Tag Archives: to pollen

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.

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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.