Tag Archives: mental ears and poetic work

Reading ‘Difficult’ Poetry with Success. Prynne, Hill and David Jones.

“The discourses of modernism in Western poetics make steeper descents into sub-intelligibility; and in my own case
I am rather frequently accused of having more or less altogether taken leave of discernible sense. In fact I believe this accusation to be more or less true, and not to me alarmingly so, because what for so long has seemed the arduous royal road into the domain of poetry (“what does it mean?”) seems less and less an unavoidably necessary precondition
for successful reading.”

But this is an important aspect of the question
Which I am not ready to discuss, not ready at all to
This leaving out business. On it hinges the very importance
of what's novel.
Or autocratic, or dense, or silly. It is as well to call attention
To it by exaggeration, perhaps. But calling attention
Isn't the same thing as explaining, and as I said I am not
To line phrases with the costly stuff of explanation, and shall

The first of these is from J H Prynne’s ‘Mental Ears’ and the second is from John Ashbery’s ‘The Skaters’ which was published in ‘Rivers and Mountains’ in 1966 and both appear to be saying the same thing. So, if two of the most important poets of the last fifty years have this lack of interest in the quest for meaning, what might a successful reading look like?

For me, ‘successful’ relates to feeling satisfied by the act of reading and this usually involves giving attention to a poem or part of a poem. It is the way I feel about reading attentively that is the marker for me. There are some contemporary innovative poets who produce work that doesn’t involve me, that doesn’t (for a variety of reasons) retain either my interest or attention. This is not to suggest that this work is inferior – it’s just that I’m not interested in it.

The problem of meaning (which used to concern me) is only one aspect of readerly attention/involvement and working out meaning tends to be a by-product of doing other things and being involved in other ways. I’m going to use the above poets to try and illustrate what I mean by this and how ‘success’ can occur in other ways.

Prynne is a good place to start and I’m currently paying attention to ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ because it seems to mark a significant ‘turn’ in his output and because I find it compelling. The first reward that I get is in responding to the challenge which, for me, is altering the way that I absorb information. Prynne’s work demands a less linear (for the want of a better word) kind of attention and requires this adjustment to be made before reading rather than after. I like this because I can do it and I find doing it utterly absorbing. I’ve also found that I can apply this kind of attention to other things unrelated to either poetry or reading.

This is one of the shorter paragraphs from ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’:

                                       Can this be or was it moreover
for this incision in dropsy yes not ventral not assented sold OUT
in mere song-like retrieval, give way with no-name in appearance
decking as a whirling swarm of gnats is soft summer sun at the
edge of the outward forest, infolded not time after time still less
perpetual by false appearance which is the true-fast semblance of
falsity, indued and ever-doubtful. Our morning hymn this is, and
song at evening echo confuted by shared antagonism, implicit not
by next coming-to-be as the world is transformed in feature full
of folk saying what is it not, time-locked against spokes in the cycle
of saying so. Indicative ridiculous also, won't you come home
Bill Bailey before a toast and tea, scumbags! reptiles! the old folks
just better stay at home or lose their reason too, mine and yours
loaned against non-interest, souls implanted by necessity smooth
turning upon an axle you'd not know was not granted its near life
to be there, on-site in foam, I saw no less than these things
right up on the peremptory shore line.

I’ve quoted this at length because I can now show different kinds of involvement. The first of these is about identifying the individual phrases and working out what they might be doing. The first phrase asks a question which then appears to be answered with some qualification. This process is less arduous here than it is for most of the more recent Prynne, this seems to be making an effort towards greater coherence but there are still challenges – deciding what the Bill Bailey and old folks at home references are doing is something that would need a different kind of involvement (checking song lyrics) than the rest. For me, the most satisfying part is engaging with the way that some phrases point in a number of different directions at once and then trying to apply these to the whole. This passage contains these that are crying out for this kind of involvement;

  • incision in dropsy;
  • mere song-like retrieval;
  • appearance decking;
  • the outward forest;
  • true-fast semblance;
  • song at evening echo confuted;
  • spokes in the cycle of saying so;
  • souls implanted by necessity;
  • on-site in foam;
  • peremptory shore line.

Some of this involves looking at secondary word meanings and derivations, checking how each of these might relate to what’s going on around them and (in this work) bearing in mind the ‘reference cues’ printed at the end. All of this is absorbing and rewarding because it is possible to gain a sense of progress and some insight into other ways of thinking generally and doing poetry in particular. I must also mention the feeling of success that I get when I begin to grasp the structure and direction of the whole.

It is also important to stress that meaning comes way down on the list, I’m very comfortable in not knowing what ‘this’ and ‘it’ refer to in the first paragraph and accept that this will only be made clearer by the kind of attention that I’ve just described.

