Tag Archives: poetic thought

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…..

Thanks,

John

(Sorry, couldn't resist)

J H Prynne, Geoffrey Hill and their readers

Many months ago I did a reasonably light-hearted piece attempting to compare Prynne and Hill. I now probably regret doing this because it now seems to be more about me than it is about them but I’m trying to think of it as a record of what I once thought.

This is a kind of pared down version focusing on both poets’ attitude towards their readers. I’ve chosen these two because they are the best poets currently writing in English and because this particular aspect might cast a slightly more accented light on their work.

I’ve also been thinking about readerly activity and what (if anything) this may bring to the poem. This was prompted by thinking about what Celan has to say about the ‘encounter’ in his notes to the Meridian but also by Prynne’s observations on one aspect of ‘The Solitary Reaper’.

I’ll begin with the assumption that people who publish poetry want their poems to be read and to be responded to, and that Keston Sutherland is correct in observing that poets prefer readers who pay attention to the poems rather than indulge in ‘drive-by’ readings.

The charge of elitist obscurity has been levelled at both Prynne and Hill over the years and this usually implies a degree of contempt/disdain for the ‘ordinary’ reader. I’m going to skip over the dubious notion of ‘ordinary’ and focus first on what Hill has to say in response:

Let’s take difficulty first. We are difficult. Human beings are difficult. We’re difficult to ourselves, we’re difficult to each other. And we are mysteries to ourselves, we are mysteries to each other. One encounters in any ordinary day far more real difficulty than one confronts in the most “intellectual” piece of work. Why is it believed that poetry, prose, painting, music should be less than we are? Why does music, why does poetry have to address us in simplified terms, when if such simplification were applied to a description of our own inner selves we would find it demeaning? I think art has a right—not an obligation—to be difficult if it wishes. And, since people generally go on from this to talk about elitism versus democracy, I would add that genuinely difficult art is truly democratic. And that tyranny requires simplification.

This is from the Paris Review interview which was published in 2000, I’m taking it that Hill hasn’t changed his mind since then. I’m particularly fond of the robust nature of this response and the entirely accurate observation that everyday life is far more complex and difficult than anything that a poem can be. I’m not entirely clear that the contrast between difficult and accessible has a direct correlation to that between democracy and tyrrany, I’m much more persuaded by the view that simplification tends to lose more than a degree of accuracy.

Of course, as readers and supporters of Hill we are meant to feel more than a little smug because the implication of this is that we are adept/clever enough to grasp the full complexities of what’s being said. I’ll give a personal example, I reckon that I really understand and appreciate Hill’s ‘In Memoriam Gillian Rose’ poem because I’d read her work before reading the poem, this fills me with a warm glow because Hill and I have read the same stuff and have both felt moved and inspired by it regardless of the fact that Gillian Rose is a reasonably obscure figure outside the narrow world of British academia.

There is an argument that goes that everyone should be familiar with Gillian Rose and have read ‘Loves Work’ but this is just as elitist as feeling smug. The ‘life’s difficult’ argument is difficult to refute and we do need poetry and other forms of expression to capture and reflect the full complexity of what goes on. With regard to Hill, I have to question whether the work is actually attempting to capture the full spectrum of his subject matter or whether he is instead using a range of obscure references to back up a rather ‘thin’ argument. It is questionable, for example, whether the inclusion of Thomas Bradwardine in ‘The Triumph of Love’ or Gabriel Marcel in ‘A Precis or Memorandum Of Civil Power’ are sufficiently relevant of whether both are being used for Hill to display his erudition. There is also the possibility that he is trying to educate us in that most references are ‘signposted’ in one way or another.

This isn’t however intended to be a lengthy discussion about elitism but more about how both men present themselves to their readers. The obvious difference is that Hill throws all of himself into his poetry and Prynne doesn’t. At all, ever, in fact Prynne has recently expressed the view that ‘self-removal’ is an essential step in poetry making.

When I worked in the real world, my staff had to do fairly intensive work with people with a range of personality disorders and most of my time was spent ensuring that these workers did not give too much of themselves away because some clients had an uncanny knack of exploiting this information in a number of nefarious ways. Some workers were very good at this and maintained appropriate boundaries whereas others were a complete disaster and had to be rescued from quite bizarre and challenging situations. With this in mind it’s fair to say that Prynne manages his boundaries very well whereas Hill leaps over them with great enthusiasm.

