Tag Archives: streak willing entourage artesian

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…

Neruda, Prynne and repetition

Given that thinking about repetition has enabled me to write some verse, I’ve been half-looking for the way that it has been used by others. I recalled my favourite Neruda poem “Explico algunas cosas” ably translated as “I’m Explaining a Few Things” by Nathaniel Tarn. I could go on for a very long time about how good this poem is and how everybody should read it but instead I just want to draw attention to the end of the poem which repeats the same sentence twice. The sentence is “Venid a ver la sangre por las calles” which Tarn renders as “Come and see the blood in the streets”. The only difference between the repeats is in line length and punctuation:

Venid a ver la sangre por las calles,
venid a ver

la sangre por las calles,
enid a ver la sangre

por las calles!

This is an echo of the startling “and the blood of the children ran through the streets / without fuss, like children’s blood” which occurs halfway through the poem.
So here we have a poem which is about the Spanish Civil War and which uses repetition to give emphasis to one particular horrific image. Whether this ‘works’ or not is open to debate but it had made enough of an impression on me to remember it for twenty five years without actually re-reading the poem.
We then move on to the entirely different case of Jeremy Prynne. I think in a previous post I’d referred to a poem in the “Word Order” sequence that seems to make use of repetition-

He took his chance
first right he took
no chance first

at the front gate
or no right
chance to take

to first front
gate right gate right
they take no front

a cloudless sky

(There should be a bigger gap between the third stanza and the last line but WordPress won’t play ball).
Being deeply shallow, I have in the past described this as a ‘riff’ and have gone so far as to take issue with John Wilkinson’s much more complex explanation. I don’t intend to offer any further interpretation here other than to point out that a lot of words do get repeated in a very few lines.
Whilst thinking about this I realised that the word ‘same’ can denote a repetition and that this word is used somewhat bafflingly in “Streak~Willing~Entourage~Artesian” and that I’d put off thinking about this use whilst trying to work out what Prynne is saying.
So, I had another look- this is the first poem in the sequence:

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 parted along a rim ballast

Ready known, the same on over the way up be aim
superflux be fillip finger tight eddy cluster for
test the cover to seal better by close not closed
in her cone practice modify. To maul the out-sign

More at blanket turn, prior the blanket, over out
side did tear or torn smatter hot shut right off
tipping exclusion . Same day mainly deprive rank
serve for service, at same hours total. Deeper

Fold to box to fill to undersell nor roving shame
spelled got hurt by a burn. Same too fast joined
by the flap cover trickle or stream cut solid then
cut your hand the close hand perfectly yours for.

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

Galvanic who will meet who would, as to camber
one side slipped over close fit: alter presume
that shutter way, his also servile blank package
the box befitted frank aside simulate by adoption.

The attentive among you will recognise that there is a fair amount of repetition going one here in addition to the frequent use of ‘same’.

Every now and then I try to give myself a break from Prynne and immerse myself in other stuff, I especially try to take a break from “Streak~” because thinking about it fills up my head and I do have a life to lead. However this repetition coincidence proved far too attractive for me to ignore. The first thing to note is the bits that are repeated as well as the use of ‘same’. I’ve made a list:

it was it was
a same summer box
maybe often maybe
the same on over the way
More at blanket turn, prior the blanket
did tear or torn
same day
serve for service
at same hours total
same too fast
at your hand the close hand perfectly yours for
Recital to the side, same with to side livid in part
who will meet who would

There is also the frequent use of ‘box’, ‘tight’ and ‘side’ to consider.

In the past I’ve put forward the view that this sequence is in part ‘about’ the recent civil war in Ulster and this is further justified here by the use of blanket which I’m taking as a reference to the blanket protest carried out by Republican prisoners at the Maze prison in response to the British government’s decision to deny them political status. This led eventually to the hunger strike at the prison which killed ten men.

This, of course, is nothing more than a guess but it’s a guess that’s informed by bits from other parts of the sequence and I have yet to come across anything that points in another direction other than the ‘same plastic fervid embankment’ in the third poem.