A successful reading of Geoffrey Hill doesn’t have the same qualities but it still requires attention and involvement. My first encounter with Hill was reading the first few pages of Comus on the bus on the way to work and realising that this was a poet who was confident in his abilities and quite precise in what he had to say. This gives the reader a feeling of security – as if she or he is in safe hands. Success with Hill works on two levels, responding to what he says and considering the way that he says it. I occasionally try to write poetry and therefore have an interest in the practice and technique of those that I admire. One element of success with Hill is evaluating his technique and assessing whether the poem is both technically efficient and beautiful- his criteria, not mine. Success comes when I feel that I’ve made a reasonable assessment. Some of this doesn’t take long, ‘Oraclau’ is obviously less than technically efficient and this gets in the way of what Hill might be trying to say. Other judgements are more nuanced, I wouldn’t have addressed my critics from within ‘The Triumph of Love’ but that doesn’t stop it from being a brilliant piece of work. I admire ‘Clavics’ more than I did when it was published but I’m still not sure about the use of patterns. So, successful reading as a practitioner in the case of Hill is wanting and being able to continue to think about technique and tactics.

I’ve said before that I don’t have any kind of faith and that Hill and I occupy opposite ends of the political spectrum. I don’t feel challenged by his high Anglicanism nor by his odd brand of ‘hierarchical’ Toryism because both are wrong in the sense of being factually incorrect so success here is not about being challenged about my beliefs and prejudices but is more about what poetry can and should do. In general terms I agree with Hill about poetry and about literature and I like the way that he reads. Success here is about being able to place myself in the hands of a fellow traveller who knows far more than I about the things that interest me.

The sense of success that I get from reading Hill comes from this complex sense of identification and/or comparison which usually leads to other things. To give a recent example, reading ‘Clavics’ and Hill’s identification with Yeats has led me to look again at his work.

I’ve written before about the challenges presented by ‘The Anathemata’ and success here is more about throwing yourself into what’s been said and trying to get hold of the extent of Jones’ ambition. As with the work of Prynne, engagement is more about the way in which language is used and the variations in those techniques issues of meaning take a secondary place. In his introduction Jones indicates his intention to set out his personal cultural background and interests in poetic form so we have the Roman Catholic faith, Welshness, London, the Roman empire, prehistory and seafaring as well as material from various chronicles and romances.

Success with Jones works on two levels, the ability to immerse yourself in what is being said and the extent of your willingness to explore further some of the issues and subjects covered. I like to think that I succeed by the first criterion in that I can now, with the help of the notes, follow the flow of the poetry and visualise most of what is described. I have however ‘failed’ on the second standard in that after the first couple of readings I resolved to know more about Catholic liturgy as well as Welshness. I have the books sitting on my hard drive but have yet to look at any of them.

I think what I’m trying to say about all three of these ‘difficult’ practitioners is that successful reading starts with a degree of acceptance of them on their own terms and being interested in how those terms are involved in the poetry making rather than being primarily concerned with either meaning or intention.

Reading J H Prynne, an open letter to Neil Pattison

Dear Neil,

I’ve spent some time reading your remarkable response to John Stevens with regard to approaching ‘The Oval Window’ and I feel the need to respond here rather than in the thread, mainly because it is more likely to be read by innocent passers-by. When I’d overcome all the initial scepticisms and suspicions and had begun to pay attention to Prynne (as opposed to looking at the words) I wrote a short blog entitled ‘How to read Jeremy Prynne’ which was one of my glib lists which makes the mistake of glossing over the big stumbling block by encouraging interested parties to ‘think laterally’ which is probably the least helpful thing that I could have written. I’ve been thinking a lot about your landscape image/analogy and I want to take it a bit further but first of all I’d like to introduce you to ‘Rawhide Harangue of Aching Indices as Told by Light’ by Jessica Stockholder.

You now need to bear with me for a while. Stockholder is a Canadian artist who rearranges our fundamental ideas about space and what space does and can do. ‘Rearranges’ is a polite term for ‘dismantles’ and/or ‘destroys’ and this is achieved with incredibly banal and ordinary materials. The initial effect of a Stockholder installation is one of disorientation and bafflement because of the assault on our many taken-for-granted notions about three dimensional space and about aesthetic judgement/value.

It would be utterly crass to suggest that reading Prynne is like confronting a Stockholder installation but I would like to suggest is that Prynne’s work has this same ‘dimensional’ aspect in that we are encouraged to allow the poems to take us into areas where we need to consider length, breadth and depth at once and take into account the different materials from which these things are made.