Prynne’s own view of what he does has a self-deprecating tone, anticipating and agreeing with the charge of ‘difficulty’. There is however this telling remark from ‘Poetic Thought’:

So, the poet working with poetic thought requires to activate every part of the process, into strong question where the answer is obscure, or into what looks like strong answer where the question evades precise location. Language will have to keep up with this as best it can, must not be damaged unreasonably but equally must not be sheltered like a
sick child: it can fight its own battles. 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.

This came as a bit of a shock when I first read it as it seems to carry a degree of personal arrogance and disdain towards those of us who pay attention to his work and then I thought about it in the context of ‘self-removal’ and Prynne’s brief question to the ‘resilient brotherhood’ in ‘To Pollen’ and realised that Prynne isn’t primarily interested in his current reception/reputation but he is writing for posterity, banking on the hope that ‘in due time’ his work will be recognised as work of ‘durable value’.

This isn’t to say that Hill isn’t interested in his ongoing reputation but that he does seem to want a close relationship with his current readership as well, he wants to entertain us with bad jokes, educate us with obscure references (Bradwardine’s writings on the New Pelagians and the fact that one of the boats at Dunkirk was called the ‘Gracie Fields’ are both reasonably obscure, aren’t they?), and he wants us to know about his childhood and the way he feels about his rural poor background. Olson and Matthias do this as well but Hill on occasion gives us more information than we actually want or need.

Some time ago in one of these comment threads Tom Day expressed the view that Hill wants us to like him so that he can then despise us for doing so. I think this is making too many assumptions and takes us into quite murky depths, it may well be correct but I prefer to think that, like may of us with a reputation for being personally ‘difficult’, Hill simply finds it easier to communicate a sense of himself by the written rather than the spoken word.

I also have to say that, as an occasional maker of poetry, I’m more of the Prynne school of self-removal and disregard for readers because I write for myself according to my own idiosyncratic standards and I do know when I’ve written something that accords with those standards and that is the only thing that matters. Unlike Prynne, I’m not writing for posterity but I am writing for me within the scope of poetry. I also recognise that I have this blog where I can choose how much self-disclosure I need to do – there’s also something to be written about the making of verse and the blogging about it and how that feeds into each. I am concerned about how this is received- I’m beginning to get used to having a readership- and I do post the occasional poem but this is more about display than reception.

In terms of posterity, I am more than willing to wager that in fifty years’ time Prynne and Hill (for completely different reasons) will be seen as the major poets of our time. I now see Prynne’s attitude as completely consistent with his refusal to compromise (this is a Good Thing) and I continue to enjoy the relationship that I feel I have with Geoffrey Hill the man as well as the poet.

Using more of Prynne to read ‘Sub Songs’

A short while ago I came up with the bright idea of using Prynne’s essay on translating difficult poetry to read ‘Riding Fine Off’ from ‘Sub Songs‘. This produced some results in developing some idea of a theme but I’d made the mistake of avoiding ‘Poetic Thought’ primarily because it’s more complex and that I may encounter more rather than fewer problems in trying to get to grips with the poem.

The original intention was to try and work out why I don’t like the Sub Songs poems as much as the three or four preceding sequences. I think one of the reasons for this is the fact that they are deceptively baffling in that the austere form and flattish tone of ‘Streak~~Willing’ and ‘To Pollen’ at least signal that they are going to be fairly obdurate whereas the Sub Songs Collection looks more reader friendly until you start to pay attention to the words.

In addition to ‘Poetic Thought’, I’d like to include this paragraph from ‘George Herbert, Love III’:

Well language is imperfect and is damaged by sin, not least in relation to man’s conception of his own self, inner and outer, puffed up with tendency to vainglory and selfishness even in the most vehemently powerful moments of exchange with the divine. The very format of utterance grammar, with the subject-position in English syntax coming before and governing all by way of a sequent predicate, performs and expresses this vaunted, front-loaded selfhood. What the reader has in this poem is what is discoverable in its fallible language, and we are to reconstitute what may be its near full spiritual significance by linguistic acts, by scrutiny of searching and minute kind.

I’d like to ignore the ‘damaged by sin’ statement and point out that this be a significant key to the Prynne project in that the primary battle is the one with language which is never innocent and the construction of the English sentence in particular. The last sentence with its ‘fallible language’ and working towards understanding by means of both linguistic acts and diligent scrutiny perhaps offers us a strategy with which to read his later poems.

