Tag Archives: streak willing entourage artesian

Is J H Prynne Worth the Bother?

I’ve spent some time recently glancing through everything I’ve written on Prynne here and on my arduity site. There’s a lot of it and I find myself asking whether paying this amount of attention to his work has been Altogether Worthwhile.

This might seem strange for one who has advocated Prynne’s value and championed his cause very much against the prevailing mainstream scorn. However, I know that I will spend my life with Hill, Celan, Jones, Milton and Spenser by my side, I can’t say the same for Prynne. Because I’m a stubborn bastard, I enjoy worrying verse into submission,in opening it up picking over the entrails and seeing where its bodies lie. Prynne offers more opportunities than most for this kind of obsessive ferreting but I’m not sure that I read him for pleasure any more.

My route to the Prynne foothills was from Milton via Geoffrey Hill. About 20 years ago I got over a period of Poem Disenchantment with Milton which led to Geoffrey Hill’s Comus and the rest of his obdurate oeuvre. Patting myself on the back I decided to have another look at Prynne as the other but even more difficult late modernist. As this blog and arduity show, there’s been a lot of tussling mostly until my latest disenchantment in 2015. The high point of these encounters was opening Streak Willing Entourage Artesian for the first time and getting immediately dragged in to its many delights. Conversely, the low points have been my disappointment in Kazoo Dreamboats. These lows aren’t the reason for my uncertainty, I’m probably more disappointed by Hill’s Day Books Than anything that Prynne’s ever done.</

Regular readers will know that I’m of the view that serious poetry rewards the serious attention that a reader may give to it and that poetry that can be fully grasped in a single reading usually isn’t very rewarding at all. So, if my problem with Prynne isn’t the amount of time and brow furrowed puzzling required, what then might it be?

The easy answer is that the work promises more than it delivers. The harder answer is that doesn’t make me re-think my beliefs and opinions. The others provide much more food for thought and, in the process, challenge my well developed and even better defended opinions and prejudices. Prynne delivers a kind of euro-lefty polemic that just seems quaint. It’s not that I have any major objections to this but it is a set of beliefs and ‘positions’ that were outdated in 1975. For me the response to the ‘message’ is to sigh and shrug because these rules no longer apply, if they ever did.

Hill on the other hand had a set of political and theological tenets that I could never share, as did Jones and Spenser but they make me reconsider, at least, my views on being English, on God and the church and (this is important) on the way I relate to other people.

My introduction to Prynne on arduity has this;

You’re either up for these kind of skirmishes or you’re not. I find that I am and my admiration for Prynne has grown as I have gone further in. If you choose to participate you are likely to find that engagement with this body of work will force you to question not only language but also the way in which you experience the world. You will also begin to find that the vast majority of contemporary poetry is intensely mundane and ordinary. If you write poetry then you may find that your voice will be radically altered, this is a good thing providing it’s not just a pale imitation of the man himself.

Re-reading the others still forces me to reconsider how I experience the world but Prynne doesn’t. Streak Willing…. had that effect and still draws me in but it no longer pulls me out of my cognitive and ideological comfort zone in the way that Mercian Hymns or Celan’s Atemwende collection or Jones’ Middle-Sea and Lear-Sea do. This is a personal disappointment mainly because I expected to be equally absorbed and affected by most of the rest of Prynne’s body of work and I’m not.

I’ll try and give a couple of examples, over the past few years I’ve attended reasonably closely to the Biting the Air sequence (2003) and to the Al-Dente collection (2014). From the latter, I’ve attended at some length to infusion, a poem that I provisionally and tentatively identified as having to do with the Grexit crisis:

This mercy will replace to them near first
exactly, as taken from clear at new payment
tacit doesn't reduce the few. Natural as due
not meaning to align song even reverted by
fixity, grant is yours.

                       Is description as
assert this brand get into advancement offer
agree to credit, must agree even so offset
along the close margin, is yours.

is the site when agreed to break outward pass
claimed in front by either filter, in promise
adept cede a pledged condition willing to
give prominence flat-long fall. Walk over
quickly is yours.

                    However and so far, as or
will accept without presume limit, or foremost
latitude, will discover to steady if brilliant
sky gets easily by admit from iron former melted
intermit. Will line for, is yours.

                                         Does this
scrape or grate whenever veering to harbour
a fusion incline yet to feel redress faction,
in link acceptance, grant is yours.

                                         Be given
is yours, grant for this, is so quickly to be
is too and for, is yours.

For the arduity piece, as can be seen, I paid a lot of attention to the first stanza in order to:

  • demonstrate that is was about Grexit;
  • provide detailed examples of Prynne’s use of ambiguity;
  • demonstrate that his later work isn’t all that impenetrable after all.

Like most of us, I have my own views on this particularly vicious farce and they’re not either changed or challenged by the above. Europe is not yet a federal state and therefore Greece and Ireland and Portugal are all sovereign states. The ECB and the IMF, pushed by the German government, have spent most of this decade walking all over Greek sovereignty and forcing pernicious ‘reforms’ on a population that had no choice but to accept them. I’m aware that my views on this and other EU matters are inconsistent (for a federal Europe but against the current economic and social regimes) but the above doesn’t provoke me enough to think again.

The bebrowed method with Prynne is to think laterally, take note of the commas, look our for puns and spend much time with the OED. The fourth stanza above, for example, only begins to yield sense if I take into account subsidiary definitions for ‘foremost’,’former’ and ‘intermit’ as well as the regional meanings of melt as a verb. Doing this is intellectually satisfying but a bit mechanical. This isn’t because it’s insufficiently poetic or lyrical, I’m moved and challenged by the some of the conceptual work of Vanessa Place, even though it’s ‘simply’ repurposed prose without any kind of personal voice or interjection. With Prynne, I care about his subject matter(s) but he doesn’t reach me the way that others do.