Without venturing into possible meanings for any of this poem, it is profitable to look at the way that certain words are used. We start with something being inside a box that is shut tight and that this thing is said to be both ‘off’ and ‘out’. Things get much more complicated on the second line with the appearance of a ‘summer box’ that might be closed on all sides but also may only be closed on three, the fourth side being glazed.

Prior to opening the OED, I threw ‘box ‘ and ‘same’ around in my head and it occurred to me that a lot of British political thinking about and attitude towards Ireland hasn’t changed in any significant fashion since the 16th century and a lot of our dealings with the Irish stems from the same set of false imperial perceptions which have caused conflict to repeat itself in the same way through the years.

I then started to wonder about ‘box’ as a more abstract term, as a rigid way of thinking- to be creative is said to involve thinking outside the box. I then decided that box as a kind of imperialist way of thinking was probably far too pretentious and speculative. I then turned to the OED.

There are 21 definitions of box as a noun, excluding the botanical definitions (which I’m going to ignore) and some of these are quite helpful-

“A space enclosed within borders or rules, esp. one to draw attention to a heading, an announcement, etc.”
“An enclosed area heavily defended in all directions.”
” A case for the protection of a piece of mechanism from injury, dust, etc.”
” A box-like shelter; a hut, or small house.”
and:
“to be in the (formerly a) wrong box : to be in a wrong position, out of the right place. to be in a box (colloq.): to be in a fix, in a ‘corner’. So to be in the same box : to be in a similar (unhappy) predicament.”

I think that all of these have some potential in pointing to what Prynne might be referring to. It could also be that he is referring to several of these definitions at once. For my purposes the last of these seems a good place to start- being in the same box is to be in the same unhappy predicament. It could be argued that all three of the main groupings in the civil war were stuck in a similar and unhappy predicament.

Feeling rather pleased with myself, I again tried to make sense of the first two lines and was disappointed that the above leg-work had not yielded revelatory results. Still not able to identify this thing that is said to be both off and out and unable to determine whether ‘summer’ relates to the season (as with ‘same day’ and same ‘hours’ in the third stanza) or to one of the other definitions although ‘one who makes a summary’ might get us somewhere.

This is at least progress of a kind, I no longer think that box=bomb and the repetition ‘theme’ is becoming intriguing because of the different forms that it takes. I’m also painfully aware that I can persuade myself of a meaning because I want this to be the case. At the moment, for example, I’m a bit carried away with the imperialism box trapping everybody in one unhappy predicament. Then again, a new understanding of ‘at must closed’ might change all of that…

The next method of approach is to think about what repetition hopes to achieve and see how these fit into the above.

Is there a Prynne project?

The ‘Prynne project’ is a phrase I’ve thrown out on several occasions in the last few months almost as if I knew what I was talking about. I’ve recently noticed that Keston Sutherland uses the same noun in his Glossator essay-:

It is a way to model lyric, to make a language for fact without desire. The poem implicitly announces a shift in the moralism of knowledge away from anything like eidetic phenomenology, with its bracketing of affectivity along with ontic commitments, toward the project of a lyric beyond subjectivity, that is, beyond memory, appetite, greed, and all the other consolations for predatoriness that make up the spiral curve of bourgeois autobiography, a project that would come into full view only much later in Prynne’s work.

A lyric beyond “memory, appetite, greed and all the other consolations for predatoriness” sounds about right but I wonder if it does justice to other aspects of the work. Prynne’s recent essays on what poetry may be about provide some details of other aspects of the project and an idea of how these aspects might fit together.
It also has to be said before I get any further that the publication of ‘Sub Songs’ with its apparent move away from radical austerity throws the spanner in the works of those of us who like a straightforward chronology but I’ll try and deal with this later.
I think of ‘project’ as denoting some kind of forward looking plan which has a number of objectives. I don’t believe that any serious poet puts pen to paper without some idea of what they want to say and how they want to say it. In the case of Prynne, I think we can see a variety of different strategies deployed to challenge and undermine the “unwitty circus” and to ensure that his ‘gabble’ will indeed survive.
Prynne’s ‘Mental Ears and Poetic Work’ essay in the Chicago Review is a good place to start identifying the contours of the plan. He writes-

This because for all the pungent games in which poetry can engage, it comprises at its most fully extended an envelope which finds and sets the textual contours in writing of how things are; while also activating a system of discontinuities and breaks which interrupt and contest the intrinsic cohesion and boundary profiles of its domain, so that there is constant leakage inwards and outwards across the connection with the larger world order.

