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J H Prynne and the English Intelligencer

Plough Match 2012 Julian Winslow

I’m a bit worried about Mountain Press. I’ve got all four of their titles and I don’t see how they can possibly maintain this level of quality, unless Neil Pattison does the decent thing and publishes the work that he’s written in the last five years. Their current list has work by three of the very best poets under the age of thirty which I’ll be returning to in the near future and ‘Certain Prose of the English Intelligencer’ which is edited by Neil, Reitha Pattison and Like Roberts.

As with Pierre Joris’ work on Celan’s notes for the Meridian, all of us with any kind of interest in serious poetry owe the editors an enormous debt. This anthology (for the want of a better noun) contains material that is vital to a full understanding and appreciation of All Things Cambridge. It also opens up a challenge to those of us who like to think that we’re radical and engaged in our poetics. Because of this, I intend to try and deal with the material in a number of instalments because (as with Celan) a single account would be very long and doing this over time means that I can have the luxury of changing my mind.

In my head the English Inelligencer (EI) is a kind of Ur-text marking out the time at which British Poetry got serious. I’d come to this view by reading the views and memories of others as none of this material has been generally available. ‘Certain Prose’ (as you might guess) focuses on the prose as the majority of the poetry is available elsewhere.

Neil Pattison addresses the question of EI’s status in his introduction:

Its disintegrating pages have acquired a shabby mystique as avant-garde incunabula, and scholarly pearls extracted from its fugitive pages, along with items of gossip about its protagonists, have acquired a high value in some quarters. This unlikely glamour has not served the Intelligencer well, and has perhaps obscured the worksheet’s true value, which lies not just in the role it played in the lives of its renowned contributors, but also in its underexplored salience for our understanding of the contested place and role of literary poetry in the culture of contemporary modernity, the problems of which The English Intelligencer may pose more acutely than any other journal of its time.

One of the oddest contributions collected here is from Peter Riley entitled “Working Notes on British Prehistory or Archaeological Guesswork One” which treats the end of the Neolithic as the point where humanity took a wrong turn. It also surveys much of the archaeological of the time and puts forward a number of hypotheses. In his introduction Neil describes this as Riley’s “noble, askew and arguably isolated attempt” to translate his personal ‘treasured dream’ into a theoretical position. This may or may not be the case, my main interest is that it was responded to in some detail by Prynne.

Before proceeding, I need to make a personal disclosure. I know a bit about the Neolithic, my daughter spends her professional life prospecting potential Neolithic sites in Calabria and we have many interesting discussions about the period and what can be usefully said about it. These discussions (and some reading) have led me to the view that we still know very little and that there appears to be an inherent weirdness/otherness about what we do know. I am therefore immensely suspicious of any attempts to make concrete statements based (at best) on informed guesswork or from our perspective rather than theirs. Riley’s title does recognise the guesswork element but he also puts forward a narrative which is an extended guess. One of the more perceptive hypotheses that he puts forward is about the primacy of the circle and circularity and how this may be connected to the fat lady cult that characterises much of the period

This concern with the distant past may not appear to have much to do with poetry and this may well be the case. I would however draw your attention to the inclusion of a work about stone circles in the ‘reference cues’ list appended to ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ and that a paragraph is quoted in the last parts of the poem and to the related ‘A Note on Metal’ which first appeared in the EI and was published in the Bloodaxe ‘Poems’ even though it isn’t a poem. I’ll return to these shortly but first I’ll deal with Prynne’s response.

The first thing to note is his prose style hasn’t changed much over the years, we get the occasional sharp bite and the idiosyncratic use of certain words. The second is that his opposing view is quite clearly stated, he gently points out that trade rather than invasion is more likely to have been responsible for changes during this period- a view that has been reasonably standard for the last 50 years even though we still haven’t got our brain fully around what we might mean by ‘trade’ in the Neolithic.

