Tag Archives: to pollen

Paul Celan and inclination.

This is intended to be a series of questions that I don’t know the answer to.

Paul Celan was awarded the prestigious Buchner prize in 1960, his acceptance speech was published as ‘The Meridian’ and last year Stanford University Press published Pierre Joris’ translation of the notes than Celan made for the speech.

The Meridian contains this-

This always-still can only be a speaking. But not just language as such, nor, presumably, not verbal “analogy” either.

But language actualized, set free under the sign of a radical individuation that at the same time, however, remains mindful of the borders language draws and of the possibilities language opens up for it.

This always-still of the poem can indeed only be found in the work of the poet who does not forget that he speaks under the angle of inclination of his Being, the angle of inclination of his creatureliness.

The the poem is – even more clearly than previously – one person’s language-become-shape and, according to its essence, presentness and presence.

As a lifelong reader of Celan, this has caused me all kinds of problems because it seems to be quite central to his poetics. I can manage “language actualized” and “a radical individuation” but stumble over the repeated “angle of inclination” and it appears that awareness of this is what separates poems that have/are ‘always-still’ from those that have/are merely “already-no-longer” which appears to differentiate between those poems that have “presentness” and those that don’t. This all seems reasonably straightforward until we get to the “inclination of Being” which isn’t.

Turning to the notes for assistance I find: “The poet’s being-directed-toward-language (being inclined?)” and “…a language that presences, that fulfils itself under the singular angle of inclination of being”- neither of these are particularly helpful but the second one does at least takes us a bit further away from ‘Being’ with its connotation of ‘Being and Time’ and all that this entails.

‘Inclination’ has two main meanings, ” The fact or condition of being inclined; deviation from the normal vertical or horizontal position or direction; leaning or slanting position; slope, slant.” and “The condition of being mentally inclined or disposed to something, or an instance of such condition; a tendency or bent of the mind, will, or desires towards a particular object; disposition, propensity, leaning.” It would seem that it is the first definition that is meant because of being under the angle of inclination.

If however someone is inclined then they may be giving that thing special attention as when we need to lower our head so as to see a text or an image more clearly or to give something our undivided attention. In the Meidian Celan quotes Malebranche- “Attention is the natural prayer of the soul.”

It’s also important to recognise that this quality of the poem can only be found in those poets who are mindful of where they speak. To be under an inclination might be to have taken shelter or it may indicate being under the influence exerted by this angle or by the fact of this angle. According to my very sketchy memory, Heidegger amy use the idea of ‘creatureliness’ to distinguish those things that have Being from those that don’t but this isn’t particularly helpful with the angle image.

As well as showing a preference and paying increased attention, being incline can also denote expressing an affinity or solidarity with someone, it can also signify reverence, we bow our heads when we pray. Further context might be available from J H Prynne and Geoffrey Hill who both use inclination in a way that seems to nod towards Celan.
This is from the sixth poem in Prynne’s ‘To Pollen’ sequence:

................................Or does that tell
you enough, resilient brotherhood is this the one

This is from poem 14 from Hill’s ‘Clavics’-

Guide pray, the mentally disadvantaged
Safe to Urbino; Yeats and your author
Graciously inclined each to the other.

Of course, I want both of these inclinations to be nods towards Celan and in putting my case I can mention the poems that both poets have dedicated to Celan, the many bad references to ‘breathturn’ in ‘Orchards of Syon’ together with the direct address to Celan’s lover, Ingeborg Bachmann. I can also make a fuss about Prynne’s analysis of ‘Todtnauberg’ in his ‘Huts’ essay. Both seem to directly address the reader and both appear to refer to the poet inclining.

The counter argument is that Celan is referring to the ‘slope’ of the poet’s existence rather than to the living, breathing individual that both Hill and Prynne seem to be writing about.

So, the other area of exploration would be the poems themselves but clues aren’t easily located. This might be the closest we are going to get:

nightbile knitted
behind time:

is invisible enough
to see you?

Mantle-eye, almondeye, you came
through all the walls,
on this desk,
roll, what lies there, up again,

Ten blindstaffs
fiery, straight, free,
float from the just
born sign,

above it.

It is still us.

