Tag Archives: jeremy prynne

Reading Prynne closely pt2

Approaching passion freak intact prime falter
for segment same-front glide to fill conduce
suffuse give or give. Plenteous flake arm folly
to love acre the same rivet the front broken

Prolusion, stay near ever dry. Few tap transfer
second charge you let off stop surrender for
disarm, oh grant that, leave the grain why ever
less now less green took life by the tongue lit

In low pale extradite. A day this one assign
yours grow up to main, leaf round and round lie
cost plus crush split stamina. Me such unarm
same peril fovea pass fire mantle and glib overt

Tie to air close to, to disclaim that for. More
flute ignite nul wants subsume trill earlier ban
wrist digit restive to same. Be all best profane
broken tenuous, each strand as fine torrid at

Leave to play stare to east, ease denied off
by rush fracture on dismounting the pelmet crab
out over the foreland, the annexe. Moulded
profile accepts on its lateral crystal mistaken

Fragment at level counterparty brushed, mend
up to shock, same till fallen till to breach
its promise mine for spent at duration, noted
way ever on transit long for this and similar.

I know that I said I would concentrate on the first and third stanzas of this (the second poem in ‘Streak, willing, entourage, artesian’) but further reflection tells me that this is a flawed approach to something this non-linear. I will therefore try to point out the bits that can be gleaned with a degree of attention and those that are utterly resistant.

My hypothesis (guess) is that this poem is ‘about’ the recent civil war in Ulster although I am still prepared to overturn this guess if I come across anything that points in another direction. To this end I have begun to delve into the Cain archive and to read witness testimony given to the Bloody Sunday Inquiry and I am amazed about how much I had forgotten.

I’d like to start with ‘Be all best profane / broken tenuous’ from the fourth stanza. I’m taking ‘Be all best’ as an instruction to do your best which seems fairly clear but ‘profane’ is causing me problems. As a noun profane means someone or thing which makes something secular or unholy, as a verb it can also mean to desecrate, abuse or insult whilst the adjective can be used to someone who is uninitiated in religious practice. Throughout the Troubles, Ulster was sunk deep in religious issues, from the casting of hunger strikers as martyrs to the anti-catholic rants of Ian Paisley and his ilk the conflict was mired in arguments about God with each side viewing the other as (at the very least) profane.

This use of the word to refer to the conflict doesn’t help very much with this part of the poem, it occurs to me that these words could be an address to the reader. Prynne has done this before in ‘To Pollen’ with its reference to the ‘resilient brotherhood’ and the question about ‘the one inclined’. I’ll try and show how this reading makes more sense than does a reference to the Ulster conflict.

‘Be all best’ could be an instruction that recognises that all readers can only do what they can because the full meaning of a poem will always remain elusive. ‘Profane’ as a verb may be an instruction to overlook the religious elements of the conflict in favour of a more materialist analysis. Part of the first stanza reads ‘folly to love acre the same’- if we give acre its subsidiary meaning of ‘land’ then this could point to the fact that the fundamental political difference separating both sides was (is) whether the six counties should become part of the Irish Republic or remain as part of the United Kingdom. This would seem to make sense but taking religion out of the equation overlooks at least some of the fuel that lit and sustained the fire.

‘Broken’ and ‘tenuous’ are words that have a direct bearing on Prynne’s work. Many writers have commented on the fragmented nature of poems where competing discourses collide with each other and I’ve found this one of the most attractive (if that’s the right word) aspects of the work.

I’ve used tenuous to describe my own reading of Prynne and others have stated that readers are only ever likely to get a partial understanding of what’s going on. Some have pointed out that readers should construct their own meanings from the poem, treating each piece as an open text. I don’t hold with this view because I find that there’s enough in even the most obscure poems to glean what Prynne may be about.

