Tag Archives: on contradiction

J H Prynne in The Paris Review.

This is the first Prynne interview in Quite Some Time and it gives some valuable insight into both the man and his work. What follows is not so much an analysis but a further development of the arduity position on this particular exponent of the poetic craft. I’ll probably follow this with a crass comparison with Geoffrey Hill’s interview in the same rag many years ago, mainly because I haven’t done this for a while.

It’s probably best to proceed by means of headings;

Beginnings.

Prynne studied under Donald Davie and was initially focusing on Pound and William Carlos Williams and then Davie signposted Charles Tomlinson whose work in turn led to that of Wallace Stevens who is described as ‘a seriously intellectual poet of cerebral focus committed to an active intelligence of mind’ which Prynne didn’t find in either Pound, Creeley or Olson.

He is quite self deprecating about his early attempts at poetic practice and explains his repudiation of Force of Circumstance by describing it as being the product of ‘the extremely uncomfortable experience of being a beginner’. He does however see this collection as his way of making a start on the difficult business of placing his work in the public sphere.

As might be expected, there is some disparagement of the Movement group whose work is described as very defensive and traditional who were attracted to Eliot much more than Pound. We’re pleased about this because it is very similar to the arduity view although I’d add that the traditional thread has led to the dismal state of nearly all anglophone work today. I now have by my side Penguin Modern Poets 14 from 1969 which contains some of Tomlinson’s work and was bought at about that time when, as a callow youth, I was devouring as much poetry as I could. Prynne describes Tomlinson as a landscape poet and that, together with Williams, he provided a backdrop to Prynne’s early thoughts about producing his own work.

Re-reading poets that you’ve almost forgotten about is a mixed experience, the least pleasant of these has been Robert Lowell whose malevolent mediocrity clashed in a Very Big Way with the clear impression made on my adolescence. Tomlinson turns out to be much better than I recall, one page has the corner folded over so I’m guessing I did at one of the readings what I used to do. The mix of Stevens and Tomlinson does seem to be unlikely but that might be because I haven’t paid much attention to the latter. It’s also at odds with my previous belief that Prynne’s early main interests were in Wordsworth and Olson.

Olson

It turns out that Prynne’s view here is much more qualified than this reader had previously assumed. He doesn’t like the Mayan poems and think that some parts of Maximus are unduly self-indulgent:

I’m afraid the same would have been true with Olson. Some intelligent friend should have said, Look, Charlie, it’s all very well, but there comes a point where you’re answerable for certain uses of material. Your readers and students are going to say; Are we to follow down these roads. And if so, where are they going to take us? If you don’t care about these questions, then you’ve abandoned one of the important things that it means to be a poet. Yeats made a regular ass of himself in his adoption of spiritiualist blarney, even if he was just playing with it.

(The odd punctuation in the above is produced verbatim).

More on Prynne

J H Prynne Interview in the Paris Review.

Reading J H Prynne

Being Surprised by J H Prynne’s “Morning”.

Infusing with J H Prynne.

Infusing with J H Prynne Again.

J H Prynne and Money- the case of Biting the Air

Mind-altering verse, the case of Prynne’s Streak~Willing~Entourage~Artesian./a>

J H Prynne’s Truth: an intial recce

J H Prynne’s Al-Dente

J H Prynne, the Neolithic andLandscape.

J H Prynne and Beginnings

Prynne on poetry

Prynne and difficulty

Catching up with Prynne

Prynne on Wordsworth

Reading Prynne very carefully

Prynne’s Mental Ears

Impenetrable Prynne?

Prynne’s Sub Songs

The ‘same’ refers to Ezra Pound and his use of bonkers (technical term) economic theories in The Cantos. Olson’s irresponsibility refers to ‘bungling around’ with various fields of study, Prynne highlights archaeology, Nordic myths, Old Icelandic verse, and glyph languages as examples where he was affecting a knowledge that he didn’t have. I now have a couple of confessions to make. I read Maximus in a vain attempt to get a foothold on All Things Prynne. Needless to say this wasn’t forthcoming but I found the poem completely involving. I also discovered that Prynne had done some work in putting part three together prior to publication and then he and Olson had some kind of falling out. From this I’d assumed that Prynne admired the work without any but the smallest reservations. That’s thus a conclusion that shouldn’t have been leapt to.

