Tag Archives: difficulties in the translation of difficult poetry

Prynne week: Biting the Air. Again.

I’d forgotten just how addictive paying attention to Prynne can be and make no apologies for continuing with the above in order to identify further ‘corridors of sense’. Before we proceed I want here to provide the footnote to the paragraph that I quoted yesterday:

Here may be introduced the notion of meaning-threads or thematic linkage. Sometimes in working on a “difficult” poem a translator may hesitate over how to deal with a word or expression which seems to have many possible meanings. The translator notices that one of the possible meanings seems to have a connection with other words and meanings within the poem, coming before and after the problem word or expression. Maybe this link is an accident, but maybe it is part of the poem’s underlying argument, or one of its meaning-threads; in which case the translator can seemingly with some confidence select the translation of the problem word or expression which fits in best with this line of development. Following this course would help to give the translated poem a certain coherence of connected meaning. But sometimes appearances are deceptive. In noticing what looks like a prominent link, the translator may overlook a more latent or dispersed alternative, or indeed several of them. Furthermore, within a poem a word or expression may precisely not fit at all, maybe even hinting at a connection which it is too discrepant in alternative signification to accommodate neatly. Or, indeed, problem words and expressions may include several of these different possible kinds of connection, all at once. If the original poem is full of alternative meaning-links and threads which do not overtly correspond to a central and single line of development, the translator must resist the temptation to make the behaviour of the original poem more orderly, and must respect possible word-meanings that do not fit in just as much (almost as much) as those that do. The translator has to be
very sensitive to meaning, but not over-respectful towards its demands!

I’m quoting this because it points out that there may be many meaning threads and because it warns against taking prominent linkages for granted because doing so “overlooks a more latent or dispersed alternative, or indeed several of them”. Yesterday I did that very thing, I identified what seemed to be the overarching theme, the pharmaceutical industry, and noticed some other threads but failed to give them any consideration. Today I want to use the second poem in the sequence to try and compensate for that mistake:


Or it may be better to do that. Thick mitts for
an early start, precious upward mounting oval
mannerism, his park molested. Or to match defer
to certainty got a banner, to a grade. Hold one

before leasing forage behaviour; wash the novice
wrist, finger-tight. Do you already know this or yet
allocate sufficiency. Altogether just say the word
as lex loquens inter-married in sparse programme.

its cancel front to dive in a blip forward, your
modest capture. Sudden glial remorse announces
armament redress canine grips, on the platform
a bevy in service affair driven. A forever dulcet

hesitation in the mouth long-dated ostensible tap,
stare in daylight, one hand washes the other. Dis-
tribute what it takes, parallel fog lights crested
vapour banks confirm this. Conclusive under-

written first arrival, safe as houses on a detour
or live transmission in packet throb, insurgency.
Better power assignments for the moment this
sharing by split singlet to mollify what there is.

This will take some time. I’m never sure whether or not to tackle the surprises or the reasonably ‘clear’ first.

His park molested. On this occasion I’ll start with this molested park because it seems extreme, even for Prynne. It turns out that there are 44 definitions of ‘park’ in the OED but I’m going to select only two of them, one of which I knew and the other had escaped my attention. There have been since (at least) the thirteenth century royal parks which are reserved for the hunting of game. Some of the major ‘tussles’ between the gentry and the farming community has been the incursions into these parks by locals in pursuit of the same. The classic work on these confrontations is E P Thompson’s Whigs and Hunters pertaining to the 18th century. This may be confirmed as a sense thread by the presence of ‘mounting’ on the above line. Unfortunately, the same may be said of the second definition- a place for tanks and/or artillery in a military encampment. The OED provides a quote from The Independent in 2001: Close to the city’s ancient citadel, the Taliban maintained a tank and artillery park, which has been torn apart by bombs which also fits with mounting, as in a gun mounting. There’s also ‘armament redress’ in the third stanza, so a meaning thread may be on the horizon.

Sudden glial remorse. Up until three minutes ago I didn’t know what glial meant and I’m not much further now that I do. Apparently it’s the adjective from neuroglia which is the name given to ” the supportive non-neuronal tissue of the nervous system”. This is where we start clutching at straws, a further five minutes sepnt with the interweb reveals that some of the glial cells are responsible for maintaining an environmental ‘balance’ in the brain so that neuronal signalling takes place. These neurons are responsible for every aspect of the various mental processes. This balance may have echoes of ‘flatline’ in the first poem that I highlighted yesterday. Of course this could be me reading glial via the most obvious route and ignoring the other two main functions of these cells. I was going to give ‘remorse’ its common meaning but then decided to check for any other definitions that might be more appropriate. As I noted yesterday, one of the many bonuses of paying attention to Prynne is the opportunity to delve into ther inner recesses of the OED. On this occasion the 7th (obscure, rare) main definition is a “biting or cutting force” and the only quotation is from Spenser’s Faerie Queene: ” Their speares with pitilesse remorse, Through shield and mayle, and haberieon did wend” which makes me smile a lot. Spenser was notorious for his reckless meddling with the English language either by inventing words or using archaisms that didn’t exist of giving different meanings to words that did exist. Throughout the first edition of the dictionary most of these are identified with a sense or weary distaste. However, this type of remorse could be an attack carried out without thought which sets off / heralds / announces in itself a counter attack as in ‘armament redress’ This appears to add further weight to the military sense thread tentatively identified above.