‘Tenuous’ could also refer to the actions involved in writing the poem. The disaster that was the Ulster conflict was multi-faceted and does not lend itself easily to analysis. There are territory, religion, civil rights, colonial and military dimensions to consider as well as the fact that the working class of both sides were intent on killing each other in large numbers. So, any analysis will be tenuous at best- is this what Prynne is saying?

We then have a comma- these are often missing from Prynne’s work and they are often used to introduce a new line of thought but on this occasion I’ll try and show that the line continues to make some kind of sense. ‘Each strand as fine torrid / at leave to play’ refers to the poem and the act of reading it. I’m taking the primary meaning of each and strand to indicate that both the elements of the conflict and the various dimensions of the poem are being referred to. ‘Fine’ as a noun can mean the end of something and the verb can mean bringing to and end so this may be an instruction to follow both types of thread to their conclusion.

‘Torrid’ is interesting because, in addition to its normal meaning, the OED states that it can refer to the atmosphere affecting those at risk of religious persecution. It may therefore allude to Ulster Catholics feeling persecuted by the Protestant majority or to loyalists feeling that they are being killed because of their faith. On the other hand it could refer to the position Prynne feels himself to be in as a poet. It is true to say that Prynne has been more vilified by the poetry establishment than any other writer in the last thirty years and that this has often taken the form of puerile personal attacks which could be seen as a form of persecution. Whilst this may or may not be correct, it is interesting to note that Paul Celan (a major predecessor in the difficulty stakes) had a persecution complex too.

‘At / leave to play’ I’m taking as a description of the activity of the reader who is free to construct her own reading of the various strands. I don’t think this is a reference to Prynne because his work suggests that he takes himself far to seriously for that.

I’m going to leave this theme for a while primarily because I want to write about Keston Sutherland’s ‘Stress Position’ and the thorny matter of dialectical consciousness but also because I need a rest before I tackle rush fractures and pelmet crabs……..

Reading Prynne very, very closely

A few weeks ago I penned a slightly tongue-in-cheek guide to reading Prynne, so I thought I give a practical demonstration of the technique. Being ever up for a challenge, I’ve chosen the second poem from “Streak, willing, entourage, artesian” which is Prynne’s latest work and probably one of his most dense. I started this exercise by reading all of the poems in sequence. One of the first things that struck me was that most of this is very abstract with very few ‘obvious’ phrases or sentences to hang on to. The second thing that struck me was the use of certain words- ‘blanket’, ‘hunger’, ‘grand rubble’ which pointed me in the direction of Ulster and what we refer to as ‘the Troubles’ and what Prynne referred to as a civil war.

I must stress that this is a very early and tenuous hypothesis and I have learned that hanging on to first impressions can often lead to a lot of wasted effort. The blanket protest that morphed into the hunger strike (in which ten men died) and the Brighton Bomb (the hotel was called the Grand Hotel) are all I’ve got to go on so I proceeded with this and re-read the first poem which may or may not be about bomb making.

I have a view that successive British governments have, for the last five hundred years, failed to understand Ireland and the Irish and that this is also true of ordinary people. We view the anti-Catholic rhetoric on one side and the fervent republicanism on the other with a mixture of impatience and incomprehension.

The other ‘point’ of this is to test out Kerridge and Reeve’s hypothesis that secondary meanings “accumulate and fill the poem in an unmanageable excess of meaning which reveals the repressed and concealed relations between discourses”.

Set out below is the poem in its entirety-

Approaching passion freak intact prime falter
for segment same-front glide to fill conduce
suffuse give or give. Plenteous flake arm folly                                                                to love acre the same rivet the front broken

Prolusion, stay near ever dry. Few tap transfer                                                   second charge you let off stop surrender for                                                          disarm, oh grant that, leave the grain why ever                                                          less now less green took life by the tongue lit

In low pale extradite. A day this one assign                                                                   yours grow up to main, leaf round and round lie                                                             cost plus crush split stamina. Me such unarm                                                                   same peril fovea pass fire mantle and glib overt

Tie to air close to, to disclaim that for. More                                                                  flute ignite nul wants subsume trill earlier ban                                                                 wrist digit restive to same. Be all best profane                                                                   broken tenuous, each strand as fine torrid at

Leave to play stare to east, ease denied off                                                                     by rush fracture on dismounting the pelmet crab                                                            out over the foreland, the annexe. Moulded                                                                profile accepts on its lateral crystal mistaken

Fragment at level counterparty brushed mend                                                                    up to shock, same till fallen till to breach                                                                       its promise mine for spent at duration, noted                                                                    way ever on transit long for this and similar.

