Tag Archives: solitary reaper

J H Prynne and ardency in Streak~~Willing~~Entourage~~Artesian

In the past I’ve taken the ‘forensic’ route with the above sequence, reproducing one of the poems and then trying to identify those phrases that might make some kind of sense. I find this process to be both absorbing and addictive so this is an attempt to wean myself off ‘close’ reading and give some consideration to the sequence as a whole.

I’m still making the assumption that the poems in ‘Streak’ are linked in ways other than the fact that each consists of six quatrains and that one of these linkages relates to the recent civil war in Ulster with a specific focus on the hunger strikes of 1980 and 1981. Having re-read the sequence a couple of times I think I’ve identified a number of places where things become more than a little intense.

Before identifying these, I’d like to give some consideration to what Prynne says in ‘Field Notes’ about Wordsworth’s use of ‘O’ in ‘The Solitary Reaper’. I don’t want to precis the finer points of his analysis, which is both complicated and wonderful, but I do want to point out that for him the use of ‘O’ in poetry is an expression of strong emotion and/or feeling. I also want to think about this:

The motive for ardency is in part supplied by the scarcely bridgeable rift between the possibly actual and the intensely desired (the two senses of listen even in deep memory this separation must remain a disruption to unified human consciousness, which may in this era locate one of the primal tasks of the poet of this kind to make danger or desire upon the surface of the universal earth.

The ‘point’ of this is that ‘oh’ does occur in the ‘Streak’ sequence and there appear to be other statements of intense feeling as well. With regard to Ulster, is it reasonable to characterise British involvement in the recent ‘Troubles’ as attempting in part to resolve the gulf between what was possible and what was desired by the various factions. This, of course, could be yet another example of me running away with myself but it does seem worth bearing in mind at this stage.

Now we come to timing and the fact that ‘Streak’ was the first work to be published after ‘Field Notes’ and the observation that ‘To Pollen’ doesn’t contain a single ‘Oh’. The only other relevant observation is that the above seems to be a quite ardent/fervent expression of what poetry (of this kind) might be about at a quite deep level.

‘Streak’ almost begins with an ‘oh’, this is the first stanza and a bit of the first poem-

Inside the tight closed box off it was it was out
a same summer box oh then at must closed on all
or maybe often maybe open to one side glaze be
in part to spill affirm partial along a rim ballast

Ready known,…………….

Beginning to think about ‘oh then at must’ I think I see what Robert Potts meant when he described this sequence in one word – “impenetrable” but there are do appear to be a number of ways in. The first is to ask what difference would there be if the ‘oh’ wasn’t present. When I say ‘oh then’ this tends to indicate that I have just realised something and am extrapolating from it. For example, if I’m told that it is raining I may respond with ‘oh, then I won’t go for a walk until later’ because walking in the rain isn’t much fun.

I’m struggling to see how ‘at must’ relates in any way to ardency especially when placed with this flurry of repetition. There is a very, very slight possibility that ‘must’ is actually the Middle English variant of ‘most’ and a slightly greater chance that it is used as an expression of ” a command, obligation, or necessity; (hence) an obligation, a duty; a compulsion” (OED). I’m currently inclined towards ” Expressing a fixed or certain futurity: am (is, are) fated or certain to, shall certainly or inevitably” because it seems to fit best with the certainty of ‘it was it was’ and contrasts with the maybes in the following line.

The second use of ‘oh’ occurs in the fifth stanza of the same poem-

Recital to side, same with to side livid in part
newly profuse did civic offer on a dial, sweep
flight oh disposal profligate buck more in and
ready. Tantric cube up tight seam, signal limit

The previous stanza ends with a full stop so this extract does contain the full sentence. Things may be a bit clearer in this instance. The notorious use of internment (imprisonment without trial) by the British government between 1971 and 1975 resulted in a rise in the membership of paramilitary groups. So ‘sweep flight’ may refer to the initial arrests and ‘profligate disposal’ to the fact that many (over 1900) were incarcerated whilst ‘buck more in and ready’ may refer to internment causing more individuals to go against ‘normal’ law-abiding practices and to join the IRA and other groups and to be ready to participate in violent acts. If this is the case then ‘oh’ here is likely to represent an ardent (as in keenly felt) lament or disappointment at the brutality and crass stupidity that characterised so much of British policy throughout the seventies.

The third ‘oh’ takes me back into bafflement territory although there are a few more footholds-

let lid flicker, stand up. Said what choice spoken

Quickly at a brag do they when not or if profound
same brows matching oh weigh out lamp for show fly
forward, must do. Weed wet they say would you de-
lay hard trimming fast the sluice unclued eye into.

I have spent ten minutes in the company of rules 88 and 89 of the Hong Kong Jockey Club and can now confirm that a jockey ‘weighs out’ before a race and weighs in after it and that the rules about this are quite complex. This, of course, does not help with either the bafflement or the ardency. The eagle-eyed amongst you will note the proximity of ‘must’ and some may recall that ‘lamp’ as a verb can mean to strike or to thrash, especially in northern dialect. So somebody may be being beaten up in order to either deter or intimidate others. ‘Brag’ as a verb can mean both arrogant and boastful language and a ” Show, pomp, display; pompous demeanour or carriage” which brings to my mind the deeply weird Orange marches that continue to be such a source of conflict.

If this particular ‘oh’ does not indicate ardency then might it indicate a kind of bored resignation because all parties during the Troubles continued to make the same mistakes and adopt the same nonsensical ‘positions’. There’s also the slim possibility that the verification involved in weighing out a jockey might nod towards the actions of the independent group set up to monitor if the IRA was actually disarming.

The fourth ‘oh’ (from the eighth poem) doesn’t offer any obvious footholds-

at the boundary. Draw back torted, for fraction unlit
decept inner bark what frame oh how not even upright

Is the surface entire all for them compose him runnel
delegate incision, enjoy the permit gates, be tint likely
pitch acid hob. Loop for fray unpick over flint skies.

I’m not going to even attempt the ‘torted’. ‘decept’, ‘runnel’ route because that is likely to take me into forensic fretting over signification and what I’m trying to do here is to examine the nature of the ‘oh’. It can of course be argued that in order to grasp the oh then I need to understand the context. I accept this but also point out that this particular ‘oh’ seems to be another expression of either dismay, exasperation or disappointment and doesn’t seem to contain very much ardency- although we can be ardently exasperated, can’t we?

The final ‘oh’ (from the penultimate poem) is a bit more promising-

folder wasted in a cratch, into that. Did they wear better
busy neck-piece jesting harmonious interlock bundle tag
agreement oh same training striker defect. All same lock

‘Same’ is repeated throughout the sequence and one day I will try and make sense of the various ways in which it is deployed. Is this particular same involved in some kind of coaching or education? Does ‘striker’ refer to hunger striker and what might this defect be? The strike was in part an extension of the blanket protest against the withdrawal of political status for IRA prisoners and the requirement that such prisoners should wear ‘ordinary’ prison uniform. I’d like to think that this ‘oh’ is an expression of fervent regret but that might be more about my feelings about the hunger strike than Prynne’s.

None of this is terribly helpful in terms of ‘joining up the dots’ and doesn’t bode well for trying to do the same with other recurring features but it does lead me to think much more about the sequence as a whole which is a Good Thing. Incidentally, there are references to keenly felt emotions that are completely ‘oh’ free…

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.