The other probably irrelevant point that springs to mind is the fact there are many knightly fights in FQ and by Book IV, from which the quote is taken, our poet was running out of ways to describe the same event in different ways.

Better power assignments. This final sentence would seem to maintain the conflict thread. Prynne has written in other work ‘about’ the Ulster conflict which he has (accurately) described as a civil war and about the West’s tragic incursions into Afghanistan and Iraq. However the Ulster conflict was ostensibly resolved by a political arrangement known as ‘power sharing’. The power assignments which are said to be better could well be this arrangement which more accurately reflects the size of the province’s Catholic population. My only other observation is that it couldn’t be anything but an improvement on the previous Unionist dictatorship. Readers will be pleased to know that ‘split singlet’ may not refer to a torn vest because a singlet is also:

  • in theoretical physics, a quantum state with zero spin;
  • in spectroscopy, an entity appearing as a single peak;
  • in optics, a single lens element, the building blocks of lens systems;

I’m not even going to speculate about the first of these, having been barred from the physics lab at the age of 13 I really do know my limits. The third option may be me taking the easy route but it does seem that lenses enable us to see clearer but a lens that is split distorts our vision of how things are. Without wishing to run ahead of myself, I’m of the view that all English governments since the Normans have had an ‘idea’ of Ireland and the nature of the Irish problem that is fundamentally distorted. Therefore, it may be that the current power sharing arrangement does soften (mollify) those distortions but underneath there is still what there is- centuries of mutual hatred and suspicion.

I recognise (reluctantly) that the above may relate to the ongoing Afghanistan debacle or any other piece of imperial slaughter but at the moment the ‘sharing’ verb points in the direction of Ulster.

I think that’s probably enough for today, I’m more than a little saddened that the drug industry thesis from yesterday is now under siege but this does seem to bear out what our poet says in the above quote. Tomorrow I’ll have a look at the frequent use of ‘hand’ and hand-related terms that seem to run through the sequence.

Prynne week: Biting the Air.

I’ve now decided to have a series of ‘weeks’ in the way that Radio Three has a composer of the week and some arthouse cinemas have a director’s season. I think I’m doing this because it gives me an opportunity to stay with one poet’s work over a number of posts rather than flitting from one to the other. This isn’t going to be easy because I am a lifelong flitter.

J H Prynne does however present a wide enough range of stuff to keep this tendency at bay and Biting the Air appears to be a good example of this. I will proceed with caution because Prynne’s work is generally tricky (technical term) but repays careful attention. Given the level of trickiness what follows is more than usually tentative, provisional and subject to radical change.

Biting the Air was published in 2003 and appears as the penultimate poem in the second edition and appears, in part at least, to have Big Pharma in its sights. I do know a little about the global pharmaceutical problem, I spent between 2004-10 writing about the inadequacies of the system of drug research, testing and marketing and remain of the view that producing misleading/false information that leads to death or premature death should be a criminal offence. Because I’m bipolar I’ll be taking drugs for the rest of my life so I also have an interest in how things are done.

This is a sequence of 12 poems, 11 of which have five four-line stanzas with the other one having a bit of variation in the middle. The epigraph is from Ockham- “Every property is the property of something, but it is not the property of just anything. This is the start of the first poem:

Pacify rag hands attachment in for muted
counter-march or locked up going to drainage
offer some, give, none ravine platter, tied up
to kin you would desire that. Even hand

bestowing pharmaceutical front to avoid. even
flatline signal glitz perfection, slide under be-
fore matter planning your treat advance infirm
in legal glowing stunt. Enough out of one hand

And this is the final three stanzas of the sixth poem:

told to you, root and branch slope management
at onrush unpaired and less compact, generic death
as possession on nil return. Which way the novice
points trail off, they say the same on the block

new level rib, spit your lips. Be quick, be
long to pump anger revivalism, percolate thick 
forest scarps dug yet deeper. Get a vaccine on
shipment perish thread your face why yours

if told more, stable on a tilted capital feed 
suspected more often. Give out a version amplified
with strings to obligate a boundary check, felt 
damp echo ethic manipulate its life exemption.

There’s gloriously complex things that appear to be going on here. Starting with the obvious ‘medical’ words: pharmaceutical, flatline, infirm, generic, rib, lips, vaccine and life exemption- I’m taking this to indicate that the poem is making direct comment on the issues that beset modern medicine rather than using this particular malaise to talk about something else. Of course, he may be doing both but I’m going to stick with medicine as medicine for the moment.

I’m now going to be very brave and launch into some kind of close reading of the above few lines in order to see if bits can be extracted and refined. The reason for choosing two separate passages is to test out what Prynne says in his Difficulties in the Translation of “Difficult” Poems essay published in the CLR in 2010:

But in certain types of “difficult” poetry this corridor of sense is much wider and more open, 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 of relevance, and of control by context, in many directions at once. If these many directions are developed so as to produce strong contradiction and self-dispute then the method may become a dialectic practice, in which poetic form and expression are brought into internal contest with themselves and with each other.