The other confession is that I reckon I’m pretty good at sniffing out this kind of bungling in The Poem but on this occasion I assumed Olson did know what he was referring to even though I didn’t pay too much attention to the mythological elements. What I have paid some attention to is Olson’s use of A N Whitehead’s Process and Reality, a difficult work that argues, this is a mangled and very selective precis, that we should be concerned with events rather than things. In fact I’ve used Maximus on arduity to give a shining example of the 20th Century Philosophical Poem. In the light of the above, I may have to revisit at least the parts of the poem that I felt were fairly pertinent in order to check the amount of Bungle that might be present.

Another illusion shattered is the Black Mountain College that lives in my head. This stands at the pinnacle of academic/creative excellence but mostly because of the Rauschenberg / Johns / Twombly trio and Josef Albers rather than the poetry squad. Prynne is critical of what he saw as the bullying culture perpetuated by the teaching staff during Olson’s tenure and makes the same charge of bungling, citing Robert Creeley leading an ‘absurd’ discussion on ‘Putnam’ when he meant George Puttenham.

I’m going to skim over the part that deals with Ed Dorn because his friendship with Prynne is well known and I’m less than keen on his work although I’d probably have a completist’s interest in the ‘fifty binders’ of correspondence between the two.

Marx, Mao and Adorno.

I’ve always thought of Prynne as an old-fashioned leftie without thinking through what that might mean in any greater detail. Here Prynne, by way of illustration, contrasts his position with that of Keston Sutherland, well-known 100% Marxist and his former pupil. He describes his own Marxism as being ‘peculiar and extraneous’ and elaborates this by describing his view of Marx’ work as being ‘a humanistic projection of political narrative. He seems to express some regret at Sutherland’s increasingly Hegelian stance and points out that he’s not really interested by this particular slant. There’s also this preference, if that’s the right noun, for Hegel’s dialectic of nature. I like to think that all of this ‘fits’ with my initial characterisation mainly because it’s redolent of my discussions with activists of that generation.

Prynne’s enthusiasm for Mao takes me by surprise. This leaps out as an extraordinary observation:

I would have been more comfortable in the bad period of Chinese Maoism than I am in the good period of post-Maoist China which is full of unwholesome abandonments of serious disposition.

Which is qualified later with reference to Joseph Needham by:

Contradiction was something he was very familiar with. But the later career of Mao Zedong was a matter of great distress to him, and indeed it was to me. Because it all flies off the rails, most conspicuously with the Cultural Revolution. But there’s a period before this, too, when the agricultural policies are imposed on commune-type farming practise, which have disastrous, terrible, destructive consequences. We in the West didn’t understand that for a very long time. Information was very slow to come through.

Starting with the obvious, the ‘bad period’ was much, much worse than bad. The Great Leap Forward between 1958 and 1961 was a policy of criminal stupidity that killed, by means of famine, between 20 and 45 million people. Those with even a vague understanding of the events (me) know that this was purely ideological and driven by Mao. As with Stalin and the Russian famine of the early thirties, the Great Leap Forward, for me, far more than the Cultural Revolution, destroys Maoism in all it’s forms. It negates all of the many achievements of the Mao period because that number of lives can never be a price worth paying. End of short but heartfelt rant.

In terms of ideology, there’s also this:

The essay “On Contradiction” is one of his major essays. Most Western readers find it nonsensical, and pour scorn on my interest in it- fat lot I care. It’s been a serious connection for me because Mao has a complex understanding of the task of the dialectic. He believes that dialectic is a principle of relationship within the material order itself, and not just within the intellectual order. It has meant a lot to me.

Purely in the interests of research, your humble servant has glanced at “Contradiction” and can report that it doesn’t look like nonsense but nor does it convert me to the dialectic as a method. The arduity position remains entrenched because I don’t understand how it’s supposed to work and how some contradictions can be selected over others. During the summer, in the interests of fairness, I waded through ninety pages of Hegel applying the dialectic to aesthetics and it still doesn’t make sense. With regard to ‘the principle of relationship’, Mao has this; “As a matter of fact, even mechanical motion under external force occurs through the internal contradictoriness of things. Simple growth in plants and animals, their quantative development, is like likewise chiefly the result of their internal contradictions”. The obvious response to this is that it’s incorrect and to draw attention to “as a matter of fact” and “chiefly” but that doesn’t mean that Prynne is deserving of my scorn. It is nevertheless fascinating with regard to Kazoo Dreamboats to learn how much Mao there is in some of even the later work.