I do not want to get into speculation about what all of this remarkable poem may be ‘about’ but I do want to point out that it is in part about the writing process in that the ‘you’ is instructed to climb on the poet’s desk and roll up the material that lies there (again). So, given that we are unlikely to be talking about lino or carpets, it is a reasonable guess that these are scrolls that have been unrolled by the poet. If we think of the new sign as something that has been created after the scrolls were unrolled and their contents revealed then I think we might be getting close to inclination as reverent attention because scrolls have both religious and historical connotations, especially in the Jewish faith. ‘Almondeye’ is one of the ways that Celan refers to those who were slaughtered by the Germans.

In another part of the Meridian, Celan refers to the poem being on the edge of itself and it seems to me that the defiant last line enables to poem to watch itself in the making.

Of course this is entirely provisional and subject to much further revision but thinking about this has made me reconsider the whole process of poetry making and that has to be a good thing.


Lyrical Prynne, Rhyming Prynne and the non-poetic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poem 7, however does this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Prynne in Paris in 2009 and on tape in 1963.

Before proceeding with ‘To Pollen’, I felt I had to share the fact that someone has posted the tape of a 1963 reading and interview that Prynne gave on to the indispensable aaaaarg. I wouldn’t have mentioned this because I’m not that interested in what Prynne was doing in the early sixties but some other site user has posted this which I reproduce in full:

“Not to be brain police or anything, but just fyi, Prynne HATES this interview/reading, wishes he’d never done it, & specifically requested that it not be spread around in any format. It’s your call whether or not you respect an author’s wishes; but just letting you know in apoplectic-mimetic mixed metaphor, you’ve hit the nail on the head at the very bullseye of the man’s Achilles heel. Which covers a lot of body parts in one post, I should say. Cheers, ~~~M”

This same person had a whinge when ‘Poetic Thought’ was uploaded arguing incorrectly that it hadn’t yet been published. I’d obtained the files the day they became available but have yet to play them. What’s interesting is that there are now thousands of authors listed on aaaaarg
and as far as I am aware nobody else attracts this kind of zealotry. I also have a bit of a problem with repudiation because i’m not entirely sure what it signifies. Prynne gave this interview and he read these poems and it is reasonable to surmise that he now disagrees with what he said in the interview and isn’t overly keen on the poems that he wrote. What he can’t do is expect the rest of the planet to act as if these events did not occur, what’s also really odd is why he attracts this kind of zealotry in some of his current readers………
To return to ‘To Pollen’-