The other good news is that I think that I agree with most of what he says although I’m still puzzling over his use of ‘motive’. Most discussion of the Neolithic revolves around two central concepts- landscape and ritual. The cynic in me would want to suggest that this is mainly because of the big Neolithic monuments/structures that are thought to have been constructed with reference to the surrounding landscape and that these very visible monuments are thought to have been a venue for ritualistic practices.

Let’s start with Prynne on the trap of imposing our own ideas and world-view on the past:

My instinct is that the distribution of local instances of fact which can be grouped (pot and implement typology, for example) has led to imposed ideas of region that are foreign in pre-literate landscape and which are (by unacknowledged retrojection) based on common-law practice concerning land-ownership.

This seems reasonably sensible although the explanation of how this mistake comes about is a little too refined for my liking- I don’t think ‘retrojection’ works in straight lines.

‘Motive’ appears to be a key term in Prynne’s response:

But we have no evidence at all for the tribal pressure of motive, especially when this related to magical practice and manic excursion.

By motive here I don’t mean anything like that legal-ethical notion of willed predisposition, based on the idea of extension dominated by acts of choice. I mean much more the recognition of possibility as a source of compulsion, pointing one’s body towards the land of the dead or what other definition the guardian decrees. And in this sense the divination of purpose is mantic, as it was for Ezekiel, what a man does is what he thus comes to understand he has always desired. The question of future time (what next) is a specific dimension of landscape, which is the magic of parts locked into the physical extension of the whole.

I freely confess to getting lost just after ‘a source of compulsion’. A few paragraphs later there is this:

I think in that sense that the stone circle or avenue is a very discreet and accurate adjustment of these two forces, of presence as the ritual consecration of motive (in the sense I’ve explained earlier). If both movement and memory are sacred arts, then a place which is the same place accumulates special force, just as the body does for the variety of conditions it can reach out for (Shammanistic transport, for example, or starvation or sexual fulfilment). A stone circle at the intersect of several movement-patterns was thus already ritualised, as an act of recognition repeated to the point where it became socially valid, the social disposition of megaliths rehearsing the interchange between accident and purpose carried to its highest pitch. I could see that as a mechanism for hanging on to sanity, or at least for doing so without collapsing into gutless boredom. As you say, movement and situation incorporated, unlike the utterly trivial predictive charades enacted (so it seems) at Stonehenge, by some Gaullist astronomer. That kind of fixation on calendrial accuracy is the deadly enemy of quality: the middle-class merchant fingering his wrist-watch.

I’d like to point out that Avebury is more attractive than Stonehenge because it is more complex and even weirder. Speculation about both sites is good fun and can be quite entertaining but it is always going to be speculation simply because the evidence can be read in so many competing ways. This isn’t to say that I dislike the above speculation primarily because it indicates that an amount of original thought has gone into these issues. This concern with the landscape and the quality of human activity in it is reiterated in ‘News of Warring Clans’ from 1977 and ‘Field Notes’ which is Prynne’s detailed commentary on ‘The Solitary Reaper’ which shows a great deal of careful thought about these issues, especially about the physical experience of being situated in and embodied by the landscape.

We now come to ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ and Richard Bradley’s essay, ‘The Land, the Sky and the Scottish Stone Circle’ which is one of the reference cues and is quoted verbatim at the end of ‘Dreamboats’:

Yet the recursion cannot be close since the stop key is well out
beyond reach, even in transform assignment. A language may die
also from the record of currency exchange to full pair-convert
transumed in surrender value, decalibrated: or the travel line
from matter to fancy of spirit is invert and pyretic: smoke for the
mirror, tenant creamery.

The original cremation pyre was placed where the heavens met the earth
and where the inhabitants of nearby settlements could observe smoke rising into
the air. It was also located in the one place on the hilltop where the position of a
distant mountain would correspond to that of the summer moon. The subsequent
development of the site gave monumental expression to this relationship,
gradually focusing that particular alignment until it was narrowed down to the
space between the tallest stones.

The corridor is and to be the avenue, from particulate vapour to
consign into bedrock, transit of durance it is a formative exit
in naturalised permission, solemn grade-one rigmarole, better
Wiglaf's rebuke and insurance payout. To be this with sweet
song and dance in the exit dream, sweet joy befall thee is by
rotation been and gone into some world of light exchange, toiling
and spinning and probably grateful in this song.