The aspect that I think is crucial is the emphasis on ‘how things are’ juxtaposed with contesting the structural profile of poetry’s domain. As I’ll try and show later, Prynne has a strong sense of the ability of poetry to tell the truth and a lot of his best work has been about depicting the truth as it is and not as Prynne or anyone else would like it to be. This is of course a fairly mainstream ambition, many poets would claim to be about digging up the truth and depicting it as it is. The second part of the statement about taking apart poetry from within is much more ambitious and is only achieved by the very few and it is interesting to note that Prynne is doing this to promote some kind of dialogue with the wider world.
I’ve paid a fair amount of attention to ”Streak~~Willing~~Entourage~~Artesian” and the issue of ‘truth’ in a complex situation like the Troubles is handled in a oddly objective kind of way. “Grow up to main”, which I read as a depiction of the Protestant community’s fear of being demographically overtaken, is a good example of telling an objective truth in a radically different kind of way that challenges most aspects of current poetic discourse.
Later in the essay Prynne almost acknowledges that his project is not without its pitfalls-

To build a writing framework over
an extent of regular practice, across many years, accumulates a profile
more and more singular. Even family likeness may not be sufficient to
accomplish recognition in full detail. At the same time the isolation of
a self-interior retrospect is highly dangerous, because an encroaching
narcissism of preoccupation will promote unrecognized claims of endorsement from chance occurrence, locked into the habits of procedure. Or maybe this is not exactly a danger, depending on point of view.

I read this as saying that even when you’re trying to be as radical as possible it is likely that your work will come to be seen as predictable and structured by what were once innovative ways of expression but have now become merely habitual. I like the way he hedges his bets with the last sentence which leads me on to his view that considerations of meaning are “less and less an unavoidably necessary precondition for successful reading” whilst taking care to distance himself from postmodern “playfulness” (he does this a lot).
This is where what I see as the coherence of the project begins to unravel a bit. I’m not personally that interested in notions of ‘truth’ but I think Prynne is and I do not see how you can aspire to write about how things are and not be concerned about meaning. My fairly limited but careful reading of the work leads me to believe that words and phrases are used precisely and relate to some aspect of the world rather than being placed for effect. It would be more understandable if he were acknowledging that different kinds or levels of meaning can be obtained but he isn’t, nor does he give us what the preconditions for successful reading may be.
I see the following rather lengthy extract from ‘Mental Ears’ as one of Prynne’s most explicit descriptions of what he’s about-

The very medium of poetic textuality incorporates and instantiates the features of breakage at local and microscopic levels, as discoverable by phonological and other types of analysis, into a dialectic which may look arbitrary or merely optional but which polarizes the task of poetic composition. Formal and structural features within the language system, the selective-discourse system, the prosodic and formal verse system, all within the contrastive perspectives of historical development, compete to provoke the formation of shifting hybrids across boundaries of sometimes radical counter-tension. The active poetic text is thus characteristically in dispute with its own ways and means, contrary implication running inwards to its roots and outwards to its surface proliferations: not as acrobatic display but as working the
work that, when fit for purpose, poetry needs to do. These are the
proper arguments of poetry as a non-trivial pursuit, the templates
for ethical seriousness. As just one example, the condoned spillage
of innocent blood is everywhere around us, now, and the artificers
of consolatory blessing who are the leaders of organized religion are
up to their dainty necks in this blood. I have believed throughout
my writing career that no poet has or can have clean hands, because
clean hands are themselves a fundamental contradiction. Clean hands
do no worthwhile work.

