I like to think that I’m pretty good at not bothering with some poems/poets, I like to think that I recognise quite early on when it’s time to walk away (Rilke, Baudelaire, Wordsworth, Samson Agonistes, Paterson and many more) but I’ve been dithering with the above for a couple of weeks. Of course, ‘bothering’ with anything by Prynne requires a degree of commitment both in terms of time and applied concentration- I’ve been bothering with ‘Streak~~~Willing’ and ‘To Pollen’ for over two years and still have some way to go. I’m not of the view that anything by Prynne must be good – I’ve decided that I don’t like and can’t be bothered with ‘Sub Songs’ but ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ (KD) is presenting additional problems because it is a significant departure from what’s gone before.
I set out below what I see are the two sides of this particular dither.
Reasons for not bothering.
- it’s by J H Prynne who has a reputation for both elitism and obscurity and who may be a charlatan;
- at the back are twenty two ‘reference cues’ which consist of a wide array of texts ranging from Ancient Greek Philosophy to the finer points of quantum mechanics, this should be enough to deter most right-minded people;
- the first fourteen pages seem to descend into increasing levels of incoherence, on page 14 there is ‘they did to have not break’, ‘is so joint to yet not did’ and ‘don’t flew foregone alterior nail up’
- KD is 22 pages long and is written in prose paragraphs, this is a lot of material to keep in the head at once;
- the first half of KD does contain at least one coherent phrase- “you get triple points if you guess the connection” which might be an echo of ‘To Pollen’s’ “or does that tell you enough, resilient brotherhood”- if this is the case then members of said brotherhood might be offended;
- there seems to be a higher than usual emphasis on scientific theory which will take many hours to decode
- the references are not limited to the cues and some of these are reasonably obscure and not identified as references, Gillian Rose, John Skelton, Mandy Rice Davies, and T S Eliot are alluded to and there may well be many others;
- there may be a problem with pretentiousness, ‘Empty truth s a medicine without a sickness, no time like the present tense of absolute ionic discharge’ is one of several sentences that might be trying too hard to say not very much;
- Some of the sentences are incredibly complex and require huge amounts of concentration with little reward.
Reasons to bother
The first and most obvious point to be made is that this is a significant departure made by our most important poet. The second point is that it isn’t too difficult to ‘reach’, the subtitle is ‘On What There Is’ and much of it appears to be a working through of existing and not existing. There are a number of repeated words and motifs running through the text together with the expected polemic against the financial elite.
It is true that there’s a lot to get immersed in and that some bits might be quite annoying. In terms of complexity, this gives a flavour and is also one of the clearest parts of KD:
Yet for not tell is possible as cannot be in a world by zero
frequency across bounded separation its fringe charge return con-
tour, biplane rotation never breviate over its own pitch, or
'there is no place void of being, for the void id nothing; but
that which is nothing could not exist; so then being is not moved;
it is impossible for it to go anywhere, if there is no void.' And
by the line of correction if the void is nothing, is nothing what
by self-likeness the void is and so by necessity to have this field;
of being; and is it full or empty or changing through time and if
hardly can be spoken of this as what also is, must that also set
limit to thought itself and is the limit finite or would be. If
the void does not exist it must be full of non-existence, out to
the brim which must exist in its location since not all is void,
thus it is the void is not nameless but at its natural frequency
else generic within limitless non-existence it could not be named,
into its proper non-being. The song of birds that do not sing,
because there are none where else would they sing, not from distance
nor migrancy, the not-song is from not-being and not merely not
there nor not-possible not silentness failing rapt upon attentive
The paragraph then proceeds with a scientific quote about electromagnetic fields and ‘vacuum devoid of matter’. The quote included above is from Melissos of Samos whose ‘On Nature’ is listed in the reference cues. I’m sure that most will agree that this is remarkably clear and direct when placed against the rest of Prynne’s recent work. It’s also very clear when compared with the rest of KD. There is a debate to be had as to whether ‘straight’ philosophy can be done by means of poetry and I remain to be convinced. I think poetry can be philosophical or have a philosophical aspect or dimension but I have yet to encounter a successful poem that is exclusively focused on a philosophical issue or thesis.
I readily acknowledge that Oslon’s ‘Maximus Poems’ has Whitehead’s ‘Process and Reality’ at its core but the argument is never forced and is only occasionally directly addressed. Prynne seems to be aware of the dangers inherent inherent in the philosophical poem by his use of the very poetic birdsong as example. The move from the 5th century BC to the present on the same theme is indicative of this intriguing philosophy/science mix throughout. The most recent philosopher in the reference cues is Boethius from 6th century Rome although Hegel’s negation of the negation gets a mention in the text.
Of course, most of the rest is incredibly dense and resistant to most modes of reading – “My sunshine parlance would be donative adoring laterally, raise spirits in water egg cancelled, the tense ever deceptive never topaz febrile shift.” This doesn’t need to be off-putting, it is more amenable (pliable?) than some of the more austere recent work and the use of quotes does at least give some direction to work around. It would appear that Prynne is using the quotes to develop and amplify his own train of thought and the voyeur in me always enjoys watching someone else think.
Other reasons to bother would include: the oddness of the enterprise; the fact that nobody else is doing this in this way; to reject the meaningless charges of elitism and pretentiousness and to celebrate what seems to be a new variation on the collision with the unwitty circus….