This close scrutiny isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. Prynne devotes 86 pages to ‘Love III’ and even this level of scrutiny doesn’t catch all that can be said about the poem, which is 18 lines in length. If my initial hunch is anywhere near correct, that at least some part of ‘Riding Fine Out’ is a further working through of Plant Time Manifold then I would need to take into account both the Maximus’ sequence and ‘Process and Reality’ in all their very detailed glory in order to get a full grasp of what might be going on. This would mean actually reading more than the first thirty pages of ‘Process and Reality’ which might take some time.

Then there’s the ambiguity problem with most words and phrases in Prynne requiring the closest scrutiny in order to dig out all the possible meanings and connotations and then identifying the ones that might make some kind of sense. This doesn’t just apply to definitions, it applies to the colloquial and the use of sarcasm to express total contempt, not to mention the hidden quotes and the awful puns.

So far, before we get to ‘Poetic Thought’, we’ve developed two ways of making progress, the first is about paying attention to the way that language and sentence structure are under attack and the second is to try and set sensible limits around the application of scrutiny.

I’m about to quote from ‘Poetic Thought’ but, for those who share my keen interest in thus stuff, it may be as well to obtain your own copy. It is available from the Textual Practice site, I’d be happy to send copies out to those who don’t have access as the aaaaarg link isn’t functioning.

The essay starts by explaining what isn’t meant by the term. Along the way we get this:

Separating from its origins in a life history (personal beliefs, memory, emotion, and physiology of personhood) is an essential step in the generation of poetic thought; but once again by negative description, it is necessary to understand how this step does not mean that prior activity in consciousness transfers into something less active, more like a result of activity. The case is quite the reverse: the focus of poetic composition, as a text takes shape in the struggle of the poet to separate from it, projects into the textual arena an intense energy of conception and differentiation, pressed up against the limits which are discovered and invented by composition itself.

To amplify these contrasts, we may recognise that some part of the constraints which give form to energy of conception are intrinsic to the specific character of poetic discourse, to the practice of poetry, which is always in some sense its own topic-focus; if only because it will be under intense pressure of innovation and experiment, not just wilfully crushing the natural grain and rhythm of language but discovering new reflex slants and ducts and cross-links that open inherent potentials previously unworked. Does this perhaps suggest that thoughtfulness can be an
accompanying posture and glint to strong new working with poetic language? Well maybe so; but thoughtfulness is just a colour of discourse, one of its moods or habits, not to be held equivalent to poetic thought in the sense being searched for here; indeed, thoughtfulness may be a kind of conscience-money paid for the tacit avoidance of ardent, directed thought.

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.

So, one aspect of a poem is as a site of struggle whereby the poet attempts to separate himself from it. This is repeated with greater vigour later in the essay and is clearly reflected in most of Prynne’s later work (with the possible exception of the very annoying ‘Triodes’ of 1999). The complete absence of the ‘I’ in ‘Riding Fine Off’ may indicate that the struggle in this textual arena has been won but it will be worth noting any obvious traces of authorial voice. We then get into one of those complex statements that sound better than it is. We are told that this process projects into the poem an ‘intense energy of conception and differentiation’ which press up against limits which are themselves the results of composition. This sounds great and I’m sure all us aspiring practitioners would want to identify with such a satisfying description except that we are not told how this process might function, nor are we given instances of poems where this is most evident.

This also enables me to have a small rant about paradox. I take it that this clash against limits that are themselves the product of the act that led to the clash is meant to be read as a dialectical process. I remain of the view that attempts to apply dialectical procedures to poetry only serves to further obfuscate what is already a complex procedure and that the above is an example of creating something that has no basis in reality in order to meet theoretical requirements. End of short rant and now for the obvious fact that Prynne is the best poet that we have and knows far more about poetry than I do.

What I need to take away from this is that the above is clearly the way that Prynne thinks that poems are made and this needs to be borne in mind regardless of my own view.

