Tag Archives: jh prynne

Reading Prynne with Prynne

I’ve started this twice so far, on those occasions the title was “On not liking Sub Songs'” and it was going to be a longish description of my various attempts to get to grips with this particular collection. I was going to describe the difference between not liking and actively disliking and use ‘Oraclau’ as an example of an important poet producing something that I find very easy to dislike whereas the ‘Sub Song’ merely fail to engage me. I was then going to speculate about whether the slightly freer form and the reduced austerity may have something to do with my indifference. At this point I realised that this might be becoming more than usually self indulgent and that it might be more useful if I were to try and apply what Prynne has said about difficult poetry to one of these poems. What follows is another attempt on my part to engage with this stuff and an attempt to work through the readerly tasks that Prynne identifies in ” Difficulties in the Translation of ‘Difficult Poems'”.
I’ve chosen ‘Riding Fine Off’ because I think it contains most of the elements that Prynne identifies in his essay:

At the place new arduous and wrapped up generic trailing mock
persistent bay tell, dark shouts make final even decline to like.
Track fated to miss and sit out that's how to bat for both, few
for well all known all none, enough. They float over the start
grid order intimate personable inner logic, pin inducement to
the driveway, to rough trace the cloud line. For then or both
grew in ready plain view how invited too overlaid other volatile
front omission. That's how in
room from pair to base, time
to rise as raptors accept procession sated foodstuff late on late
in token region. Know the whole win lateral pin better blind-
sight agree, all seen much then reduce will finally not fill
partitive crew benefit. Want for lack for distance fuel project
duct violence resigned easily measure telic declination. Both
attractive sides habitat invaded folic austere too, grade them,

gradual amounts in what you want more,
take implant slope on wide array, wild
surmise for substitute time to say how
not affront yet, or fine oval form
playout alter reject,
each one by one,
window plan out visible twin acceptance
has been there, up to surface, ever wanting
few out that's for now don't pine gravitate
nor yet link, to get
fair assert pinny
tell them, code for count entire rapid
accident come on.

Further overgrown your own this time grimace insinuate how not
lined up for know better, chance derelict top planning loop first,
few all back assorted holding off. Held rough situate affirm cut
for cut down, to trim not yet fill we hold them, few enough. How
best to say up to mark falling, each time said level soil debated
swim fume eager to find
tell out plant limit, hormone refine
looking on forward bent foot want the strip forever, never less
over nor how best too and too for more
shadow infusion is
the truth declined. Lamps all lit up, cutting the skin graft
to lift off cell for cell, time yielded in open fit compulsion, defer for passing wants, rolling evermore. Expense of spirit
output grant the best scatter ferment insult, have enough slowly
react affirmative to meet, each to fill upper tract shout relaxed
by pretension. Return to refusal continue I heard them say so

in silicon versets did you, dapper onyx
fancy ride plentiful and apt to form
this rank of departure, trance state
muted by fugitive distracted cries. Hear
them all out picture that the kids
debate which door, what for tranquil
to play riot catchment
water slides up and up. Few hardly
here now do the rest wanting for extra
more spare to take and make, display
all tips by day
in daytime say
fear no more.

On the top row do you already no time refine to disclose even of
the passion blank, plenitude allusion do you, otherwise stupidly
good enough to lift a brow, of daylight often saved, most served.
Average at the doorway grandly seized by shadow counting off, in
geminal readiness not to slip where possible if not permitted else
auto-set. Both in force how not, if else, for a few abrupt dative
intact prints, from one over line. Mind less overt lucid all brand
marking at the front cloud-light, permanent
will you say, admit
first ulterior structure indented to pay counting by darkness
shiny and visible up ahead. Go there free of room to say more
or less valuable, more taken back on time at this against what
follows on pitch, in front, normal accredited diminution would
be said profane intrinsic honest to batter off the other side.

(The formatting for this is about right with the exception of the first lines of the short line sections- these should be in line with the rest. I’m still blaming WordPress).