Whilst the above may seem unduly negative, I must emphasise that I still take pleasure from the work. I can well recall the delight I felt when I realised that ‘foreland’ in the second Streak~Willing poem referred to the Irish provinces rather than a piece of coastline. I still get a kick from working this kind of stuff out and some of the verbal dexterity involved is technically brilliant. I still rate the work very, very highly because of its originality and the audacity of its challenge to our dismal mainstream. In the future however I’ll read him for the mental tussle rather than any likely impact on my thoughts and feelings.

In conclusion, it’s always been important for me to feel that I’m in a relationship with a body of work. I expect it to give me the same respect that I give it and I try to be open to genuine encounters (in the Celanian sense) with individual poems. I don’t have that with Prynne, sadly.


J H Prynne, economics and the retail trade in this present crisis.

I think there can be little doubt that the free market ideology of the last thirty five years is having a few problems at the moment with most countries in the West experiencing the deepest and longest recession for over a century. For those of us on the left, the causes are reasonably clear and none of should be surprised at the tales of venality and corruption slowly emerging from the banks. The question is (as ever) what action to take because it is easy to provide the critique and point out the greed and exploitation at the heart of capitalism, it is altogether different to present a viable alternative because state socialism has an even worse reputation and track record.

I’ve remarked before on Prynne’s distaste for the fatuous tropes of the retail trade (‘buy one, get one free’, ‘three for two’ etc) and his use of these to express quite bitter sarcasm. This, together with an Old Left disdain for financiers, has run threadlike through the work since ‘Kitchen Work’ and it might be that things have changed a little with ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’.

I’ll start with a poem from ‘The Oval Window’ which was published in 1983:

What if the outlook is likely to cut short
by an inspired fear in the bond market.
The place itself is a birthday prank:
current past the front,
en premiere ligne
like stone dust on strips of brighter green.
Given to allergic twitching, the frame
compounds for invertible counterpoint
and waits to see. A view is a window
on the real data, not a separate copy
of that data, or a lower surplus in oil
and erratic items such as precious stones
aircraft and the corpses of men tigers
fish and pythons, "all in a confused tangle."
Changes to the real data
are visible through the view; and operations
against the view are converted, through
a kind of unofficial window on Treasury policy,
into operations on the real data.
To this world given over, now safely,
work makes free logic, joined to the afterlife.

I don’t intend to undertake any kind of attentive reading of the above, those wishing for a duller account of ‘The Oval Window’ might start with the Reeve and Kerridge essay on Jacket. I just want to note that this is, in part, concerned with the nuts and bolts of the dismal science, ‘fear in the bond market’ ‘a lower surplus in oil’ ‘the real data’ and ‘Treasury policy’ are all phrases that continue to make up our economic and fiscal discourse. Reeve and Kerridge refer to the ironic tone of this poem but I’m of the view that it’s angry sarcasm and that this is underlined by the last line reference to the genocidal thinking behind the Holocaust. I also need to say that I’m not a great fan of this sequence but this particular poem does seem to represent a reasonably clear ‘position’.

I am however an enormous fan of ‘Unanswering Rational Shore’ (2001) because it exudes technical skill and confidence and because (this is important) it makes me smile a lot. I could go on for a very long time about how this is the kind of stuff that everybody should be engaging with and responding to but, for the moment, I just want to focus on this:

On the track the news radiates like a planet auction,
for the best rates hard to chew. If it seems too good,
sucker, the pap is surely toxic, unless the glad
hand goes your way, soft as velvet. The strokes
of the palm not even touched, a waft of livid air
gives the take its donation, sexual preening overtly
lavish in symmetry; your flicker goes to mine and

locks into warranty, well why not. Over lush fields
a rising sun pitches out its sulky damp shadow, in
reminder of cost levels in the benefit stream. Oh
fight this fight or sleep when others wake, the
maze of a shining path leads on without a break;
count the steps in retrospect, burnt umber places
engrossed forever in dumb-struck dropped reward.

So, here we would appear to have a more grown up and considered economic thesis relating to some quite complex stuff, the ‘glad hand’ of corruption (or patronage systems) as the best way to avoid toxic ‘pap’, the rising sun of the developing nations and their ability to cut cost levels and the impact of consequential unemployment in the West on public finances. I’m reading ‘a shining path’ to those nice agrarian reformers in Peru who also happened to be murderous thugs with a very odd economic programme which, if successful, would have represented several steps backwards. I’ll save ‘fight this fight or sleep’ until later but the whole sequence is full of this kind of elegant / graceful detail.

In the interest of space I was going to skip over ‘Streak~~~Willing~~~Entourage~~~Artesian’ but I think this needs to be singled out from the third poem in the sequence:

Fix out gaze on this, on virtue. Acknowledge
skid forward or same fervid plastic embankment
her link antler, rising and drive. Above his
anthem converge tall preening slips to axial

The economic ‘aspect’ of this only becomes apparent with the knowledge that a subsidiary definition of ’embankment’ is “A banking speculation; a bank account” which then makes sense of ‘fervid’ and ‘plastic’. There’s also the ‘preening’, sexual display link between this and the poem above.

This sequence is probably Prynne at his most austere and resistant and I’m not entirely clear why a reference to the banking crisis should be placed in a work that is mostly ‘about’ the civil war in Ulster with a particular focus on the Maze hunger strikes but I’ll continue to read it as economic rather than ideological.

‘As Mouth Blindness’ is the first poem in the ‘Sub Songs’ collection and reads as a response to the ongoing fiscal self-flagellation currently being promoted and/or practiced by people who really should know better. The poem starts with:

Right now beyond the brunt yet afforded, gainsay now
for aspect close to residue, you'll see it there. Not full
scanned at damage so far, ridges debased fetch so plainly
or even gradual, nothing not due. Lay a hand over plus
be level be sane two for one. Her voice was ever low, nil
transfusion plot negative to hum under par in the race
to tint and show a true recoil, you are there from the shot,
the star flinched openly.

This uses the ‘two for one’ device to scathe about our current economic dilemma and carries on in a similar vein until this conclusion:

Time in the news to be not silent indoors, mouth in thought
shut up chew it the choice separates its like or is lame for
wounding in what is due would tell you suffused. For both
market done and stunned in face of, great lack breeds lank
less and less, claimant for right. Flatter by great expectancy,
for so resemble by just match, no less than fitting the race
to birthright and natal place, our lingo.