This and the rest of the essay strike me as invaluable aids in dealing with this kind of material but then there’s a doubt for me about how many readers will be bothered to read the essays and the critical work on Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Herbert which demonstrate how this particular poet ‘does’ poetry. I’ve read these because I was already intrigued by the material and wanted to know more, as has also been the case with Geoffrey Hill and Simon Jarvis. Is this what the charge of elitism is about? Should readers need just the words on the page to get the full picture? I don’t think this is necessarily exclusionary, a fan of Liverpool football club may read players’ autobiographies in order to get some context from what they pay to see. I don’t think that I’m unique in wanting to know more about what my favourite writers think about writing and I don’t feel that this is an elitist pursuit.

So, is there a “corridor of sense” running through the above? I think that there might be but it might be best to take things reasonably slowly.

Even hand bestowing pharmaceutical front to avoid. At first stare, ‘front’ is problematic because it’s difficult to see how it can be described as pharmaceutical. It took me a little while but it may be that ‘front’ may refer to a cover or disguise for something else- usually a criminal activity. In New York, the Mafia has used garbage collection to disguise its main lines of business. The OED reminds me that ‘pharmaceutical’ is a noun as well as an adjective and that this has been used since 1829 to indicate a “pharmaceutical preparation; a medicinal drug”. No, one of the many problems with the drug industry are the intertwined problems of neutrality and objectivity. Time after time the biggest drug companies have been fined for presenting skewed and partial information when selling there products. They’ve marketed anti-psychotics as a beneficial treatment for dementia without disclosing the very much increased risk of stroke and the average shortening of life by about five years. This is bolstered by the publication of clinical trial results that are hopelessly compromised by the fact that they are funded by the company producing the drug.

So ‘even hand’ might be read as ‘even handed’, fair, balanced, impartial and these qualities are used by drug companies as a front to disguise the complex and often contradictory realities of new therapies.

Even flatline glitz perfection. The OED fives glitz as “an extravagant but superficial display” which characterizes the way drug companies flog their wares. A flatline on a heart monitor would indicate that the heart has stopped beating but on other graphs and displays it indicates a stable or unchanging state with no variation. The Prynne ‘even’ always presents me with difficulties but on this occasion it may be the verb as in to make level or equal or to describe something that has these qualities. With regard to flatlining, drug companies are particularly good at selling products that don’t make a blind bit of difference. There is currently a bit of a furore in the UK because it has been noticed that £300 million was spent on tamiflu even though the evidence for its efficacy doesn’t exist.

Slope management. One of the very many joys of paying attention to Prynne and Hill is the amount of time that you get to spend with the OED. Looking at the ‘slope’ variations I’ve just come across its use as an adverb, deployed by Milton in PL as That bright beam, whose point now raisd Bore him slope downward to the Sun which is wonderful and is obviously in need of revivial. However, I don’t think that there’s any need to get too esoteric in this instance. I’m taking ‘slope’ as being the opposite of the flat line in the first poem and ‘management’ as a euphemism for manipulation. This works in both ways- drug companies produce results that emphasise the benefits whilst minimising the likely risks. Incidentally, I’m not of the view that Big Pharma is the incarnation of evil but I am concerned that our political masters simply fail to understand the issues involved from the nature of objective knowledge and the intertwined relationships between academic and commercial research and health providers. I’ll also admit to be morbidly fascinated by these folding and re-folding processes.

I’m happy to acknowledge that I might be wrong here, especially as I can’t get to grips with “at onrush unpaired and less compact” but I don’t have any better points of reference at the moment.

Felt damp echo ethic manipulate its life exemption. This might take a little while. I’m going to take ‘manupilate’ to have its common definition and worry instead about exemption. This particular noun refers to setting an individual or entity outside a particular rule or code. The most obvious example that springs into this small brain is the exemption of diplomats from parking tickets. So, a life exemption may be an exemption from something that lasts for life or an exemption from the rules that normally pertain to being alive. It seems, for example, that we are living much longer than any previous generation and that this may be credited to advances in medical practice and treatments. The other exemption from life that can be exercised is the ability of the individual to choose to curtail his or her existence. I’m not going to amplify the minefield signalled here by ‘ethic’ but wish to point out that medical ‘progress’ (loaded term) has prolonged life but in some cases has simply extended an already unbearable existence.

I hope the above points to how a ‘corridor of sense’ may be obtained. I know that this particular take may be very wide of the mark but at least it does begin to tease out some of those boundaries of relevance that Prynne refers to. In the rest of this week’s posts I hope to put more of his description to the test.

J H Prynne and these Dreamboats

I’m now going to proffer a number of entirely tentative and provisional suggestions with regard to a partially successful reading of the first few pages of ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’. Some time ago I observed that the repeated use of ‘I saw’ could be a reference to medieval dream / vision poems such as ‘Piers Plowman’ or ‘Wynnere and Wastoure’. I didn’t connect this at the time with the title but have done so now and would like to attempt to connect it with a poem by Stephen Hawes, ‘The Example of Vertu’ which is more very Early Modern than Medieval. My only justification is that this poem is a dream poem that contains a voyage and that Hawes was more or less contemporary with John Skelton whose ‘Speke Parrot’ is referred to twice in the first three pages. I also recognise that ‘Piers’ is the only dream poem listed in the ‘Reference Cues’ at the end of the poem.

