Tag Archives: Pearls that were

Reitha Pattison and the superbly obscure

I’ve been meaning to write this for a while but I’ve been thinking about instead, which is usually, for me, a mistake. Really dedicated readers of this blog will know that Michael Peverell responded to an earlier post on Pattison’s ‘Some Fables’ by pointing out that the last line of Fable XIV is a “misquote of Lucius Annaeus Seneca’s De Remediis Fortuitorum (or rather, a sixteenth-century translation presumably)” and that he knows this “from Google referring me to Pattison’s own leisurely ramble around Prynne’s “Corn burned by Syrius”.”

For the eternally curious (and the Prynne completists) the ramble is in the ‘Prynne’ issue of Glossator but Michael prodded me into thinking about the nature of what we refer to as ‘obscure’ and the effect of its use or deployment in poetry.

I know that I’m treading over some well-worn ground but I want to try and redeem myself by recounting my own change in view on the obscure. Many moons ago I had come to the view that the use of obscure references had the effect of intimidating or otherwise deterring the reader and smacked of laziness, as if the poet couldn’t be bothered to use his own words to express himself.

I’m still of the view that this is a sensible and defensible position to hold and that it has the benefit of appearing to be more ‘inclusive’ and democratic. As well as reading poems containing obscurities, I’ve had two significant encounters (in the Paul Celan sense) with critics that have caused me to further develop the above view. The first is George Steiner’s discussion of Celan’s use of “metastasen” and his speculation that it might also refer to Metastasio, the 18th century librettist and poet.

The second was with Stanley Fish’ examination of ‘Lycidas’ and his view that we will never know what the ‘two-handed engine at the door’ refers to and that over 400 years of critical debate on this matter has been a complete waste of time.

When I started this blog in 2009 one of the first pieces was an attempt to distinguish between the ‘difficult’ and the ‘wilfully obscure’ and to condemn the latter. This is the only piece that I have since removed. I think I did this because it was a view that I no longer held and that it might give first-time readers the wrong idea about what Bebrowed is ‘about’. This isn’t the same as wanting to preserve some consistency, I don’t have a problem with changing my mind and writing from fluctuating perspectives but this post was so at odds with the other 200 or so that I felt that it had to go.

I’m not suggesting that I’m an avid fan of the superbly obscure but that its presence doesn’t seem as significant. The reason for this is bound up with my changed relationship with meaning and authorial intention and my much more relaxed view about elitism.

Dealing with elitism first, it has been very, very tempting from time to time to throw out the over-educated, bourgeois, southern and therefore effete as describing words at the sight of a German or Greek phrase/or a reference to Hegel, Adorno or ‘contradiction’. I have succumbed to this temptation when these occur but also with other obscurities that seem to cross over into the deliberate in-crowd snobbery. Having this kind of rant makes me feel morally cleansed but it’s an easy gibe and one that doesn’t stand up to too much scrutiny. For example, in this post I have qualified the use of the word ‘encounter’ to indicate that I intend it to have the same meaning that Paul Celan gave it in the ‘Meridian Address’. I am, of course, aware that many people haven’t heard of Paul Celan and those that have may be unaware of what he intended by ‘encounter’. I recognise also that this kind of reference without any further qualification can be seen as both obscure and elitist. My defence is:

  • that I didn’t want to spend time of eleborating on a point that is incidental to what I’m trying to say;
  • that it is a mark of these dark and difficult times that the populace at large is neither aware nor concerned about what Celan meant by ‘encounter’ and that this lack of knowledge really isn’t my problem;
  • what I’m saying makes sense without the qualification, it’s just that the reference makes it more precise;
  • typing “Celan encounter” into Google will provide the required context and may perhaps point readers to the whole text (and the notes).

Obscurity occurs in two ways- the obvious way is when a word, name or phrase is used that is obviously obscure and the second way is when the reference is not flagged up as a reference or as a quotation, Prynne is particularly guilty of this.

Being largely self-taught and not having access to decent libraries, my ability to track down references would be very limited were it not for the world wide web so before about 2000 the charge that obscurity acts as a barrier to those of us who live in rural areas would have had some weight but this is no longer the case. Geoffrey Hill usually flags up his obscurities and sometimes clarifies them for us so he’s forgiven for Bradwardine, Gabriel Marcel and most of the rest. Neil Pattison and I had an exchange a while ago about his allusion to a Steven Malkmus lyric which I thought was too obscure and which he defended as ‘private’. This again was redeemed because the reader is told that the reference relates to a Malkmus song.