(Many apologies for the crap formatting, there aren’t supposed to be the gaps in lines set out above but WordPress won’t do what it’s told)

The first thing to notice is that it looks like a poem, all the poems in this collection are made up of six quatrains. This one also contains some poetic touches- “oh grant that” and the use of the verb ‘long’ in the last line. The disappointing thing is the absence of handholds which can usually lead me into a way of making sense.  Some phrases are particularly odd- ‘ dismount the pelmet’, ’round lie cost plus crush split stamina’ at first sight defy logic but there is at least one reference which may fall in with the Ulster hypothesis. ‘In low pale extradite’ may refer to the English Pale which is an area of the Irish Republic that includes Dublin.

I seem to recall that in the seventies one of the bones of contention between the UK and Irish governments was the difficulties involved in extraditing republicans from the Republic to stand trial in Belfast.

There’s also ‘grow up to main’ which may (or may not) be a reference to the fact (once explained to me by a friend with greater knowledge of these matters than I) that the Catholic population was growing faster than the Protestant who would be overtaken as the majority in a generation or two. This demographic trend explains why loyalist politicians became much more keen to reach a settlement in the nineties.  I’m very aware that this is fairly tenuous and I may have to rethink at a later stage.

There’s a couple of difficult words that we need to get out of the way, ‘fovea’ is latin and one of its meanings is ‘pitfall’ which would tie in with ‘peril’ that accompanies it. ‘Trill’ as a verb can mean to turn around which would kind of fit with ‘earlier ban’.

The reference to ‘flute ignite’ is more problematic because it could refer to weaponry (pistols, rifles, pipe bombs etc) or it could refer to the musical instrument played on the Orange marches designed to intimidate the Catholic minority. ‘Nul wants subsume trill earlier ban’ could be saying ” don’t give up on your ancient rights and overturn the ban on marching”.  Again this is just guesswork at this stage and may need to be reconsidered later.

That’s probably enough for now, in the next post I’ll have a go at the first and fifth stanzas, both of which strike me as particularly tricky. I’ll leave to others to judge whether the above meets Keston Sutherland’s criteria for reading rather than consuming Prynne, all I will say is I think this is one of Prynne’s most important poems to date.

Jeremy Prynne on Wordsworth’s Solitary Reaper

Over Xmas I read ‘The Solitary Reaper and Others’ which Prynne published in 2007. I’ve had an aversion to Wordsworth since having bits of The Prelude stuffed down my throat at school and I’ve never appreciated the Romantic project which still strikes me s being a bit adolescent. My primary motivation in reading this was that it may give further insight into Prynne’s poetry.

The first thing to be said is that, at 134 pages, this is a very big book for a 32-line poem. What is impressive is that none of Prynne’s critique can be considered either extraneous or the result of over-reading, it stays with the poem and doesn’t indulge in the extrapolation so common in some critics.

I have two major qualms about this poem, the first being that the experience of hearing the solitary reaper singing across the profound vale didn’t belong to Wordsworth, he’borrowed it fom his friend, Thomas Wlikinson. The second is that Wordsworth went on a 6 week walking tour of the Scottish Highlands with the express purpose of experiencing nature in the raw. According to Dorothy’s journals they came across some scenes of great poverty and Wordsworth must have known the appalling conditions in which agricultural labourers lived yet he makes no reference to this in the poem.