Given that this is Prynne, it would be too much to expect any kind of direct congruence with ‘Example’ or other poems in this genre but it might be worthwhile to consider the reasons why this particular conceit was used and why it was so popular. Starting with the obvious, we all dream and anything can happen in our dreams. Throughout most of history people have tried to extract meaning from dreams either from what they may portend but also for the underlying rationale for certain dreams. Because of their inherent oddness, dreams have this magical quality and the dream poems made use of this to say things about the present and to exhort us to do better. Dreams and visions were often a key component of bible stories usually as a means of transmitting messages from God. Helen Phillips has also pointed out that a dream poem enables the poet to make trenchant criticisms whilst remaining one step removed from them and thus avoiding the notion of direct responsibility. Boethius’ ‘Consolation of Philosophy’ is also listed as a ‘Cue’ and it is framed as vision rather than a poem.

There is a greater degree than usual of method in what follows, I like to think that I’m following Prynne’s advice to translators in his ‘Difficulties in the Translation of ‘Difficult’ Poems’ essay:

In strictly local context the surrounding sense may point strongly to one-word meaning rather than to another. different meaning of the same word. But in larger context within a poem a less ‘probable’ meaning may also open a semantic possibility that can give the overall meaning a richer sense, even (or especially) by irony or contradiction, so that a very wide range of different senses can be found to be active and having an effect, maybe on different levels or discoverable in different stages of the poem’s development.

I’m hoping that looking at the ‘I saw’ conceit might give some access to the ‘different senses’ that might be found.

It may be thought that I’m placing too much emphasis on the dream/vision poem conceit in ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ so I’ll now quote the relevant sentences and the page on which they occur:

Along the corridor of near frequency I saw willing and discrete the season not yet for sorrow, nearby not yet even so inference to claim.(p. 5)

On the plate in soft season to rise hungry semi-apt for supplement will to set affirm this wit at will for passion reflex acutely, I saw it amount in plenteous access burning by folly markers right to the crest. (p. 5)

At mass inlet dissent I saw ahead to eyeshot reach exacted coating fricative and locked parallel then tended, long for longing set-back, exhaled.(p. 5)

Who would save temporal occlusion no discount for loyal reckoning yet saw in this open flash delusion of false glory how ever else for sweet temper child indifference not to want to want this.(p. 5)

I saw the slide markers they were sticky and concluded what was, near enough mounting up as fast would say manifest enzyme in game reduced, stupefied like men braced for denial, each in proper step.(p. 6)

Some near witness now so wants to make it work, a most fantastic set-up!(p. 6)

I saw it upmost, to know partly is by now not to unknow else with borrowed light induced by origin perpetual, by passion flat lying and tumid for advantage, for all or nothing is the play sequence left over. (p.6)

For fields thus filled it was no dream if yet so dear I lay, pronate attempered pronoun sounded dear heart how succkled, hot pies! be blithe, for birth integer broad alleged awake among the things that are, in spoken footprint cordial how alike by probe to lit shelf grains.(p. 6)

I’m going to stop there because I don’t want to be too ambitious in what follows and because I think this kind of frequency makes my point – the first two quotes are the poem’s first two sentences and the seeing / vision device runs throughout the rest of the poem. It also gives me an opportunity to dwell on one or two bits that are beginning to make sense. The fourth quote might be an attack on what I’m now going to call retail culture. It is reasonable to suggest that one of Prynne’s recurring targets has been the slogans and jargon that retailers use to encourage us to part with our money- other poems have scathed the ‘buy one, get one free’ gimmick and other unsubtle ploys. The customer loyalty schemes provide a small discount in exchange for a customer’s shopping data which can then be used both to monitor performance and to ‘push’ products in the customer’s direction- hence ‘no discount for loyal reckoning’. The last part of the sentence might also infer that it is childish to be indifferent to the wider implications of such schemes, especially when bearing in mind all five of the main definitions of ‘want’ as a verb in the OED.

One of the other aspects of the dream poem was that it could bridge the increasing gap between the mundane and the celestial, S F Kruger in ‘Dreaming in the Middle Ages’ says- “Poems of this tradition simultaneously evoke opposed ideas about the nature of dreaming, and, by doing so, situate themselves to explore areas of betweenness – the realms that lie between the divine and the mundane, the true and the false, the good and the bad. They place their readers in a position similar to that of Gregory the Great’s dreamer, unable finally to pin down the poem’s status as revelation or deception, unable unambiguously to define its direction of movement as upward or downward”. I would argue that ‘Kazoo Daydreams’ does quite consciously resist readerly attempts to define status and probably cite the apparently superfluous inclusion of hot pies! as evidence of this tendency.