I’ve quoted the last bit of this before primarily with reference to the ‘clean hands’ quip but now I want to draw attention to the dialectical aspect which does seem to dominate Prynne’s thinking about poetry, especially when he talks about poetic composition being in dispute with itself with ‘contrary implication’ traversing the body of the text. In terms of my own reading I’m not entirely sure that his use of ‘breakage’ in this sense is entirely successful in this sense, I can think of one or two examples of where thematic and structural contradiction seem to coincide especially in the work produced in the last twenty years but this does not strike me as the main characteristic. This could of course be due to the fact that I haven’t yet paid enough attention.
I could spend a lot of time with this extract but I’ve written before on Prynne’s view of compromised language and I think what he says here on the subject requires little further elucidation.
“Difficulties in the Translation of “Difficult” Poems” provides further clues as to the nature of the project. In this essay Prynne makes the following point-

But often difficult language in poems accompanies difficult thought, so that the difficulty of language is part of the whole structure and activity of poetic composition. Shakespeare’s Sonnets are certainly of this kind; and I have to admit that many of my own poems are like this, with the result that I do not have a wide readership and translators of my work have to confront an extra-hard struggle.

Anyone who has read any Prynne since 1971 must agree that the work does combine difficult language with difficult thought and that this has had a negative effect in terms of sales and readership. He goes on to talk about word choice, noting that alternative meanings can bring in “difficult fields of specialised usage and also historical or textual allusions in several different directions”. This brings to mind the use of “sound particle” at the beginning of the “To Pollen” sequence. An ‘ordinary’ reading would suggest that a sound particle is simply a small part of something heard but a brief look on the web reveals that sound particles are hypothetical units without either mass or dimension. As a reader I’m then faced with the choice of either pursuing this further or just accepting that this validates the ‘ultramontane’ reference to CERN in the next line. Prynne recognises this kind of problem when he says “In a poetic composition that is dense with this richness of semantic complexity these tasks of meaning-choice present one challenge after another, in close succession, and each choice when made will affect all the consequent such choices and thus the connective tendency of the text as a whole.” In my reasonably attentive reading of ‘Streak’ I think I can appreciate the extent of these challenges and the way in which choices become interrelated. The use of a single word (’embankment’) has caused me to reconsider not only what is being said but the subject matter of the entire sequence. This isn’t a bad thing because it does mean that all previous assumptions have to be challenged but it takes time.
Prynne points out that the ‘key’ to comprehension is often context goes on to say that “difficult” poems often disrupt any sense of linkage between one word and the next creating strong surprise and rich uncertainty in the reader. He observes that “Not only is poetry characteristically condensed, so that some semantic links may be cut off or completely absent, but also a diversity of apparently incompatible references is often deliberate and a valued feature of complex poems”. There’s a sentence in the “Streak” sequence which reads “At for to.” Is this an example of extremely absent semantic links that we’re supposed to value?
Prynne describes “difficult” poetry as having a very wide corridor of sense-making “more like a network across the whole expanse of the text with many loops and cross-links of semantic and referring activity which extend the boundaries and relevance, and of control by context, in many directions at once”. It’s this multi-directional aspect of the work that I find so fascinating and rewarding but it does lead to an array of different interpretations- perhaps this is what Prynne is referring to when he says that the quest for meaning isn’t a pre-condition of successful reading. In this essay he also talks about the dialectic and how form and expression are brought into internal conflict with each other.
I’ll finish by looking at a few passages from the “Poetic Thought” essay because I think that they enable me to pull out a few useful threads. This is the first-

To work with thought requires the poet to grasp at the strong and persistent ways in which understanding is put under test by imagination as a screen of poetic conscience, to coax and hurl at finesse and judgement, and to set beliefs and principles on line, self-determining but nothing for its own sake merely; all under test of how things are. Nothing taken for granted, nothing merely forced, pressure of the composing will as varied by delicacy, because these energies are dialectical and not extruded from personality or point of view. Dialectics in this sense is the working encounter with contradiction in the very substance of object-reality and the obduracy of thought; irony not as an optional tone of voice but as marker for intrinsic anomaly.