Prynne anticipates the second qualm and mounts a spirited defence which I will describe below. In this defence however, the first qualm is often overlooked which is a bit odd given the length of the book. What is less odd is the amount of space given to matters of perception and to the effect of hearing music.  Given Prynne’s fondness for showing us that things may be percieved in different ways and at different levels it comes as no surprise that he should place the importance of the aural/visual metric as central and explore this in great depth.

What is more surpprising is that he should explain the absence of reference to socio-economic conditions by suggesting that it was the reaper’s song and the experiencing of hearing it that transcends these circumstances for Wordsworth who wishes just to express that transcendental ‘effect’. This seems to ignore the fact that by 1803 the Highland Clearances were well under way- this is a term used by the English  to describe a process of ethnic cleansing whereby Gaelic communities and culture were obliterated from the Highlands.

Wordsworth would not be ignorant of this fact, indeed his sister’s journals from the trip do make reference to the effects of this cleansing. I have to admit that I’m not sympathetic to the view that poetry can lift us to another plane of consciousness and I am probably too rooted in the material world to be moved by any suggestion that it might. In my view poetry has the potential to suggest different ways of thinking and talking about the world but to give it any greater status is fundamentally delusional. Another quibble is that labourers sing songs in order to mae backbreaking and arduous work more bearable, this isn’t mentioned by Prynne.

The other issue is one of authenticity. As far as we know, Wordsworth did not actually hear the singing of the solitary reaper and we therefore must assume that the ‘ardency’ (a Prynne word) exists entirely in his imagination. Throughout the book I kept waiting for Prynne to deal with this opportunism with the same vigour as other subjects but he doesn’t and this failure (to my mind) indicates the wekness of the assertion about the trancendental powers of the song.

To conclude, this is a useful extended insight into the way Prynne thinks about both poetry and perception and as comprehensive study of one poem as you are likely to get. It is also very good to argue with, I’m not converted to Wordsworth but I am making my way through Dorothy’s journals which are wonderful.

Jeremy Prynne and readers of poetry

In 2008 Robert Archambeau quoted Keston Sutherland making a distinction between readers and consumers of poetry. Sutherland defines readers as those who engage carefully and closely, “staking an intimacy on the work of interpretation in some way perhaps even needing that intimacy or submitting to it as a sort of definition of oneself,  or the component of  a definition”.

Keston identifies Prynne’s work as that which requires this sort of attention. Consumers are people who read poetry without engaging with it on this level and it is these who are attracted to ‘mainstream’ poetry because it doesn’t make those kinds of personal demands. Sutherland also points out that poets would prefer to have readers rather than consumers.
I suppose we all would rather see ourselves as readers and as being committed to the wok of interpretation, I think that I’d probably dispute whether or not this work (which may or may not be ‘intimate’) should lead to a clearer self-definition. Whilst it is true that some poets demand and repay close attention, it is also true that there is some great poetry that can be ‘consumed’. Elizabeth Bishop wrote some poems that I find both inspiring and beaautiful but I wouldn’t claim that her work demands the close attention of Hill or Prynne. I don’t think that this implies that Bishop’s work is inferior, it’s just different. I’m also of the view that poetry is a very broad church and critics should pay attention to this rather than manning the various factional baricades. The writing and reading of poetry is too much of a minority activity for it to be divided by the bad tempered snipings of various factions.

Reading Hill and Prynne does cause me to reflect on my own ideas about language and the wider world. I spend more time reading them than I should but I don’t identify with either any more than I do with Milton and Spenser, my other great obsessions. Whilst I get a lot from poetry, my day to day life is more informed by thinkers like Foucault, Lefebvre and Rorty than it is by poets.  What I’m trying to say is that there is a danger in some circles of poets and critics taking poetry a little too seriously. A poem is a means of expression but it isn’t the only one and to privilege it over others is to give it more credit than it deserves.