The place-work of
willed repeats gains a familiar tremor in jointure, we say
sustainable our mouth assents slave dental unbroken torrid reason
will commute previous and lie down. None more credible, mirror
make up flat sat batch pinup gruesome genome. Now get out.

This is a similar analysis but with more of a focus on the fact that it is always the poor who suffer most in a recession and there is more than a little obscenity in the deeds of our political leaders to punish those already in poverty for the greedy stupidity of the rich.

The last three words signal a similar level of anger and ‘lack breeds lank’ seems to encapsulate what many of see as the hidden reality of where we are now.

We now come to ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ and what I’m thinking of as the ‘Hot Pie problem’. For weeks I’ve been flummoxed by:

For fields thus filled it was no dream if yet so dear I lay, pronate
attempered pronoun sounded dear heart how suckled, hot pies! be
blithe, for integer broad alleged awake among the things
that are, in spoken footprint cordial how alike by probe to lit
shelf grains.

Following on from Michael Peverell’s comment last month, I’ve being noticing just how much of ‘Piers Plowman’ there is in ‘KD’ and would like to suggest that this ‘Hot Pies’ is more than just a line from the initial scene of a “fair field of folk” but also an echo of Langlands more extended criticism of retailers and especially those that try to ‘corner’ the market in certain goods-

To punischen vppon pilories and vppon pyning stoles,
As bakers and breweres, bocheres and cokes;
For thyse men don most harm to mene peple,
Rychen throw regratrerye and rentes hem beggeth
With that the poor peple sholde potte in here wombe.

This is the first part of (in the ‘C’ text) of a 40 line digression about the greed and sharp practices of urban traders and retailer and does seem more or less at one with the Prynne perspective. Incidentally, ‘regratery’ is glossed by Pearsall as “buying up goods in the market at advantage (eg by setting up price-rings) and is defined by the OED as ” To buy up (commodities, esp. food) in order to resell at a profit in the same or a neighbouring market” and also notes that various laws were passed in a vain attempt to stamp out this pice of sharp practice.

Of course, price-rings continue to flourish in many areas from personal banking to airline tickets to gas and electricity with governments affecting to be shocked once these arrangements are exposed- it could therefore be that the hot pies refer to a disdain for these kind of practices.

Towards the end of ‘KD’ the call to arms seems to have modified. There are those of us who take the view that capitalism proceeds by means of long waves and that the end of a particular wave need not present a fundamental threat to the system. There is also a view that this particular crisis is so systemically threatening that the time could be ripe for a change.

Towards the end of ‘KD’ there is:

Taunting themselves with foresight badges, now is how to finish 
without fiduciary rank ending induced. Fractional deponent
closeness is not so hard too: when the time travel equals the
period of a sampling frequency, the contribution to the inter-
action is screened down to about half its unretarded strength.
Yet the recursion cannot be close since the stop key is well out
beyond reach, even in transform assignment.

I’m reading ‘the stop key’ as the point when the free market breaks down and the above suggesting that this moment is not going to occur as a response to the fiasco that is currently gathering steam. I’d agree with this and think it significant that Prynne has read this at an Occupy event which may well signal his approval of their quietist and undogmatic approach.

Poetry and the profound

I’ve spent today trying to get the honesty / puppy dog, tail beating enthusiasm balance right when writing about ‘Triumph of Love’ and found myself describing one poem as ‘genuinely profound’. I then realised that I wasn’t completely clear on what this particular adjective might mean even though I am prone to throw it out with some frequency.

On further reflection, it’s one of those words that I have a personal definition of which might in fact differ from the ‘real meaning. It then struck me that we expect profundity from ‘serious’ poetry as if poetry that doesn’t have this quality is somehow diminished or less important. This might not be an entirely Good Thing’.

I think that I take profound to mean somethings that describes a great or fundamental truth and that this truth has implications for the wider world. On the other hand, the closest that the OED gets to this is “of personal attributes, actions, works, etc.: showing depth of insight or knowledge; marked by great learning” which doesn’t quite hit the mark because ‘depth’ doesn’t always equate with ‘truth’.

I probably need to be more specific, I was referring to poem LXXVII which contains these lines:

I know places where grief has stood mute-
howling for a half a century, self
grafted to unself till it is something like
these now-familiar alien hatreds,

Hill is referring to the lasting damage done by the countless deaths that occurred during WWII and ‘mute-howling’ is an accurate / true description of what has been experienced in my family through successive generations since the Somme offensive of 1916. So, it is profound for me because it describes succinctly and accurately a condition that I know to be very real. This, therefore is profound as well as almost perfectly phrased. You will note that I’m gliding over the ‘self’ bits because they don’t, to my ear, carry the same level of truth even though they may be learned and erudite reworkings of whatever Gerald Manley Hopkins might have meant by ‘selving’ and ‘inscape’. I readily accept that this whole self mularkey has / holds / carries more than a degree of accuracy and truthfulness for Hill, it’s just that it doesn’t do anything at all for me.

I’ll try and give another example of the profound at work, in ‘Paradise Lost’ Milton depicts Satan on his way to Eden and describes his logic in choosing to do evil. This description ‘fits’ with my experiences of working with disturbed young offenders and the thought patterns that lead them to do Very Bad Things, is brilliantly expressed and is therefore profound.

It occurs to me that there are very few examples of profundity in the poetry of the last hundred years. The ‘Four Quartets’ are an example of a poet attempting profundity but missing the mark and resorting to a weird kind of quasi-mystic mumbo jumbo instead, ‘Crow’ again aims to be profound but is let down by the device/conceit and the variable strength of the language used.

The most obvious candidate for profundity is Paul Celan and there are a few poems where the match between truthfulness and eloquence is made- I’m thinking of ‘I know you’ and ‘Ashglory’ in particular. I never thought I’d say this but there are times when Celan can be too concerned with ‘truth’ / ‘accuracy’ and the language almost disappears into itself. There might be a debate to be had about whether the price of extreme profundity is, simply, too high.