My normal default mode with Prynne is to try and identify fragments that might provide me with a foothold or two and then proceed (or not) from there. When this strategy fails I seek refuge in clarifying the meaning of the words that I don’t understand. The first of these is ‘telic’, the OED has two definitions ” Grammar. Of a conjunction or clause: Expressing end or purpose” and ” Directed or tending to a definite end; purposive.” So he may be referring to a declination towards some specific end that requires measurement or evalution. The second is ‘versets’ The OED gives the first definition as to be a form of ‘versicle’ which is defined as “Liturg. One of a series of short sentences, usually taken from the Psalms and of a precatory nature, said or sung antiphonally in divine service; spec. one said by the officiant and followed by the response of the congregation or people; often collect. pl., a set of these with their accompanying responses.” The second definition is “A little or short verse, esp. one of the Bible or similar book; a short piece of verse.” Which further complicates ‘silicon versets’ but might be more helpful If I can get more of a grip on the wider context.The last of these is ‘geminal’ which the OED defines first as a noun meaning a pair and also (as an adjective) to be equivalent to ‘geminate’ which is given as ” Duplicated, combined in pairs, twin, binate. geminate leaves, leaves springing in pairs from the same node, one leaf beside the other.” The last part of this may be useful if the initial hunch works out.
This relates to the third strategy which is to try and identify words that may pertain to a particular theme or themes. The first one that comes up seems to relate to plants and growing things. We have ‘grew in ready plain view’, ‘sated foodstuff late on late’, ‘habitat invaded folic austere too’, ‘implant slope on wide array’, ‘Further overgrown your own’, ‘cut for cut down’, ‘said level soil debated’, ‘tell out plant limit’, ‘cutting the skin graft / to lift off cell for cell’ ‘output grant the best scatter ferment insult’ ‘fill upper tract’ ‘of daylight often saved’. No doubt some of these will be rejected and others may be brought in (the two ‘cloud’ references spring to mind) but that does at least provide something to work with.
I’m using the ‘Translation’ essay because it is the clearest statement by Prynne that I’ve come across as to how this kind of work functions and how it should be approached. The first quote may be helpful in tackling the above phrases:

What is probable and can be predicted by following normative links in meaning and structure, including the regular completeness of grammatically well-formed sentences and consistency of topic reference, is frequently split apart in poetic composition, so that disorder and anomaly crop up all the time. Poetry is surprising and good difficult poems sometimes surprise us so much we can hardly breathe.

I think inconsistent ‘topic reference’ and less than ‘well-formed sentences’ pretty well sums up this particular poem but I’m not yet convinced to its ability to surprise me. With regard to plants, there is ‘Plant Time Manifold’ from the early seventies which (according to Justin Katko’s excellent essay in Glossator) puts forward the hypothesis that “there exists a form of temporality specific to all plants, wherein the plant’s upper half (or stem) moves forward in time, and the plant’s lower half (or root) moves backward in time all of which is very complicated but it does give me the excuse to read the essay again.

So, does ‘For then or both grew in ready plain view’ make any kind of sense? Is then referring to some time in the past or is it being used to denote some kind of consequence as in ‘if it’s raining then we will get wet’? The latter would make slightly more sense in the context of ‘or both’ because that might relate to two possible consequences but I really am stabbing in the dark here. ‘Grew’ marks a change in tense from ‘float’ and ‘pin’ in the previous sentence. If we are in ‘plant time’ territory then ‘both grew’ could refer to plants growing forwards and backwards in time which would also give ‘then’ the possibility of both meanings. In this context (or thereabouts) ‘from pair to base’ may refer to the base pairs that hold two strands of DNA together in the double helix.

Now we come to ‘procession sated foodstuff late on late’, I’m taking ‘foodstuff’ to have its normal meaning but everything else probably needs closer scrutiny. The OED has a single definition for sated- ” Glutted, satiated; cloyed or surfeited by indulgence of appetite” which seems straightforward. As well as the standard usage of procession, the OED reminds me that in a theological sense it can mean “The action of proceeding, issuing, or coming forth from a source; emanation; esp. of the Holy Spirit”. So, what is being sated and how? It reads at first glance that a procession is being sated by a foodstuff which is described as being ‘late on late’. There are two common meanings for ‘late’, when something occurs after the agreed, expected or usual time then it is said to be late- in this way late can also apply to someone who has died. It’s also worth mentioning that it can also refer to phases as in ‘the late Tudors’ and that Prynne’s poetry has been described as ‘late modernist’.