I’d like to draw attention to “all under test of how things are” which is a direct echo of “Mental Ears” but this seems stronger – the use of ‘all’ ie everything in the work being put to the test of objective truth. Given what’s said above about multiple references and meanings, isn’t there a bit of a (I hesitate to use the noun) contradiction here? If you’re aiming to apply ‘all’ to this test then shouldn’t you resist loading every page with a variety of meaning choices?
With regard to the dialectic, I don’t have any problem with contradiction in object-reality but I do think we begin to swim in very murky waters when we try and apply this to “obduracy of thought”. Still, the paragraph does provide a baseline for what the project might be about.
We now come to the reader’s part in the project and this very telling sentence-

There is also not too much cause to worry about the reader, since if these efforts produce composition of durable value the reader will catch up in due time.

The social worker in me really wants to take this apart. Of course, Prynne thinks his work is of durable value and has also noted that he doesn’t currently have a very wide readership so there’s a reliance on posterity that is more than a little poignant. To say any more would probably drag me into areas that aren’t appropriate for this blog but I do think it’s very revealing.
I’ve commented before on Prynne’s view of the need for ‘self-removal’ so I won’t do so again. He goes on-

Thus, poetic thought is brought into being by recognition and contest with the whole cultural system of a language, by argument that will not let go but which may not self-admire or promote the idea of the poet as arbiter of rightness. Whatever the users of language claim as their rights to effects of meaning, language is produced by meaning habits but resists definitive assignments of motive and desire. This is a root counterforce of energy in language itself as a scheme of activity in social practice: it is the placement-station of the poet whose argument here will generate poetic thought.

Poetic thought in contest with the whole cultural system of a language does seem to encapsulate the means by which the description of how things are is to be achieved. I still have to question the consistency in portraying objective truth whilst not presenting oneself in any way as the “arbiter of rightness”. This may be because of my own sceptical views about the veracity of a single ‘truth’ but I do think there’s something a little bit ingenuous around this- similar to having your cake and eating it.
So, there does seem to be a project and it has discernible features that we can race from Brass onwards. The last twenty years have also seen an increasing austerity and less reliance on ‘conventional’ forms of expression (with the possible exception of ‘Triodes’). As I said at the start, this pattern has been disrupted with the publication this year of ‘Sub Songs’ which feels a bit like a step backwards.
The active ingredients in all the work appear to be a concern with telling how things are, an interest in contradiction, the use of poetic convention to disrupt itself and a personal commitment to continue to plough this particular furrow regardless.

J H Prynne in the TLS

I was going to spend some time this morning writing about the way I feel about Geoffrey Hill (as opposed to think). This was going to be an entirely coherent and almost well-written follow-up to my debate on this blog with Tom Day. However, yesterday’s edition of the TLS contains an article/review on Prynne by Robert Potts.

I need to say at the outset that I’ve read this particular rag since I was 14 and it occupies an important part of my life.  I don’t read it for the poetry however as this is usually fairly drab although they did publish a John Kinsella poem the other week.

Potts’ article is quite lengthy and covers the Glossator Prynne issue, the Brinton book,  the Cambridge Literary review and ‘Sub Songs’.

Let’s start with the photograph, this is of Prynne riding a bike and is dated 2004. Suffice it to say that it doesn’t do him any favours but merely reinforces the ‘oddness’ image. There are much better pictures available and I have to question Potts’ choice (he is the TLS managing editor and therefore will have had a hand in this choice).

Potts starts badly but improves over the five columns. The first sentence is- “The poetry of J H Prynne is both obscure and difficult, qualities tolerated in canonical and foreign writers (Blake, Mallarmé, Celan, late Beckett), but treated with enormous resentment and suspicion in contemporary English poets”.  This requires a bit of sorting out, ‘late’ Celan (after about 1963) can be said to be difficult but the critical reception of the later works was not one of toleration and there are still those critics who view the later output as a story of progressive decline. When did ‘late’ Beckett begin and is it really considered both obscure and difficult?

There’s a long debate going on in my head about obscurity and Potts does redeem himself by quoting Prynne at length on this very subject in “Difficulties in the translation of ‘difficult’ poems” but to start with such a bland description will deter many readers from proceeding further.

Further into the article Keston Sutherland wins applause for his Glossator piece on ‘L’Exthase de M Poher’ and the ‘unwitty circus’ section is quoted at length and Justin Katko gets plaudits for his essay on ‘The Plant Time Manifold Transcript’ (which I must get round to reading.