Adorno

Further tearing my assumptions asunder we have this which begins with reference to Mao’s dialectic:

It has meant a lot to me. As Adorno’s Negative Dialectics did. I’m not an Adornoite. Quite a lot of Cambridge literary intellectuals have signed up for an Ardorno-type commitment. I’ve never quite been of that commitment, but his understanding of the dialectic process, particular to self-enfranchisement from the metaphysical German tradition, which is so overbearing and so constraining- Adorno finds ingenious and very witty ways of liberating himself from the constraints of the German tradition.

This assumption was that All Things Cambridge were/are wholehearted Adornoites so it comes as a bit of a shock to discover that Prynne has never ‘quite’ been fully signed up to his way of thinking. I’ve just looked back and in 2010 on the bebrowed blog I made an attempt to marry together Adorno’s view on poetry with the Prynne ‘project’. What I didn’t emphasise enough at the time is that Adorno is wrong about the poem and makes the same (ish) mistake as the rest of German tradition in ascribing too much importance to the Poem as a privileged mode of expression.

The simple equation of Prynne = old fashioned leftie Adornite is now mostly jettisoned and replaced by a Maoist old-fashioned leftie with a non-Ardonoite interest in dialectic. I’m not entirely clear why this should matter to me all that much, I’m much more interested in the poetry than a poet’s politics. It may be that, as with Hill, politics clearly matters to Prynne and perhaps the poetry does, from time to time, form a satisfying backdrop to a particular poem or sequence.

Kazoo Dreamboats, a Maoist Poem?

I don’t like KB because I’ve never been sure what it’s trying to get to and I’m not keen on its tone. Incidentally, my bebrowed blog contains more than a few meanderings on this particular piece of awkwardness. ‘Maoist’ is not an adjective that I would have chosen even though it contains two longish quotes from Contradiction. However, the interview’s discussion about Mao starts with:

The discussion about Mao starts with:

The narrative that Mao Zedong invented and devised to produce a native Chinese style of Marxism was and is still extremely interesting to me. That interest is written on the surface and in the crevices all over Kazoo Dreamboats.

I’ll get to this shortly but I’m told that JC in the TLS has poured further scorn on Prynne (fat lot he cares) for confessing in this that he doesn’t know what KD ‘means’. This is an example of the kind of lazy jibe that gets thrown at serious writers, especially Hill and Prynne, of serious work by lit hacks that Should Know Better. Having paid some attention to the words on the page, this is not what Prynne says. He’s very clear that the poem is an exercise in self-contradiction, an account and examination of positions. It’s a should-know-better quip because it ignores the areas that good poets have been exploring down the ages but particularly in the last century. It’s lazy because it preaches to the converted, to the reactionary ignorance of the mainstream literati and it’s a quip because it’s designed for an easy laugh (sneer). In fact, Prynne gives an unusually detailed examination of KD and its composition. This is how it starts:

It was full of an extremely complex system of self-contradictions which ought to produce serious disorder in the thought process, and I simply said to myself, I’m going to let it do that. I contradicted some of my deeply held beliefs and opinions. I deliberately as if by kind of necessitous instinct wrote myself into overt opposition to them.

I’m about to take issue with the implications of this rationale but it can’t be argued that it doesn’t provide more of a ‘meaning’ than most poets of every hue are happy to provide. Can it? My concern here is as a practitioner rather than a reader and whether or not these kinds of process and deployment are more than a little self-indulgent. I’m a Prynne fan and have paid close attention to most of his later work but I’m not that interested in this kind of game, what does interest me is whether the poem is any good. As a maker of poems I’m fairly clear that I wouldn’t inflict this kind of exercise on my audience/readers because it isn’t very interesting. even to me. Of course I didn’t know this rationale when I first read the poem but this information only serves to increase my dislike.