In the past the word has also been used as a noun with three distinct meanings- “Look; appearance, aspect; outward manner or bearing”, ” Looks, manners, behaviour; hence, actions, goings-on” and “voice, sound”. As an adjective it can also mean broad or wide but the OED says that this usage is both obscure and rare and only provides one example. The use as a noun seems to have died out around 1500 ish. None of this is really helpful because the phrase, in which ever permutation you decide to put it, doesn’t make sense. This is where I go out on a bit more of a limb, one of the ways that ;late; is used is to denote when a crop has been late to ripen and is not ready to be harvested at the usual time. So, if we take ‘foodstuff’ to denote a type of crop (wheat, maize, rice etc) then this could refer to a crop that has the appearance of being late. I’m going to leave that there because I haven’t yet decided whether ‘procession’ denotes a group of people, the forward passage of time or an emanation. If Katko is right in asserting that “Whitehead’s “philosophy of the organism” is at the heart of Prynne’s hybrid science,” then ‘procession’ might also be a reference to ‘Process and Reality’ which is Whitehead’s key text. This does not mean that I’m going to have another attempt at reading that particular book even though I know that I should.

The next phrase is even more baffling, ‘habitat invaded folic austere too’ doesn’t make any sense by itself (does it?) and may benefit from extending it back to the start of the sentence. ‘Both attractive sides’ give me bit more to play with and the phrase is closed by the helpful comma after ‘too’. Regular readers will know that there isn’t either a scientific or technical bone in my body and I am happy to confess that all my knowledge of genetics comes from Adam Philips’ volume on ‘The Science’ in the BSE inquiry report which is now very out of date and was written by a judge. So, the appearance of ‘folic’ raises all kinds of anxieties. A cursory glance at Wikipedia reveals that folate ( the naturally occurring form of folic acid) is

“…necessary for the production and maintenance of new cells, for DNA synthesis and RNA synthesis, and for preventing changes to DNA, and, thus, for preventing cancer. It is especially important during periods of rapid cell division and growth, such as infancy and pregnancy. Folate is needed to carry one-carbon groups for methylation reactions and nucleic acid synthesis (the most notable one being thymine, but also purine bases). Thus, folate deficiency hinders DNA synthesis and cell division, affecting hematopoietic cells and neoplasms the most because of rapid cell division. RNA transcription, and subsequent protein synthesis, are less affected by folate deficiency, as the mRNA can be recycled and used again (as opposed to DNA synthesis, where a new genomic copy must be created). Since folate deficiency limits cell division, erythropoiesis, production of red blood cells, is hindered and leads to megaloblastic anemia, which is characterized by large immature red blood cells.”

The only meaningful thing that I’m able to take away from this is that folate deficiency is really quite bad for a number of different reasons. I’ll have to go back to Phillips to clarify RNA transcription and ‘hematopoietic cells’ but I think I’m reasonably okay on the creation of proteins. Still this does seem to point in the right direction. This extended phrases now begins with ‘both’ which has been used twice before. An initial reading might now come up with both aspects of something having their habitat invaded and suffering folate depletion at the same time.
The only thing I’ve thus far been able to discover about ‘implant slope on wide array’ is that ‘implant slope is usually used in medicine to refer to the angle of the tibial implant in whole knee replacements given to people with osteoarthritis which might go some way to explaining ‘lateral pin’ at the start of the sentence. Unfortunately I haven’t a clue how this ties in with the rest of the poem although Prynne does say in his essay that “In a more technical way we can acknowledge that unfamiliarity plays an important part in pattern-recognition”. So that gives me some comfort.
I’m going to leave it there on this occasion but will return to the rest of the terms in the near future. I’d almost forgotten how involving Prynne is but I’m still not sure that I ‘like’ this particular poem. Incidentally, at the prompting of Luke McMullan, I’ve just updated the Arduity page on ‘As Mouth Blindness which is the first poem in this colection.


