Tag Archives: john wilkinson

Jeremy Prynne in China

Barque Press have produced a dvd of a conference/reading held in China in 2005. In attendance were (among others) Jeremy Prynne and Keston Sutherland. The camera was held by John Wilkinson, so this can be said to be a 100% Cambridge School production.
As regular readers will know, I’ve spent the last few months wandering around the lower slopes of Mount Prynne and I remain very keen to obtain anything that will give me a clearer idea of where the man is coming from. The dvd also features a number of Chinese poets but unfortunately I have been unable to work out how to turn on the subtitles as instructed on the sleeve unless the one poem that has subtitles waving around at the top of the screen is all I’m going to get.
There a number of points that Prynne makes in the film that are worthy of comment:
1. English and Chinese cultures are very old but not as old as the Sumerian culture. When compared with China and Britain, the culture of the USA is a mere fledgling. This is Prynne being a little bit waspish and an attempt to score a small but unnecessary point, we all know that American written culture hasn’t been around for very long but it doesn’t follow that it isn’t any good. It could be argued that Americans are freer to experiment with the language because they don’t have that much history hanging around their necks.
2. Poetry has two essential features: radical economy and truthfulness. I don’t think too many people will disagree with the notion that most good poetry strives to compress complex emotions and ideas into a short space. Even very long poems can achieve this economy in a way that prose cannot. I have much more of a problem with truthfulness because it seems to give to poetry a power or strength that it doesn’t actually have. I admit that I’m a bit dubious about any claims to truth but it seems to me that to claim that poetry has some kind of privileged access to truth is making far too grand a claim. I would much prefer it if Prynne had mentioned honesty instead because that would come closer to the mark of what poetic endeavour should be about. Most of us who write poetry are painfully aware when a line or a phrase is dishonest or consciously manipulative and these are the lines that we normally exclude no matter how technically accomplished they may be.
With regard to ‘radical economy’, Prynne reads a Chinese poem in English translation and points out that the American translator should have struck out one ‘the’ because it is superfluous.
3. Prynne mentions ‘hybrid words’ during his reading and equates these with the corruption of language. I’m not sure whether he’s saying that these words should not be used and whether he is denoting a difference between hybrid and compound words.
He reads four poems of his own and the first three are read with remarkable clarity. The fourth, which he says was published in 2005, is read as an experiment, the audience is instructed to clear their minds of images and memories of images and to listen with eyes closed. The reading is very powerful with Prynne enunciating each word with care but his mouth is too close to the microphone which makes it difficult to make out phrases.
The dvd also shows Keston Sutherland reading from the ‘Antifreeze’ collection but, as with his performances on Youtube, his diction isn’t brilliant and the strength of the message is somewhat lost.
So, I’m a little clearer on Prynne’s modus operandi and the dvd has made me return to the work that was read.