As might be expected, Bradley’s essay says more about this particular stone circle than appears in the quote but the extant evidence does suggest a conscious link between the circle/pyre, the mountain and the sky. The mountain (Lochnagar) is also significant because it is the only visible peak that retains its snow for ‘much’ of the year.

I’ve said in the recent past that I haven’t worked out what Prynne may be intending with ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ but I continue to feel that being and non-being are an intertwined theme. The above seems to confirm that and to underline Prynne’s long-standing interest in bodies and monuments in the landscape. Incidentally, the ‘sweet joy’ quote is from Blake’s ‘Infant Joy’ and Wiglaf was king of Mercia in the ninth century but I have no idea what his ‘rebuke’ might be about…….

On the next occasion I think that I might have to address Neil’s claims about the contested role of literary poetry and try and work out the difference between the literary and the non-literary- any ideas on this would be wamrly welcomed.

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Slow Light by Neil Pattison

This is the day’s third attempt to do this and I’ve decided to cut top the quick rather than strolling digressively around the houses.

I am gripped and compulsed by ‘Slow Light’ which is a sequence of four poems by the singular Neil Pattison. I’m told that this is a minority position but I’m of the view that this piece of work is one of the most grown up and full on poems that it has been my privilege to read and I’m now going to try and explain why.

Before this entirely floundering attempt at clarity, I need to disclose that I am in possession of a paragraph or so from Neil that gives some background to the work in question. I have not yet read this paragraph, I may never read this paragraph.

Slow Light as Full On Poetry.

‘Full on’ is a technical term that probably requires a degree of qualification. When applied to the innovative faction of poetry, the term denotes work that refuses to compromise, that shows minimal interest in being of assistance to the reader, that just doesn’t do the dramatic flourish. It can be argued, for example, that Prynne’s ‘Sub Songs’ marks a bit of a lean away from the full on and towards the flourish. ‘Dionysus Crucified’ and ‘Stress Position’ both contain large amounts of readerly assistance and lashings of flourish and therefore cannot be considered to be full on.

It was the full on nature of these poems that first drew me in as in:

          the branches feebly ripening, banded. Spines 
unfold as, movable, suns inlet solutions of landscape,
savouring limit so warmly that to a fixed wing
you fled over

I’ll get on to the meaning/obscurity thing later but now I want to draw attention to the nature of the ‘voice’ which is clearly saying what needs to be said and the phrasing which is striking (‘a fixed wing / you fled over’, ‘suns inlet solutions of landscape’) but also concerned only with being precise rather than working for effect. The other aspect about the absence of compromise is that you recognise quite quickly those poems that are going to draw you in and hold your attention for a number of months. In my case this only applies to full on poems that are compelling in other ways- there are many poems that refuse to compromise that I casn’t be bothered with.

>Slow Light as Grown Up Poetry

This also requires a degree of explanation. There are poems that take ‘easy’ positions on complex subjects, there are poets who stubbornly cling on to a distinctly adolescent world view and there are poets who want to show off. These are not grown up. Examples of grown up work would include most of Paradise Lost, Shakespeare’s Sonnets and David Jones’ The Anathemata and R S Thomas’ late poems.

‘Slow Light’ is grown up because it avoids easy options and seems determined to set out an angry and urgent view of how things are:

Meant in this wood, in
this stone. Winter and block, as means
of operation, as
means of exchange
That you must disown now
has no purchase :

I think we can argue about the means of exchange / no purchase thing but I think it’s clear that we’re meant to think rather than to be impressed.

Slow Light as obscure poetry.

I think the above examples might indicate that this sequence inhabits the more ‘difficult’ end of the poetic spectrum in that it isn’t entirely clear what is being referred to and that there’s a degree of ambiguity which indicates a number of meanings/intentions.