The first paragraph of the next sentence is horrendously convoluted but we are told that poetic discourse and the practice of poetry are under ‘the intense pressure of innovation and experiment’ which leads to the wilful crushing of the ‘natural grain’ and rhythm of language but bringing to light the (odd) ducts, ‘reflex slants’ and cross links that open up previously unworked potentials. This would be incredibly helpful if I was given some clue as to what these ducts and reflex slants might look like. The use of ‘wilfully crushing’ is probably significant and does indicate something deliberate and purposeful. I think I’m okay with unearthing ‘ducts’ and cross links’ because these seem to echo what Prynne say in the translating difficult poems essay. ‘Reflex slants’ however is a complete mystery to me unless he’s talking about things becoming oblique or slanted in reaction to the crushing process.
I’ve no idea at all about the ‘screen of poetic conscience’ and I can’t help thinking that it’s either a suitably enigmatic way of saying not very much or something really quite complex that could do with further elucidation. I can certainly see the ater work as hurling itself at the poetic niceties of ‘finesse and judgement’ and can also recognise that this may result in a more accurate way of expressing ‘how things are’ but I’m not yet convinced that this is done effectively in this particular poem. I think I’ve said enough about contradiction and the dialectic other than to note that poetry should be seen as a ‘marker for intrinsic anomaly’ which is a much more satisfactory description.
I’d also like to bear this passage in mind:

How does poetic thought achieve recognisable form and how is it shaped? The language of poetry is its modality and material base, but whatever its relation with common human speech, the word-arguments in use are characteristically disputed territory, where prosody and verse-form press against unresolved structure and repeatedly transgress expectation.This is a kind of dialectical unsettling because line-endings and verse divisions work into and against semantic overload, in contest with the precursors to unresolved meaning. The extreme density of the unresolved,
which maintains the high energy levels of language in poetic movement, its surreptitious buzz, may resemble unclarity which it partly is; but strong poetic thought frequently originates here, in the tension about and across line-endings, even in functional self-damage or sacrifice as the predicament of an emerging poem determined not to weaken or give
way. Thought in this matrix is not unitary (unlike ideas), but is self=disputing and intrinsically dialectical.

If we take out the ‘d’ word, this does make things a bit clearer, poetic endeavour seen as word-arguments over and around disputed territory which collide with structure and flout conventional expectations. This seems to be a neat encapsulation of the method underpinning the Prynne project and I’ll need to look for signs of these collisions and struggles in ‘Riding Fine Off’. The final and most intriguing point is the one about self sacrifice and damage. I’ve written in the past about the tendency of both Keston Sutherland and Simon Jarvis to do this but not in the way that Prynne describes. It does seem however that I need to pay more attention to line endings.

Because this is about to get complicated, this is the full text of the poem-

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

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

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

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

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

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

On the last occasion I had identified a number of apparent references to plants and other growing things. I worked through about half of these and got up to ‘Further overgrow your own’ which I’d now like to pay attention to. I’m taking it that there’s one of those bad puns at work here. To ‘grow your own’ can refer to growing food for your own consumption either in your garden or on an allotment, it can also refer to growing your own dope. The first meaning also has connotations of the ‘dig for victory’ campaign during the second world war where people were encouraged to grow their own vegetables. ‘Overgrown’ has three definitions in the OED- something that has grown too much, something that is covered in vegetation or an adult who ‘engages in childish pursuits’ as in ‘an overgrown schoolboy’. None of this seems to be at all helpful with the previous guesswork relating to Whitehead, plant time and genetics but it is followed by ‘this time’ and this is the third use of ‘time’ thus far in the poem- the previous two being ‘time to rise’ and ‘for substitute time to say’. There can also be a temporal aspect to ‘further’. None of this is helped by ‘grimace insinuate’ although grimace can be used as both a verb and a noun – as a noun it has a secondary meaning of affectation or pretence. The OED gives the primary definition of insinuate as ” To introduce tortuously, sinuously, indirectly, or by devious methods; to introduce by imperceptible degrees or subtle means.” and then goes on to give several subsidiary definitions on a similar theme. So there would appear to be a link between the two if we accept that affectation or pretence does have an element of the devious.

So, this still appears to be baffling and it’s quite difficult to erect linkages between this and the other identified plant/growth phrases. ‘This time’ may refer to ‘now’ or to a particular moment or either forward or backward time but it isn’t easy at this stage to identify which. The use of overgrow to indicate and adult acting in a childish manner could be related to ‘to know better’ in the next line, as in being old enough to know better than to act like a child. So this may relate to an immature act carried out in an affected and devious manner which is some distance from plants.

I do of course need to bear in mind that I may be looking at the results of a quite violent struggle with language and poetic convention, that what is being presented is the surviving residue of this struggle which is also a statement of ‘how things are’.