For those who don’t know, it may be as well at this point to mention that all of KD is in prose which takes us into the tricky object that is the prose poem. This isn’t mentioned in the interview but, as it’s the first of this type for a Very Long Time, it might be worth some further consideration.

What does catch my eye however is this idea of a poem as a very ‘complex system’, a notion that gets a more detailed treatment in the Mental Ears and Difficulties in the Translation of Difficult Poems essays. These have lodged a notion of trajectories and connections that slide past each other without actually making the connection, a conceit that has helped this reader get a better grip on ‘difficult’ poetry in general. The question here is whether or not KD is such a system or more of a progressive sequence.

Those who have looked at KD will know that there are a list of 22 ‘Reference Cues’ which are books, essays and pieces of music from the sixth century BC up to the present day. Extracts from some of these of these are produced verbatim in the text of the poem. A few are quite lengthy and are marked off as blockquotes, there are two extracts from the Mao Essay, the second half of one of these is reproduced above, and Langland’s Piers Plowman is used as a repeated device at the beginning of the poem (see below).

Some of these cues are reasonably standard but others aren’t, this is all of them as they appear:

  • V. Adrian Parsegian,Van der Waals Forces: A Handbook for Biologists, Chemists, Engineers, and Physicists (Cambridge 2006).
  • Alexander Atland and Ben Simons, Condensed Matter Field Theory (2nd ed., Cambridge 2010).
  • Andreas Kayser, Mark Knackstedt, Murtaza Ziauddib, ‘A closer look at pore geometry’, Oilfield Review, 16 (2004), 44-61.
  • Leucippus (5th cent. BC), as reported by Diog. Laert,. Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Bk IX, trans. Hicks.
  • Parmenides of Elea, On Nature (c. 490-475 BC), trans. Burnet.
  • Melissos of Samos (follower of Parmenides), On nature (fragments), trans. Fairbanks.
  • Aristotle (384-322 BC), Physics Bk 1, trans. Fairbanks.
  • Kung-sun Lung (d. 252 BC) Pai-ma lun (‘On the White Horse’), trans. (entire) by A.C. Graham in his Disputers of the Tao (La Salle. III., i989), pp.85-90.
  • Richard Bradley, ‘The Land, the Sky and the Scottish Stone Circle’ in Chris Scarne (ed.), Monuments and Landscape in Early Modern Europe; Perception and Society during the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age (London, 2002).
  • Mao Zedong, ‘On Contradiction’ (August, 1937).
  • William Langland, Piers Plowman (c.1360-87), B-Text, ed. Schmidt, C-Text ed. Pearsall.
  • Simonides of Ceos (c 556-469 BC), Frag 453, ‘Lament of DanaĆ«’, sung version by Ed Sanders, ‘DanaĆ« in a box upon the sea’ on DOCD 5073 A 05 (1990): Tiziano Vecelli (Titian), Danae (1554-6, Museo Nazionale, Naples).
  • Sir Philip Sidney, The Old Arcadia (1590), The Fourth Ecologues.
  • Boethius, Consolations of Philosophy, Trans. I.T. (1609).
  • William Shakespeare, Sonnets 1609, &c.
  • William Wordsworth, ‘Tintern Abbey’ (1798), &c.
  • P.B. Shelley, ‘Mont Blanc’ (1817), &c.
  • Alban Berg, Lecture concerning his opera Wozzeck (1929).
  • Tadeusz Borowski ‘The Man with the Package’ in his This Way to the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (London, 1976).
  • Cui Jian, ‘Yi Wu Suoyou’ (1986); http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PeL_CZFI&t8.
  • Christian Wolff, Early Piano Music (1951-1961), played by John Tilbury and others, inlay note to MRCD51 by Michael Parsons (2002).
  • Kevin Davies, Lateral Argument (New York, 2003).

With regard to the first of these, Prynne has this to say:

When I saw that this book,….., had been published by the Cambridge University Press, I just knew it was going to be an important book to me. I couldn’t tell you why but I’d already encountered this phenomenon of molecular forces and I knew I was going to care about it, partly because it was going to support a certain instinct I had about the structure of material things, which was increasingly an important question to me. I’d become a materialist in some abstract sense of the word, more progressively as my thought practises have developed.