As with Stockholder, it is also important to think about isolated aspects quite hard but also to try and relate these to the work as a whole. This is a wider shot from the same installation-

In the first image, I would suggest, our focus is on the neon tubes on the floor primarily because they shouldn’t be there, in the second image our attention shifts to how a range of different elements might relate to each other and the light tubes seem less important (but still part of the piece).

When I’m reading Prynne, I’m conscious that I’m persuading my brain to do things that it doesn’t normally do. This is where it gets difficult for me to make general statements about reading this stuff because I only have my own subjective experience to rely on but the first thing that my brain needs to do is to grab and retain as much as possible of the poem, as in ‘As mouth blindness’, or the sequence as in ‘Unanswering Rational Shore’ and then to think about potential ‘connections’ across this rugged terrain. Going a bit further with your ‘lights’ analogy, I’d want to add that some of these connections produce only an intermittent light, others produce a flickering but constant light and very few produce a steady beam and that the ‘important’ element may be in the means by which these connections are made and unmade rather than in the lights that are produced.

I think I’d also like to add that my brain really enjoys these different tasks and perspectives and there have been times when I’ve become a bit addicted and have had to wean myself off from the Prynne Habit because there are other things in life that I need to attend to. If managed correctly, engaging with Prynne is immensely pleasurable and amusing, there are many things about the work that make me smile and the experience informs my reading of other material which is always a good thing.

The other aspect that I’d like to emphasise is that I do get the feeling that I’m in the presence of serious poetry when I’m looking at this stuff. By ‘serious’ I think I mean work that doesn’t compromise and is completely focused on what it does. There’s a degree of absolute concentration that I only experience / am aware of with Prynne and Celan. This extreme refusal to make concessions and to focus exclusively on the making of poetry (which is common to both) is, for me, the marker of lasting value / worth. Reading the poems chronologically, it’s reasonably clear to me that Prynne’s encounter with poetry has become increasingly focused and intense and one of the interesting aspects of the later sequences has been the insistence on the use of traditional verse forms so that the poems look like they belong within the scope of poetry although they operate at its very edge. All of this is a Very Good Thing.

I think I’d also like to say a bit more about the ‘understanding’ issue which was certainly enough to deter me for a number of years. I think that it’s really important to recognise that it is eminently feasible to take serious pleasure from a poem even if we ‘understand’ very little of it. There’s also the vexed question of what it is that we’re trying to understand, is it the ‘message’ of the poem or the poet’s intention in writing it? So, I think I still maintain that it’s okay to be baffled and that working with bafflement is one of the many pleasures of doing Prynne.

You are absolutely correct in placing emphasis on thinking about the relationship between work that we are drawn to and that which repels us, I think this applies to most stuff and not just Prynne. I’m also conscious that there is some of Prynne’s stuff that (at the moment) I can’t be bothered with because it would take too long for me to work out whether I ‘liked’ it.

The other thing that I think might be helpful is to look at the Shakespeare/Wordsworth/Herbert commentaries because they give a reasonably clear account of how Prynne responds to and thinks about poetry. It’s also worthwhile to look at ‘Mental Ears’, ‘Poetic Thought’ and the essay on translating difficult poetry because they do give a fairly clear context for Prynne’s practice. I read and paid attention to some of the poems first however and this gave me more of a starting point.

The last thing I want to say here is that these poems deal with grown-up subject matter and that issues are addressed in a way that gives an account of the complexities involved. Even in the most outraged polemic (Refuse Collection) there is, as well as condemnation, an attempt to depict the various perspectives and contradictions involved.

This is an extended way of thanking you for you insightful and provocative contribution which has brought me back to the work with a fresh pair of eyes. These are currently being applied to ‘To Pollen’ with surprising results…..



(Sorry, couldn't resist)

J H Prynne in Paris pt 2

I’ve now had the opportunity to look again at the reading Prynne gave in Paris in 2009 to see if it has any effect on my understanding/appreciation of ‘To Pollen’. I’ve tried to keep in mind Prynne’s caveat in ‘Mental Ears’ which I’ll quote in full:

It’s from this distinction that my own lack of interest in the performance of poems in their author’s own voice takes its origin;
the specific occasional delivery is no more than an accidentalism of sound and behavior, since it is the language of the text that has and produces voice, and not the mere vocal equipment and habits of a speaker. An author-speaker of text in self-performance may seem to be a special case, in that features of such delivery can seem to be
communicating an authentic textual inwardness, from the stance of an authorized knowledge and self-interpretation. But such semblance is really delusional; this is to undo the work of mental ears, by a kind of primitive literal-mindedness: “Look, the poet is wearing red socks! Now at last we understand everything!”