When I wrote about Neal’s earlier work last year, I expressed some concern about the obscurity of one of the references but I’m not too sure that I’m still bothered by this. I’d also like to draw a distinction between the difficult and the obscure. The latter occurs when a reference is used that may not be familiar (Geoffrey Hill and Bradwardine, Simon Jarvis and Origen, Simon Jarvis and Adorno’s ‘real’ name etc. etc.) whereas difficulty occurs when the structure and use of language combine to make meaning or intention less than apparent. Of course, poems can be both obscure and difficult, the four poems that I’ve just read from Hill’s forthcoming collection would appear to fall into this category.

One of my least favourite obscurities is the unattributed use of the foreign phrase mainly because of its obvious elitism. I have to report that ‘Slow Light’ does contain one German phrase but it is attributed to Melanchthon and is relatively straightforward to translate. It could be argued that Melanchthon is a relatively obscure figure but we can at least check out the circumstance in which his remark may have been made.

The difficulty with this particular sequence is on at least two levels, some of the phrases are strange in themselves and there isn’t an obvious progression from one phrase to the next:

as you went out,   becoming small   in the country 
speeding, glazed in : Pace ballots on
mist
into the entrails
new white speed will index in her blood :

(I’ve tried to keep the spacing accurate in the first and second lines, throughout the sequence, there is a space between the end of a word and the colon.)

I freely confess to not yet having a clear understanding with regard to either subject or meaning and that I’m still trying to get all four poems into my brain at once (they’re all quite short) and have thus far found the repeats on infancy and hands more than enough to be concerned about. What I do know is that, as with Prynne, there’s more than enough here to keep me gripped and involved for the foreseeable future.

Odd Poetry, Strange Poetry

I am an acknowledged fan of the odd and can fully appreciate that oddness has an important place in poetry (the inclusion of Black Beauty in ‘Stress Position’, Simon Jarvis’ excessive interest in the details of the British road network, Geoffrey Hill’s pale imitations of bad stand-up comedians etc) but the strange is another matter as it leads to questions rather than feelings of indulgent amusement. There’s a lot of the strange in ‘Slow Light’ and this is probably what makes it compelling. “Gloze edging flouresces”, “cored / optic of pure courting is” “in weaning light that house break” are a small sample of just how strange the sequence is and I find this daangerously involving.

I’m told that not many people like ‘Slow Light’ and I readily accept that it may not be to everyone’s taste but I for one believe that it is by far the best thing that Neil has done and that it makes a significant contribution to poetry.

One Quibble

The use of colons and semi colons like : this is : annoying and more than a little mannered for my taste- Hill has started doing something similar which is also annoying, as if | wasn’t bad enough.

‘Slow Light was first published in 2008 in ‘Pilot’ 2 (a magazine edited by Matt Chambers at SUNY andI understand that it will be included Mountain Press in Neil’s ‘The Green Book’ collection in the reasonably near future- I intend to write about a least one other excellent poem from this before then.

Better than language and ‘queer praxis’

Before we start I need to make an important announcement, at long last Timothy Thornton’s ‘Jocund Day’ is now available for sale from the Mountain Press site. I’ve written about this before and I don’t propose to repeat myself other than to say that it’s important and only costs five of your very best English pounds. I also note that Mountain Press is going to publish work by another three of my favourites, Neil Pattison, Luke Roberts and Francesca Lisette all of which we ought to get excited about.
Also published this summer is ‘Better Than Language’, an anthology of younger poets put together by Chris Goode. Let me say at the outset that we all owe Chris an enormous debt of gratitude for putting together material of such high quallity. Before I get on to the poetry, I’d like to give some consideration to some of the things that Chris says in his introduction. I don’t normally pay much attention to introductions but I read this one because I wanted to know how someone else would ‘frame’ this material and because the collection contains an incredible amount of strong material. There is much in the introduction that I agree with but there are two things that I’d like to take (tentative) issue with. The first is-

In fact queer praxis – whether or not the term itself would be gladly accepted by the poets considered – stands out as an important influence on much of the writing collected here. Returning again and again to the body, and to erotics, and especially to performance as both theme and modality, many of these poets are working inventively with language and forms through which they seek to evade or disturb or infect or destabilise the normativities of patriarchy, gender and sexuality. For some more than others, this reflects their own lived experience, for none of them, though, I think is it a matter of identity politics exactly. Rather this sense of queerness which runs through so much of the anthology (reflecting in part, to be fair, my own editorial interests no less than some generational tendency) is plainly continuous with a clear thread of anticapitalist thougt and ideation that, again, comes through more strongly in some places than others, but is almost always present, as in the most delicate love poem as in the boldest most amped-up geopolitical bulletin.

