specific, I was referring to poem LXXVII which contains these lines:

I know places where grief has stood mute-
howling for a half a century, self
grafted to unself till it is something like
these now-familiar alien hatreds,

Hill is referring to the lasting damage done by the countless deaths that occurred during WWII and ‘mute-howling’ is an accurate / true description of what has been experienced in my family through successive generations since the Somme offensive of 1916. So, it is profound for me because it describes succinctly and accurately a condition that I know to be very real. This, therefore is profound as well as almost perfectly phrased. You will note that I’m gliding over the ‘self’ bits because they don’t, to my ear, carry the same level of truth even though they may be learned and erudite reworkings of whatever Gerald Manley Hopkins might have meant by ‘selving’ and ‘inscape’. I readily accept that this whole self mularkey has / holds / carries more than a degree of accuracy and truthfulness for Hill, it’s just that it doesn’t do anything at all for me.

I’ll try and give another example of the profound at work, in ‘Paradise Lost’ Milton depicts Satan on his way to Eden and describes his logic in choosing to do evil. This description ‘fits’ with my experiences of working with disturbed young offenders and the thought patterns that lead them to do Very Bad Things, is brilliantly expressed and is therefore profound.

It occurs to me that there are very few examples of profundity in the poetry of the last hundred years. The ‘Four Quartets’ are an example of a poet attempting profundity but missing the mark and resorting to a weird kind of quasi-mystic mumbo jumbo instead, ‘Crow’ again aims to be profound but is let down by the device/conceit and the variable strength of the language used.

The most obvious candidate for profundity is Paul Celan and there are a few poems where the match between truthfulness and eloquence is made- I’m thinking of ‘I know you’ and ‘Ashglory’ in particular. I never thought I’d say this but there are times when Celan can be too concerned with ‘truth’ / ‘accuracy’ and the language almost disappears into itself. There might be a debate to be had about whether the price of extreme profundity is, simply, too high.

The price of extremes seems to lead naturally into a consideration of the profundity quotient present in the work of J H Prynne. The two phrases that immediately spring to mind are ‘grow up to main’ from ‘Streak~~~Willing~~~~Entourage~~~Artesian’ and ‘lack breeds lank’. The first of these (probably) relates to the demographic pressures that influenced the Ulster Loyalist’s participation in the peace process. It’s a pressure that is also felt in Israel and other parts of the Middle East so it is both accurate (true) and widely applicable but it is still incredibly terse. The second comes from ‘As Mouth Blindness’ which was published in the ‘Sub Songs’ collection and is a comment on the fact that the poorest members of society always suffer the most during a recession and/or a period of austerity. As an ex-Marxian agitator, I think this is a bit self-evident when compared with the first and also loses out because it is so compressed. Of course, the Prynne project is not concerned primarily with the profound but is much keener on describing things as they are and mostly succeeds in this aspiration in ways that other poets can only think about.

I think I need to do down the learned or erudite aspect of profundity a bit more. Sir Geoffrey Hill’s brief discussion of Bradwardine’s refutation of the New Pelagians is immensely scholarly and (selectively) accurate but it can’t be applied to the vagaries of the 21st century and is therefore unprofound.

Charles Olson’s ‘Maximus’ sequence does have moments of great profundity especially when Alfred North Whitehead’s work on process and temporality is illustrated or exemplified by the magical descriptions of the realities of life in Gloucester. In fact, ther is an argument to be made that Olson’s combination of intellectual strength and technical skill make him the most profound of the Modernist vein. To try and show what I mean, this is a longish extract from ‘OCEANIA’:

     As a stiff & colder
wind too, straight down
the river as in winter
chills cools
the night people had sd

earlier they'd hoped
wld have been a
thunderstorm I had sd no
the wind's still
where it was

Excuse please no boast
only the glory of
celebrating

the process
of Earth
and man.

And no one
to tell it to
but you for
Robert Hogg, Dan Rice and
Jeremy Prynne

And the smell
of summer night
and new moan
hay
And the moon
now gone a quarter toward
last quarter comes
out

Regardless of the fact that the rest of this poem is just as beautiful and understated, regardless of the reference to Prynne, this ticks all my boxes for profundity. Whitehead’s later work on process is complex, demanding and radical, his ideas are also eminently and universally applicable, Olson’s example of how the Whitehead thesis works in real tangible ongoing life is a technical masterpiece as well as being both lyrical and combative in equal measure. In short, Charles Olson did profound to perfection and continues to put the rest of us to shame.

J H Prynne in the TLS

I was going to spend some time this morning writing about the way I feel about Geoffrey Hill (as opposed to think). This was going to be an entirely coherent and almost well-written follow-up to my debate on this blog with Tom Day. However, yesterday’s edition of the TLS contains an article/review on Prynne by Robert Potts.

I need to say at the outset that I’ve read this particular rag since I was 14 and it occupies an important part of my life.  I don’t read it for the poetry however as this is usually fairly drab although they did publish a John Kinsella poem the other week.

Potts’ article is quite lengthy and covers the Glossator Prynne issue, the Brinton book,  the Cambridge Literary review and ‘Sub Songs’.

Let’s start with the photograph, this is of Prynne riding a bike and is dated 2004. Suffice it to say that it doesn’t do him any favours but merely reinforces the ‘oddness’ image. There are much better pictures available and I have to question Potts’ choice (he is the TLS managing editor and therefore will have had a hand in this choice).