At the risk of being flippant, the obvious response would be ‘Look, the poet is wearing a v-necked jumper, now we understand even less than we did before.
Prior to reading the sequence, Prynne does give us some context in saying that after ‘Refuse Collection’ he thought that he may not be able to write anything again and that ‘To Pollen’ starts obscurely and gets more direct towards the end. He also says that there are twenty three stanzas in the sequence although the published version has twenty two and he only reads twenty one. He also makes some changes to the text as he goes along which is his prerogative but it does throw up issues of authenticity and the need perhaps to accept that no poem is ever finally ‘finished’- I’ll return to this in the context of the third poem in the sequence:

Fault plane under treading lacks rip indelicate
path to its line, to the furnace. Soon by mistake
gains overfill commander to mother up fewer or
single nerve balances in averted along elate for
normal, drastic. Newer finding up reefs you see
slice first partition. Why should that work. Mean
passed over no vigil no truce grab for best there
and service altered runway. Truck hurt failed list
incident pacific not civil, render back on principal
hinterland allurement. Afferent side ripe on track
refix as, rose up in mossy fibres attuned, brimmer
won’t mix hand even extend. How could also not be
lesser. Stand nearby went off its oil trap refined.

I’ve chosen this because it is the first poem where Prynne alters the text and because I think it might be very good indeed. As usual, the following is entirely provisional and is intended to show aspects of the Prynne project rather than provide any kind of explanation.

In between the second and third poem, Prynne points out the Haditha quote in the second (“it hurt so much”) so it would seem that the sequence may be moving nearer to all things Iraq and the war on terror. Whilst fully appreciating the reservations about a poet’s spoken performance, listening to this has enabled me to put some additional commas into the text in accordance with his phrasing. This may not be reliable and may be subject to variation but ‘Afferent side, ripe on track’ for example does at least narrow down the options. Having inserted four or five commas, there is then the problem of the change from ‘extend’ to ‘extended’ in the penultimate line. There are a number of questions that this throws up-
Did Prynne always intend the word to be ‘extended’ and was this overlooked when the proofs were read?
Has he since decided that the change would be an improvement?
Did he decide to alter the word whilst in the process of reading it in public? (I do this a lot because it becomes apparent only in front of an audience what’s going to ‘work’ and what isn’t).
Was it simply a mistake- a misreading that signifies nothing at all?
There is one clear and unambiguous phrase in this- ‘Why should that work’ even though it’s missing the question mark and it isn’t clear what ‘that’ refers to. I think we can be fairly confident that there’s more than a little angry sarcasm in the question.
The other ting to note is the preponderance of ‘conflict’ words – commander, partition, truce, runway, pacific not civil, oil trap refined etc which would seem to point to Iraq.
The poem starts with geology – ‘fault plane’ being the area through which fault lines run and where earthquakes occur, I’m taking ‘under treading’ as referring to things that are underfoot and at the same time recognising that ‘tread’ can also refer to both a path and a way of life. Not wishing to jump to too many conclusions, improvised explosive devices (ieds) have been used in both Iraq and Afghanistan and are planted by the side of roads and paths with the intention of killing soldiers on patrol- does ‘rip indelicate’ refer to the wounds incurred by these devices or is it an echo of the Haditha atrocity alluded to in the previous stanza?
One definition of the verb ‘to path’ is “To make or beat down (a path or way) by treading” and the OED gives this lovely example from 1642; “[They] become more pathed in their sinnes by much beating upon” which may be helpful as we appear to be heading for the ‘furnace’.
One definition of furnace is ‘any severe test or trial’ and it could be argued that the invasion and occupation of Iraq was a severe test for the Iraqi people as well as a different kind of ordeal for the occupying forces.
It think it’s a mistake to expect absolute clarity from Prynne, he does seem to take delight in ‘meaning’ several things at once and giving the reader here an impression of condemnation rather than the outraged polemic evident in ‘Refuse Collection’. Having followed up the fault line reference I can now say that, although earthquakes do occur in Iraq, they tend to occur with greater severity in Iran and Turkey although some researchers think that Iraq’s next major quake is overdue.
The next sentence plunges us into another level of difficulty altogether. Listening to the reading, I couldn’t pick up any definite pauses so its difficult to pick out the individual phrases in this. I think that it’s possible to take the first phrase (Soon by mistake gains overfill) as being reasonably straightforward. To overfill is to fill something to overflowing, the primary definition of the noun relates to being overfull with food. So, in terms of Iraq, this could be pointing to early military successes creating too many prisoners for the occupiers to deal with. This would ‘fit’ with the secondary definition of ‘commander’ as “A work raised so as to command the adjacent works and country round;” perhaps referring to Abu Ghraib which was used as a military base as well as a prison.
‘To mother up’ seems to point in several directions at once. To use the ordinary meaning first, the child from Haditha (Eman Waleed) quoted in the previous poem lost all members of her family, including her mother. Lynndie England, one of the perpetrators of abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib became pregnant during the time that she was stationed there. Saddam Hussein used the phrase ‘Mother of all Battles’ to refer to the start of the Gulf War in 1991. The OED gives a definition of to mother upon as “To attribute the authorship of (a work) to a woman; (also) to ascribe the origin of (something) to a person, a cause, etc” and Brigadier General Janis Karpinski (who was head of all Iraq prisons at the time) was demoted and reprimanded for dereliction of duty following the atrocities at Abu Ghraib. A mother can also refer to a gay man who acts as mentor to younger men. Prisoners at Abu Ghraib were forced to perform sexual acts on each other whilst their guards took pictures. A less common definition of ‘to mother’ is to become full of sediment or dregs, to become mouldy. In the UK, prisoners are often referred to as ‘the dregs of society’.
I think this use of ‘mother’ is one of those instances which deliberately invites different readings and responses which are, to some extent, dependent on the reader’s choice of emphasis. My own preference would give greater weight to Abu Ghraib rather than Haditha and also to bear in mind the possible connection between being overfull and becoming mouldy.
I’m going to stop there and leave the rest of the stanza for another occasion. I do however want to come back to the extend/extended problem mentioned earlier. ‘Hand even extend’ does seem quite different (in terms of sense) from ‘hand even extended’ and puts me in a bit of a quandry. Do I try and keep both alternatives in mind or do I choose one or the other? What might be my criteria for making this choice given the possible reasons for the difference outlined above or do I just accept that both versions are valid (whatever ‘valid’ might mean) and try to incorporate this further level of uncertainty into my understanding. Any assistance with this would be much appreciated but it also calls into question whether a work can ever be said to be finished or complete. Jean Genet once expressed the view that we can only evaluate someone’s work after he or she has died and I can see the sense in that but I’m also coming to the view that the published version of a poem should be viewed as the latest draft rather than anything definitive.

