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J H Prynne on Love III by George Herbert

This tome containing an extensive commentary on the above is now available from Barque Press and costs 10 quid plus 2 quid for delivery. it needs to be read by everyone who cares about poetry and what poetry can do. I’ve now completed my first reading and there are a few things that I need to get off my chest.
The first of these is that the early part of the 17th century was a very odd place to be. I have a view that the past is always quite odd but from 1590 until about 1640 has always struck me as being especially different and (because of this) very difficult for us to make sense of this.
The second point is that George Herbert deserves much more attention. This isn’t to say that he should be elevated to the status of Donne in the canon but that we should spend a bit more time thinking about his place and role in the wider cultural scheme of things.
The third point is that Prynne writes with a great deal of perception about ‘Love III’ and has clearly immersed himself in some of the theological debates of the time. For those of us who are keen on religious poetry and the place where verse and faith meet, this is delightful because we have somebody new to argue with.
The fourth point is that ‘Love III’ is a seriously good poem with a couple of lines that achieve greatness for reasons that I will set out below.
The fifth point is only of interest to Spenserians and relates to Prynne’s use of Canto X in Book One of the Faerie Queen to provide some context to ‘Love III’ which actually raises a number of puzzles.
Finally, as with ‘Field Notes’, this commentary provides further insights into the way that Prynne thinks about poetry and language. This is not to say that they provide the ‘key’ to his poetic project but they do put some more flesh on the bone.
With regard to the oddness of the past, this isn’t the extremist position that we can’t say anything about the past but it is to point out that 400 years is a very long time and things might appear similar or recognisable but closer inspection reveals that they weren’t. The 17th century often descends into caricature with tired old debates about the ideological positions taken by various groups occupying much futile effort over the last thirty five years. This kind of thinking leads to generalised conclusions about certain periods that isn’t (in the Rortian sense) at all helpful. The historical past is always lumpy and consistently refuses to place itself in the boxes that we prepare for it. Prynne spends a lot of time discussing the Arminian elements of ‘Love III’ and the reader is left to assume that by the end of the 1620s there was an established Arminian faction within the Church of England whereas there were probably many variations around both the issues of free will and predestination and that this mixed oddly with bits of Catholic theology and hardline Calvinism (which wasn’t particularly coherent either). I think I would have liked more detail on the wider social and political context, some indication of what it ‘meant’ for Herbert to become a country priest may have been helpful as a way of marking him out from others of a similar status. Or simply some acknowledgement that this particular part of our history is fairly complex and consequently difficult to write about.
With regard to Herbert’s status as a kind of lesser Metaphysical, this does need to change. He has attracted detailed criticism from Stanley Fish for catechising but Prynne makes a very strong case for the strength of this kind of religious verse, whether it catechises or not. There’s also a reasonably direct line that goes from Spenser to Herbert and then on to Henry Vaughan and this needs to be given more prominence because it can be argued that this ‘thread’ produced some of the century’s strongest work.
Unlike ‘The Solitary Reaper’, I do actually care about this stuff and have thoroughly enjoyed arguing with what Prynne has to say. It isn’t that there’s anything inherently wrong with his reading but there are a number of omissions that detract from getting more from the poem. When discussing the Arminian tendency, Prynne goes into great detail about free will and about the mutual nature of ‘service’ but doesn’t give any attention to the Arminian view that although we are all free to choose, God knows what those choices will be. If Prynne is correct and the poem is fundamentally Arminian then this adds a more nuanced aspect to the encounter described in the poem.
He does mention the Cambridge School on one occasion but doesn’t draw attention to what some of us would see as a neo-platonic tinge occurring in the first line “yet my soul drew back,” even though other critics have commented on a neo-platonic theme in Herbert’s work. It would seem that 92 pages of densely packed prose is enough for an eighteen line poem but this is not the case, there is a lot more that could have been said.
Needless to say, most of the margins are now filled with exclamation marks and approving comments and there are only one or two places where I think Prynne is trying too hard. There’s also a final point about contradiction that doesn’t need to be made but on the whole this is a remarkably sensitive reading that should do a lot to promote Herbert’s reputation.
I now have to draw attention to the really great line of this poem. Many great poems have some very, very good lines but, in my view, truly great lines are comparatively rare. The line is question is the poet’s initial response to Christ/God and it is “A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:” which I find to be utterly and staggeringly brilliant in that it manages to convey a whole range of complicated responses to a direct question from God.
We now come to Canto X of Book 1 of The Faerie Queen which Prynne uses to show that views about free will pre-dated what Arminius had to say by at least a couple of decades. This would be valid were it not for the fact that Canto X is theological car crash mangling together threads from both sides of the Reformation and shouldn’t really be trusted to depict any kind of belief system in the ‘real’ world.
For those of us who read Prynne in the hope that this may help with a more informed reading of his poetry there is this: “The very format of utterance grammar, with the subject-position in English syntax coming before and governing all by way of a sequent predicate, performs and expresses this vaunted, front- loaded selfhood.” So, the task for attentive readers would appear to be to identify the ways in which the post-Brass poetry sets out to disrupt the subject/predicate sequence…