I think the above quotes also say something about the relationship between perception (sight in this case) and knowledge, as if Prynne is playing with our notions of the obvious. In the ordinary world we tend to ‘believe’ what we see and draw inference from this. For example, if I see a number of cars skid on ice it would be reasonable to infer that cars don’t function well on icy roads. It isn’t too much of a leap from this piece of common sense to the prevailing view of capitalism and the neo-liberal ‘free’ market as the only viable/inevitable economic system even though most of the hard evidence points in more or less the opposite direction. This might be what’s going on with “I saw it upmost, to know partly is by now not to unknow” quoted above and may also explain the tone of some of the other ‘seeing’ pieces.

Most of the others above remain closed to me although I will spend more time on these and report back when/if things become a little clearer.

Reading J H Prynne, an open letter to Neil Pattison

Dear Neil,

I’ve spent some time reading your remarkable response to John Stevens with regard to approaching ‘The Oval Window’ and I feel the need to respond here rather than in the thread, mainly because it is more likely to be read by innocent passers-by. When I’d overcome all the initial scepticisms and suspicions and had begun to pay attention to Prynne (as opposed to looking at the words) I wrote a short blog entitled ‘How to read Jeremy Prynne’ which was one of my glib lists which makes the mistake of glossing over the big stumbling block by encouraging interested parties to ‘think laterally’ which is probably the least helpful thing that I could have written. I’ve been thinking a lot about your landscape image/analogy and I want to take it a bit further but first of all I’d like to introduce you to ‘Rawhide Harangue of Aching Indices as Told by Light’ by Jessica Stockholder.

You now need to bear with me for a while. Stockholder is a Canadian artist who rearranges our fundamental ideas about space and what space does and can do. ‘Rearranges’ is a polite term for ‘dismantles’ and/or ‘destroys’ and this is achieved with incredibly banal and ordinary materials. The initial effect of a Stockholder installation is one of disorientation and bafflement because of the assault on our many taken-for-granted notions about three dimensional space and about aesthetic judgement/value.

It would be utterly crass to suggest that reading Prynne is like confronting a Stockholder installation but I would like to suggest is that Prynne’s work has this same ‘dimensional’ aspect in that we are encouraged to allow the poems to take us into areas where we need to consider length, breadth and depth at once and take into account the different materials from which these things are made.

As with Stockholder, it is also important to think about isolated aspects quite hard but also to try and relate these to the work as a whole. This is a wider shot from the same installation-

In the first image, I would suggest, our focus is on the neon tubes on the floor primarily because they shouldn’t be there, in the second image our attention shifts to how a range of different elements might relate to each other and the light tubes seem less important (but still part of the piece).

When I’m reading Prynne, I’m conscious that I’m persuading my brain to do things that it doesn’t normally do. This is where it gets difficult for me to make general statements about reading this stuff because I only have my own subjective experience to rely on but the first thing that my brain needs to do is to grab and retain as much as possible of the poem, as in ‘As mouth blindness’, or the sequence as in ‘Unanswering Rational Shore’ and then to think about potential ‘connections’ across this rugged terrain. Going a bit further with your ‘lights’ analogy, I’d want to add that some of these connections produce only an intermittent light, others produce a flickering but constant light and very few produce a steady beam and that the ‘important’ element may be in the means by which these connections are made and unmade rather than in the lights that are produced.

I think I’d also like to add that my brain really enjoys these different tasks and perspectives and there have been times when I’ve become a bit addicted and have had to wean myself off from the Prynne Habit because there are other things in life that I need to attend to. If managed correctly, engaging with Prynne is immensely pleasurable and amusing, there are many things about the work that make me smile and the experience informs my reading of other material which is always a good thing.

The other aspect that I’d like to emphasise is that I do get the feeling that I’m in the presence of serious poetry when I’m looking at this stuff. By ‘serious’ I think I mean work that doesn’t compromise and is completely focused on what it does. There’s a degree of absolute concentration that I only experience / am aware of with Prynne and Celan. This extreme refusal to make concessions and to focus exclusively on the making of poetry (which is common to both) is, for me, the marker of lasting value / worth. Reading the poems chronologically, it’s reasonably clear to me that Prynne’s encounter with poetry has become increasingly focused and intense and one of the interesting aspects of the later sequences has been the insistence on the use of traditional verse forms so that the poems look like they belong within the scope of poetry although they operate at its very edge. All of this is a Very Good Thing.

I think I’d also like to say a bit more about the ‘understanding’ issue which was certainly enough to deter me for a number of years. I think that it’s really important to recognise that it is eminently feasible to take serious pleasure from a poem even if we ‘understand’ very little of it. There’s also the vexed question of what it is that we’re trying to understand, is it the ‘message’ of the poem or the poet’s intention in writing it? So, I think I still maintain that it’s okay to be baffled and that working with bafflement is one of the many pleasures of doing Prynne.

You are absolutely correct in placing emphasis on thinking about the relationship between work that we are drawn to and that which repels us, I think this applies to most stuff and not just Prynne. I’m also conscious that there is some of Prynne’s stuff that (at the moment) I can’t be bothered with because it would take too long for me to work out whether I ‘liked’ it.