Jeremy Prynne in China

Barque Press have produced a dvd of a conference/reading held in China in 2005. In attendance were (among others) Jeremy Prynne and Keston Sutherland. The camera was held by John Wilkinson, so this can be said to be a 100% Cambridge School production.
As regular readers will know, I’ve spent the last few months wandering around the lower slopes of Mount Prynne and I remain very keen to obtain anything that will give me a clearer idea of where the man is coming from. The dvd also features a number of Chinese poets but unfortunately I have been unable to work out how to turn on the subtitles as instructed on the sleeve unless the one poem that has subtitles waving around at the top of the screen is all I’m going to get.
There a number of points that Prynne makes in the film that are worthy of comment:
1. English and Chinese cultures are very old but not as old as the Sumerian culture. When compared with China and Britain, the culture of the USA is a mere fledgling. This is Prynne being a little bit waspish and an attempt to score a small but unnecessary point, we all know that American written culture hasn’t been around for very long but it doesn’t follow that it isn’t any good. It could be argued that Americans are freer to experiment with the language because they don’t have that much history hanging around their necks.
2. Poetry has two essential features: radical economy and truthfulness. I don’t think too many people will disagree with the notion that most good poetry strives to compress complex emotions and ideas into a short space. Even very long poems can achieve this economy in a way that prose cannot. I have much more of a problem with truthfulness because it seems to give to poetry a power or strength that it doesn’t actually have. I admit that I’m a bit dubious about any claims to truth but it seems to me that to claim that poetry has some kind of privileged access to truth is making far too grand a claim. I would much prefer it if Prynne had mentioned honesty instead because that would come closer to the mark of what poetic endeavour should be about. Most of us who write poetry are painfully aware when a line or a phrase is dishonest or consciously manipulative and these are the lines that we normally exclude no matter how technically accomplished they may be.
With regard to ‘radical economy’, Prynne reads a Chinese poem in English translation and points out that the American translator should have struck out one ‘the’ because it is superfluous.
3. Prynne mentions ‘hybrid words’ during his reading and equates these with the corruption of language. I’m not sure whether he’s saying that these words should not be used and whether he is denoting a difference between hybrid and compound words.
He reads four poems of his own and the first three are read with remarkable clarity. The fourth, which he says was published in 2005, is read as an experiment, the audience is instructed to clear their minds of images and memories of images and to listen with eyes closed. The reading is very powerful with Prynne enunciating each word with care but his mouth is too close to the microphone which makes it difficult to make out phrases.
The dvd also shows Keston Sutherland reading from the ‘Antifreeze’ collection but, as with his performances on Youtube, his diction isn’t brilliant and the strength of the message is somewhat lost.
So, I’m a little clearer on Prynne’s modus operandi and the dvd has made me return to the work that was read.

Reading Prynne closely pt2

Approaching passion freak intact prime falter
for segment same-front glide to fill conduce
suffuse give or give. Plenteous flake arm folly
to love acre the same rivet the front broken

Prolusion, stay near ever dry. Few tap transfer
second charge you let off stop surrender for
disarm, oh grant that, leave the grain why ever
less now less green took life by the tongue lit

In low pale extradite. A day this one assign
yours grow up to main, leaf round and round lie
cost plus crush split stamina. Me such unarm
same peril fovea pass fire mantle and glib overt

Tie to air close to, to disclaim that for. More
flute ignite nul wants subsume trill earlier ban
wrist digit restive to same. Be all best profane
broken tenuous, each strand as fine torrid at

Leave to play stare to east, ease denied off
by rush fracture on dismounting the pelmet crab
out over the foreland, the annexe. Moulded
profile accepts on its lateral crystal mistaken

Fragment at level counterparty brushed, mend
up to shock, same till fallen till to breach
its promise mine for spent at duration, noted
way ever on transit long for this and similar.

I know that I said I would concentrate on the first and third stanzas of this (the second poem in ‘Streak, willing, entourage, artesian’) but further reflection tells me that this is a flawed approach to something this non-linear. I will therefore try to point out the bits that can be gleaned with a degree of attention and those that are utterly resistant.

My hypothesis (guess) is that this poem is ‘about’ the recent civil war in Ulster although I am still prepared to overturn this guess if I come across anything that points in another direction. To this end I have begun to delve into the Cain archive and to read witness testimony given to the Bloody Sunday Inquiry and I am amazed about how much I had forgotten.

