Tag Archives: prynne

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.

Poetry and the academy

In my journey up Mount Prynne I’ve been looking at some of the academic work that sets out to elucidate the poems and place Prynne in a wider context. The Jacket site has been particularly useful in this regard but unfortunately most of the stuff on there is couched in dense and (to the lay reader) impenetrable terms which doesn’t actually elucidate the work but does serve to further mystify and complicate the business of climbing Mount Prynne. I cite as evidence Kevin Nolan who writes- “rather than a merely mechanical materialism or, even worse, a Heideggerian apophatics which would collapse the autonomy of the poem in the rush towards a negative theology of the unennhalte?” How many people, other than post-graduates, are going to be entirely familiar with the meaning of this?

There’s also the issue of value in poetry and the fact that an impossibly elitist and obscure discourse on poets and their work effectively destroys that value by means of exclusion. This is not to say that I am against theory nor am I against the various European brands of criticism per se. I do recall however watching with some dismay as deconstruction, post-structuralism and all things Foucault started to seep into the Anglo-Saxon world in the early eighties. This seepage has produced what is, at best, a bastardisation of the original ideas and, at worst, a complete travesty of what was meant.

I need also to say that there are some insights in Mr Nolan’s piece but the hapless reader does need to wade through the bullshit to get at them. Unlike David Harvey, I don’t think that Eng Lit has entirely lost it’s theoretical way  but I do feel that attempting to be more ‘difficult’ than difficult poets themselves are does nobody any good. Criticism, if its any good, should provide readers and students with the wider context and provide the tools for us to appreciate the poems finer points. Alastair Fowler’s gloss on Paradise Lost, for example, tells me about the way Milton makes use of astronomy and of the significance of numbers in the poem’s  construction.  I can then choose whether or not to marvel at the astronmical invention and puzzle over the numbers but Fowler also lets me know that these are not barriers to understanding. George Steiner writes with great warmth and enthusiasm about Paul Celan but he does this with far more clarity than many members of the academy.

So, this is a plea for Eng Lit to sort itself out and to remember that obscurity and quality do not always go hand in hand and that ‘difficult’ poets do should not be written about in difficult terms.