Tag Archives: difficulties in the translation ofdifficult poetry

Reading Prynne with Prynne

I’ve started this twice so far, on those occasions the title was “On not liking Sub Songs'” and it was going to be a longish description of my various attempts to get to grips with this particular collection. I was going to describe the difference between not liking and actively disliking and use ‘Oraclau’ as an example of an important poet producing something that I find very easy to dislike whereas the ‘Sub Song’ merely fail to engage me. I was then going to speculate about whether the slightly freer form and the reduced austerity may have something to do with my indifference. At this point I realised that this might be becoming more than usually self indulgent and that it might be more useful if I were to try and apply what Prynne has said about difficult poetry to one of these poems. What follows is another attempt on my part to engage with this stuff and an attempt to work through the readerly tasks that Prynne identifies in ” Difficulties in the Translation of ‘Difficult Poems'”.
I’ve chosen ‘Riding Fine Off’ because I think it contains most of the elements that Prynne identifies in his essay:

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
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).

My normal default mode with Prynne is to try and identify fragments that might provide me with a foothold or two and then proceed (or not) from there. When this strategy fails I seek refuge in clarifying the meaning of the words that I don’t understand. The first of these is ‘telic’, the OED has two definitions ” Grammar. Of a conjunction or clause: Expressing end or purpose” and ” Directed or tending to a definite end; purposive.” So he may be referring to a declination towards some specific end that requires measurement or evalution. The second is ‘versets’ The OED gives the first definition as to be a form of ‘versicle’ which is defined as “Liturg. One of a series of short sentences, usually taken from the Psalms and of a precatory nature, said or sung antiphonally in divine service; spec. one said by the officiant and followed by the response of the congregation or people; often collect. pl., a set of these with their accompanying responses.” The second definition is “A little or short verse, esp. one of the Bible or similar book; a short piece of verse.” Which further complicates ‘silicon versets’ but might be more helpful If I can get more of a grip on the wider context.The last of these is ‘geminal’ which the OED defines first as a noun meaning a pair and also (as an adjective) to be equivalent to ‘geminate’ which is given as ” Duplicated, combined in pairs, twin, binate. geminate leaves, leaves springing in pairs from the same node, one leaf beside the other.” The last part of this may be useful if the initial hunch works out.
This relates to the third strategy which is to try and identify words that may pertain to a particular theme or themes. The first one that comes up seems to relate to plants and growing things. We have ‘grew in ready plain view’, ‘sated foodstuff late on late’, ‘habitat invaded folic austere too’, ‘implant slope on wide array’, ‘Further overgrown your own’, ‘cut for cut down’, ‘said level soil debated’, ‘tell out plant limit’, ‘cutting the skin graft / to lift off cell for cell’ ‘output grant the best scatter ferment insult’ ‘fill upper tract’ ‘of daylight often saved’. No doubt some of these will be rejected and others may be brought in (the two ‘cloud’ references spring to mind) but that does at least provide something to work with.
I’m using the ‘Translation’ essay because it is the clearest statement by Prynne that I’ve come across as to how this kind of work functions and how it should be approached. The first quote may be helpful in tackling the above phrases:

What is probable and can be predicted by following normative links in meaning and structure, including the regular completeness of grammatically well-formed sentences and consistency of topic reference, is frequently split apart in poetic composition, so that disorder and anomaly crop up all the time. Poetry is surprising and good difficult poems sometimes surprise us so much we can hardly breathe.

I think inconsistent ‘topic reference’ and less than ‘well-formed sentences’ pretty well sums up this particular poem but I’m not yet convinced to its ability to surprise me. With regard to plants, there is ‘Plant Time Manifold’ from the early seventies which (according to Justin Katko’s excellent essay in Glossator) puts forward the hypothesis that “there exists a form of temporality specific to all plants, wherein the plant’s upper half (or stem) moves forward in time, and the plant’s lower half (or root) moves backward in time all of which is very complicated but it does give me the excuse to read the essay again.

So, does ‘For then or both grew in ready plain view’ make any kind of sense? Is then referring to some time in the past or is it being used to denote some kind of consequence as in ‘if it’s raining then we will get wet’? The latter would make slightly more sense in the context of ‘or both’ because that might relate to two possible consequences but I really am stabbing in the dark here. ‘Grew’ marks a change in tense from ‘float’ and ‘pin’ in the previous sentence. If we are in ‘plant time’ territory then ‘both grew’ could refer to plants growing forwards and backwards in time which would also give ‘then’ the possibility of both meanings. In this context (or thereabouts) ‘from pair to base’ may refer to the base pairs that hold two strands of DNA together in the double helix.