Interestingly Potts proceeds with “One yearns for a reading – academic or otherwise – that would start to explain Her Weasels Wild Returning (1994) or the impenetrable STREAK~~~WILLING~~~ENTOURAGE~~~ARTESIAN (2009)”. I haven’t paid much attention to the first of these but I have read and written about the second. I really must take issue with the ‘impenetrable’ jibe because this isn’t the case. ‘Streak’ may be wonderfully and brilliantly austere but it isn’t beyond comprehension. I’m not suggesting that this is achieved immediately but it is possible to grasp the outline of at least one significant theme and to be thunderstruck by the poet’s ability to say complex things in a new and inspiring way- ‘Streak’ is the Prynne sequence that keeps drawing me back in. I’ve just spent a couple of days looking at the fourth poem and remain astounded at how much is packed in to such a small pace and how contradictions are exposed and played with.

With regard to ‘Sub Songs’, Potts refers to ‘As Mouth Blindness’ but only to explain the title rather than what the poem may be ‘about’ which again is unfortunate because I’d quite like to read what someone else makes of it.

Potts does not mention either ‘Mental Ears’ or ‘Poetic Work’ both of which provide a good insight into the nature of the Prynne project- both of these are now available on the web.

The last half of the final sentence reads “but as the “century of suspicion” ends, aptly and predictably, in a credit crisis, J H Prynne’s poetry may – like it or not – be most fully and restlessly the music of our times”. I have to ask: why on earth didn’t he start with that? I almost feel a letter coming on….

Reading Prynne closely, a vindication

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.

I started reading this poem in part to test Keston Sutherland’s assertion that Prynne’s work demands readers rather than consumers of poetry, those who are prepared to work at the task of interpretation and so achieve a level of intimacy with the poem.  Since my last post on this poem from Streak, Willing, Entourage, Artesian I’ve given myself a bit of a rest (I’ve got my own stuff to write) but I have had a flash of inspiration which vindicates my original hunch that this work is ‘about’ the recent Troubles in Ulster.

This was one of those 2 am moments as I was trying to get to sleep. In the 5th stanza I’d worked out that there isn’t such a thing as a pelmet crab but there is a helmet crab, for some reason I extended this ‘sounds like’ principle to ‘foreland’ and came up with ‘four lands’ somewhere in my brain I knew that Ireland was historically divided into provinces but couldn’t remember how many these were. The next day Wikipedia informed me that there were once five provinces- Meath, Leinster, Munster, Connacht and Ulster. This was a revelation comparable only to the discovery that Cern cuold be described as ‘ultramont’ in ‘To Pollen’.

According to the OED, an obscure definition of ‘crab’ is to “go counter to, to cross, to put out of humour or temper, to irritate, anger, enrage provoke.” The Troubles were characterised by one side wanting Ulster (the ‘annexe’) reunited with the Irish state and the other side wishing to remain part of the United Kingdom.

With regard to dismounting from the pelmet and sustaining a fracture I can only take this to be meant literally and to refer to the contortions readers have to put themselves through to gain some understanding. If that’s the case then it isn’t very funny. ‘Rush’ may refer to a specific type of robbery common in the 17th and 18th century whereby a group of men would rush past the householder and steal all his goods- this is pure speculation for the moment.

I still haven’t much of a clue about the first and last stanzas, in particular I don’t know why ‘same-front’ is hyphenated and I’m troubled by ‘suffuse’. The last stanza is even more problematic ‘mend up to shock’ defies my small brain and I haven’t a clue what we’re supposed to be longing for.

Reading Prynne closely pt2

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.

I know that I said I would concentrate on the first and third stanzas of this (the second poem in ‘Streak, willing, entourage, artesian’) but further reflection tells me that this is a flawed approach to something this non-linear. I will therefore try to point out the bits that can be gleaned with a degree of attention and those that are utterly resistant.

My hypothesis (guess) is that this poem is ‘about’ the recent civil war in Ulster although I am still prepared to overturn this guess if I come across anything that points in another direction. To this end I have begun to delve into the Cain archive and to read witness testimony given to the Bloody Sunday Inquiry and I am amazed about how much I had forgotten.