I’m not sure what Sutherland has in mind when he advocates ‘submitting’ to the intimacy involved in  the work of interpretation. This would seem to imply a degree of passivity before the text. Working out the nuances of ‘difficult’ work surely requires a more active approach if we, as readers, are to be successful in our work.

With regard to Prynne, Sutherland is right to say that he demands very close attention in that his radical use of language and his breadth or references require a commitment to the belief that the work of interpretation will be worthwhile. Whether this can be described as intimate is another matter. I feel myself to be in a more intimate relationship with Hill and Celan, this may be because I’m more familiar with the work but also because their particular brands of modernism contain a greater degree of personal humanity.

I think I also need to poiint out that I think Sutherland is an excellent poet and critic, one of those few who is prepared to say difficult things with great clarity. I just wish that he hadn’t over-egged this particular pudding.

How to read Jeremy Prynne

I approach this with some trepidation because I am not yet anywhere near the peak of Mount Prynne but thought a few words may encourage others to undertake the climb.

1. The first thing you will need is regular access to the OED. It isn’t so much that the poems are packed with hard and difficult meanings but Prynne likes to use secondary definitions that you may not be aware of.

2. Wikipedia is your friend because it often gives a useful overview of terms or concepts that may be new to you and frequently gives links to more in-depth information. Google (unless you are very careful with search terms) can sometimes lead you astray- you should always try to make use of the advanced search feature.

3. Know that early on you will decide either that the poems are just  a bunch of words which you don’t have either the time of the inclination to decipher or you will be intrigued and want to know more. Both decisions are entirely valid.

4. Start with one of the Bloodaxe editions. A lot of people start with the earlier stuff in the hope of following a chronological progression. This is a mistake. You should start with the poems that interest you most.

5. Prynne has no interest in making things easy for his readers. There is no single ‘key’ to any of the poems after ‘White Stones’. The perspective of each poem moves about and there are often multiple things going on in the same line.

6. Learn to think laterally, to consider what language can do rather than what it does. Know that Prynne is deeply distrustful of the western consensus view of reality and the role that language plays in that view.

7. At first try not to read too much of what others say about Prynne. This is often a case of academics trying to impress other academics with their erudition and doesn’t provide any kind of help for us readers. It is best to try and make some progress in terms of your own personal response to the poems first.

8. Read as much prose by Prynne as you can find. The latest piece on ‘The Solitary Reaper’ is available from Barque Press and it is an invaluable indication of the way that he thinks about poetry. The AAAARG site has ‘Resistance and Difficulty’ and ‘Tintern Abbey Once Again’- registration required but all their stuff is free.

9.  It will soon become clear from the poems that Prynne’s politics are based on a Marxist analysis and that he’s against most of the things that most of us class warriors are (any form of capitalism, imperialist adventures in far flung places and the fraudulence of bourgeois culture).  This stuff won’t hit you like a sledgehammer but it will crop up from time to time. You may find some of Prynne’s comments on the workings of capital markets to be quite quaint.

10. It is eminently possible to over-read Prynne. I’m currently reading to Pollen and am almost convinced that it refers to his readers as ‘the resilient brotherhood’ and asks whether he is the one ‘inclined’ which I am currently taking to be a reference to Celan’s Meridian Address. I see this as extraordinary but am also well aware that I may be barking up the wrong tree. The word ‘ultramont’ from the opening of the first section I’m taking to be a reference to CERN’s particle accelerator because it is  the only way that the rest of the sentence can ‘work’. Early on, I spent a lot of time worrying about “gross epacts” but have now happily given up.

Prynne likes ambiguity and is careful with his word choice so that nouns could also be verbs and vice versa. He also is prone to Latinity which is about constructing phrases according to Latin rather than English grammar. Great poets have been doing this for centuries- Milton was a major culprit.