Now we come to ‘procession sated foodstuff late on late’, I’m taking ‘foodstuff’ to have its normal meaning but everything else probably needs closer scrutiny. The OED has a single definition for sated- ” Glutted, satiated; cloyed or surfeited by indulgence of appetite” which seems straightforward. As well as the standard usage of procession, the OED reminds me that in a theological sense it can mean “The action of proceeding, issuing, or coming forth from a source; emanation; esp. of the Holy Spirit”. So, what is being sated and how? It reads at first glance that a procession is being sated by a foodstuff which is described as being ‘late on late’. There are two common meanings for ‘late’, when something occurs after the agreed, expected or usual time then it is said to be late- in this way late can also apply to someone who has died. It’s also worth mentioning that it can also refer to phases as in ‘the late Tudors’ and that Prynne’s poetry has been described as ‘late modernist’.

In the past the word has also been used as a noun with three distinct meanings- “Look; appearance, aspect; outward manner or bearing”, ” Looks, manners, behaviour; hence, actions, goings-on” and “voice, sound”. As an adjective it can also mean broad or wide but the OED says that this usage is both obscure and rare and only provides one example. The use as a noun seems to have died out around 1500 ish. None of this is really helpful because the phrase, in which ever permutation you decide to put it, doesn’t make sense. This is where I go out on a bit more of a limb, one of the ways that ;late; is used is to denote when a crop has been late to ripen and is not ready to be harvested at the usual time. So, if we take ‘foodstuff’ to denote a type of crop (wheat, maize, rice etc) then this could refer to a crop that has the appearance of being late. I’m going to leave that there because I haven’t yet decided whether ‘procession’ denotes a group of people, the forward passage of time or an emanation. If Katko is right in asserting that “Whitehead’s “philosophy of the organism” is at the heart of Prynne’s hybrid science,” then ‘procession’ might also be a reference to ‘Process and Reality’ which is Whitehead’s key text. This does not mean that I’m going to have another attempt at reading that particular book even though I know that I should.

The next phrase is even more baffling, ‘habitat invaded folic austere too’ doesn’t make any sense by itself (does it?) and may benefit from extending it back to the start of the sentence. ‘Both attractive sides’ give me bit more to play with and the phrase is closed by the helpful comma after ‘too’. Regular readers will know that there isn’t either a scientific or technical bone in my body and I am happy to confess that all my knowledge of genetics comes from Adam Philips’ volume on ‘The Science’ in the BSE inquiry report which is now very out of date and was written by a judge. So, the appearance of ‘folic’ raises all kinds of anxieties. A cursory glance at Wikipedia reveals that folate ( the naturally occurring form of folic acid) is

“…necessary for the production and maintenance of new cells, for DNA synthesis and RNA synthesis, and for preventing changes to DNA, and, thus, for preventing cancer. It is especially important during periods of rapid cell division and growth, such as infancy and pregnancy. Folate is needed to carry one-carbon groups for methylation reactions and nucleic acid synthesis (the most notable one being thymine, but also purine bases). Thus, folate deficiency hinders DNA synthesis and cell division, affecting hematopoietic cells and neoplasms the most because of rapid cell division. RNA transcription, and subsequent protein synthesis, are less affected by folate deficiency, as the mRNA can be recycled and used again (as opposed to DNA synthesis, where a new genomic copy must be created). Since folate deficiency limits cell division, erythropoiesis, production of red blood cells, is hindered and leads to megaloblastic anemia, which is characterized by large immature red blood cells.”

The only meaningful thing that I’m able to take away from this is that folate deficiency is really quite bad for a number of different reasons. I’ll have to go back to Phillips to clarify RNA transcription and ‘hematopoietic cells’ but I think I’m reasonably okay on the creation of proteins. Still this does seem to point in the right direction. This extended phrases now begins with ‘both’ which has been used twice before. An initial reading might now come up with both aspects of something having their habitat invaded and suffering folate depletion at the same time.
The only thing I’ve thus far been able to discover about ‘implant slope on wide array’ is that ‘implant slope is usually used in medicine to refer to the angle of the tibial implant in whole knee replacements given to people with osteoarthritis which might go some way to explaining ‘lateral pin’ at the start of the sentence. Unfortunately I haven’t a clue how this ties in with the rest of the poem although Prynne does say in his essay that “In a more technical way we can acknowledge that unfamiliarity plays an important part in pattern-recognition”. So that gives me some comfort.
I’m going to leave it there on this occasion but will return to the rest of the terms in the near future. I’d almost forgotten how involving Prynne is but I’m still not sure that I ‘like’ this particular poem. Incidentally, at the prompting of Luke McMullan, I’ve just updated the Arduity page on ‘As Mouth Blindness which is the first poem in this colection.

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.