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

Last time I’d got as far as ‘mother’ on line 3 and now propose to ignore ‘nerve balances’ because it’s still baffling me. Reading ‘alert along elate’ unless along is read as a verb- to ‘affect with longing’, ‘to be afflicted with longing’ or ‘to put at a distance, remove far’. Bearing in mind that a definition of elate is to raise up or elevate this begins to make a little more sense. So, if we take averted as something that has been turned away then this would seem to be saying that a longed for elevation has been denied- or perhaps I’m being simplistic. ‘Normal, drastic’ continue to elude me.
The next sentence ends with ‘partition’ that well known colonial device much loved by the British in the first half of the 20th century (Ireland, India) and I recall some debate about whether or not a similar fate should befall Iraq after the invasion in particular with regard to land occupied by the Kurds in the north of the country. This would fit with the use of ‘reefs as a verb which is defined as ” A section of a sail, freq. each of three or four bands or strips, which can be taken in or rolled up to reduce the area exposed to the wind.” It could be argued that the intention behind splitting Iraq into two or three states was to ‘reduce the area exposed to the wind” i.e. to reduce the factionalised conflict between the three main groups. This would also fir with the angry sarcasm of the next sentence- the previous acts of partition have been dismal failures, especially on the Indian sub-continent with Kashmir continually riven by state-sponsored terror on both sides.
Of the very many possible definitions of ‘mean’ I’m going to settle on its use as a noun – a mediator because this would best fit with ‘no truce’, it being very difficult to achieve a truce or ceasefire without prior mediation. I can’t however recall any specific opportunities when the occupying forces refused to countenance the use of mediation- I do recall that the response to what were termed as insurgents (on any side) was brutal repression.
‘Runway’ is puzzling although one of its meanings is “Any artificial (sloping or horizontal) track or gangway made for convenience of passage or carriage” which could refer to a pipeline which would ‘fit’ with ‘oil trap refined’ in the last sentence. In the reading, Prynne places a pause after ‘vigil’ and again after ‘truce’ so I’m taking “grab for best there” as a single phrase and guessing that it alludes to the much repeated accusation that the invasion was much more about the oil reserves rather than any concern for the Iraqi people under Saddam. This would also tie in with ‘hinterland allurement’ as a reference to the oil fields.
‘Truck hurt failed’ can be read as a straightforward reference to the criminally stupid ‘Oil for food’ program which was supposed to reduce the adverse effects of sanctions on the Iraqi people but only succeeded in lining the pockets of corrupt officials and traders. This reading only ‘works’ if truck is read as a verb and is defined as “To bargain or deal for a commodity, with a person; to negotiate; also to have dealings in, to trade; esp. of dealings of an underhand or improper character: to traffic”. I keep getting distracted by hindsight with ‘list incident pacific, not civil’ because I’m now aware (thanks to Wikileaks) of the way that the occupying forces log incidents, I’m not sure how much of this was in the public domain in 2006 when ‘To Pollen’ was published.
The next sentence is still completely baffling primarily because ‘side’ and ‘hand’ give too many possible readings for my small brain and ‘mossy fibres attuned’ just seems odd (unless it’s a quote or an allusion). In the reading there is a pause after ‘side’ and I’m not sure that changing extend to extended is in any way helpful. I will point out that ‘brimmer’ is an echo of ‘overfill’ in line 3 and there is an image in my head of the invaders gorging themselves on oil but I can’t really justify this from the text.
The penultimate sentence is a question but is worded in such a way as to appear incredibly abstract and I have no idea what it might be referring to, in fact I have real trouble working out what it is saying- apart from ‘also’ being equated with ‘lesser’. The last sentence may echo the first in a reference to ieds (stand near to a buried ied and you will be maimed or killed) and thus to the ‘trap’ that is the promise of oil.
So, the reading does help a bit but I’m still stuck with some sentences and phrases that refuse to yield and the extend/extended problem would only become clearer if I knew what definition of ‘hand’ is being used.
I haven’t paid serious attention to Prynne for a while and I’d forgotten just how rewarding and oddly compelling this can be… any clues on ‘mossy fibres attuned’ would be more than welcome.

J H Prynne in Paris pt 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

J H Prynne in Paris

(Incidentally, further thoughts on Sutherland’s second Ode TL61P are now on arduity)

This is a bit of a revelation – film of Prynne reading nearly all of ‘To Pollen’ and ‘Refuse Collection’ in Paris in 2009 together with Pierre Alferi reading his translation of ‘Pearls that Were’. Given the reservations that Prynne expressed in ‘Mental Ears’ (and alluded to here), I’m reluctant to claim any staggering new insights but I do want to note the following:

  • Prynne reads very clearly and the sound quality is excellent- this contrasts somewhat with the ‘Prynne in China’ dvd;
  • He makes an interesting comment about the difficulties involved in following the more direct approach adopted in ‘Refuse Collection’;
  • his phrasing allows me to put some of the commas back into ‘To Pollen’;
  • he makes slight changes to some of the words and leaves out the penultimate poem in the ‘To Pollen’ collection;
  • he plays music to the audience before reading, soothing lyrical music which is in total contrast to the angry polemic of the verse;
  • he taps his foot as he reads, the camera pans down to capture this.
  • watching and listening to him read (on this occasion) has enhanced my appreciation of both poems.

The changes made to words in the text may be minor and some may be attributed to mis-reading but I’m not comfortable with the fact that these alternatives have been placed in my head, adding a further dimension to pay attention to.  The other question that needs to be asked is whether the penultimate poem was omitted on purpose or whether this was done in error. My only quibble  is the annoying layout of the page, it took me a little while to realise that each of the four segments could be accessed by means of the slide bar on the left side of the screen and a further few minutes to realise that the segment could be paused by clicking on the screen.

