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/Dangle bad phantoms dangle strictly: new lady
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
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.