In the interests of completism, I have a copy of this tome on my hard drive and have to report that I have major problems getting past the first three pages. This is because I’m mostly clueless about science and Very Bad at equations but it’s also because I don’t find it interesting. However, if I was interested, then I might make some effort to get a grasp on the outline of the theory But life is probably too short to make it a priority.

KD and Piers Plowman.

Moving on to something that I’m more familiar with, Prynne explains the presence of Langland (the use of “I saw” at the beginning of some paragraphs) with:

The one major thing was this extremely unexpected and forceful presence of Langland and the Piers Plowman enterprise. He just appeared, I took that very seriously. Partly because the structural contradictions in Langland’s thought were so central to the whole idea of his being a poet and doing the tasks of poetry. The Franciscan idea of a sacred poverty was so important to him and was so visibly violated by everything in the social world around him. He cares deeply and is worried stiff by what kind of answers he can find to the questions of human conduct, the questions of equitable justice, the questions of honourable satisfaction of one’s sacred religious duties. The line movement and the whole structure of these rather long lines that Langland writes are movements of profound worry. He suffered this poem, and didn’t avoid what writing it seems to have been thrust upon him.

It so happens, for entirely different reasons, that I’ve been making my slow but attentive way through the Pearsall edition of Piers for Quite some Time and I’m now intrigued about these ‘structural contradictions’ and what it might mean to suffer a poem. This tentative response is especially provisional because I’m only halfway through the poem but feel that I might be able to identify something of what might be meant. I must also confess that I’m only familiar with the ‘C’ text although I understand that this is a milder social critique than the ‘B’.

As Pearsall points out, the main concern about the Franciscan itinerant preachers was that they had betrayed the original principles of their order by using their position by pursuing material gain rather than adhering to their initial vow of poverty. I’m not convinced by Pearsall’s suggestion that Langland was further trouble that his role could also be seen as a travelling beggar. What does seem more pertinent is the role of Rechelesness, a character who is both cynical about and defiant of Christian teaching and practice. This oppositional view is expressed with such force and clarity that this character might be seen as our poet’s alter ego, as the embodiment of doubts and anxieties that have beset our poet. These kind of doubts may well cause this kind of afflicted soul to be ‘worried stiff’ about the answers to his questions.

Prynne describes the difficult business of becoming and being a poet in a particularly heartfelt way and I’m guessing that he’s also suffered more than a few poems in his long career. I’m sure that many poets are familiar with the experience of being compelled to express some keenly held concern yet are daunted by what the result of such a poem might be I struggle with an unhealthy mix of cynicism and moral doubt which continues to hinder my attempts to address the things that mean the most to me.

In the course of writing the above, I’ve given more than a little attention to KD and have to confess that I find it more or less unreadable. This comes as a shock as I usually take great pleasure in attending to the rest of the opus. Prynne indicates that he’s quite ambiguous about it and seems a little mystified as to why he wrote it in this particular way. I still have to observe that I don’t think it works.

In conclusion, a fascinating interview with many other elements that I’ve omitted. It gives many insights to both the man and his work over the last 50 years. If anyone needs a copy, please e-mail me at bebrowed@gmail.com and I’ll send you the pdf.

J H Prynne, Mao Zedong, William Langland and the difficult poem

Having spent most of last week polishing the arduity site, I’ve had the opportunity to reconsider the scope of the project, which was initially about encouraging people to tackle work that is usually considered to be difficult. Since then I think I’ve modified my own understanding of the difficult and become a bit less zealous about converting everyone to the joys of this material. In fact, I’m now seeing it as a more detailed and thorough mulling over of stuff that is often ignored because of the ‘D’ tag.

The other lesson learned is that it’s a mistake to worry about definition, to try and compartmentalise the various facets that people might find intimidating / obscure / baffling. It is probably best to try and give examples and to concentrate on how they work or function rather than what they might mean. This is the current premise and has so far resulted in pages on ‘Scenes from Comus’, ‘The Triumph of Love’, and ‘Mercian Hymns’as well as a long page on the first three parts / chapters of David Jones’ ‘In Parenthesis’.