Potts starts badly but improves over the five columns. The first sentence is- “The poetry of J H Prynne is both obscure and difficult, qualities tolerated in canonical and foreign writers (Blake, Mallarmé, Celan, late Beckett), but treated with enormous resentment and suspicion in contemporary English poets”.  This requires a bit of sorting out, ‘late’ Celan (after about 1963) can be said to be difficult but the critical reception of the later works was not one of toleration and there are still those critics who view the later output as a story of progressive decline. When did ‘late’ Beckett begin and is it really considered both obscure and difficult?

There’s a long debate going on in my head about obscurity and Potts does redeem himself by quoting Prynne at length on this very subject in “Difficulties in the translation of ‘difficult’ poems” but to start with such a bland description will deter many readers from proceeding further.

Further into the article Keston Sutherland wins applause for his Glossator piece on ‘L’Exthase de M Poher’ and the ‘unwitty circus’ section is quoted at length and Justin Katko gets plaudits for his essay on ‘The Plant Time Manifold Transcript’ (which I must get round to reading.

Interestingly Potts proceeds with “One yearns for a reading – academic or otherwise – that would start to explain Her Weasels Wild Returning (1994) or the impenetrable STREAK~~~WILLING~~~ENTOURAGE~~~ARTESIAN (2009)”. I haven’t paid much attention to the first of these but I have read and written about the second. I really must take issue with the ‘impenetrable’ jibe because this isn’t the case. ‘Streak’ may be wonderfully and brilliantly austere but it isn’t beyond comprehension. I’m not suggesting that this is achieved immediately but it is possible to grasp the outline of at least one significant theme and to be thunderstruck by the poet’s ability to say complex things in a new and inspiring way- ‘Streak’ is the Prynne sequence that keeps drawing me back in. I’ve just spent a couple of days looking at the fourth poem and remain astounded at how much is packed in to such a small pace and how contradictions are exposed and played with.

With regard to ‘Sub Songs’, Potts refers to ‘As Mouth Blindness’ but only to explain the title rather than what the poem may be ‘about’ which again is unfortunate because I’d quite like to read what someone else makes of it.

Potts does not mention either ‘Mental Ears’ or ‘Poetic Work’ both of which provide a good insight into the nature of the Prynne project- both of these are now available on the web.

The last half of the final sentence reads “but as the “century of suspicion” ends, aptly and predictably, in a credit crisis, J H Prynne’s poetry may – like it or not – be most fully and restlessly the music of our times”. I have to ask: why on earth didn’t he start with that? I almost feel a letter coming on….

J H Prynne on Poetic Thought

The important news of this week is not the publication of Hughes’ ‘Last Letter’ nor is it the award of the Nobel prize to Vargas Llosa. The really important event is the publication of the above essay in the latest edition of ‘Textual Practice’.
‘Poetic Thought’ derives from a lecture given by Prynne in China in 2008 (with footnotes added later) and provides us with a reasonably clear insight into his practice and the rationale behind his work. It proceeds by negative definition, Prynne tells us what he doesn’t mean by ‘thought’ and then does the same for ‘poetic’. He tells us that “The activity of thought resides at the level of language practice and is in the language and is the language; in this sense, language is how thinking gets done and how thinking coheres into thought, shedding its links with an originating sponsor or a process of individual consciousness” and later on: “but before the work is completed, the poet must self-remove from this location, sever the links not by a ruse but in order to test finally the integrity of the result”.
It is recognised that in most of Prynne’s work ‘self-removal’ is an important component but I have a number of lingering doubts. ‘To Pollen’ contains an address to readers (the ‘resilient brotherhood’) which doesn’t feel like self-removal. The same can be said for the angry “Now get out” at the end of ‘As Mouth Blindness’. So, is Prynne saying that these poems aren’t very good because he hasn’t managed to completely remove himself from the text? I’m not sure that he’s right about this imperative either, ‘Paradise Lost’ contains lots of Milton, ‘The Prelude’ contains lots of Wordsworth and both of these are enhanced by the presence of the poet. I’m not saying that self-removal isn’t effective, ‘Streak~~Willing~~Entourage~~Artesian’ is magnificent in part because of the absolute absence of Prynne from the work, it’s just that I don’t think self-removal is essential in the business of making good work.
Prynne does seem to acknowledge that this is problematic when he says “the focus of poetic composition, as a text takes shape in the struggle of the poet to separate from it, projects into the textual arena an intense energy of conception and differentiation, pressed up against the limits which are discovered and invented by composition itself.” It would therefore seem that this self-removal is a struggle which may or not be won and that this struggle is waged against the limits of composition, this feels a bit woolly. I’d need to know how exactly composition discovers and invents these limits and how many other poets are as acutely aware of the need to self-remove.
We now come to dialectics which Prynne defines as “the working encounter with contradiction in the very substance object-reality and the obduracy of thought”. I’m not a fan of the ‘d’ word primarily because it is over-used and has become more and more of a cliché in the academy. I’m also never entirely clear which flavour of the dialectic is being referred to although the footnotes do refer Walter Benjamin’s notion of “the dialectic at a standstill” which is wrong (as in factually incorrect). This is odd because Prynne’s work shows that he knows that contradiction must go hand in hand with process for this kind of analysis to function.
We do get something of a definition in “Thus, poetic thought is brought into being by recognition and contest with the whole cultural system of a language, by argument that will not let go but which may not self-admire or promote the idea of the poet as arbiter of rightness.” I like the compulsive nature of the argument that won’t let go and think that the warning against self-admiration is worthy but I come back to the fact that some of our greatest poets advertise their skill and firmly proclaim themselves as arbiters of rightness. I can’t dismiss ‘Paradise Lost’ just because Milton flaunts his skill so brazenly and extols to the nth degree his own brand of rightness.
These quibbles are minor, the essay is full of insight and useful provocations and must be read by all who have an interest in poetry and the difficult business of making good verse.