Neil Pattison’s ‘Preferences’

I need to start this with a number of caveats. Neil Pattison has made a number of valuable contributions to this blog and I think we’ve agreed to disagree on a number of points. I came across ‘Preferences’ (one of those small Barque productions) before I made the connection between the ‘Neil’ who was telling me that academic language is okay really and that I should read Wordsworth and the poet. The Barque blurb caught my eye because it contained an excerpt that seemed both intriguing and quite startling.

The second caveat concerns difficulty. I’m spending a lot of time thinking and reading about difficulty in the arts and think I can tell the difference between ‘valid’ difficulty and wilful obscurity. On opening ‘Preferences’ I realised that this was difficult stuff, what I didn’t foresee was how much the poems would get under my skin.

I’m compiling a scale of difficulty in contemporary poetry, at the top comes Jeremy Prynne closely followed by Dan Beachy-Quick followed by Neil Pattison who is a long way in front of both Keston Sutherland and Geoffrey Hill. The other recent addition is Simon Jarvis who is very difficult but in a completely different (and original) way. Needless to say, all of these perpetrate valid difficulties (I tend to follow George Steiner on this) unlike some of our trendier charlatans who aren’t really worth the effort.

So, I made the mistake of trying to read Pattison at the same time as Jarvis and Matthias. I thought this would be like alternating between Prynne and Sutherland which I found to be fairly straightforward. These three demand a different kind of attention and I have found the need to concentrate on each at a time.

Now we come to the name dropping problem. There are five poems in ‘Preferences’ and in the second (‘Spoils’) reference is made to Stephen Malkmus. As far as I am aware, this can only refer to the lead guitarist of an American band called Pavement who put out three albums in the nineties. I know this because I was a bit of a fan at the time and even attended a gig to promote the third album. I was a fan because the lyrics were reasonably esoteric and the music was quite unlike the rest of what was around.  So, I’m familiar with Malkmus but I still don’t understand what ‘Stephen Malkmus / skates in the traffic’ is doing in the second part of  ‘Spoils’ although my research thus far has failed to find skating in the traffic as a line/image in the second Pavement album (my children, I discover, have stolen the other two).

The other name to be dropped is ‘Gyorgy’ as in ‘Gyorgy, / bow the steel’ which occurs in ‘How do we look’ and I’m taking this to be a reference to Ligeti because he’s the only musician I know of with this forename. Again, I’m a fan of Ligeti and know a lot about his life and work but I still don’t have a clue as to what he’s doing in this poem.

On a first read through ‘Preference’ looks like Prynne and sounds like Prynne. There’s the same oblique phrasing, the surprising word choice and the refusal to  make it in any way ‘easy’ for the reader. On subsequent readings it becomes clear that there’s a lot more going on and the Prynne influence seems to lose its prominence. Some of the phrasing, for example, seems to echo Hill when he’s making a point and some of the terse statements (and the way these are used) are fairly unique.

The first piece, ‘Curve, Indifference’, consists of eight prose paragraphs – here’s the sixth:

“The file is of clement as its frontier shaded. Reasonably dry make rising grey interrupt is then tamer and again vocational, attempts being these armed in crease of clemency, skinned to the belt’s noose. Strung calypso post, assurance baked orange. His teeth.”