All of this is a way of getting ready to re-write the Celan and Prynne pages, add something on the notes to the Meridian which was published last year and to try and say something useful about ‘Kazoo Daydreams’ without scaring off those new to either poet. I want to use this to illustrate some of the problems that ‘KD’ presents. In amongst the ‘reference cues’ at the back there is an apparently famous speech ‘On Contradiciton’ from 1937 which, Wikipedia tells me, “is considered his most important philosophical essay”. I’ll deal with what Prynne does with this in a moment but ‘Piers Plowman’ (in both ‘B’ and ‘C’ texts’ is also listed and these present a similar kind of difficulty.

I think I need to point out that I’ve never been keen on this Marxian contradiction rigmarole primarily because (it seems to me) that the selection of the contradictory elements needed to achieve a resolution is too arbitrary and has led (oddly) to the reification of dialectical materialism at the expense of other methods of analysis. The part of the speech that Prynne has included exemplifies this particular tendency.

The other part of getting some structure into life is to engage with the late Medieval period and Middle English. I started with Thomas Hoccleve and am now oscillating between him and Langland. I didn’t think there would be too much in Piers Plowman that would need unpicking but then (yesterday) I got to an extended grammatical analogy which is in the ‘C’ text but not in either ‘A’ or ‘B’. This relates to the nature of reward and is part of a fascinating debate reflecting the economic anxieties of the latter half of the fourteenth century and can be considered hard to grasp at a number of different levels.

So far, ‘KD’ has three themes / subjects which are reasonably clear, the first relates to being and un-being, the second to contradiction and the third is a kind of response to the current economic fiasco which continues to destroy lives across the planet.

The thoughts on contradiction take their cue from these extracts from the 1937 essay:

There is internal contradiction in every single thing, hence its motion and development. Contradictoriness within a thing is the fundamental cause of its development, while its interrelations and interactions with other things are secondary causes……It is evident that purely external causes can only give rise to mechanical motion, that is, to changes in scale or quantity, but cannot explain why things differ qualitatively in thousands of ways and why one thing changes into another. As a matter of fact, even mechanical motion under external force occurs through the internal contradictoriness of things. Simple growth in plants and animals, their quantitative development, is likewise chiefly the result of their internal contradictions.

and-

But is it enough to say merely that each of the contradictory aspects is the condition for the other’s existence, that there is identity between them and that consequently they can coexist in a single entity? No, it is not. The matter does not end with their dependence on each other for their existence; what is more important is their transformation into each other. That is to say, in given conditions, each of the contradictory aspects within a thing transforms itself into its opposite, changes its position to that of its opposite.

Prynne follows this with:

I saw these gaps of explanation rolling like wheels contrary within
themselves, alien motions on fire with coriolis demeanour. I saw
the grains self-rotate in their own amazement with noise of spheres
metallic and burnished, along the baseline it is by amount at
principle neither so nor not because contradiction is inherent and
not alternate in sense-ordering. I saw this notion in full fiery
finesse, alive alive-o.

( For the sake of accuracy, I’ve maintained the line breaks as published).

Both of these are blockquoted paragraphs, but there is also:

...............................................'External causes
are the condition of change and internal cause are the basis
of change, and external causes become operative through internal causes'.
Mourning does become the law but not this one, to be is not to
become or at fault with moment practice was what can I say I saw,
darker than ever dark to be'.

The dilemma here has a number of dimensions, the first concerns the Marx – Lenin – Mao lineage and the variations along the way and the second concerns the relationship between the quote and what follows. I’ve just had the dubious pleasure of wading through all of the essay and really wouldn’t want to inflict this on anyone else partially because people may be overwhelmed by the apparent density therein and because I’d be tempted to point out the very high nonsense factor. As the essay is used on three separate occasions however I will have to try and provide some context- including the fact that this made Mao’s reputation as an ideologue/theorist which was instrumental in his rise to power. I’ll resist the temptation to go on about the genocidal Great Leap Forward and his readiness to kill more than 40 million people for the sake of an ideological nicety but this won’t be easy.

I have no problem with identifying the ‘Molly Malone’ lyric and waxing eloquent about Prynne’s interest in the work song, nor with puzzling over the nature of the spheres, nor with speculating about the abiding presence of ‘sense order’ in Prynne’s work.

Given the presence of contradiction throughout ‘KD’, playing down this element and concentrating on the other concerns is nevertheless dishonest so I’ll probably try to present an overview, link to what David Harvey says about contradiction and leave readers to pursue this further if they so wish.