Is there a Prynne project?

The ‘Prynne project’ is a phrase I’ve thrown out on several occasions in the last few months almost as if I knew what I was talking about. I’ve recently noticed that Keston Sutherland uses the same noun in his Glossator essay-:

It is a way to model lyric, to make a language for fact without desire. The poem implicitly announces a shift in the moralism of knowledge away from anything like eidetic phenomenology, with its bracketing of affectivity along with ontic commitments, toward the project of a lyric beyond subjectivity, that is, beyond memory, appetite, greed, and all the other consolations for predatoriness that make up the spiral curve of bourgeois autobiography, a project that would come into full view only much later in Prynne’s work.

A lyric beyond “memory, appetite, greed and all the other consolations for predatoriness” sounds about right but I wonder if it does justice to other aspects of the work. Prynne’s recent essays on what poetry may be about provide some details of other aspects of the project and an idea of how these aspects might fit together.
It also has to be said before I get any further that the publication of ‘Sub Songs’ with its apparent move away from radical austerity throws the spanner in the works of those of us who like a straightforward chronology but I’ll try and deal with this later.
I think of ‘project’ as denoting some kind of forward looking plan which has a number of objectives. I don’t believe that any serious poet puts pen to paper without some idea of what they want to say and how they want to say it. In the case of Prynne, I think we can see a variety of different strategies deployed to challenge and undermine the “unwitty circus” and to ensure that his ‘gabble’ will indeed survive.
Prynne’s ‘Mental Ears and Poetic Work’ essay in the Chicago Review is a good place to start identifying the contours of the plan. He writes-

This because for all the pungent games in which poetry can engage, it comprises at its most fully extended an envelope which finds and sets the textual contours in writing of how things are; while also activating a system of discontinuities and breaks which interrupt and contest the intrinsic cohesion and boundary profiles of its domain, so that there is constant leakage inwards and outwards across the connection with the larger world order.

The aspect that I think is crucial is the emphasis on ‘how things are’ juxtaposed with contesting the structural profile of poetry’s domain. As I’ll try and show later, Prynne has a strong sense of the ability of poetry to tell the truth and a lot of his best work has been about depicting the truth as it is and not as Prynne or anyone else would like it to be. This is of course a fairly mainstream ambition, many poets would claim to be about digging up the truth and depicting it as it is. The second part of the statement about taking apart poetry from within is much more ambitious and is only achieved by the very few and it is interesting to note that Prynne is doing this to promote some kind of dialogue with the wider world.
I’ve paid a fair amount of attention to ”Streak~~Willing~~Entourage~~Artesian” and the issue of ‘truth’ in a complex situation like the Troubles is handled in a oddly objective kind of way. “Grow up to main”, which I read as a depiction of the Protestant community’s fear of being demographically overtaken, is a good example of telling an objective truth in a radically different kind of way that challenges most aspects of current poetic discourse.
Later in the essay Prynne almost acknowledges that his project is not without its pitfalls-