This provides us devotees of difficulty with a wide range of avenues to follow. How can a file be clement (unless the file is a queue rather than a dossier)? Should there really be a gap between ‘in’ and ‘crease’? What should we do with the ambiguity in ‘Strung calypso post’? Whose teeth and why?

This kind of stuff has kept me busy for the last few weeks and the process is just as involving (and less baffling) as making sense of Prynne. To be fair, this is the most obdurate of the paragraphs in ‘Curve, Indifference’ but the rest in’t that much more straightforward.

I’d like to finish this with an example from ‘Spoils’ which I think demonstrates both the eccentricity and the quality of Pattison’s work: ‘Inane flecks in the jargon. Permeated, / operational text regalia / maunders through the scart. Bright redundancy /  blocs commit the route, touting bricolage / to the commonable haul of auction.”

Flecks in the jargon, text regalia, maundering, bricolage that’s touted, wonderful.

‘Preferences’ is available from Barque’s website.

How to read Jeremy Prynne

I approach this with some trepidation because I am not yet anywhere near the peak of Mount Prynne but thought a few words may encourage others to undertake the climb.

1. The first thing you will need is regular access to the OED. It isn’t so much that the poems are packed with hard and difficult meanings but Prynne likes to use secondary definitions that you may not be aware of.

2. Wikipedia is your friend because it often gives a useful overview of terms or concepts that may be new to you and frequently gives links to more in-depth information. Google (unless you are very careful with search terms) can sometimes lead you astray- you should always try to make use of the advanced search feature.

3. Know that early on you will decide either that the poems are just  a bunch of words which you don’t have either the time of the inclination to decipher or you will be intrigued and want to know more. Both decisions are entirely valid.

4. Start with one of the Bloodaxe editions. A lot of people start with the earlier stuff in the hope of following a chronological progression. This is a mistake. You should start with the poems that interest you most.

5. Prynne has no interest in making things easy for his readers. There is no single ‘key’ to any of the poems after ‘White Stones’. The perspective of each poem moves about and there are often multiple things going on in the same line.

6. Learn to think laterally, to consider what language can do rather than what it does. Know that Prynne is deeply distrustful of the western consensus view of reality and the role that language plays in that view.

7. At first try not to read too much of what others say about Prynne. This is often a case of academics trying to impress other academics with their erudition and doesn’t provide any kind of help for us readers. It is best to try and make some progress in terms of your own personal response to the poems first.

8. Read as much prose by Prynne as you can find. The latest piece on ‘The Solitary Reaper’ is available from Barque Press and it is an invaluable indication of the way that he thinks about poetry. The AAAARG site has ‘Resistance and Difficulty’ and ‘Tintern Abbey Once Again’- registration required but all their stuff is free.

9.  It will soon become clear from the poems that Prynne’s politics are based on a Marxist analysis and that he’s against most of the things that most of us class warriors are (any form of capitalism, imperialist adventures in far flung places and the fraudulence of bourgeois culture).  This stuff won’t hit you like a sledgehammer but it will crop up from time to time. You may find some of Prynne’s comments on the workings of capital markets to be quite quaint.

10. It is eminently possible to over-read Prynne. I’m currently reading to Pollen and am almost convinced that it refers to his readers as ‘the resilient brotherhood’ and asks whether he is the one ‘inclined’ which I am currently taking to be a reference to Celan’s Meridian Address. I see this as extraordinary but am also well aware that I may be barking up the wrong tree. The word ‘ultramont’ from the opening of the first section I’m taking to be a reference to CERN’s particle accelerator because it is  the only way that the rest of the sentence can ‘work’. Early on, I spent a lot of time worrying about “gross epacts” but have now happily given up.

Prynne likes ambiguity and is careful with his word choice so that nouns could also be verbs and vice versa. He also is prone to Latinity which is about constructing phrases according to Latin rather than English grammar. Great poets have been doing this for centuries- Milton was a major culprit.

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.

Somewhere on the web there’s Prynne on “Harmony in Architecture” which is a speech given in China a few years ago. It says nothing about architecture but is a scathing attack on China’s rush for growth. It doesn’t address poetry but it is very witty and completely correct.

Be aware that there will be some days or weeks when the stuff becomes just words. At this point you need to take a break but you will come back for more.