There’s also the sad fact that I’m both deeply partisan and opinionated and what I get from poems may not be a true reflection of what is probably available to others. For example, when Geoffrey Hill uses ‘self’ in any context I have this need to go into ‘selving’ and ‘inscape’ at very great length because that’s what I want to take rather than what might actually be there.

I’ll also indulge myself with extensive quotes from Gillian Rose on Poussin and on her debate with Sister Wendy and point to what Prynne said about Professor Rose at his reading of ‘Refuse Collection’- I may even bring Geoffrey Hill’s memorialisation into things and try and make some kind of point re Rose’s denunciation of all post-structural thought and Jacques Derrida in particular”.

‘KD’ is written mostly in the form of a medieval dream-vision poem with heavy use of the ‘I saw’ trope which is how ‘Piers’ starts. Prior to paying attention to Langland, I wouldn’t have seen the parallels between this and ‘KD’ but I now see that both are in part a response to changing economic circumstances and that neither take the easy option of presenting one ‘side’ or the other but leave readers to do the ‘thought work’ instead. As noted above, the poem does have remarkably obdurate sections but it is also a very real discussion of the anxieties and resentments that pervaded England at the time – for all kinds of reasons. This is how the grammatical analogy in the ‘C’ text of Passus III begins:

        Thus is mede and mercede as two maner
rellacions,
Rect and indirect, reminde bothe
On a sad and a siker sembable to hemsuluen.
Ac adiectif and substantif vnite aske
And accordance in kynde, in case and in nombre,
And ayther is otheres help - of hem cometh retribucuon,
And that is the gyft that god giveth to all lele living,
Grace of good end and gret joye aftur:

The problem here is about just how much context do people want and how much this may be of assistance rather than providing further obfuscation. I think it’s important to try and get this right if only to demonstrate that poetic difficulty isn’t confined to the modernist thread and because it’s a wonderful example of the poem as engaged political commentary. I don’t have problem with clarifying the language and elements of the analogy, nor with presenting an overview of the argument but I do get a bit unstuck with the detail of the economic realities, of ‘bastard feudalism’ and the workings of orthodox ideas about retribution and grace. This is because there needs to be a balance between enabling people feel confident about the poem and swamping them with (partisan and partial) context even though that might be useful.

Geoffrey Hill, J H Prynne and Gillian Rose

Plough Match 2012 Julian Winslow

In an effort to counter the liking-Prynne-means-that-you-can’t-like-Hill (and vice versa) syndrome I make sporadic attempts to identify similarities/affinities between the two. So far the primary one is admiration for the work of Paul Celan. I’ve recently come across another mutual affinity in Gillian Rose. Hill’s poem, ‘In Memoriam Gillian Rose’ was published in ‘A Treatise of Civil Power’ in 2007 and Prynne speaks about his friendship with Rose in his introduction to the reading of ‘Refuse Collection’ which is on the Archive of the Now. ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’, the latest and strangest Prynne offering contains a reference to Rose’s ‘Mourning Becomes the Law’ which is described as the philosophical version of her ‘Love’s Work’.

For those who don’t know, Rose was one of our brightest academics until her early death from cancer at the age of 48 in 1995. Up until the end of her life she wrote with enormous clarity and a fierce commitment to the ethical strengths of the European tradition which she saw as being undermined by the post structural and the post modern. ‘Love’s Work’ is a kind of autobiography which includes an account of her intellectual development and a brutally factual description of her battle with cancer. It is beautifully written and incredibly moving. I can say this because I was moved and this doesn’t occur very often.

Rose was also the finest writer of polemic that I have come across. Her demolition of Derrida’s ‘Of Spririt’ is a delightful example of how these things should be done- and I speak as one who is sympathetic to Derrida. I readily concede that ‘Of Spirit’ is probably his weakest work and that it’s a relatively (pun intended) easy target but the level of destruction wreaked is extreme, no prisoners are taken and it is a pleasure to watch an expert at work. She’s even better than Alistair Fowler in full flight. Incidentally, something very similar to the Rose position can be found occasionally in the poetry of Keston Sutherland and Simon Jarvis but neither come close to Rose’s verbal ferocity and wit.