The other thing that I think might be helpful is to look at the Shakespeare/Wordsworth/Herbert commentaries because they give a reasonably clear account of how Prynne responds to and thinks about poetry. It’s also worthwhile to look at ‘Mental Ears’, ‘Poetic Thought’ and the essay on translating difficult poetry because they do give a fairly clear context for Prynne’s practice. I read and paid attention to some of the poems first however and this gave me more of a starting point.

The last thing I want to say here is that these poems deal with grown-up subject matter and that issues are addressed in a way that gives an account of the complexities involved. Even in the most outraged polemic (Refuse Collection) there is, as well as condemnation, an attempt to depict the various perspectives and contradictions involved.

This is an extended way of thanking you for you insightful and provocative contribution which has brought me back to the work with a fresh pair of eyes. These are currently being applied to ‘To Pollen’ with surprising results…..

Thanks,

John

(Sorry, couldn't resist)

Using more of Prynne to read ‘Sub Songs’

A short while ago I came up with the bright idea of using Prynne’s essay on translating difficult poetry to read ‘Riding Fine Off’ from ‘Sub Songs‘. This produced some results in developing some idea of a theme but I’d made the mistake of avoiding ‘Poetic Thought’ primarily because it’s more complex and that I may encounter more rather than fewer problems in trying to get to grips with the poem.

The original intention was to try and work out why I don’t like the Sub Songs poems as much as the three or four preceding sequences. I think one of the reasons for this is the fact that they are deceptively baffling in that the austere form and flattish tone of ‘Streak~~Willing’ and ‘To Pollen’ at least signal that they are going to be fairly obdurate whereas the Sub Songs Collection looks more reader friendly until you start to pay attention to the words.

In addition to ‘Poetic Thought’, I’d like to include this paragraph from ‘George Herbert, Love III’:

Well language is imperfect and is damaged by sin, not least in relation to man’s conception of his own self, inner and outer, puffed up with tendency to vainglory and selfishness even in the most vehemently powerful moments of exchange with the divine. The very format of utterance grammar, with the subject-position in English syntax coming before and governing all by way of a sequent predicate, performs and expresses this vaunted, front-loaded selfhood. What the reader has in this poem is what is discoverable in its fallible language, and we are to reconstitute what may be its near full spiritual significance by linguistic acts, by scrutiny of searching and minute kind.

I’d like to ignore the ‘damaged by sin’ statement and point out that this be a significant key to the Prynne project in that the primary battle is the one with language which is never innocent and the construction of the English sentence in particular. The last sentence with its ‘fallible language’ and working towards understanding by means of both linguistic acts and diligent scrutiny perhaps offers us a strategy with which to read his later poems.

This close scrutiny isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. Prynne devotes 86 pages to ‘Love III’ and even this level of scrutiny doesn’t catch all that can be said about the poem, which is 18 lines in length. If my initial hunch is anywhere near correct, that at least some part of ‘Riding Fine Out’ is a further working through of Plant Time Manifold then I would need to take into account both the Maximus’ sequence and ‘Process and Reality’ in all their very detailed glory in order to get a full grasp of what might be going on. This would mean actually reading more than the first thirty pages of ‘Process and Reality’ which might take some time.

Then there’s the ambiguity problem with most words and phrases in Prynne requiring the closest scrutiny in order to dig out all the possible meanings and connotations and then identifying the ones that might make some kind of sense. This doesn’t just apply to definitions, it applies to the colloquial and the use of sarcasm to express total contempt, not to mention the hidden quotes and the awful puns.

So far, before we get to ‘Poetic Thought’, we’ve developed two ways of making progress, the first is about paying attention to the way that language and sentence structure are under attack and the second is to try and set sensible limits around the application of scrutiny.

I’m about to quote from ‘Poetic Thought’ but, for those who share my keen interest in thus stuff, it may be as well to obtain your own copy. It is available from the Textual Practice site, I’d be happy to send copies out to those who don’t have access as the aaaaarg link isn’t functioning.

The essay starts by explaining what isn’t meant by the term. Along the way we get this:

Separating from its origins in a life history (personal beliefs, memory, emotion, and physiology of personhood) is an essential step in the generation of poetic thought; but once again by negative description, it is necessary to understand how this step does not mean that prior activity in consciousness transfers into something less active, more like a result of activity. The case is quite the reverse: 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.

To amplify these contrasts, we may recognise that some part of the constraints which give form to energy of conception are intrinsic to the specific character of poetic discourse, to the practice of poetry, which is always in some sense its own topic-focus; if only because it will be under intense pressure of innovation and experiment, not just wilfully crushing the natural grain and rhythm of language but discovering new reflex slants and ducts and cross-links that open inherent potentials previously unworked. Does this perhaps suggest that thoughtfulness can be an
accompanying posture and glint to strong new working with poetic language? Well maybe so; but thoughtfulness is just a colour of discourse, one of its moods or habits, not to be held equivalent to poetic thought in the sense being searched for here; indeed, thoughtfulness may be a kind of conscience-money paid for the tacit avoidance of ardent, directed thought.

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.