The price of extremes seems to lead naturally into a consideration of the profundity quotient present in the work of J H Prynne. The two phrases that immediately spring to mind are ‘grow up to main’ from ‘Streak~~~Willing~~~~Entourage~~~Artesian’ and ‘lack breeds lank’. The first of these (probably) relates to the demographic pressures that influenced the Ulster Loyalist’s participation in the peace process. It’s a pressure that is also felt in Israel and other parts of the Middle East so it is both accurate (true) and widely applicable but it is still incredibly terse. The second comes from ‘As Mouth Blindness’ which was published in the ‘Sub Songs’ collection and is a comment on the fact that the poorest members of society always suffer the most during a recession and/or a period of austerity. As an ex-Marxian agitator, I think this is a bit self-evident when compared with the first and also loses out because it is so compressed. Of course, the Prynne project is not concerned primarily with the profound but is much keener on describing things as they are and mostly succeeds in this aspiration in ways that other poets can only think about.

I think I need to do down the learned or erudite aspect of profundity a bit more. Sir Geoffrey Hill’s brief discussion of Bradwardine’s refutation of the New Pelagians is immensely scholarly and (selectively) accurate but it can’t be applied to the vagaries of the 21st century and is therefore unprofound.

Charles Olson’s ‘Maximus’ sequence does have moments of great profundity especially when Alfred North Whitehead’s work on process and temporality is illustrated or exemplified by the magical descriptions of the realities of life in Gloucester. In fact, ther is an argument to be made that Olson’s combination of intellectual strength and technical skill make him the most profound of the Modernist vein. To try and show what I mean, this is a longish extract from ‘OCEANIA’:

     As a stiff & colder
wind too, straight down
the river as in winter
chills cools
the night people had sd

earlier they'd hoped
wld have been a
thunderstorm I had sd no
the wind's still
where it was

Excuse please no boast
only the glory of

the process
of Earth
and man.

And no one
to tell it to
but you for
Robert Hogg, Dan Rice and
Jeremy Prynne

And the smell
of summer night
and new moan
And the moon
now gone a quarter toward
last quarter comes

Regardless of the fact that the rest of this poem is just as beautiful and understated, regardless of the reference to Prynne, this ticks all my boxes for profundity. Whitehead’s later work on process is complex, demanding and radical, his ideas are also eminently and universally applicable, Olson’s example of how the Whitehead thesis works in real tangible ongoing life is a technical masterpiece as well as being both lyrical and combative in equal measure. In short, Charles Olson did profound to perfection and continues to put the rest of us to shame.

Poem 9 in J H Prynne’s ‘Streak~~~Willing~~~Entourage~~~Artesian’

It seems like ages since I last wrote about this particular sequence and I’ve been reading it again to try and get some balance or context with ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’. Before getting to this particular poem, it might be as well to recap what I’ve been able to glean:

  • there are twelve poems in the sequence and each of these contain six quatrains, line length is roughly equal throughout;
  • none of the poems have titles, it is only feasible to assume that each page contains a single poem because of the full stop at the end of the sixth quatrain;
  • all of the poems are incredibly austere with this poem being more austere than most
  • one of the themes relates to the recent civil war in Ulster that we insist on referring to as ‘The Troubles’
  • another theme may be one of the last two or three financial ‘shocks’;
  • there may also be elements of self parody

I’m referring to this as Poem 9 because it’s a lot quicker than typing ‘the poem that is on page 9’ every time. This is it:

But relics intercept pernix go shifted snowfall, base
gimbal evermore he treats he shall forested. Rail time
and snicker by valid proximal, up slink bone you have
the same fill-track,fill even. Open gamble fine edge

Languish they to him, proof very rapid die-cast hair
cracking transverse mill end. Gone for tell this label
extract side to slide towards honey guided fit thirst
guarantor. Invent shack slim to heart mute doorway

Tepid or fumble exit better false by mime sacrosanct
hinge settled, spooned off for him next stop soon, next
heat to blink famous. Fitment to stagger pin owning
balance phalanx summit slay the day the way sump lit

He advises this too. It's for advent for shall or rested
occlusion pale object both sides, grill access delivery
ethic suck notice her ferric his to bind synthetic sip
alum entangled. Broadly infill bunker tremble ostive

Bit parcel same to find strong too. Odds to sublet cut
fancy triage up late give to win adventure, mild have
him taken. Suffix shall marry resection at principle
get stuck as metric hinder him, same slam. As grasp

Buy yet colouring traffic incidental locks but turning
say off awry, quick relent, store. How brain up patter
fond him to you sheer fathom, how. Entrain by per limit
resume and plan, fetch too, all incriminate allowed on.

Many of you will not be shocked, given the above, that Robert Potts (poetry editor at the TLS) has described ‘Streak’ as ‘impenetrable’. I hope to show that this isn’t the case but I also concede that these poems require careful readerly attention if they are going to yield anything at all.

I’ve found that there are several ways of approaching this stuff and the most profitable is usually to identify those phrases that do make ‘sense’ and try to expand out from there. It’s also as well to keep in mindwaht might be going on in other parts of the sequence. As I’ve said, Ulster seems to be a recurring theme as is repetition although it’s not entirely clear yet whether this is a subject or a device. The other method of entry is to identify and try to define what the odd or obscure words might be doing. The problem with this is that it can lead to too many choices so I’ll start with those phrases that seem to be reasonably clear.

When you read through looking for these, it is surprising how many there are, ‘you have the same fill-track’ is the first and might open some of what’s around it. In music a ‘fill’ is used to hold the listener’s attention during a break or gap in the phrases of the melody so I’m guessing that the ‘fill-track’ is the track or channel of the recording that contains the fill. Musical fills aren’t meant to be either spectacular or stunning but simply structured and reasonably short. Wikipedia tells me that musicians are “expected to be able to select and perform stylistically appropriate fills from a collection of stock fills and phrases” and that ” the tempo is not changed at all……….An important point to remember is that the flow of the music should not be sacrificed to the technicality of the fill”.

