One of the very (very) few good things about the last year is that Jeremy Prynne has published at least two volumes of verse and both of these are in front of me. He may have written more but I’ve been away from contemporary work for about five years so I can’t claim any recent knowledge.
I’m going to start with The Fever’s End which, the last page tells me “Written Circa May 2020” and “Printed September 2020”. This kind of precise dating is unusual for Prynne. The collection consists of 23 poems each consisting of seven three line stanzas. The first poem is To This Troop;
Did prove to nerve fleck recruit dyne swerve yeast directs unison profounder nave intuit arrowroot governance province win harrassed width fluency cease primal trout stipple carol suspect banquet in warning arrival visual conserved torrential saving citric undergo lapel claim untamed physic drift unguent limpid commute dapple pallid steam laced crisis honied cantle stifle each manifest wild inflame the pine-cone oasis prow dutiful warning holdfast replied surrender links incessant finery intarsia dorsal thessis appointed in swan plain mordant gamut tray base weed appliance musketry tin horizon mansion patient incident variable dense moments stationed quarrelsome beast if run to seed
After much furrowing of the brow, I have discovered that the best way to get past the foothills of Mt Prynne is to pay attention to the words that have some kind of affinity with each other and then to try and work out what this connection might appear be. What follow is provisional and, as ever, I reserve the right to change my mind at any time in the future. I attend here to the first six lines of the poem as an indication of what might be going on and some of the ways that may assist readers in their reading
In terms of the words, the following seem to have a military/martial dimension:
‘Did prove’ seems to herald ‘yeast’ in the last line of this stanza, especially when it refers to the process of bread or dough to become aerated by the fermentation of yeast.
Onene of the secondary definitions of ‘fleck’ is ‘flare’ and a secondary reference of flare in the OED is “nonce-use (with on). To go emitting flames. The relevant quote would appear to be “1820 J. Keats Hyperion: a Fragm. i, in Lamia & Other Poems 157 “His flaming robes stream’d out..On he flared, From stately nave to nave”
The first stanza is thus a little clearer with these two echoes from one of our leading 19th century poets which we may come to later.
There is at least one alternative, the primary definition of fleck is “A mark in the skin; a blemish, freckle, spot; also, a sore or abrasion of the skin” and the NHS tells me that there is condition referred to as neurofibromatosis which is indicated by a mark under the skin. If the ordinary usage of recruit i used, this person might be someone newly affected by this condition, people notmally show symptoms under the age of seven.
We now come to a Prynne niggle with regard to ‘dyne’. I’m reasonably literate in most humanities and can normally root around to find what might be intended. The first definition is as a unit of force, the second is a suffix defined as ‘Forming nouns representing Greek δύναμις power, used in the formation of scientific, esp. electrical, terms. Examples: aerodyne, amplidyne, autodyne, heterodyne‘. My niggle relates to not understanding the explanation and therefore not to go any further with any of these nouns. For the moment at least. I’m also concerned that it’s a deliberate move further into obscurity.
This doesn’t detract from my view of Prynne as the most important poet currently writing in English, for all kinds of reasons. It’s intended as a provisional observation that others may or may not share.I should paid ‘swerve’ some more attention and then I wouldn’t have needed to be reminded that the noun can also mean to move away from a clearly defined method or path. It then may have occurred to me that such a swerve in the making of yeast could lead it to fail to rise, as in ‘directed’ to a non-bubbly consistency.
The last line of the stanza demonstrates how Prynne gets his reputation for difficulty. At first and probably second and third glance this line appears to be a random collection of words that have very little to do with each other. This his fairly recent defence;
But what happens if the surprises produced by difficult and unfamiliar
combinations of language seem so extreme and excessive that the underlying
tendency becomes near-impossible to discover, making choices
between alternative meanings seem arbitrary and obscure? In such cases
the eect is not a rewarding surprise but an experience close to baflement:
we lose confidence in the text or in our ability to deal with it
adequately. Here, extended passages of densely difficult language seem
like insurmountable obstacles, because access to meaning seems blocked.
Does this then mean that the skills of the careful reader and the practised
translator are defeated, possibly by features of damaging incoherence
within the original text itself ? That may sometimes be the case.
However, in drawing these very general thoughts towards a conclusion,
I want to present the matter of difficulty in poetic language from
an alternative point of view. In the writing of modern and modernist
poetry in which various kinds of difficulty have been prominent
features, that difficulty itself has been developed as a method and a
structure of discourse. When links in text-cohesion are violated or cut
o, when extreme ambiguity displaces recognizable topic-focus, when
discourse levels and fields of reference are switched abruptly and without
sign-posts, these features may begin to comprise a second-order strategy
of pattern-making in a new way. Indeed, the use of rhyme-forms
in traditional English and also Chinese poetry may work like this,”
When I first read these lines I was one of the Mostly Baffled but they neverthless gave me a few footholds further up these tricksy slopes and I’ve come to lean against them ever since, Thinking about yeast and arrowroot, both act on food, albeit in different ways. As well as being a substantial part of a church, a nave can be the hub of a wheel and the navel, first used by Shakespeare’s Macbeth as in “Till he vnseam’d him from the Naue toth’ Chops.” I’m taking intuit to know something by intuition rather that being taught or having read about it. One of the pivotal points of the play is a banquet where the ghost of Banquo appears. It may therefore be said that there is a connecting thread between this unseaming and the banquet that frightens Macbeth very much indeed. We’ll get to this a little later.
The apparently baffling ‘primal trout / stipple’ may be derived from Gerald Manley Hopkins’ Pied Beauty;
Glory be to God for dappled things – For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow; For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim; Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings; Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough; And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim. All things counter, original, spare, strange; Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?) With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim; He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: Praise him.
If any of this proves to be right then ‘governance province’ may refer to the new British province of Scotland which had come into being in 1603 by the accession of James VI of Scotland to the English throne. This was one of the main matters of contention in the early years of James’ reign and the play is reckoned to have been written in 1606 of the year after. The appearance of the ghost at the banquet is seen as raising the suspicion of Macbeth’s complicity in Banquo’s murder. ‘Suspect’ would then seem to carry at least 2 meanings- that of Macbeth’s status in the killing and the false / misleading character of the banquet itself
This may seem too straightforward or deceptively amenable, I’m also thinking of the use of ‘commute dapple limpid stream’ in the fourth stanza as a device to tie things together.
In conclusion, from this early foray, we have Keats, Hopkins and Shakespeare to unravel and the use of dyne to understand and to justify its use, before getting to the next five stanzas. I hope that readers find in it a few things to consider.