Hill’s poem is remarkable because it is clearly heartfelt and that it probaly reveals more about the poet than it does about Rose. The poem recognises that Rose would have responded negatively to his wooing and “wiped me / in the championship finals of dislike” which is very, very likely but he also has this:

5
Your anger against me might have been wrath
concerning the just city. Or poetry's
assumption of rule. Or its role
as wicked governor. This abdication
of self-censure indeed hauls it
within your long range of contempt

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unlike metaphysics which you had time for,
rewedded to the city, a salutation
to Pallas, goddess of all polemics
to Phocion's wife - who shall be nameless -
in Poussin's painting, gathering the disgraced
ashes of her husband. As you rightly said,
not some mere infinite love, a finite act
of political justice.
Not many would see that.

This might just be my perspective but isn’t the last phrase massively patronising? Isn’t it likely that Rose would have taken greater exception to being patronised by Geoffrey Hill than being wooed by him? The Poussin reference is an allusion to the first chapter of ‘Mourning Becomes the Law where Rose makes a case for the action of the wife’s servant in anxiously watching over her mistress as signalling an act of justice.

Moving on to Prynne, I have remarked before that we are assisted by the inclusion of a list of “reference cues” at the end of the poem yet neither John Skelton (two references to ‘Speke, Parrot) nor Rose are included. ‘Mourning Becomes the Law’ is referred to with unusual clarity:

.......................................Look out for dread it's your
letter speciality, bunk of delirium day-trading. 'External causes
are the condition of change and internal causes are the basis of
change, and external causes become operative through internal causes'.
Mourning does become the law but not this one, to be is not to
become or at fault with moment practice was what can I say I saw,
darker than ever dark to be.

This may or may not be helpful but the quote is from Mao Zedong’s ‘On Contradiction’ essay from 1937 which is one of the listed reference cues. The ‘I saw’ motif that runs through the poem is likely to be an allusion to Middle English dream poems.

I do not want to get bogged down in the finer points of Marxist debate but would like to note that “not this one” refers to the quote which is part of a much broader thesis. It’s also useful to note how Rose explained her title:

Post-modernism in its renunciation of reason, power, and truth identifies itself as a process of endless mourning, lamenting the loss of securities which, on its own argument, were none such. Yet this everlasting melancholia accurately monitors the refusal to let go, which I express in the phrase describing post-modernism as ‘despairing rationalism without reason’. One recent ironic aphorism for this static condition between desire for presence and acceptance of absence occurs in an interview by Derrida: ‘I mourn therefore I am’. by contrast Mourning Becomes the Law affirms that the reassessment of reason, gradually rediscovering its own movable boundaries as it explores the boundaries of the soul, the city and the sacred can complete its mourning. Completed mourning envisages the creative involvement of action in the configurations of power and law: it does not find itself unequivocally in a closed circuit which exclusively confers logic and power. In the title, Mourning Becomes the Law, ‘Become entertains the gradual process involved, and the connotation of ‘suiting’ or ‘enhancing’ in the overcoming of mourning.

All of this seems eminently sensible and the correct response to the post-modern absence of substance and there is no doubting Rose’s sincerity in making her case. As with all of these arguments however I still get the impression that there’s too much protesting going on coupled with a failure to set forward a credible agenda. It’s also telling that the focus of most of this opprobrium is on Derrida whose long term influence may not be as great as either Foucault or Deleuze.

I’ve said in the past that I’m not convinced that philosophy is a fit and proper subject for poetry. I’ve since modified that position and am now of the view that only those poems that are exclusively philosophical are bad poems. For example, the Mutability Cantos at the end of ‘The Faerie Queene’ would be bad if they weren’t viewed as part of that magnificent epic. Hill’s poem is a poem about a philosopher rather than a philosophical poem and is therefore excluded. ‘Kazoo Dreamboats’ contains a wide range of elements, some of which relate to philosophy and one of the main themes (non-being) is more than a little philosophical but I’ll continue to give it the benefit of the doubt.

So, another similarity even though Hill may also have been motivated by Rose’s ‘deathbed conversion’ to Christianity, both will have recognised a formidable talent regardless of ideological stance.

Incidentally, Simon Jarvis also acknowledges her support in his book on Adorno.