To build a writing framework over
an extent of regular practice, across many years, accumulates a profile
more and more singular. Even family likeness may not be sufficient to
accomplish recognition in full detail. At the same time the isolation of
a self-interior retrospect is highly dangerous, because an encroaching
narcissism of preoccupation will promote unrecognized claims of endorsement from chance occurrence, locked into the habits of procedure. Or maybe this is not exactly a danger, depending on point of view.

I read this as saying that even when you’re trying to be as radical as possible it is likely that your work will come to be seen as predictable and structured by what were once innovative ways of expression but have now become merely habitual. I like the way he hedges his bets with the last sentence which leads me on to his view that considerations of meaning are “less and less an unavoidably necessary precondition for successful reading” whilst taking care to distance himself from postmodern “playfulness” (he does this a lot).
This is where what I see as the coherence of the project begins to unravel a bit. I’m not personally that interested in notions of ‘truth’ but I think Prynne is and I do not see how you can aspire to write about how things are and not be concerned about meaning. My fairly limited but careful reading of the work leads me to believe that words and phrases are used precisely and relate to some aspect of the world rather than being placed for effect. It would be more understandable if he were acknowledging that different kinds or levels of meaning can be obtained but he isn’t, nor does he give us what the preconditions for successful reading may be.
I see the following rather lengthy extract from ‘Mental Ears’ as one of Prynne’s most explicit descriptions of what he’s about-

The very medium of poetic textuality incorporates and instantiates the features of breakage at local and microscopic levels, as discoverable by phonological and other types of analysis, into a dialectic which may look arbitrary or merely optional but which polarizes the task of poetic composition. Formal and structural features within the language system, the selective-discourse system, the prosodic and formal verse system, all within the contrastive perspectives of historical development, compete to provoke the formation of shifting hybrids across boundaries of sometimes radical counter-tension. The active poetic text is thus characteristically in dispute with its own ways and means, contrary implication running inwards to its roots and outwards to its surface proliferations: not as acrobatic display but as working the
work that, when fit for purpose, poetry needs to do. These are the
proper arguments of poetry as a non-trivial pursuit, the templates
for ethical seriousness. As just one example, the condoned spillage
of innocent blood is everywhere around us, now, and the artificers
of consolatory blessing who are the leaders of organized religion are
up to their dainty necks in this blood. I have believed throughout
my writing career that no poet has or can have clean hands, because
clean hands are themselves a fundamental contradiction. Clean hands
do no worthwhile work.

I’ve quoted the last bit of this before primarily with reference to the ‘clean hands’ quip but now I want to draw attention to the dialectical aspect which does seem to dominate Prynne’s thinking about poetry, especially when he talks about poetic composition being in dispute with itself with ‘contrary implication’ traversing the body of the text. In terms of my own reading I’m not entirely sure that his use of ‘breakage’ in this sense is entirely successful in this sense, I can think of one or two examples of where thematic and structural contradiction seem to coincide especially in the work produced in the last twenty years but this does not strike me as the main characteristic. This could of course be due to the fact that I haven’t yet paid enough attention.
I could spend a lot of time with this extract but I’ve written before on Prynne’s view of compromised language and I think what he says here on the subject requires little further elucidation.
“Difficulties in the Translation of “Difficult” Poems” provides further clues as to the nature of the project. In this essay Prynne makes the following point-

But often difficult language in poems accompanies difficult thought, so that the difficulty of language is part of the whole structure and activity of poetic composition. Shakespeare’s Sonnets are certainly of this kind; and I have to admit that many of my own poems are like this, with the result that I do not have a wide readership and translators of my work have to confront an extra-hard struggle.

