Tuesday, July 15, 2008

On J.H. Prynne

A few years ago I listened to a BBC Radio programme which included a discussion of JH Prynne's poetry. Yes, I know that's hard to believe, but it did happen (since then, the Beeb have reverted to Georgian pastoral and Ian MacMillan comical). Anyway, on this programme Elaine Feinstein described Prynne as a charismatic lecturer and teacher, and she talked in glowing terms about his lectures on Wordsworth. The book quoted below, 'The Solitary Reaper: Field Notes', confirms for me that she must have been right, given that I've found it a totally absorbing and mind-expanding read. Which is not to say that it isn't intimidating and uncompromising; it has no contents or index, and the quote below is from six close-typed pages devoted to the opening word of the poem. But it's a book I recommend highly if you're prepared to put some work in.

Here's an extract, commenting on the opening of Wordsworth's poem:

Behold her, single in the field,
Yon solitary Highland Lass!

This equivocation of reference station is part of a sustained fiction from the very outset. The voice which says 'behold' supposedly on the scene of an actual encounter, exclaims this word (though probably in mind rather than out loud, if at all) only as a proleptic hostage for its textual equivalent which will be written down later, at least some time after this scene is only an image in writerly memory. The poet-traveller does not undertake instantaneous plein-air transcription, writing down these words in a notebook as a documentary record of his on-the-spot utterance (at least in thought) of their sonic equivalences. When he speaks the word 'behold' (if indeed he does) it is unnecessary, not called-for; instead, by anticipation, he will store the potential for this word as prompt for the later written claim to immediacy of regard. He will write 'behold' when no-one, (himself included) can any longer perform this beholding, except by running out a memory trace as if to be a writer is to be authorised to compose by backwards displacement into the site where what is to be now composed had then its germinal origin.

(J.H. Prynne, Field Notes: The Solitary Reaper and Others.)

As you can see, it's an incredibly detailed commentary - at times, one feels, almost absurdly detailed, or almost more than the poem under discussion can bear - touching on, among other things, poetics, musicology, ethnography and history. The second part of the book deals with related texts by other writers, including Thomas Hardy.

Reading this book sent me back to Prynne's poetry; I like the early work up to and including 'The Oval Window', though I suspect I like it partly because I've managed to find explications of it, particularly the well-known Reeves and Kerridge book on Prynne. The later work, say, from 'Her Weasels Wild Returning', I find I can't read for more than a few lines at a time. I'm not sure I understand what he's trying to do in this work. David Caddy has a piece on Prynne here, which, while good background, studiously avoids any textual analysis of the actual poetry. I have a feeling that Prynne's later poetry is important, and I feel frustrated that I'm unable to engage with it. I'm not helped in my insecurity by the fact that people as turned-on to contemporary poetry as Tony Frazer and Peter Riley have both expressed an alienation, or simply an inability to understand Prynne's poetry, and that Lee Harwood described it, in my presence, as 'rubbish', claiming that no-one in the Cambridge circle that he knew was prepared to take up his challenge to go through the text of a late Prynne poem and explain it to him. I've seen 'His Weasels Wild Returning' interpreted as being 'about' The first Gulf War, the sense of loss when a much-loved daughter leaves home, and (in Caddy's piece) as an expression of exile in its numerous guises. None of these interpretations could finally be proved (or indeed, disproved) by an analysis of the text. Maybe the whole project of Prynne's later poetry is an attempt to, as Caddy puts it, present "a deepening of the challenge to the reader, as a method of registering wider referents, on the basis that might be a focal point of social and ethical or literary change." One could argue however that, as in Pound's attempt in The Cantos to write a poem that was an explanation of Western civilization, there are probably more suitable vehicles for the project.


John B-R said...

What if you try to think of a Prynne poem the way one might think of a Barnett Newman or Cy Twombly painting ...? And not read to untangle but just read to read?

Alan Baker said...

Yes, you could say that Prynne's poetry is a form of abstraction, and also that its's akin to L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry in that it seems to imply a belief that language is a closed system that can exist by referencing only itself (probably a poor description of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poetry). Of course, a lot of poetry is 'difficult' or makes no literal sense, and isn't meant to be 'read' in the normal way - like cut-up, flarf or visual poetry. But Prynne's does seem to be the type of poetry that you would 'read'. It just confounds that reading attempt at every turn. Try this from 'For the Monogram' (1997):

Anxious wittance prevailing to fly up and over through
clean air at our heat level, so set out in void
attracted all nosing down then under the avid folds
previously so tempered. Sparkle raids cannot
give the upsurge rate out to them either way binaural
cross average: centre contour get to list their
mission plates hardly tamped down yet.

And so on for another 14 pages.

The early poetry, by contrast, is a pleasure to read - take 'Rich in Vitamin C', a beautiful lyrical piece.

John B-R said...

I think "cut-up, flarf" ARE meant to be read "the normal way", whatever exactly that is. And I agree that so is Prynne's work. But that doesn't mean they "makes sense" "the normal way" (tho flarf is actually quite easy to read). That's why I mentioned Newman and Twombly. One is to look at their work "the normal way" (flat surface, paint, hmmmm). But one doesn't derive "sense" from their stuff "the normal way." Anyway, provocative. I will work on reading "For the Monogram" and get back to you.