John Wilkinson’s partial gloss on Word Order

I’m very grateful to Neil for alerting me to the latest edition of ‘Glossator’ which is exclusively devoted to Prynne. I haven’t read all of it yet but the first piece that caught my eye was ‘Heigh Ho: a partial gloss of Word Order ‘ by John Wilkinson.
Wilkinson is a fairly rare beast in that he’s spent most of his life working in the health sector and has nevertheless produced an impressive body of engaged political verse. He’s also a perceptive writer on the works of both Prynne and Sutherland- even if his fan letter to Sutherland re ‘Stress Position’ was a little disappointing. It just so happens that ‘Word Order’ is on of the first poems that I encountered on my way up Mount Prynne so I started ‘Heigh Ho’ with more than a little excitement.
Having now read the piece on several occasions I have to say the Wilkinson’s ‘Word Order’ isn’t the same as the one I have in my head so I’ve had to reconsider my initial reaction, which isn’t a bad thing.
Before I proceed with any further consideration of the dilemma I’m currently in, I’d like to insert a few words on the complex business of glossing poetry. First of all there’s the obvious- the verb to gloss is not a million miles from ‘gloze’ so glossing, or producing a glossary, may not be exclusively about producing an impartial guide but may indeed be about putting a specific ‘spin’ on something in order to present it in a certain light. Is this what Wilkinson means by ‘partial’ in his title?
The glossing of poetry can be very useful in helping us readers gain a little more context, Fowler’s gloss on ‘Paradise Lost’ is probably the best example of providing just the right amount of additional information without detracting from the reader’s enjoyment of the poem. It is also eminently possible to under-gloss, Carey’s work on Milton’s shorter poems and the various editions of Spenser’s shorter stuff are guilty of this. There’s also the problem of over-glossing, Bert Hamilton’s notes to the ‘Faerie Queen’ annoy me to death with his tendency to provide definitions of words and terms that are already familiar to those with a reasonable vocabulary whilst omitting explanations/context on the bits that I need a hand with. Then there’s the ‘completist’ gloss- Nigel Smith on Marvell comes to mind as providing more information on 17th century politics than my small mind can take but he is better than most others in demonstrating the ways in which ideology and verse went hand in hand.
I’ve looked through my copies of the above tomes and realised that I’ve spent more time making comments about the gloss than I have about the poems so perhaps that’s an indication that we readers like to keep tight hold of what the poems say to us rather than what eminent critics have to say.
Wilkinson builds a convincing connection between ‘Word Order’ and ‘Field Notes’ (Prynne’s work on ‘The Solitary Reaper’), pointing out that both highlight the close relationship between work songs and poetry. He also provides some useful clarification of a few of the more oblique references. He traces “rap her to bank” to a miners’s song from the Durham coalfields and postulates that this is a reference to the “defeat of historical traditions by financial ‘disciplines’ in the eighties. As someone who was involved in that particular coalfield during the strike, I remain of the view that we shouldn’t get in any way nostalgic for the British coal industry and that this ‘defeat’ was about forty years overdue. This is not the place to indulge in that particular debate but is to point out that there’s always more than one gloss.
Wilkinson also provides the source for “wer soll das bezahlen” (who is going to pay) which is another line of the fourth poem in ‘Word Order’ – he traces this to a German drinking song and makes a connection with stock market ‘adjustments’, pointing out that the poem was written in 89 when the various monetarist gurus had gained the ascendancy.
So far, so good. It can be recognised throughout Prynne’s work that he pushes a broad left position that most readers of the Guardian would be reasonably comfortable with. Some of us would argue (with more than a degree of passion) that it is precisely this attitude that was/is the problem rather than Friedman/Thatcher/Nozenck and the colllapse of state socialism. Anyway, whilst I enjoy the poetry because of what it does with language, I’m not at all sympathetic to this brand of sentimentalised politics.
This now brings me to my own reading of ‘Word Order’. The first thoughts related (somewhat foolishly) to a marriage that is torn asunder by one partner’s adultery. The first poem could be read as a wedding ceremony and the last good refer to the divorce papers going through with lots of bad things happening in the middle. As Wilkinson says “the themes of betrayal and ingratitude run sotto voce throughout Word Order”. They didn’t seem all that sotto voce to me at the time.
The other thing that struck me was the presence of Paul Celan, in particular the repeated references to the breathing processes being hurt or damaged. The other Celan conceit is the recurring ‘you’ as an anonymous (but usually female) other which Prynne also deploys in varying tones.
Wilkinson sees social Darwinian logic underpinning the “brief and robotically formulaic” shortish poems that crop up in ‘Word Order’, I’m afraid he’s going to have to spell this one out for me in greater detail because I identified a technique of verbal improvisation that we poetry jazz types have been using for years whereby you state the line and then break it down in a number of different ways until you return to the main theme. I’m not sure if I knew of the Peter Riley / Derek Bailey connection when I first read this but on reflection it makes even more ‘sense’ to me.
Wilkinson reprints the procedure for the administration of CPR and then tells us he has no idea whether Prynne has actually had personal experience of this but nevertheless asserts that this could be wrapped up in the use of the word ‘spike’ in the final poem. He also leaps from ‘the ethereal vapour’ to Zyklon B and from ‘wash house’ to the shower rooms where victims were taken prior to being gassed. Wilkinson describes these leaps as ‘unavoidable’. I’m not convinced, there may be a one-to-one relationship between the first poem and the Holocaust, as there may be with the last, it’s just that I don’t think Prynne works like that and that there’s too much going on which may point in other ways at the same time.
‘Heigh Ho’ is an important addition to the ‘Prynne-crit’ canon. I’m particularly grateful to Wilkinson for writing about difficult stuff with great clarity and for presenting me with the image of Prynne as the Albert Ayler of the recorder. Shouldn’t that be Evan Parker? Wilkinson has also added a new literary term to my vocabulary: ‘glosso-hectic’. Excellent, sounds like a band from Toronto…..

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.