So this is something that isn’t part of the main event but is something ‘stock’ or off the peg that is used to keep things going. ‘Same’ is a word that recurs throughout the sequence but rarely specifies what it relates to which has led me to speculate in the past that for more than twenty years the various combatants deployed the same routines of murder and atrocity and dressed these up in the same tired rhetoric. It could be then that this same fill-track is the steady rhythm of violence between the paramilitaries and with the British Army. The ‘you’ in this sense could be the reader or the Great British Public who were initially outraged by attacks on the mainland but same became accustomed to the regular patterns referred to above or it could refer to both. Or neither.

I’m nominating ‘next stop soon’ as a phrase that also makes sense but is more difficult to relate to what surrounds it. The next stop would most obviously refer to either a bus or train journey but in the context of the civil way, stop could also refer to one of the many ceasefires discussed, promised and waited for especially during the years leading up to the Good Friday Agreement. Bus stops and train stations (two of each) were bombed between 2 and 3 pm on Bloody Friday when 9 people were killed and 130 were injured. The OED defines the verb spoon as “to lift or transfer by means of a spoon. Chiefly with preps. and advs., as into, off, out, up” but also gives “In sailing, to run before the wind or sea; to scud. Also with away” neither of which are much help until I can work out the identity of ‘him’. It is eminently possible to have buckets of fun with ‘next heat to blink famous’ but I’ll try to restrict myself to the more obvious possibilities. Heat may be the heat of an explosion or gunfire or it may be increased pressure from the security services or it may be about the various pressures to reach a settlement. To blink as a verb has its ‘ordinary meaning’ but others include- “To deceive”, “To start out of the way, so as to elude anything” and “To avoid, flinch from”. There’s also a coursing term which means to temporarily elude the dogs. Those who have got this far down the page will observe that ‘blink’ is also a noun. The OED gives us these definitions:

  • a trick, stratagem;
  • boughs thrown to turn aside deer from their course; also, feathers, etc. on a thread to scare birds;
  • a sudden or momentary gleam of light from the sun, a fire, etc.; a slight flash; a peep of light; a twinkling gleam, as of the stars; a gleam of sunshine between showers: also poet. ‘glimmer’;
  • a ‘glimmer’ or ‘spark’ of anything good;
  • a brief gleam of mental sunshine;
  • a glance (usually, a bright, cheerful glance); a glimpse;
  • the action or an act of blinking;
  • the time taken by a glance; an instant, the twinkling of an eye;
  • a fisherman’s name for the mackerel when about a year old.

There’s also an iceblink and a blink comparator but I think that we can rule these out. So this may be a brief ray or gleam of hope and it may be famous because it became recognised as a turning point in the conflict, or it may be a famous piece of deception or evasion, or it may be neither of these. I am taking ‘famous’ to have its usual meaning although it can also mean ‘notorious’. At this stage it’s hard to choose from the many alternatives and I probably need to think a bit more about the rest of the poem first.

The other reasonably tangible phrase is ‘He advises this too’ but I have yet to work out what ‘this refers to’ or who ‘he’ might be.The rest of the sentence isn’t yielding any possible answers at the moment

As for the unusual words, I’m taking ‘pernix’ to mean nimble or quick or as an adverb as in ‘intercept quickly’. I have absolutely no idea about ostive so any help or guidance would be much appreciated. Conversely ‘gimbal’ has several possibilities;

  • a finger-ring (rarely an ear-ring) so constructed as to admit of being divided into two (sometimes into three) rings;
  • joints, connecting links (in machinery);
  • a hinge;
  • a kind of pastry work that is hard, about the thickness of one’s little finger, form’d round, and made in the shape of a ring;
  • contrivance by means of which articles for use at sea (esp. the compass and the chronometer) are suspended so as to keep a horizontal position. It usually consists of a pair of rings moving on pivots in such a way as to have a free motion in two directions at right angles, so as to counteract the motion of the vessel.

For the moment, I’m going with ‘hinge’ but only because the word is used in verse 3 and I really can’t get my brain around applying the fourth definition (yet).

‘Snicker’ is a little more amenable, either to mean ‘snigger’ as noun or verb or a horse suffering from the glanders or a knife. However I can’t see what any of these might have to do with ‘rail time’ although I don’t know what that’s about either.

Finally (for now), the sequence does seem to focus on the Maze hunger strikes of 1980 and 1981 at the end of which ten Republican prisoners had starved themselves to death. The OED definition of ‘sacrosanct’ is “Of persons and things, esp. obligations, laws, etc.: Secured by a religious sanction from violation, infringement, or encroachment; inviolable, sacred” and other poems seem to contain references to the support that some elements of the Catholic church gave to these men and promoted them as martyrs in their community. So it would seem likely that ‘mime sacrosanct’ might be a sarcastic reference to that support. Or (of course) it may refer to something else that I haven’t thought of.

I will return to this in the next week or so, primarily because I do still find this sequence compelling and enjoy trying to work my way through.

Getting poetry

Here in the UK it was said of our last prime minister that he didn’t ‘get’ it which is one of the main reasons that he was thrown out. In the popular press our current leaders a portayed as ‘arrogant posh boys’ who don’t ‘get’ it either. In both cases this relates to a failure to understand / identify with the experiences of the ordinary citizen.

I’ve given this some thought with regard to poetry and the sad fact that most people don’t feel that they ‘get’ it in that they don’t see the point of it or how it might relate to them. I’ve come to the conclusion that there is only a very small amount of verse that I can see the point of and a very small proportion of that is poetry that I feel might relate / speak to me.

For me ‘getting’ a poem is not the same as understanding it, I can work out what poems ‘mean’ but this does not mean that I can see the point of them nor does it mean that I can relate personally to them.

I’ll proceed by example, I don’t see the point of Auden, Hopkins, Rilke, Dryden and many others because they don’t seem to be saying anything either useful or different. I’ll readily admit that I might need to spend more time with these but an initial period of attention has failed to impress.