So, one aspect of a poem is as a site of struggle whereby the poet attempts to separate himself from it. This is repeated with greater vigour later in the essay and is clearly reflected in most of Prynne’s later work (with the possible exception of the very annoying ‘Triodes’ of 1999). The complete absence of the ‘I’ in ‘Riding Fine Off’ may indicate that the struggle in this textual arena has been won but it will be worth noting any obvious traces of authorial voice. We then get into one of those complex statements that sound better than it is. We are told that this process projects into the poem an ‘intense energy of conception and differentiation’ which press up against limits which are themselves the results of composition. This sounds great and I’m sure all us aspiring practitioners would want to identify with such a satisfying description except that we are not told how this process might function, nor are we given instances of poems where this is most evident.

This also enables me to have a small rant about paradox. I take it that this clash against limits that are themselves the product of the act that led to the clash is meant to be read as a dialectical process. I remain of the view that attempts to apply dialectical procedures to poetry only serves to further obfuscate what is already a complex procedure and that the above is an example of creating something that has no basis in reality in order to meet theoretical requirements. End of short rant and now for the obvious fact that Prynne is the best poet that we have and knows far more about poetry than I do.

What I need to take away from this is that the above is clearly the way that Prynne thinks that poems are made and this needs to be borne in mind regardless of my own view.

The first paragraph of the next sentence is horrendously convoluted but we are told that poetic discourse and the practice of poetry are under ‘the intense pressure of innovation and experiment’ which leads to the wilful crushing of the ‘natural grain’ and rhythm of language but bringing to light the (odd) ducts, ‘reflex slants’ and cross links that open up previously unworked potentials. This would be incredibly helpful if I was given some clue as to what these ducts and reflex slants might look like. The use of ‘wilfully crushing’ is probably significant and does indicate something deliberate and purposeful. I think I’m okay with unearthing ‘ducts’ and cross links’ because these seem to echo what Prynne say in the translating difficult poems essay. ‘Reflex slants’ however is a complete mystery to me unless he’s talking about things becoming oblique or slanted in reaction to the crushing process.
I’ve no idea at all about the ‘screen of poetic conscience’ and I can’t help thinking that it’s either a suitably enigmatic way of saying not very much or something really quite complex that could do with further elucidation. I can certainly see the ater work as hurling itself at the poetic niceties of ‘finesse and judgement’ and can also recognise that this may result in a more accurate way of expressing ‘how things are’ but I’m not yet convinced that this is done effectively in this particular poem. I think I’ve said enough about contradiction and the dialectic other than to note that poetry should be seen as a ‘marker for intrinsic anomaly’ which is a much more satisfactory description.
I’d also like to bear this passage in mind:

How does poetic thought achieve recognisable form and how is it shaped? The language of poetry is its modality and material base, but whatever its relation with common human speech, the word-arguments in use are characteristically disputed territory, where prosody and verse-form press against unresolved structure and repeatedly transgress expectation.This is a kind of dialectical unsettling because line-endings and verse divisions work into and against semantic overload, in contest with the precursors to unresolved meaning. The extreme density of the unresolved,
which maintains the high energy levels of language in poetic movement, its surreptitious buzz, may resemble unclarity which it partly is; but strong poetic thought frequently originates here, in the tension about and across line-endings, even in functional self-damage or sacrifice as the predicament of an emerging poem determined not to weaken or give
way. Thought in this matrix is not unitary (unlike ideas), but is self=disputing and intrinsically dialectical.

If we take out the ‘d’ word, this does make things a bit clearer, poetic endeavour seen as word-arguments over and around disputed territory which collide with structure and flout conventional expectations. This seems to be a neat encapsulation of the method underpinning the Prynne project and I’ll need to look for signs of these collisions and struggles in ‘Riding Fine Off’. The final and most intriguing point is the one about self sacrifice and damage. I’ve written in the past about the tendency of both Keston Sutherland and Simon Jarvis to do this but not in the way that Prynne describes. It does seem however that I need to pay more attention to line endings.

Because this is about to get complicated, this is the full text of the poem-

At the place new arduous and wrapped up generic trailing mock
persistent bay tell, dark shouts make final even decline to like.
Track fated to miss and sit out that's how to bat for both, few
for well all known all none, enough. They float over the start
grid order intimate personable inner logic, pin inducement to
the driveway, to rough trace the cloud line. For then or both
grew in ready plain view how invited too overlaid other volatile
front omission. That's how in
room from pair to base, time
to rise as raptors accept procession sated foodstuff late on late
in token region. Know the whole win lateral pin better blind-
sight agree, all seen much then reduce will finally not fill
partitive crew benefit. Want for lack for distance fuel project
duct violence resigned easily measure telic declination. Both
attractive sides habitat invaded folic austere too, grade them,

gradual amounts in what you want more,
take implant slope on wide array, wild
surmise for substitute time to say how
not affront yet, or fine oval form
playout alter reject,
each one by one,
window plan out visible twin acceptance
has been there, up to surface, ever wanting
few out that's for now don't pine gravitate
nor yet link, to get
fair assert pinny
tell them, code for count entire rapid
accident come on.