Anyone who has read any Prynne since 1971 must agree that the work does combine difficult language with difficult thought and that this has had a negative effect in terms of sales and readership. He goes on to talk about word choice, noting that alternative meanings can bring in “difficult fields of specialised usage and also historical or textual allusions in several different directions”. This brings to mind the use of “sound particle” at the beginning of the “To Pollen” sequence. An ‘ordinary’ reading would suggest that a sound particle is simply a small part of something heard but a brief look on the web reveals that sound particles are hypothetical units without either mass or dimension. As a reader I’m then faced with the choice of either pursuing this further or just accepting that this validates the ‘ultramontane’ reference to CERN in the next line. Prynne recognises this kind of problem when he says “In a poetic composition that is dense with this richness of semantic complexity these tasks of meaning-choice present one challenge after another, in close succession, and each choice when made will affect all the consequent such choices and thus the connective tendency of the text as a whole.” In my reasonably attentive reading of ‘Streak’ I think I can appreciate the extent of these challenges and the way in which choices become interrelated. The use of a single word (’embankment’) has caused me to reconsider not only what is being said but the subject matter of the entire sequence. This isn’t a bad thing because it does mean that all previous assumptions have to be challenged but it takes time.
Prynne points out that the ‘key’ to comprehension is often context goes on to say that “difficult” poems often disrupt any sense of linkage between one word and the next creating strong surprise and rich uncertainty in the reader. He observes that “Not only is poetry characteristically condensed, so that some semantic links may be cut off or completely absent, but also a diversity of apparently incompatible references is often deliberate and a valued feature of complex poems”. There’s a sentence in the “Streak” sequence which reads “At for to.” Is this an example of extremely absent semantic links that we’re supposed to value?
Prynne describes “difficult” poetry as having a very wide corridor of sense-making “more like a network across the whole expanse of the text with many loops and cross-links of semantic and referring activity which extend the boundaries and relevance, and of control by context, in many directions at once”. It’s this multi-directional aspect of the work that I find so fascinating and rewarding but it does lead to an array of different interpretations- perhaps this is what Prynne is referring to when he says that the quest for meaning isn’t a pre-condition of successful reading. In this essay he also talks about the dialectic and how form and expression are brought into internal conflict with each other.
I’ll finish by looking at a few passages from the “Poetic Thought” essay because I think that they enable me to pull out a few useful threads. This is the first-

To work with thought requires the poet to grasp at the strong and persistent ways in which understanding is put under test by imagination as a screen of poetic conscience, to coax and hurl at finesse and judgement, and to set beliefs and principles on line, self-determining but nothing for its own sake merely; all under test of how things are. Nothing taken for granted, nothing merely forced, pressure of the composing will as varied by delicacy, because these energies are dialectical and not extruded from personality or point of view. Dialectics in this sense is the working encounter with contradiction in the very substance of object-reality and the obduracy of thought; irony not as an optional tone of voice but as marker for intrinsic anomaly.

I’d like to draw attention to “all under test of how things are” which is a direct echo of “Mental Ears” but this seems stronger – the use of ‘all’ ie everything in the work being put to the test of objective truth. Given what’s said above about multiple references and meanings, isn’t there a bit of a (I hesitate to use the noun) contradiction here? If you’re aiming to apply ‘all’ to this test then shouldn’t you resist loading every page with a variety of meaning choices?
With regard to the dialectic, I don’t have any problem with contradiction in object-reality but I do think we begin to swim in very murky waters when we try and apply this to “obduracy of thought”. Still, the paragraph does provide a baseline for what the project might be about.
We now come to the reader’s part in the project and this very telling sentence-

There is also not too much cause to worry about the reader, since if these efforts produce composition of durable value the reader will catch up in due time.

The social worker in me really wants to take this apart. Of course, Prynne thinks his work is of durable value and has also noted that he doesn’t currently have a very wide readership so there’s a reliance on posterity that is more than a little poignant. To say any more would probably drag me into areas that aren’t appropriate for this blog but I do think it’s very revealing.
I’ve commented before on Prynne’s view of the need for ‘self-removal’ so I won’t do so again. He goes on-

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. Whatever the users of language claim as their rights to effects of meaning, language is produced by meaning habits but resists definitive assignments of motive and desire. This is a root counterforce of energy in language itself as a scheme of activity in social practice: it is the placement-station of the poet whose argument here will generate poetic thought.

Poetic thought in contest with the whole cultural system of a language does seem to encapsulate the means by which the description of how things are is to be achieved. I still have to question the consistency in portraying objective truth whilst not presenting oneself in any way as the “arbiter of rightness”. This may be because of my own sceptical views about the veracity of a single ‘truth’ but I do think there’s something a little bit ingenuous around this- similar to having your cake and eating it.
So, there does seem to be a project and it has discernible features that we can race from Brass onwards. The last twenty years have also seen an increasing austerity and less reliance on ‘conventional’ forms of expression (with the possible exception of ‘Triodes’). As I said at the start, this pattern has been disrupted with the publication this year of ‘Sub Songs’ which feels a bit like a step backwards.
The active ingredients in all the work appear to be a concern with telling how things are, an interest in contradiction, the use of poetic convention to disrupt itself and a personal commitment to continue to plough this particular furrow regardless.

Jeremy Prynne’s Mental Ears pt 2

I’ve been avoiding Mt Prynne for a while but it’s now probably time to get back into the fray. In preparation for reading the poem(s), I’ve had another look at ‘Mental Ears and Poetic Work’ which I wrote about some months ago and is still available from the newly revived AAAARG site.