I can see the point of a lot of religious verse in that some of it is both useful and sufficiently different to hold my attention but I can’t relate to it, it says little to me about how I live my life even though I understand and appreciate the way that it says what it has to say. I’m thinking primarily of George Herbert and RS Thomas.

There are very few bodies of work that I can relate to in their entirety- only Andrew Marvell and Elizabeth Bishop spring to mind as poets whose work seems consistently ‘pointful’ and relates to my life in the clattering now. By ‘relate’ I think I mean those poems that I don’t have to think about, those that reflect / embody ways that I have thought and felt so that I know instinctively what’s going on. Writing this I realise that I could and should go on for a very long time about how I know (absolutely) the mind and the impulse that made “The Moose” the poem that it is.

Then there are those poems that I can see the point of but only bits of them speak to me. Some of these bits speak of my experiences and some of the way that I think and feel. The wedding reception scene in Keston Sutherland’s ‘Stress Position’ speaks to both my experience of mental illness and to the way that I think about it and does so in a deeply humane, unselfish kind of way. I can relate to and see the point of the strangeness of the human condition as set out in Books 3 and 5 of ‘The Faerie Queene’ even though my view of Book 5 is far away from the current consensus. I can, of course, see the point of the rest and iy is all magnificent but it doesn’t have the same complexity / nuance / strangeness of 3 and 5. I absolutely ‘get’ Milton’s discussion of evil in ‘Paradise Lost’ and this does speak to my experiences of working with people who do Bad (terrible) Things, I’m also of the view that this particular poem is the best thing ever produced anywhere but the description of Eden (whilst technically a tour de force) is quite boring (to me). ‘Maximus’ is nearly the perfect poem in that it contains so many things that tell me what it’s like to be alive, about place, process and the archive, but the material relating to myth just doesn’t reach me.

Understanding isn’t a prerequisite of getting a poem, in fact it can sometimes get in the way. Some of the work of Paul Celan and J H Prynne I can see the point of and it seems to embody how it is for me but I don’t claim to have a complete grasp of what’s being said. With Celan, obvious examples are ‘Aschenglorie’ and ‘Erblinde’, with Prynne, there are moments of absolute clarity in ‘Streak~~Willing~~Entourage~~Artesian’ and a whole range of ideas going on in ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ that do seem to speak of the now.

Here’s a bit of a confession, Geoffrey Hill’s ‘The Mercian Hymns’ and ‘The Triumph of Love’ are stuffed with point and are two of the finest poems that we have (there is no argument with this as it is obviously a fact) but it is the short poems about landscape that I relate to most because (as with Olson) they put into words (embody) what it is like for me to be in a place. I’m incredibly grateful for this because it (social work term) validates and oddly anticipates the feelings that I have.

There is another dimension to getting poetry and this relates to tactics, There are some poets that write poetry that moves things forward and there are those poets that maintain a / the status quo. It is usually reasonably straightforward to identify these poets. Between 1960 and his suicide in 1970, Paul Celan wrote tactically important poems, J H Prynne has spent the last forty years making tactical / strategic interventions, ‘Howl’ is tactically crucial to an understanding of Where We are Now. I don’t agree with asingle word that Kenneth Goldsmith has ever uttered but ‘Traffic’ is something that I ‘get’ and something that is likely to be seen as quite pivotal.

We now come to to poems that I get as poems and that make tactical sense. These are very few in number because I’m a particularly opinionated individual and (I like to think) my standards are high. There is Vanessa Place whose work mirrors ‘how it is’ for me and who rattles many cages whilst pointing out how what we call poetry can begin to reclaim some degree of relevance in these provisional and vague times. There is also the work of Sarah Kelly that speaks to me but also makes a voice that must be heard above and against the prevailing din. Both of these two set up a kind of imperative (must be read / cannot be ignored) and yet they are utterly different, the only link being what they do to the inside of my head.

J H Prynne from the front, a reader’s report

alan thomas, lake & wells #2 2006

The Archive of the Now has a recording of Prynne reading ‘Refuse Collection’ with an introduction in which some Important Points are made. For the Prynne completists, the excellent Prynne bibliography states that this was recorded in December 2006 at the University of Sussex. The Important Points seem at first to be at variance with equally Important Points elsewhere and this was going to an incisive analysis of these inconsistencies. On a second and third listening however these turn out to be less obvious. What does seem to be important is the notion of authority with regard to the poem and the importance/centrality of what the reader makes of the material. He also says that he doesn’t believe in poets or poetry but that he does believe in poems.

He makes the reasonably obvious point that authorship does not entail authority over a piece of work and that poets will usually talk about how a poem is put together rather than the thing itself- they are speaking from the back of the poem whereas readers speak from the front and it is this speaking that counts.

I have a few issues with this, looking at and thinking about how a particular poem came to be done can enhance and inform a reading from the front and can also be deeply disenchanting. I’ll try and give a couple of readerly examples- initially I was very, very impressed by the ambition and verve of ‘Stress Position’ by Keston Sutherland. One of the many reasons for this was the inclusion of Black Beauty, the fictional horse, in the ‘plot’ and for this not to seem strange. Another piece of brilliance is the lyrical description of male rape by a group of soldiers. I now know where both of these came from because I’ve discussed them with Keston. Neither of these insights help with my understanding of the poem but they do provide context and this context might be another part of the picture of how poems ‘fit’ (or not) into our respective lives and worlds.

I’m not sure that this is to disagree with Prynne’s stance but I feel that he might be missing out on the provision of context. This can have unforeseen consequences, my intense admiration for ‘The Four Quartets’ was destroyed by reading about the process of composition and looking at the drafts. On the other hand Celan’s notes for the Meridian address have challenged and enhanced the ways that I think about poetry at a very deep level.

I can’t claim that what follows is a pristine and pure view of the poems from the front because I have read a lot of Prynne’s prose on the doing of poetry and his analyses of the work of others but what I can do is provide an honest account of what ‘Streak~~Willing~~Entourage~~Artesian’ and ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ look like from this particular ‘front’.