I’ve quoted this at length because I don’t wish to be guilty of cherry picking in order to make a point. I want to start by acknowledging that I am thoroughly straight in terms of sexual orientation and that I am about thirty years older than most of Goode’s contributors. I’m also ignorant of the latest trends in sexual politics. I do like to think that I might know something about the doing of poetry and have to query whether the first sentence of the above is altogether helpful in terms of what follows. The most obvious point is that nobody talks about ‘straight’ praxis yet this is the obvious other side of Goode’s coin. To be fair, he does acknowledge his own ‘editorial interests’ when talking about ‘this sense of queerness’ but it isn’t for me the most unifying factor in the collection and is probably less than helpful for those approaching these poets for the first time.
The single most unifying theme for me in these poems is the description and expression of desire together with a sense of unaffected honesty. The first quality has been notoriously absent from English culture for the past few centuries and I hope to give some examples below of the refreshingly frank expressions contained in this material.
Regular readers will know that the Bebrowed editorial board has little time for dishonest or overly mannered verse, in fact we tend to condemn dishonesty as the gravest possible sin which frequently gets in the way of otherwise accomplished work. I have to report that I have yet to come across a single dishonest poem in this collection although there will be a discussion on the mannered in what follows.
The other brief quibble relates to the Cambridge School’s Brighton Faction and all things Keston Sutherland- I have to say that Goode’s description of the influence of Sutherland and Bonney on the work is a little misleading and his attempt to place in the tired old debates about the Cambridge School only serves to perpetuate a way of thinking that is rapidly becoming irrelevant.
The poets in the anthology are Sarah Kelly, Jonny Liron, Francesca Lisette, Joe Luna, Nat Raha, Linus Slug, Josh Stanley, Timothy Thornton, Anna Ticehurst, Jonty Tiplady, Mike Wallace-Hadrill, Tomas Weber and Steve Willey. I’ve written before in praise of Lisette, Luna and Thornton and their work here matches that level of quality. The Thornton section contains extracts from ‘Jocund Day’ and from ‘Pestregiment’ which was first published in 2009. I have a copy of the original and in many ways it’s a pity that all of it wasn’t printed here because that would give mre of an idea of Thornton’s range. This stanza is probably the most ambitious of the four included here:

Your Albion slack having eaten mandrakes under brute
encouragement pales slacker. Settlement only eyot aerial
just drive you, filamentous outgrowth of a bitch, escaped
dead mesh sifting. Clock: that sounds like something
you should definitely never do. Kids wave out the Volvo
to the pyres and a dog. They hangman posit, they, they uh,
lawns just perform said anything about Shropshire just
three-point the hell to grips with this software now only
drive alchemy
this, into fucking in the grit, which is tock
as it is felt, it'll do you hey riven at the cirrus broadcasts.

I would argue that this is both startling and very, very confident stuff. There are so many wonderful things in the above but I’ll simply point to ‘lawns just perform said anything about Shropshire’ and ‘Clock: that sounds like something / you should definitely never do’ as examples of a really strong talent. It’s also of note that there seems to be a complex relationship between subject and form in all of Thornton’s work as well as a lyrical delight in what language can do. It is this quite joyful lyricism that marks Thornton off from the rest.