Here’s a quiz- who knows that ‘Consilience’ is the name of a book by E O Wilson? Who knows that it says that there is a commonality running through all science that is on its way to revealing the secrets of everything? Hill’s poem 26 in the ‘Clavics’ collection begins with “Unity of knowledge – consilience –” and goes on to gently demolish the Dawkins/Wilson position but you wouldn’t know this if you didn’t know the book. ‘Consilience’ is one of the three or four science books I’ve read in the last twenty years but I’m betting that very very few of Hill’s readers would have grasped the main thrust of his argument. It is true that the poem works (and works well) without this knowledge but it is so much more effective with it.

Prynne does unattributed obscurity too often to be counted and I’m intrigued by the inclusion of the Reference Cues at the end of ‘Kazoo Daydreams’ even if some of these are no use at all to those of us who don’t have the science, although I demand some points for making progress with ‘pore geometry’. I’m guessing that Prynne’s answer to the charge of deliberate and excluding obscurity is that he doesn’t feel that achieving complete understanding is essential to a successful reading of his work. I waver on this one because obscurities that aren’t flagged (‘rap her to bank’, poem 7 in the ‘Pearls that Were’ sequence etc.) are on the way to becoming open poems, a charge that Prynne denies.

To attempt a summary- Reitha Pattison’s obscurity isn’t problematic because the use of quotation marks indicates very clearly that she’s quoting and that the source is easily identified whereas Geoffrey Hill’s use of italics for the first line of Poem 26 is helpful but not helpful enough- most readers will be left with the misleading OED definition.

J H Prynne is guilty of the charge of wilful obscurity but in his case it doesn’t seem to matter because we’re not looking for conventional meaning or understanding. Unless of course he now wants us to become familiar with pore geometry, quantum physics, and the nature of monumental space in the Neolithic…

Incidentally, Reitha’s fifteenth fable contains a not very clearly flagged reference to the Georgian national epic but you might not know that, the only reason I did is because my son works in Tbilisi and he’d bought me a copy.


Lyrical Prynne, Rhyming Prynne and the non-poetic.

There is a jazz band called Mostly Other People Do the Killing which is led by the superbly talented Peter Evans and whose sole function is to destroy jazz but in a really respectful and loving way. I could witter on about how they do this whilst remaining in the confines of the genre but I think it is important to state that what they do makes me smile a lot. I’ve read interviews with Evans (who also leads a brilliant quintet) and he comes across as someone obsessed with both the music and his instrument whilst retaining a healthy sense of realism about the business that he’s in.

I’d like to make the claim that Jeremy Prynne is the Peter Evans of poetry, that his head on collision anticipates Evans’ destruction of jazz.

In a recent piece venturing that too much poetry is the problem with poetry I suggested that, in his more recent work, Prynne’s sudden outbursts of poetic lyricism are all the more effective for disrupting the austere and fractured (broken) feel of the stuff that surrounds them.

This morning I’ve been speed-reading Prynne since 1971 in an attempt to find the non/anti-poetic turn. This proved to be a difficult business because a single reading throws up so much stuff that I feel the need to pay attention to. It was also a mistake because I was looking for changes in tone rather than variations in technique/form and then I came across ‘Pearls That Were’ from 1999 which shines out like the beacon of oddness that it clearly aspires to be.

Before delving any further into ‘Pearls’, I need to make more of the original point before it gets lost. This relates to the rupturing effect caused by the deliberate use of the lyrical conceit/phrase in poems of radical and extreme austerity. This makes me smile on two levels, the first relates to the amount of confidence and skill required to do this ‘properly’ and the second springs from the self-conscious juxtaposition of this with regard to the rest of the unwitty circus (or current poetry in English). I’m going to try and demonstrate this with the seventh poem in the ‘To Pollen’ sequence. This is the poem in its entirety:

Like dung, slate ridge chanter to higher up ground
at front elation at both sides to creamy tectonic
satisfied no more. Help me to a quite unsingular
onset, as begin running forward in line sample in bid
to pay quick off to, a slant. Attracted dip in trouble
make do on less, or pattern no dream extra fragrance
promise a room airy with song of birds. Infested
gravity as if done with it, vacant insertion you
give us the ticker at stupid discount soon awaken
and torrid, outer cathedral precept on a cliff.
Sanction rife spend with warplanes in act thermal
prediction, load your mind match blood no charge
now adduced at root and then up, all diminished.

In the near future I really must pay serious attention to this but for now I just want to draw attention to the effect of ‘a room airy with the song of birds’. This works in at least two ways, the first is about the fact that it’s the only direct and coherent statement/phrase in the poem and yet it’s the one that we feel we need to pay the least attention to, the second relates to the prettiness of the picture that it paints which is in complete contrast to the dystopias that surround it.