Readings from the front don’t occur by themselves and this is especially the case with complex poetry so this needs to begin with a brief account of what led me to pay attention to Prynne. I bought the first Collected because Peter Ackroyd and Ian Sinclair came on to Radio 4 to say how good Prynne was. Like many others I made a real effort with some of the poems and then gave up. About five years later I started to pay attention to Geoffrey Hill and found to my surprise that I enjoyed the process. At this point ego kicked in and I felt that if I could get to grips with Hill then I could engage with Prynne. The first problem in this encounter is the charge of charlatanry and whether or not this stuff is a gigantic lifelong hoax. This suspicion has been largely overcome but traces can still come to the surface (see below).

Once I was ‘over’ the charlatan hurdle it became clear that this material demands (as with Celan) years of attention and that this could become quite obsessive because it never feels complete. I know that this can be applied to most serious work but I feel that these two are particularly demanding and rewarding over the very long term in a way that other poets aren’t.

The other facet that became apparent was/is the paucity of helpful material to assist with engagement. in fact I have used these pages to rant and despair at some of the excluding and elitist stuff that the academy insists on churning out about Prynne. I now accept that there are notable exceptions but at the time I felt (ego again) that I could try my hand at writing usefully about this material. Over the last three years I’ve found that I really enjoy writing about poetry, I find that I love finding different ways to say different things about this stuff and my ongoing engagement with Prynne (and others) increases my confidence in the validity/integrity of what I think.


I recall the day that this arrived (along with ‘Stress Position’ and ‘The Unconditional’) in the post from Barque Press. The cover looks and feels cheap and is green. Each page contains six quatrains and appears to be a poem in its right. The subject matter at least in part relates to the recent civil war in Ulster and to the hunger strike in particular but there are also many other things referred to. Each poem looks like a series of statements that don’t make any kind of sense as if a relentless disordering is taking place. If I am allowed a look from the side then I would observe that ‘Streak’ is more austere than the rest of Prynne’s work in terms of the relative shortage of reader-friendly footholds but that this should not imply an equivalent level of difficulty- I find ‘The Oval Window’ and ‘Triodes’ much more baffling.

I have an interest in the debate about the nature of the Tudor presence in Ireland and whether or not this can be said to be imperial, I also have some residual guilt for not being involved in the politics of the ‘Troubles’ as they were occurring. This focus (if that’s what it is) is much more challenging and absorbing for me than stating the obvious about fiascos in Iraq and Afghanistan especially when the horrors of Ulster are being airbrushed out of our collective memories in a very deliberate way.

One of my more obvious problems is that I don’t apply enough rigour when thinking about readerly authority but this does have a number of advantages in that the only status that I can claim is that I have read something which has prodded me into trying to write something honest and heartfelt about it. So, I don’t think that this particular reader has anything definitive or significant to say, the hope is rather that others will be encouraged to read the same work and that some will want to write about their experience of it but this still isn’t about authority but simply taking the poem into the world. I think I also need to say that I’m never entirely clear whether I believe in belief so I can’t relate to or properly agree with belief in the poem.

The first thing to be said about ‘Streak~~~Willing’ is that there is a marked contrast between the sparse format/language use and the complex cavalcade of things that might be being said. These only slowly become apparent and really do require the reader to think/listen in different ways at once. Cutting across (through) the sequence there are necks, sames and hungers, key parts of each poem are made ambiguous and there are some parts that are surreal in their excess of bafflement (‘steep-side / per macro run by dozen oh warship guage silent / elated regimen’). There are also moments when things are said that carry enormous precision and make other ways of saying these things appear useless.

Because of the verbal austerity then a front only reading involves thinking about other meanings and possible homophones, it also involves thinking about the relationships that are set up within the sequence rather than with individual poems and this involves getting a reasonable overview of all 12 poems. This isn’t easy as there doesn’t seem to be an order of events or a sequence of ideas so my current approach is to try and sketch in elements as they become apparent. It is this activity that I know will keep me busy for several years to come.

Kazoo Dreamboats

I think that most of us are still in readerly shock over this, there is a picture on the front of a wooden or cane car which was drawn in Angola in 1936. There is a list of ‘reference cues’, extracts from these works are placed directly into the text which appears to be in prose.

The view from the front indicates that some of this may be more readily accessible and some of it appears to be quite witty. Their are a wide range of explicitly stated poetic tropes, conceits and devices and obvious references to not so obvious things. At this early stage of our acquaintance/encounter, I’m not having problems working out what is being said but much more in figuring out the cognitive sense or thrust of the message(s). The use of many sources and the absence of apparent connection between most of them is beginning to engage my small brain and I’ve even felt the need to make a start on ‘The Consolations of Philosophy’ which is a good thing although I don’t think I’ve got the stomach for Mao in 1937 on contradiction.

The view from the front also states that, once the initial shock has been overcome, paying attention requires less of a cognitive shift than ‘Streak’ even if it does appear to collide head-on with 40+ years of material which was itself designed to collide with what most of us think of as poetry….


I can provide a readerly from the front account of most poems because most poems don’t challenge me. The material that is challenging benefits from context, it helps me as a reader to know Geoffrey Hill’s view of Pound and Yeats, to be aware of what Celan might have meant by ‘encounter’ just as it is useful to know that Prynne doesn’t attach enormous significance to meaning. The other thing that I need to note is that none of us are innocent readers and I am less innocent than most because I read with a view to writing about what I come across and, as an occasional doer of poetry, to see if there are any ideas or conceits that I can usefully steal.

Reading Poetry the Bayesian Way

Michael Woolf - Bastard chairs Project

Having started to pay attention to ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’, I’ve been forcefully reminded of my own scientific ignorance by the sad fact that I don’t understand even the explanation of the explanation of Van der Waals forces. Some time ago I also decided that the understanding of protein folding might be Quite Important but I can only follow even the most basic reports with extensive use of the OED because, to quote Hill, I don’t have the science.

This isn’t normally a problem in that I can get by / function in the world without scientific literacy but as an auto-dictat it now annoys me that I’ve ignored this stuff since I was 12. In an attempt to assuage this angst, I’ve been looking through scientific comics to see if there’s anything that I can attempt to access without too much furrowing of the brow.