I also want to try and describe the experience of listening to a reading of ‘To Pollen’ with the words in front of me. I’ve had this tome since December 2009 and initially engaged with it enthusiastically, there are two posts on this blog expressing this enthusiasm and my own vanity in working some bits out.  I then became distracted by the awesome (in every sense) austerity of ‘Streak~~Willing~~Entourage~~Artesian’ and have given ‘To Pollen’ a bit of a rest. As a result of this reading, I’m now fully immersed in the multi-dimensional aspects of the work and am now of the view that it might be better (ie more satisfying) than either ‘Streak’ or ‘Unanswering Rational Shore’ because the experience of hearing the words read ina professional manner has added greater depth to my appreciation (as opposed to my understanding which is still fairly tenuous). This reading and listening activity is proving oddly addictive and pleasurable, it feels like I’m in the presence of something quite important rather than’just’ listening to a poem.

I can’t pass judgement on the French translations that are also read but I’m sure that they’ll provide a feast for those who are more fluent than me.

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.

How to read Jeremy Prynne

I approach this with some trepidation because I am not yet anywhere near the peak of Mount Prynne but thought a few words may encourage others to undertake the climb.

1. The first thing you will need is regular access to the OED. It isn’t so much that the poems are packed with hard and difficult meanings but Prynne likes to use secondary definitions that you may not be aware of.

2. Wikipedia is your friend because it often gives a useful overview of terms or concepts that may be new to you and frequently gives links to more in-depth information. Google (unless you are very careful with search terms) can sometimes lead you astray- you should always try to make use of the advanced search feature.

3. Know that early on you will decide either that the poems are just  a bunch of words which you don’t have either the time of the inclination to decipher or you will be intrigued and want to know more. Both decisions are entirely valid.

4. Start with one of the Bloodaxe editions. A lot of people start with the earlier stuff in the hope of following a chronological progression. This is a mistake. You should start with the poems that interest you most.

5. Prynne has no interest in making things easy for his readers. There is no single ‘key’ to any of the poems after ‘White Stones’. The perspective of each poem moves about and there are often multiple things going on in the same line.

6. Learn to think laterally, to consider what language can do rather than what it does. Know that Prynne is deeply distrustful of the western consensus view of reality and the role that language plays in that view.

7. At first try not to read too much of what others say about Prynne. This is often a case of academics trying to impress other academics with their erudition and doesn’t provide any kind of help for us readers. It is best to try and make some progress in terms of your own personal response to the poems first.

8. Read as much prose by Prynne as you can find. The latest piece on ‘The Solitary Reaper’ is available from Barque Press and it is an invaluable indication of the way that he thinks about poetry. The AAAARG site has ‘Resistance and Difficulty’ and ‘Tintern Abbey Once Again’- registration required but all their stuff is free.

9.  It will soon become clear from the poems that Prynne’s politics are based on a Marxist analysis and that he’s against most of the things that most of us class warriors are (any form of capitalism, imperialist adventures in far flung places and the fraudulence of bourgeois culture).  This stuff won’t hit you like a sledgehammer but it will crop up from time to time. You may find some of Prynne’s comments on the workings of capital markets to be quite quaint.

10. It is eminently possible to over-read Prynne. I’m currently reading to Pollen and am almost convinced that it refers to his readers as ‘the resilient brotherhood’ and asks whether he is the one ‘inclined’ which I am currently taking to be a reference to Celan’s Meridian Address. I see this as extraordinary but am also well aware that I may be barking up the wrong tree. The word ‘ultramont’ from the opening of the first section I’m taking to be a reference to CERN’s particle accelerator because it is  the only way that the rest of the sentence can ‘work’. Early on, I spent a lot of time worrying about “gross epacts” but have now happily given up.

Prynne likes ambiguity and is careful with his word choice so that nouns could also be verbs and vice versa. He also is prone to Latinity which is about constructing phrases according to Latin rather than English grammar. Great poets have been doing this for centuries- Milton was a major culprit.

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.

Somewhere on the web there’s Prynne on “Harmony in Architecture” which is a speech given in China a few years ago. It says nothing about architecture but is a scathing attack on China’s rush for growth. It doesn’t address poetry but it is very witty and completely correct.

Be aware that there will be some days or weeks when the stuff becomes just words. At this point you need to take a break but you will come back for more.