You’re either up for these kind of skirmishes or you’re not. I find that I am and my admiration for Prynne has grown as I have gone further in. If you choose to participate you are likely to find that engagement with this body of work will force you to question not only language but also the way in which you experience the world. You will also begin to find that the vast majority of contemporary poetry is intensely mundane and ordinary. If you write poetry then you may find that your voice will be radically altered, this is a good thing providing it’s not just a pale imitation of the man himself.

Somewhere on the web there’s Prynne on “Harmony in Architecture” which is a speech given in China a few years ago. It says nothing about architecture but is a scathing attack on China’s rush for growth. It doesn’t address poetry but it is very witty and completely correct.

Be aware that there will be some days or weeks when the stuff becomes just words. At this point you need to take a break but you will come back for more.

Charles Olson and the Maximus Poems

Two months ago the only thing that I knew about Olson was that he had taught Cy Twombly at Black Mountain College in the early fifties and that Twombly had dedicated a painting to him. I then noticed that reference is made to the Maximus Poems on the back of the first Bloodaxe edition of Prynne’s poems. I read a bit more about Olson on the web and bought the Maximus volume edited by George F Butterick and published in 1985.

I have to say that the Maximus experience has been a complete revelation. This is a huge sprawling work centred on the town of Gloucester in Massachusetts and describes the town’s history and its geography in great detail. It has been variously described as ‘an essential poem in the postmodern canon’ and a weak example of  ‘sub-poundian’ verse. I don’t think it’s either of these (by definition you can’t have a postmodern canon  and it certainly isn’t weak) but I do think it’s an entirely honest attempt to write about space in a very original way.

This may not sound like much but space is fascinating and something we give far too little consideration to. Some of the finest writing over the last fifty years has been about what we do with and how we react to where we are (Henri Lefebvre, David Harvey, Ed Soja). Olson is one of the very few poets to give space its due. He traces the birth and growth of Gloucester both by means of its only industry (fishing) but also records the way that land and buildings were passed on from one generation to the next.

Olson lived in Gloucester and isn’t at all afraid to place himself in the poems. We see him on fishing boats, we see him wandering about the town and its environs, being struck by wonder at the strangeness and majesty of the sea. Someone else has observed that Olsen felt that the past was always present in the present and there are attempts to express this in the poem but what comes across most clearly to me is the celebration of place in all its contexts.

There are some longueurs, I could have done quite so many references to myth although some are quite effective, but the overall effect is a celebration of place. Nearly at the end of my second reading of this epic, I know what it is like to be in Gloucester both now and in the seventeenth century.

What I don’t understand is how this magnificent work has fallen from grace. Olson had his advocates in Robert Creeley, Ed Dorn and Jeremy Prynne yet ‘Maximus’ seems not to have inspired others to follow suit (with the exception of Dorn’s ‘Gunslinger’) in writing spatially. Perhaps that’s because we’re still culturally obsessed with time (one of the things that postmodernism was meant to overcome) or because Olson has become ‘infected’ by the stain of Ezra Pound.

It’s no secret that Olson knew and admired Pound nor is it any secret that Pound was ferociously anti-semitic but the Cantos and the Maximus series (apart from both being long and ambitious) are as different as chalk and cheese both in terms of ‘voice’ and subject matter yet the stain still lingers. The other problem is that the culture we live in has no time for big poetry which takes more than five minutes to read and is layered with meaning – this is our loss as poetry should have space for the ambitious and the majestic.

Jeremy Prynne and Geoffrey Hill compare and contrast

Prynne and Hill have many things in common, both have taught at Cambridge, Hill is only four years older than Prynne, both admire Paul Celan and both write poetry that is said to be difficult. They are also the two most important poets in the English language.

If ‘difficult’ means that they write poems that require more than 30 seconds’ attention, then they are clearly difficult. I would argue that ‘difficult’ isn’t a particularly useful term and that we should use ‘complex’ and ‘absorbing’ instead. Both Prynne and Hill are important because they challenge the safe mediocrity that passes for English poetry these days and because they remind us of the possibilities of language.