The original thrust of this argument was then to be about how the poetic can be used in a loving and respectful manner even when you are working towards its destruction.

I was entirely comfortable with this and delighted to detect (on this superficial drive-by survey) that the lyrical quotient (for the want of a better term) does appear to decline gracefully since 71 but not at the same rate or in the same way that ‘meaning’ gets refined and distilled over the same period.

Then I came to ‘Pearls that were’ and things became a little more complicated. First of all, there’s a degree of rhyme and metre going on in some of the poems which contrasts with the experimental nature of others. If this wasn’t complex enough, there are some poems that rhyme and there are others that rhyme and half-rhyme and others that seem to nod in the general direction of rhyme. There’s also appears to be a relationship between ‘clarity’ and ‘prosody’. I’d like to start by doing the ‘compare and contrast’ thing- this is the sixth poem in the sequence-

Catch as catch can, attempted dry loan
will fly as yet she'll call, high and low
over wave-like slanted conversation
to set a line, to entail and forego

Her channel in shadow as were so causing
a test of infringement, pressing up
a case to answer while never sleeping
or leave a stain within the cup.

Causing the charm, the cause never so alertly
held abeyantly to flood entire
its moderate premium diving like a crashed star
in saltwater, outbroken fire.

Nothing more, not much less: take out
the first and last, the waves still
recording their crested and turbid confusions
as evenly, as mostly they will.

In my head I’ve got a list of features that are acceptable to the literati at large as epitomised by the Guardian, the TLS and the New York Times. I would argue quite strongly that the above meets that particular criteria. We have innovative language use, a knowing, teetering on the po-mo, ending and we have rhyme all of which makes that particular demographic feel somehow relaxed.

I’m taking it as reasonable to assume that ‘Pearls That Were’ doesn’t embody any kind of concession to the above but instead is doing something that questions and challenges the consensus that has produced this understanding. I say this with a degree of confidence because closer inspection reveals that the level of adherence does seem to follow a kind of pattern.

I’m making the assumption that most people who might read this have access to the 2005 edition of the ‘Poems’ which means that I don’t have to type out the sequence in full. I do however feel the need to draw attention to the following ‘rhymes’

Poem 1- one / alone*, again / shine, shining / glowing, drown crown;

Poem 2- tamper / halter, up / hot, turn /soon, told / old;

Poem 3- quickly / bonny, clicking / lacking, beak / pick, brightly / nightly;

Poem 4- flowers / below us / burning new / undergo, attitude / revealed, tour yours;

Poem 5- star / far*, chain / rain, clear / fear*, calm / charm.

All of the above refer to the second and fourth lines except for those with an asterisk which refer to the first and fourth lines. I haven’t included those few rhymes that occur halfway along a rhyme.

I don’t intend to go into any kind of detailed analysis of the above but as can be seen, there is some kind of sequence where the rhyme becomes more exact until the full flowering in poem 6.

Poem 7, however does this:

lobster-orange, shag in parvo. Peaceful/
pushful kid wants it better, wants sex not fish upfront
as well in touch. spring peaks red-inked, blissful dogged
doggerel at joint screaming with rind orange blind-gut

Dangle bad phantoms dangle strictly: new lady
prowler in profile. Rienzi in fancy stabs out
splatter-blot scenic spot, egg picnic No.4
nose into cream bridge, singalong crowding round m

Jesus! traitor cow juice, we slurped that
Next, chairs All are, tables.

I’ve tried really hard to replicate this as it appears on the page in the Bloodaxe edition- the lone ‘m’ is italicised.

I would like to point out that this is reasonably non-poetic without being anti-poetic. It is true that there’s a rhyme but it’s not a lyrical rhyme and it is followed by the wonderfully odd egg picnic no 4 which is almost defiantly at odds with the tone and form of the previous six poems.

In accordance with my new found focus on function, can this be seen as an example of Prynne’s head-on collision with the unwitty circus which was announced in ‘L’Extase de M. Poher’? This (as usual) is entirely provisional but are we been shown (among many other things) the collision in action. We have six increasingly lyrical and poetic poems suddenly confronted by the above in what feels like a deliberate crash/collision/rupture. Of course I could be reading into this what I want it to be but it’s a thought that will keep me busy for a while. Of course, it is entirely possible that my view of current poetry as being too poetic came from Prynne in the first place…

The Bloodaxe edition of ‘The Poems’ is available all over the web but ‘To Pollen’ is now out of print.