Looking through last year’s ‘Science’ comics I fell across one containing an article entitled ‘How to grow a mind: Statistics, Structure and Abstraction’ which I think I’m beginning to understand and I am finding it useful to think about the way that I read ‘difficult’ poetry and how mis or over readings might occur.

The authors of the article start by asking how it is that we can build up knowledge from so little data. They give the example that small children learn what a horse or a hairbrush is and can apply this knowledge after very limited exposure to examples. They use a ‘Bayesian’ or ‘probabilistic’ model to explain this and (this is important) I understand most of it.

Before going any deeper into the science and sums, I’d like to use a few poetic examples of the fruits of paying attention and drawing inference. There’s a line from Keston Sutherland that refers to the dire situation in Northern Mexico that I read as a reference to a bankrupt chain of booksellers, there’s a trope used by Timothy Thornton that I took to be a reference to the Latin verb to love but isn’t – although we both agree that it should be. I understand Prynne’s reference to the foreland in ‘Streak Willing’ to be a reference to the original four Irish provinces and his repeated use of ‘speak parrot’ (once in English and once in Latin) to be a reference to the John Skelton poem of the same name. In each of this instances it turns out that I have been applying Bayes’s rule and this pleases me because I think I can now put a bit more structure on the way I think about this ‘paying attention’ to poetry business.

We now have a slight digression on statistics. I find that I understand statistical probability on a fairly instinctive way. I know this because I can still recall my reaction to learning the statistics with regard to being over 50 and having a bipolar disorder. The numbers in question are: suicide attempt (70%) and successful suicide (20%) and the only further detail that I needed was that one in five relates to the total number of people with the condition and not the 70%. This was a very big slap in the face and ever since I’ve taken a much more active interest in my care and have been much more proactive in obtaining the services that I feel I need. I did not find out how these figures were arrived at nor whether there were any other variables. In terms of prevention it would seem that lithium might be beneficial for attempts but this may be due to patients who are drug compliant might be less likely to do themselves in. What I’m trying to say is that I’d like to think of myself as a creative esoteric type who has a distant relationship with calculations and numbers but I also know that my reaction to these numbers was immediate and unfiltered- i.e. that 7 in ten and 1 in 5 are both lousy odds.

Anyone who has read poetry that is considered to be difficult will know that engagement initially depends on using probability to work with sparse data. For example, I don’t know that Prynne’s ‘grow up to main’ refers to Ulster Protestant anxiety about demographic trends but I can demonstrate that such an inference does have more than a chance of being correct. Of course that also depends on the level of likelihood that the recent civil war is one of the themes of the ‘Streak Willing’ sequence and both of these depend on information acquired prior to reading the poem and what feels like a rough calculation of the odds.

If we think of difficult lines or phrases as what the article decsribes as ‘latent variables’ i.e. data that is unobserved or hidden from us then the Bayesian rule can be applied.

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

There are many latent variables in the above, one of the many pleasures of paying attention to Prynne is that each and every phrase may contain data that has several different meanings. I’ve chosen ‘grow up to main’ because it’s one phrase that appears to point in a reasonably specific direction and is one that I’ve used in my head to work out what the Bayesian rule might be.

This is the passage that struck home with me:

Bayesian inference gives a rational framework for updating beliefs about latent variables in generative models given observed data. Background knowledge is encoded through a constrained space of hypotheses H about possible values for the latent variables, candidate world structures that could explain the observed data. Finer-grained knowledge comes in the “prior probability” P(h), the learner’s degree of belief in a specific hypothesis h prior to (or independent of) the observations. Bayes’s rule updates priors to “posterior probabilities” P(h|d) conditional on the observed data .

The posterior probability is proportional to the product of the prior probability and the likelihood P, measuring how expected the data are under hypothesis h, relative to all other hypotheses h′ in H.

(I’ve removed the quite scary sum that occurs in the middle of this because I don’t understand it and because of the limitations of the WordPress formatting monster.)

The constraining of hypotheses in poetry reading terms is the narrowing down of an infinite number of subjects to ones suggested or alluded to elsewhere in the sequence and knowledge of what Prynne tends to write about. Both of these would point to politics – imperialism – recent conflicts – Iraq, Afghanistan, Ulster and further refinement led me to Ulster as a constrained hypothesis as to what the sequence may be about.

‘Prior probability’ turns out to refer to the extent/depth/strength of my belief that ‘Streak~~Willing~~Entourage~~Artesian’ is about Northern Ireland and the Bayesian rule looks at the impact of my understanding of the new data (‘grow up to main’) on this hypothesis to produce the posterior probability referred to above.

Given that the phrase doesn’t make grammatical sense, I ran through a number of possibilities- ‘main’ as the sea and this being a reference to sons running away to sea in the traditional manner or ‘main’ as in the most important or central or controlling part at which point a connection was made in my head with the view that the only reason the Protestant factions came to the negotiating table was that demographic trends indicated that the Catholics were destined to become the majority anyway and that it was best to share power now rather than become the victims of persecution once that moment was reached.

I find with Prynne and Celan that there are very few certainties and that every readerly judgement has to be made on probabilities. I’m also aware that, having come to this insight, I become more entrenched in my view and less likely to consider other probabilities simply because I haven’t thought of them. The other thing that I’ve done to increase the posterior probability is to point to such unarm / same peril as pointing or referring to the same way of thinking as in “we’re going to have to face this point whether we disarm or not” which is very satisfying and only slightly let down by the ‘Me’ that precedes it.

The other value of the Bayesian rule is to think about where the reading has produced the ‘wrong’ or unintended interpretation. In retrospect it turns out that I was so carried away with my ‘insight’ that I forgot about the odds.

The only qualm that I have about this is that it seems a bit too smooth, I don’t do these things in a linear way, my arrival at a posterior probability may contain many competing hypotheses and I may come up with a solution / possibility when engaged on another task but it does seem to present a broad outline of how I pay attention to this kind of material. What’s interesting is the confirmation that the appreciation of poetry may not be some left-field intuitive event but may be based on hard calculation…..