I’d like to start with ‘Be all best profane / broken tenuous’ from the fourth stanza. I’m taking ‘Be all best’ as an instruction to do your best which seems fairly clear but ‘profane’ is causing me problems. As a noun profane means someone or thing which makes something secular or unholy, as a verb it can also mean to desecrate, abuse or insult whilst the adjective can be used to someone who is uninitiated in religious practice. Throughout the Troubles, Ulster was sunk deep in religious issues, from the casting of hunger strikers as martyrs to the anti-catholic rants of Ian Paisley and his ilk the conflict was mired in arguments about God with each side viewing the other as (at the very least) profane.

This use of the word to refer to the conflict doesn’t help very much with this part of the poem, it occurs to me that these words could be an address to the reader. Prynne has done this before in ‘To Pollen’ with its reference to the ‘resilient brotherhood’ and the question about ‘the one inclined’. I’ll try and show how this reading makes more sense than does a reference to the Ulster conflict.

‘Be all best’ could be an instruction that recognises that all readers can only do what they can because the full meaning of a poem will always remain elusive. ‘Profane’ as a verb may be an instruction to overlook the religious elements of the conflict in favour of a more materialist analysis. Part of the first stanza reads ‘folly to love acre the same’- if we give acre its subsidiary meaning of ‘land’ then this could point to the fact that the fundamental political difference separating both sides was (is) whether the six counties should become part of the Irish Republic or remain as part of the United Kingdom. This would seem to make sense but taking religion out of the equation overlooks at least some of the fuel that lit and sustained the fire.

‘Broken’ and ‘tenuous’ are words that have a direct bearing on Prynne’s work. Many writers have commented on the fragmented nature of poems where competing discourses collide with each other and I’ve found this one of the most attractive (if that’s the right word) aspects of the work.

I’ve used tenuous to describe my own reading of Prynne and others have stated that readers are only ever likely to get a partial understanding of what’s going on. Some have pointed out that readers should construct their own meanings from the poem, treating each piece as an open text. I don’t hold with this view because I find that there’s enough in even the most obscure poems to glean what Prynne may be about.

‘Tenuous’ could also refer to the actions involved in writing the poem. The disaster that was the Ulster conflict was multi-faceted and does not lend itself easily to analysis. There are territory, religion, civil rights, colonial and military dimensions to consider as well as the fact that the working class of both sides were intent on killing each other in large numbers. So, any analysis will be tenuous at best- is this what Prynne is saying?

We then have a comma- these are often missing from Prynne’s work and they are often used to introduce a new line of thought but on this occasion I’ll try and show that the line continues to make some kind of sense. ‘Each strand as fine torrid / at leave to play’ refers to the poem and the act of reading it. I’m taking the primary meaning of each and strand to indicate that both the elements of the conflict and the various dimensions of the poem are being referred to. ‘Fine’ as a noun can mean the end of something and the verb can mean bringing to and end so this may be an instruction to follow both types of thread to their conclusion.

‘Torrid’ is interesting because, in addition to its normal meaning, the OED states that it can refer to the atmosphere affecting those at risk of religious persecution. It may therefore allude to Ulster Catholics feeling persecuted by the Protestant majority or to loyalists feeling that they are being killed because of their faith. On the other hand it could refer to the position Prynne feels himself to be in as a poet. It is true to say that Prynne has been more vilified by the poetry establishment than any other writer in the last thirty years and that this has often taken the form of puerile personal attacks which could be seen as a form of persecution. Whilst this may or may not be correct, it is interesting to note that Paul Celan (a major predecessor in the difficulty stakes) had a persecution complex too.

‘At / leave to play’ I’m taking as a description of the activity of the reader who is free to construct her own reading of the various strands. I don’t think this is a reference to Prynne because his work suggests that he takes himself far to seriously for that.

I’m going to leave this theme for a while primarily because I want to write about Keston Sutherland’s ‘Stress Position’ and the thorny matter of dialectical consciousness but also because I need a rest before I tackle rush fractures and pelmet crabs……..

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.