Prynne and the critics

Since selling my last commercial enterprise I’ve occupied myself by developing a site ( aimed at promoting ‘difficult’ poetry to non-academic readers who feel intimidated by this stuff and by the critical baggage around it.

Being stupid, I’ve started with Prynne, Hill and Celan primarily because if I can write reasonably clearly about these three then the rest should be fairly straight forward. In trying to provide some wider context I’ve been looking again at what critics have to say about these three and it strikes me (again) that the weight of criticism surrounding Prynne actually detracts from the value of the work. I’m not denigrating criticism that exposes the underlying rationale as this has its place but useful criticism for us non-academics should provide a focus on what it’s like to actually engage with the work (ie read it).

Unfortunately it is very difficult to find anything on Prynne that isn’t weighted down with references to Heidegger, Adorno, Merleau-Ponty et al usually expressed in terms that are more forbidding than the work itself. I really admire Keston Sutherland’s enthusiasm and passion but I don’t think ‘ordinary’ readers of poetry are going to feel less intimidated by reading him.

Whilst pondering this problem the OUP rewarded me for responding to a survey by giving me access for 10 days to all of their literary journals. This was a mistake because I now have even more stuff on Prynne and Hill. One of these is by Jay Basu on the experience of reading Red D Gypsum (‘The Red Shift, Trekking J H Prynne’s Red D Gypsum’) and I really like this because it’s a conscious attempt to describe his reading experience of the poem.

The essay succeeds because it writes convincingly of the importance of Prynne’s work, gives examples from the poem and points to strategies that readers may use. I’d like to quote it at length but the following will give a flavour of what I mean:

“Prynne’s often esoteric lexicon also entangles the reader within it, a fact which allows us to look more closely at the work and play of reading Prynne. An unfamiliar word in the textual fabric sparks off imaginative fireworks: we engage with the sound of the word and the music created by its interrelation with the surrounding word-sounds. Yet this moment is stopped from being merely one of transient sensual gratification: we cannot maintain the division of ‘spontaneity’ and rumination. This is partly because of the skilful ways in which Prynne plays with deeply buried interrelations of sound and sense, sending feelers deep into our accumulated experience of language use. Sounds suggests meanings we then find picked up by word-strings themselves. This feeds into the understanding that grows within us that there is so much more to discover in the text by being committed to it. An understanding which is reinforced each time we reach for the encyclopaedias and return to the poem to find our work has paid off.”

This encapsulates my experience of reading Prynne and also sends me back to the work with renewed enthusiasm which is what good criticism should do. Basu’s reading of Red D Gypsum is careful and instructive without getting bogged down in theoretical niceties and without offering a definitive account of what the poem may ‘mean’. I particularly like his observation that the poem contains ‘ghost’ meanings that mimic clarity without actually supplying it.

My point is that Prynne’s work is massively important and deserves a wider audience. This audience is currently deterred from engaging with the work by the density and self-referential smugness of the critical apparatus that surrounds it. I could go on at great length as to why this is the case but the fact remains that this is a Bad Thing as it feeds into the perception of elitism and wilful obscurity.

To conclude, in ‘Mental Ears and Poetic Work’ Prynne quotes with approval this from Samuel Beckett:

“My unique relation with my work—and it is a tenuous one—is the making relation. I am with it a little in the dark and fumbling of making, as long as that lasts, then no more. I have no light to throw on it myself and it seems a stranger in the light that others throw.”

So, the Arduity project will try very hard to emulate Basu’s clarity and advocate strategies without too much analysis.

2 responses to “Prynne and the critics

  1. That’s a nice quote from Basu but what does it tell us about Red D Gypsum in particular? What if we want to know what that poem is about?

  2. Fair point, I should also say that the essay does contain a fairly detailed reading of the poem. He finds that ‘generally’ the poem deals with the contrasts between the ‘surfaces’ of the mind (interior) and world (exterior) and “thus with the oppositions of imagination / environment, abstract / concrete, and inside / outside”. This seems reasonable enough to me but what I really like is his description of working, as a reader, his way through the poem. Incidentally, I’ve just ordered the new Prynne collection that you drew my attention to…..

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