Further overgrown your own this time grimace insinuate how not
lined up for know better, chance derelict top planning loop first,
few all back assorted holding off. Held rough situate affirm cut
for cut down, to trim not yet fill we hold them, few enough. How
best to say up to mark falling, each time said level soil debated
swim fume eager to find
tell out plant limit, hormone refine
looking on forward bent foot want the strip forever, never less
over nor how best too and too for more
shadow infusion is
the truth declined. Lamps all lit up, cutting the skin graft
to lift off cell for cell, time yielded in open fit compulsion, defer for passing wants, rolling evermore. Expense of spirit
output grant the best scatter ferment insult, have enough slowly
react affirmative to meet, each to fill upper tract shout relaxed
by pretension. Return to refusal continue I heard them say so

in silicon versets did you, dapper onyx
fancy ride plentiful and apt to form
this rank of departure, trance state
muted by fugitive distracted cries. Hear
them all out picture that the kids
debate which door, what for tranquil
longing
to play riot catchment
water slides up and up. Few hardly
here now do the rest wanting for extra
more spare to take and make, display
all tips by day
in daytime say
fear no more.

On the top row do you already no time refine to disclose even of
the passion blank, plenitude allusion do you, otherwise stupidly
good enough to lift a brow, of daylight often saved, most served.
Average at the doorway grandly seized by shadow counting off, in
geminal readiness not to slip where possible if not permitted else
auto-set. Both in force how not, if else, for a few abrupt dative
intact prints, from one over line. Mind less overt lucid all brand
marking at the front cloud-light, permanent
will you say, admit
first ulterior structure indented to pay counting by darkness
shiny and visible up ahead. Go there free of room to say more
or less valuable, more taken back on time at this against what
follows on pitch, in front, normal accredited diminution would
be said profane intrinsic honest to batter off the other side.

(The formatting for this is about right with the exception of the first lines of the short line sections- these should be in line with the rest. I’m still blaming WordPress).

On the last occasion I had identified a number of apparent references to plants and other growing things. I worked through about half of these and got up to ‘Further overgrow your own’ which I’d now like to pay attention to. I’m taking it that there’s one of those bad puns at work here. To ‘grow your own’ can refer to growing food for your own consumption either in your garden or on an allotment, it can also refer to growing your own dope. The first meaning also has connotations of the ‘dig for victory’ campaign during the second world war where people were encouraged to grow their own vegetables. ‘Overgrown’ has three definitions in the OED- something that has grown too much, something that is covered in vegetation or an adult who ‘engages in childish pursuits’ as in ‘an overgrown schoolboy’. None of this seems to be at all helpful with the previous guesswork relating to Whitehead, plant time and genetics but it is followed by ‘this time’ and this is the third use of ‘time’ thus far in the poem- the previous two being ‘time to rise’ and ‘for substitute time to say’. There can also be a temporal aspect to ‘further’. None of this is helped by ‘grimace insinuate’ although grimace can be used as both a verb and a noun – as a noun it has a secondary meaning of affectation or pretence. The OED gives the primary definition of insinuate as ” To introduce tortuously, sinuously, indirectly, or by devious methods; to introduce by imperceptible degrees or subtle means.” and then goes on to give several subsidiary definitions on a similar theme. So there would appear to be a link between the two if we accept that affectation or pretence does have an element of the devious.

So, this still appears to be baffling and it’s quite difficult to erect linkages between this and the other identified plant/growth phrases. ‘This time’ may refer to ‘now’ or to a particular moment or either forward or backward time but it isn’t easy at this stage to identify which. The use of overgrow to indicate and adult acting in a childish manner could be related to ‘to know better’ in the next line, as in being old enough to know better than to act like a child. So this may relate to an immature act carried out in an affected and devious manner which is some distance from plants.

I do of course need to bear in mind that I may be looking at the results of a quite violent struggle with language and poetic convention, that what is being presented is the surviving residue of this struggle which is also a statement of ‘how things are’.

Things might be a little more straightforward with the next phrase which is ‘cut for cut down’. Given the general drift of ‘As Mouth Blindness’ and Prynne’s known antipathy for all things capitalist, I can make a reasonable stab at this being a statement about the so-called ‘austerity’ cuts actually leading to the destruction of services rather than just a reduction in them and ‘to trim not yet fill we told them’ could refer to the Labour policy of delaying cuts until the economy had recovered. If this is the case then it is deceptively forthright and either destroys the initial hypothesis or just throws in another theme. ‘Few enough’ may also point to the fact that the previous government had already introduced savage new cuts into the benefits system. Without widhing to get too carried away, although ‘held rough situate’ looks typically austere and obdurate, if we take ‘held’ as in to hold a view or opinion and ‘rough’ as approximate with situate as to contextualise then things may begin to look a little clear with regard to things political and/or economic.

So, thus far I’ve identified two possibilities. At the moment the economic seems to be winning over the biological. Before I write any more I will go back to look at ‘Plant Time Manifold’ and Justin Katko’s gloss. Which might take some time.

I also need to pay more attention to line endings and the quite regular ‘shape’ of this particular poem. What is also of interest is just how much of himself Prynne has removed from the poem and whether this has been successful given that his ‘voice’ is unique and carries with it all the things that we think we know about him. I also have to say that I’ve now given this a fair amount of attention which might be beginning to pay off….