I’d like to start with ‘Be all best profane / broken tenuous’ from the fourth stanza. I’m taking ‘Be all best’ as an instruction to do your best which seems fairly clear but ‘profane’ is causing me problems. As a noun profane means someone or thing which makes something secular or unholy, as a verb it can also mean to desecrate, abuse or insult whilst the adjective can be used to someone who is uninitiated in religious practice. Throughout the Troubles, Ulster was sunk deep in religious issues, from the casting of hunger strikers as martyrs to the anti-catholic rants of Ian Paisley and his ilk the conflict was mired in arguments about God with each side viewing the other as (at the very least) profane.

This use of the word to refer to the conflict doesn’t help very much with this part of the poem, it occurs to me that these words could be an address to the reader. Prynne has done this before in ‘To Pollen’ with its reference to the ‘resilient brotherhood’ and the question about ‘the one inclined’. I’ll try and show how this reading makes more sense than does a reference to the Ulster conflict.

‘Be all best’ could be an instruction that recognises that all readers can only do what they can because the full meaning of a poem will always remain elusive. ‘Profane’ as a verb may be an instruction to overlook the religious elements of the conflict in favour of a more materialist analysis. Part of the first stanza reads ‘folly to love acre the same’- if we give acre its subsidiary meaning of ‘land’ then this could point to the fact that the fundamental political difference separating both sides was (is) whether the six counties should become part of the Irish Republic or remain as part of the United Kingdom. This would seem to make sense but taking religion out of the equation overlooks at least some of the fuel that lit and sustained the fire.

‘Broken’ and ‘tenuous’ are words that have a direct bearing on Prynne’s work. Many writers have commented on the fragmented nature of poems where competing discourses collide with each other and I’ve found this one of the most attractive (if that’s the right word) aspects of the work.

I’ve used tenuous to describe my own reading of Prynne and others have stated that readers are only ever likely to get a partial understanding of what’s going on. Some have pointed out that readers should construct their own meanings from the poem, treating each piece as an open text. I don’t hold with this view because I find that there’s enough in even the most obscure poems to glean what Prynne may be about.

‘Tenuous’ could also refer to the actions involved in writing the poem. The disaster that was the Ulster conflict was multi-faceted and does not lend itself easily to analysis. There are territory, religion, civil rights, colonial and military dimensions to consider as well as the fact that the working class of both sides were intent on killing each other in large numbers. So, any analysis will be tenuous at best- is this what Prynne is saying?

We then have a comma- these are often missing from Prynne’s work and they are often used to introduce a new line of thought but on this occasion I’ll try and show that the line continues to make some kind of sense. ‘Each strand as fine torrid / at leave to play’ refers to the poem and the act of reading it. I’m taking the primary meaning of each and strand to indicate that both the elements of the conflict and the various dimensions of the poem are being referred to. ‘Fine’ as a noun can mean the end of something and the verb can mean bringing to and end so this may be an instruction to follow both types of thread to their conclusion.

‘Torrid’ is interesting because, in addition to its normal meaning, the OED states that it can refer to the atmosphere affecting those at risk of religious persecution. It may therefore allude to Ulster Catholics feeling persecuted by the Protestant majority or to loyalists feeling that they are being killed because of their faith. On the other hand it could refer to the position Prynne feels himself to be in as a poet. It is true to say that Prynne has been more vilified by the poetry establishment than any other writer in the last thirty years and that this has often taken the form of puerile personal attacks which could be seen as a form of persecution. Whilst this may or may not be correct, it is interesting to note that Paul Celan (a major predecessor in the difficulty stakes) had a persecution complex too.

‘At / leave to play’ I’m taking as a description of the activity of the reader who is free to construct her own reading of the various strands. I don’t think this is a reference to Prynne because his work suggests that he takes himself far to seriously for that.

I’m going to leave this theme for a while primarily because I want to write about Keston Sutherland’s ‘Stress Position’ and the thorny matter of dialectical consciousness but also because I need a rest before I tackle rush fractures and pelmet crabs……..