Things might be a little more straightforward with the next phrase which is ‘cut for cut down’. Given the general drift of ‘As Mouth Blindness’ and Prynne’s known antipathy for all things capitalist, I can make a reasonable stab at this being a statement about the so-called ‘austerity’ cuts actually leading to the destruction of services rather than just a reduction in them and ‘to trim not yet fill we told them’ could refer to the Labour policy of delaying cuts until the economy had recovered. If this is the case then it is deceptively forthright and either destroys the initial hypothesis or just throws in another theme. ‘Few enough’ may also point to the fact that the previous government had already introduced savage new cuts into the benefits system. Without widhing to get too carried away, although ‘held rough situate’ looks typically austere and obdurate, if we take ‘held’ as in to hold a view or opinion and ‘rough’ as approximate with situate as to contextualise then things may begin to look a little clear with regard to things political and/or economic.

So, thus far I’ve identified two possibilities. At the moment the economic seems to be winning over the biological. Before I write any more I will go back to look at ‘Plant Time Manifold’ and Justin Katko’s gloss. Which might take some time.

I also need to pay more attention to line endings and the quite regular ‘shape’ of this particular poem. What is also of interest is just how much of himself Prynne has removed from the poem and whether this has been successful given that his ‘voice’ is unique and carries with it all the things that we think we know about him. I also have to say that I’ve now given this a fair amount of attention which might be beginning to pay off….

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.

J H Prynne on Poetic Thought

The important news of this week is not the publication of Hughes’ ‘Last Letter’ nor is it the award of the Nobel prize to Vargas Llosa. The really important event is the publication of the above essay in the latest edition of ‘Textual Practice’.
‘Poetic Thought’ derives from a lecture given by Prynne in China in 2008 (with footnotes added later) and provides us with a reasonably clear insight into his practice and the rationale behind his work. It proceeds by negative definition, Prynne tells us what he doesn’t mean by ‘thought’ and then does the same for ‘poetic’. He tells us that “The activity of thought resides at the level of language practice and is in the language and is the language; in this sense, language is how thinking gets done and how thinking coheres into thought, shedding its links with an originating sponsor or a process of individual consciousness” and later on: “but before the work is completed, the poet must self-remove from this location, sever the links not by a ruse but in order to test finally the integrity of the result”.
It is recognised that in most of Prynne’s work ‘self-removal’ is an important component but I have a number of lingering doubts. ‘To Pollen’ contains an address to readers (the ‘resilient brotherhood’) which doesn’t feel like self-removal. The same can be said for the angry “Now get out” at the end of ‘As Mouth Blindness’. So, is Prynne saying that these poems aren’t very good because he hasn’t managed to completely remove himself from the text? I’m not sure that he’s right about this imperative either, ‘Paradise Lost’ contains lots of Milton, ‘The Prelude’ contains lots of Wordsworth and both of these are enhanced by the presence of the poet. I’m not saying that self-removal isn’t effective, ‘Streak~~Willing~~Entourage~~Artesian’ is magnificent in part because of the absolute absence of Prynne from the work, it’s just that I don’t think self-removal is essential in the business of making good work.
Prynne does seem to acknowledge that this is problematic when he says “the focus of poetic composition, as a text takes shape in the struggle of the poet to separate from it, projects into the textual arena an intense energy of conception and differentiation, pressed up against the limits which are discovered and invented by composition itself.” It would therefore seem that this self-removal is a struggle which may or not be won and that this struggle is waged against the limits of composition, this feels a bit woolly. I’d need to know how exactly composition discovers and invents these limits and how many other poets are as acutely aware of the need to self-remove.
We now come to dialectics which Prynne defines as “the working encounter with contradiction in the very substance object-reality and the obduracy of thought”. I’m not a fan of the ‘d’ word primarily because it is over-used and has become more and more of a cliché in the academy. I’m also never entirely clear which flavour of the dialectic is being referred to although the footnotes do refer Walter Benjamin’s notion of “the dialectic at a standstill” which is wrong (as in factually incorrect). This is odd because Prynne’s work shows that he knows that contradiction must go hand in hand with process for this kind of analysis to function.
We do get something of a definition in “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.” I like the compulsive nature of the argument that won’t let go and think that the warning against self-admiration is worthy but I come back to the fact that some of our greatest poets advertise their skill and firmly proclaim themselves as arbiters of rightness. I can’t dismiss ‘Paradise Lost’ just because Milton flaunts his skill so brazenly and extols to the nth degree his own brand of rightness.
These quibbles are minor, the essay is full of insight and useful provocations and must be read by all who have an interest in poetry and the difficult business of making good verse.