Two things have struck me in addition to the stuff about phonology. The first is that the preamble contains a definition of poetry and it is reasonably clear –

This because for all the pungent games in which poetry can engage, it comprises at its most fully extended an envelope which finds and sets the textual contours in writing of how things are; whilst also activating a system of  discontinuities and breaks which interrupt the intrinsic cohesion and boundary profiles of its domain, so that there is constant leakage inwards and outwards across the connection with the larger world order. That’s an outline in broadest abstraction, for a start.

Although this is clearly expressed, it does require some careful thought. The first thing that strikes me is the notion that poetry can ‘engage’ a range of ‘pungent games’. Prynne always chooses his words very carefully and pungent (in the sense of  convincing, trenchant, biting, persuasive as well as painfully or strongly affecting the feelings) seems particularly acute given what he has to say about poetic work at the end of the essay. To describe poetry as engaging with games is more puzzling. Prynne is well known for his refusal to enter into dialogue with what he describes as ‘the witty circus’ and he may be attempting to contrast what he sees most poets doing with his own aspirations. There is also the possibility that he’s using pungent in the pejorative sense (smelly).

The next part presents us with the idea that poetry can be extended to find and set in writing the textual contours of  ‘how things are’. This is redolent of Prynne in China in 2006 when he said that poetry should aspire to radical economy and truthfulness. I do tend to stumble over this ‘how things are’ business because I still can’t see (and I’ve tried) how poetry is in a privileged position with regard to reality and describing it as it is. This is not to deny the importance of poetry, I understand and accept its potential to alter the way we view the world and the way we think about language but I do feel that this kind of rhetoric makes a claim that can’t be delivered. I also admit to being a Rortian relativist with a profound mistrust in the status of objective truth but that doesn’t prevent me from observing that poetry is no better at saying ‘how it is’ than any other form of creative expression.

Prynne and Geoffrey Hill both take poetry incredibly seriously and this is to be admired, I would never denigrate their lifelong dedication nor their skill as poets. I would however question their ability to present me with an objective statement as to how things are. Prynne’s socialism says very little to me politically and I already know that contemporary imperialism is a very Bad Thing. With regard to his devotion to Wordsworth, I’ll still need a lot of persuading although I do share his admiration for Olson.

Prynne is clearly one of the two finest poets writing in English and I read him because I find his poetry to be both challenging and rewarding. I don’t expect him or any other poet to be able to tell me how it is.

I’ll now turn to Prynne’s description of how poetry functions. He claims that it  ‘activates a system of  discontinuities and breaks’. This notion of activating, which I read as putting into operation or giving life to, is an accurate example of what some poetry seeks to achieve. It isn’t what all poets set out to do and again the implication is that only this kind of deliberately energising verse is somehow worthwhile. Causing ‘discontinuities and breaks’ would appear to be what Prynne is increasingly about as were the later poems of Paul Celan, both of whom have suffered critical opprobrium for their insistence on creating rupture as a decisive feature in their work.

These ruptures are said to contest the ‘intrinsic  cohesion and boundary profiles’ of poetry’s domain. I’m not sure that this is the case, poetry’s domain doesn’t appear to me to have that distinct a boundary profile, nor does it exhibit any kind of intrinsic cohesion. What’s good about poetry is its tendency to seep into other forms of expression. Many artists and musicians use poetry in their work, McDonald’s are currently using a poem to sell their wares so the boundary profile would seem to be fairly fluid. As for intrinsic cohesion, the world of poetry has always been riven by factionalism and their are poets working with many different kinds of verse so it’s difficult to see what there is that can be contested in any kind of focused way.

Prynne ends this telling paragraph by saying that these discontinuities  promote constant ‘leakage inwards and outwards across the connections with the larger world order’. I’d like to know how exactly this occurs, Prynne’s poetry is notorious in its refusal to engage with the wider world and the lay perspective of his work shows that this has been a success. The media response to Geoffrey Hill’s elevation shows that any leaking of serious verse is usually met with complete bafflement.

The end of the essay is also instructive in that Prynne makes a case for the poetic text  providing ‘the templates for ethical seriousness’ by being in dispute with its own ways and means. Prynne suggests that poetry must engage with the harsh reality of the world and have bloody hands in order to do worthwhile work. This harks back to something he said about twenty years ago with regard to the fact that language is never neutral, never pure but is always fully implicated and complicit in the deeds of men.

So, is this any help at all with the climb up mount Prynne? Perhaps it is but it also gives me a much clearer idea of how he views his work and how it may function in the wider world.