I’m much more familiar with Hill than I am with Prynne but it has taken four years to achieve an understanding of what Hill may be about. This has been an immensely rewarding experience helped along by frequent reference to the  OED, DNB and Wikipedia. I like to know the politics of the poets that I like and Hill has described himself as a hierarchical Tory and a 19th Century Red Tory. I take him  to mean members of the Ultra Tory faction that aligned themselves with Cobbett at various points during the 1830s. In 2009 this is obviously a minority position to take but it does give a flavour of Hill’s eccentricity.

Both Prynne and Hill are critical of the money markets.  Such vilification has a long and noble history in English politics – we all like to castigate those who appear to do very little for their wealth but Prynne especially goes for knee jerk easy options rather than presenting a more nuanced analysis. In ‘News of the Warring Clans’ he has a go at option trading in this manner and in ‘The Oval Windows’ he has a more obscure go at the manipulation and control of economic data which he describes as ‘work makes free logic’. Work makes free was emblazoned on the gates of Auschwitz and is a phrase that shouldn’t really be used lightly. There is a huge gap between the workings of capitalism and the eliminationist impulse that motivated the Nazis. This aside, Prynne does redeem himself with ‘Refuse Collection’ which is his response to the atrocities committed at Abu Grhaib, a searing indictment of western imperialism and one of the best political poems that I’ve ever read.

Starting to read Prynne can be a daunting experience wherea Hill is intimidating. Prynne is daunting because of the use of words- ‘shut inch’, ‘tree glide’ are examples of the kinds of phrases that I’ve been engaging with in recent weeks which I find oddly involving. Hill is intimidating because of the breadth of his references. ‘Triumph  of Love’ is the only poem that I know of to contain reference to both Gracie Fields and Michel Foucault.  These aren’t particularly obscure but the are others that are (the Lawes brothers, Hallgrimur Petursson, Immelmann to name but three)  which is why Wikipedia and the DNB are so helpful.

One difference between the two is in the use of foreign phrases, Hill tends to translate these as he goes along within the poem whereas Prynne doesn’t. My poor French can make sense of the phrases in that language but I can’t do this with the German. I’m also a bit concerned at the almost random way that Prynne uses French phrases when there are perfectly adequate English ones available.

In terms of the work, I would nominate ‘Mercian Hymns’,  ‘Triumph of Love’ and ‘ Scenes from Comus’ as the finest of Hill’s output, I would nominate ‘Brass’, ‘News of the Warring Clans’, ‘Word Order’ and ‘Refuse Collection’ for Prynne.

What I’m also grateful for is that both have broadened my horizons. Reading Prynne has led to Charles Olson (a revelation), Ed Dorn and Robert Creeley which has caused e to be more sympathetic to American poetry. Reading Hill has led to Hopkins, Southwell and Henry Vaughan. I still don’t like Hopkins but Hill has made me work out why.

Both poets have written poems dedicated to Celan and Celan looms large in their work. Prynnes technique of using words that have multiple meanings and of putting words together in odd ways is redolent of Celan at his best. Hill makes the most direct reference to Celan in ‘The Orchards of Sion” where he has several goes at translating ‘atemwende’  and then speculates about Celan’s taste in women. All of this feels a bit gratuitous.

Who is the best? This depends on what you want poetry to do, if we wish to be reminded of the complexity of reality then Prynne is your man. If we want poems to remind us of our moral obligations and the importance of the natural world then Hill is way out in front. There can be no denying that these two are writing poetry that puts the rest in the shade.

