Friday, July 18, 2008

After my previous post on J.H. Prynne and John Bloomberg-Rissman's response to it, I went off and re-read Prynne's 'For the Monogram' (1997) and 'Pearls that Were' (1999). While this poetry is daunting, in fact baffling to most readers, if I analyse 'For the Monogram', it does become apparent that two techniques are involved (or appear to be - I could be wrong): first, cut-up, in the sense that sentences or phrases are chopped to produce a disjunctive effect; second, unnattributed quotation or borrowing (or possibly fake quotation). An example of the second is found in stanza 3, which resembles a spec for a computer program, albeit a form of programming that would have been antiquated in 1997:

if (set to true) a product goto top list, an object
otherwise (if else) remaining the same...

There may be other such extracts from technical sources - without any notes or attributions, it's hard to say. Who knows for example what this might refer to:

Fissile drag under gang profile

Is it it invented, or is it genuine technical jargon? While the language in 'For the Monogram' has a certain liveliness at times due to unexpected juxtaposition, I defy anyone to hold their attention on writing like this for more than a few minutes - my brain at least, can't deal with that level of abstraction in language - and overall, the whole exercise is rather heavy. It doesn't have the raciness of Raworth or the humour of Ashbery.

'Pearls that Were': when I bought this pamphlet in 1999 I remember enjoying the opening stanzas: rhyming (or half-rhyming) quatrains that had a certain pleasing lyricism, which, while abstract, gained something from the accidents of musical placing. Again, my attention wavered (another way of saying 'I got bored'?), but I was prepared to accept it as abstract lyric. Then I discovered that one of the stanzas was a spoof translation of a poem by the contemporary Chinese poet Che Qianzi. That threw me. What else was I missing? Maybe the 'abstract lyricism' was something more. At that point I gave up.


John B-R said...

I don't know whether For the Monogram is boring or not - and that's after reading it. I don't know whether Chinese poems are buried w/in it - or not. But I do know that it sounds really good feels really good and that certain bits, e.g. "Select an object with no predecessors. Clip off its / roots, reset to zero and remove its arrows." are just perfect. Don't ask me why. They just feel perfect. (this is from the same pseudo? programming section you discuss).

Alan Baker said...

There are certainly pieces of language in Prynne, like the one you highlight, which are appealing; as I said earlier, there's a liveliness to some of it. But - and possibly because of a lack on my part - it feels hermetically sealed in a way that that something like flarf or cut-up, or in fact your own poetry John, doesn't, or doesn't always. In some poetry, the quotations and extracts provide a direct link to the world outside the poem in a way that For the Monogram doesn't.

I'm talking here about For the Monogram and Pearls That Were - Prynne's early poetry doesn't feel sealed off like this; this may represent a deliberate change of strategy on his part, or it may simply be that I'm not knowledgable or insightful enough to see what's happening.

I agree though about chunks of this poetry 'sounding really good', as in the opening of Not-You (1993):

The twins blink, hands set to thread out/
a dipper cargo with lithium grease enhanced/
to break under heat stress

Anonymous said...

Hi. John middleton's "Distant Reading" inspired my to acquire a copy of Prynne's "Poems" (not an easy thing to do, here in the States") and I find it some of the most engaging writing I've encountered since discovering Stein. I've emjoyed your blog.
Paul Alan Baker
Madison, Wisconsin
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