Now we come to the Jonny Liron problem. I have read some of his stuff in a Grasp publication earlier this year and formed a view that Liron was out to shock and that this desire to unsettle by fairly obvious means gets in the way of anything else. It transpires however that there is another Liron who is a very accomplished and effective doer of poetry. He’s also the poet that most accurately reflects the disturbing and destabilising aspects of ‘queer praxis’ that Goode outlines. His ‘Room Manoeuvre’ manages to combine elements of the disturbing with some finely crafted lines and a theme that is more or less straightforward. Even so, both aspects of the Liron persona are on display here. The one that’s out to shock does:

if you kiss me there
and stuff coke up your blow hole
keep my cock in there is mysterious
pointing see anti depressed zone
of yes so she just says yes and wants it
'make me feel special'

horny stream kid puckers up to be
black in sheen of piss flicked up
to de respect the massacred respect time

This I think teeters on an interesting edge between the need to de-stabilise and the need to say something useful. In the above the latter probably wins out and it could be argued that the useful things are more likely to be heard if they are thought of as part of the sloganeering.
The poem is five and a half pages long, this is the final part:

now the precarious testimony for reading
the unsilenced body shuddering relapsed
form of smell and yearning wound glazed
streets and strategies of tongues and hands
no bodily possibility of resistance to this
rising tide of welcome hurtling straight
of the crowd of the crown of your rose
the fundament tactic of singing up against
the air in the wall is a door floored by naked
heads and teem the sea and car park flooding
the disco of fear with subversive emptying
re-railing the corollaries of obedience to
disappearance and plants twirl up in bared
velocity preaching louder by the train wreck
of poster boys find each other and hold each
other so we watch by the fire and lose weight
in the search for food, hoods become material

In terms of the initial Bebrowed quality test, the above contains a great many lines and phrases that I wish I’d written and the whole thing is put together with an impressive amount of sustained thought. In an anthology of very impressive work this poem is another one of those that stands out for me. I’m particularly impressed by ‘the train wreck / of poster boys’ and ‘smash troops of faggot joy dancing the gross / streets and strategies….’. There’s also an extended prose piece that I haven’t yet paid sufficient attention to but that seems to be doing the half-controlled mania thing.

I’ve written at some length about Joe Luna in the piece on the Claudius App in which I made a tentative observation that what might be important are the things that aren’t said. I noted that I was struggling with this observation and this was due to the inevitable fear of being wrong but also because it feels more than a little glib. ‘Better than language’ does however give me an opportunity to try and work this through in more detail. I want to make use of the ‘A bigger you’ sequence which is dedicated to Josh Stanley and is ‘about’ love yearning and desire. There are eleven poems, the first and the last are fairly conventional in form and the others aren’t. Some of those that aren’t seem to go some way to demonstrating my point but I’ll start with the first poem:

a bigger you your
on surplus debt
a fraction of my total love
hived off
at meat incarnate
bobbing in the swim spunk
numberless acrostic

on drum time I
sing w/your load
in my mouth your
cuteness
a bloody kid
raked in the light
of an image we

forget to touch

I’m sure that most would agree that this is fairly conventional and very well done, I like its directness and the honesty of expression. The last four lines especially are an example of language in a heightened form used to express complex thins that prose can’t begin to touch. I’m not sure whether ‘your load / in my mouth’ should be filed under ‘erotics’ or as an expression of intimacy and I don’t think that it really matters.

The fourth poem is more oblique as well as being quite radical in form. I’ll try to replicate the spacings:

rent asunder as
the blood
activates our
screen, dump
or
portal
tending to
a local
heartache
wounded in
thick grass
bending to
a visionary
bliss
sanctioned in
our midst

I’m of the view that this is remarkable more because of what may be going on in the background and the questions that are opened up for the reader- is it the hearteache or the visionary bliss that is sanctioned? who or what is doing the sanctioning needed? why is the heartache described as local and whose heartache are we talking about? why is there a very deliberate comma between screen and dump? I’m beginning to work through these and several others mostly be referring to other bits in the sequence but also by thinking about my own experiences and responses.

I’m going to leave it at that for now but will write about the other very talented young people in the very near future. Better than Language is available from Ganzfeld Press at only a tenner. There really is no excuse.