Catching up with Jeremy Prynne

I bought the Bloodaxe Prynne collection ten years ago following recommendations from people that I admire (Carol Rumens, Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd). I started to read in expectation of something wonderful but found instead (apart from the very early stuff) a mass of words that made little sense and became increasingly perplexing with each reading. I did however note one very impressive poem dedicated to Paul Celan.
Lately I’ve been quite severely depressed and my normal source of consolation during recovery is to read Pepys’ diaries but on this occasion I finished the Arcades Project, re-read Boyd Hilton on 19th century England and then turned to Prynne.
I have to report that I have found the Prynne experience to be both frustrating and oddly involving, frustrating because initially some of the phrases don’t make any kind of sense but involving because the search for that sense leads you to think about the world and language in different ways. Reading Prynne has also led me to read Olson’s Maximus Letters (and for that I am profoundly grateful), Heidegger on poetry, Celan and Holderlin.
Whilst I can ‘hear’ the influence of Celan and late Beckett on Prynne I am totally deaf to the voice of Olson in his work even though Prynne is one of Olson’s biggest advocates and spent some time in the mid sixties trying to get the later parts of the Letters into a publishable format.
Prynne’s essay on Resistance and Difficulty is a densely worded argument that points out that every subject puts out various levels of resistance to being understood and that we experience difficulty when we encounter these resistances. He then goes on to say that it is the task of the imagination to gain access to ‘the resistance beyond our several difficulties’. Prynne ends with a quote from Rilke that he feels establishes his point about the quest for a fusion of resistance and difficulty. This seems fair enough to me and would seem to point out some kind of justification for the level of difficulty in Prynne’s work- which seems to be about using ‘difficult’ ways to speak about a world that is very resistant to our comprehension. Incidentally, in this essay Prynne refers fleetingly to the work of Gabriel Marcel. The only other person that I know who refers to Marcel is Geoffrey Hill, that other ‘difficult’ English poet.
I’ve been carrying the Prynne tome around with me and I’ve had a number of comments- “too obscure”, “too intellectual” and “the only poet that’s trying to do something different from the mediocrity that is English poetry but I only like the parts that aren’t incomprehensible”. I’d agree with all of these if I didn’t find reading him so absorbing and if I didn’t find re-reading the ‘incomprehensible’ bits so rewarding. After reading Resistance and Difficulty I then felt that I had to re-read Heidegger on the ‘Origins of the work of art’ which Prynne refers to (using the German title) as “brilliant”.
My relationship with Heidegger has changed a lot over the years. I started with ‘the greatest thinker of the 20th century’ view then moved on the “he was a Nazi but’ view rapidly followed by ‘Being and Time is brilliant but the rest is polluted by a weird kind of German mysticism’ view. My recent view is that worrying too much about the Being of beings is probably a waste of time but I am pleased that someone asked the question. My reading of the Origins this time around was disappointing. I don’t feel that poetry has a “privileged position in the domain of the arts” nor do I feel that “poetry is the saying of the unconcealedness of beings”.I think poetry may be many things but Heidegger fails to convince me (by means of evidence) that it has this privileged position and power.
Still, Jeremy Prynne thinks that this essay is brilliant and I therefore assume that he shares its view and has incorporated this in some way into his practice. This then brings me to the question of the relationship between poetry and philosophy. Should we view both activities as trying to tell some kind of truth? Has philosophy got anything to say poetry and vice versa? Are there dangers when poetry and philosophy get mixed up? I don’t have any kind of answer to these questions other than there is a real danger when any discipline tries to take itself too seriously.
In my attempts to make sense of Prynne, I’ve stuck with two poems- The Warring of the Clans and Word Order. I’ve been able to construe the subject matter in both but there are still bits that I’m falling over. I don’t understand how butter can be ‘bardic’ although I like the juxtaposition nor do I understand how a shadow can be ‘cardiac’ but that may be because I haven’t spent long enough with the OED.
The other question is should we all be following Prynne’s lead or should we be content to write in the ‘mediocre’ tradition? Is Prynne writing himself into obscure oblivion or will he be revered in fifty years time as the only serious English poet?
My view is that we all need to catch up with Prynne because his work is clever and radically different from anything else, I don’t think we should slavishly imitate him but allow his work to inform our own. With regard to posterity, I do hope he gets more notice than what passes for good in the current mainstream.