Click here to listen to So Here We Are on Miporadio
In February 2004, Randall Stevenson writing in The Oxford English Literary History Vol. 12 1960-2000: The Last of England? (OUP 2004) inadvertently sparked a media controversy by suggesting that the achievements of experimental poets, such as J.H. Prynne, would be of more lasting significance than that of the Movement poets. The value of J.H. Prynne’s poetry was debated in newspapers and on the radio but not seriously engaged with. As I regularly get asked about the value of Prynne’s poetry, I thought that I might offer some contextualising notes as a preliminary to reading his Poems (Bloodaxe 2005).
The arc of Prynne’s poetry over the past forty years may be said to have broadly moved from a metaphorically based open field lyricism towards a metonymic and etymological challenge to the reader. It is, above all, concerned with encouraging the reader on a journey, involving a reading process that avoids closure. It is about the journey, that is a continual process, towards meaning and comprehension rather than finding answers. It places utterance within the political and socio-economic predicament of the individual in relation to its historical and geographical landscape. One might say that it is one journey of utterance that acknowledges the boundaries and thresholds of the individual, through and across the nuances and shifts of language and historical time. It draws upon specific discourses and their appeal to knowledge, both provisional and substantive, within the languages of criticism and human sciences and beyond. It is a poetic utterance that looks back to the earliest epic and founding literature and forward beyond any postmodernist position. It has enlarged the focus of the poet beyond the reference frames registered by Ezra Pound’s The Cantos and Charles Olson’s The Maximus Poems. It appeals to a community of speakers, readers and writers, cognizant of the fact that all are in a series of markets and hierarchies of language and discourse outlays, without privilege.
This work is substantially supported by critical essays, such as ‘Stars, Tigers and the Shape of Words’ (The William Matthews Lectures 1992 Birkbeck 1993), where Prynne reassessed the arbitrariness that Ferdinand de Saussure famously attributed to the signifier and signified and emphasized a set of secondary relations through which meaning developed such as historical contexts and usages, accumulated layers and aspects of association, social function and usage codes, and practical criticism, such as They That Haue Powre To Hurt: A Specimen of a Commentary on Shake-speares Sonnets, 94 (Cambridge 2001) and Field Notes: The Solitary Reaper And Others (Cambridge 2007 distributed by Barque Press) that shows an exceptional regard to determining the fullest context and meaning of a poem. Each word and phrase in a poem has a philological and etymological base that returns the reader to things and the world of which they are a part. The words used enact and sustain the relations and forces between language and the world.
Two words invariably used to describe the initial experience of reading the Poems are ‘arid’ and ‘difficult’. ‘Arid’, as if it were written in a desert. That is to say that it is often missing the props of mainstream metaphorical poetry that enables a quick grasp of meaning, intention and the scope of the poem under review. It is what is called ‘difficult’ poetry. It is, as it were, poetry of the desert. I shall now pursue these two notions as a way of locating the literary context to the Poems.
Poetry written from the desert, of whatever order, may be seen as poetry of exile. One thinks of Ovid, Paul and Jane Bowles, and the post-holocaust poetry of Edmund Jabés and Paul Celan. The critic. T.W. Adorno wrote that ‘after Auschwitz, we can no longer write poetry’. It was Jabés who wrote that after Auschwitz, we must write poetry, but with wounded words’ and in conversation with Mark C Taylor, who said: ‘It is very hard to live with silence. The real silence is death and this is terrible. To approach this silence, it is necessary to journey into the desert. You do not go into the desert to find identity, but to lose it, to lose your personality, to become anonymous. You make yourself void. You become silence. And something extraordinary happens: you hear silence speak’. (Edmund Jabés The Book of Margins: Translated Rosemarie Waldrop Chicago 1993) Further exiled or self-imposed exiled poetry has a social position and literary effect. By dint of being outside the social-literary mainstream, it is more able to comment inwards on the prevailing socio-political conditions. One thinks of Anna Akhmatova’s poetry ability to comment upon Stalinist Russia and the purges and so on. Prynne’s poetry, like Jabés and Akmatova, may be seen in broad moral and literary terms as a profound reaction to the historic events of the twentieth century and beyond.
J.H. Prynne’s social-literary position can be seen as a self-imposed exile. He has been, for example, excluded from such literary reference books as The Oxford Companion to English Literature edited by Margaret Drabble (OUP 2000) and taken moral decisions on the integrity of how and where his poetry and criticism appears.
His exact social-literary position is complex, given its predominantly exile status. Born in 1936, Jeremy Prynne was raised in Kent and educated at Jesus College, Cambridge. His mother ran a private nursery school for boys and girls and his father was an engineer. At Cambridge he met the poet and critic, Donald Davie, who supported his early intellectual direction. Like Davie, this was a move away from the insular concerns of the Movement to the richer intellectual concerns of new American and European poetry. Davie’s study, Thomas Hardy And Modern Poetry (1973) offers an early account of Prynne’s poetry. A Life Fellow, College Librarian and University Reader in English Poetry until his retirement at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, he works on all aspects of the English poetic tradition, including writings of American, European and Far Eastern origin. In his teaching capacity, his enthusiasm for sharing and generosity of spirit towards many students is well known and helped to develop a wide readership base. However, this is only part of the story. Prynne’s poetry emerged as part of an avant-garde discussion and readership outside of the literary market place. This began with Prynne’s editorship of Prospect magazine in 1964 and continued with his mimeographing and distributing The English Intelligencer, a literary newsletter, between January 1966 and April 1968.
The English Intelligencer was an attempt to organise a new collective poetics that focussed upon producing ‘quality’ work. Drawing upon a wide range of literary and non-literary sources, it was distributed for free to an expanding mailing list. Poems, essays and comments were shared without cost and exchange value. The Intelligencer occupied a space between a private letter and public book and embodied a shared community opposition to market commodification.
J.H. Prynne was a key figure in its articulation of the language and poetics of ‘quality’ in opposition to the language of commodity. Essentially he wanted to rescue a concept of ‘quality’ from its financial meaning to make it viable outside of a purely market lexicon. In the poem, ‘Sketch For A Financial Theory Of the Self’ (Poems pp 19-20), which first appeared Series 1 no.17, Prynne probes the relationship between word (name) and object within the economic field and suggests the ways it impacts on the self. He writes of how words and poems and quality, as habit, have been reduced to monetary objects by which we define ourselves. He notes that we are duped into a reductive cash flow nexus: ‘The absurd trust in value is the pattern of / bond and contract and interest -’ and ‘Music, / travel, habit and silence are all money; purity / is a glissade into the last, most beautiful return.’ He extended his thinking on quality and money with ‘A Note On Metal’ (The English Intelligencer second series June 1967, appended to Aristeas (1968, Poems pp.127-132). Here quality is seen in terms of property (strength) and substance. He looks back to the origins of money as coin (gold) and Western alchemy, defined as ‘the theory of quality as essential’. He differentiates between early Asiatic socio-economic formations where coins were the ornament of power rather than currency of value and early Greek economies where it is the substance governing transfer as exchange. This thinking is brought historically up to date in the poem, ‘Die a Millionaire’ from Kitchen Poems (1968), where the ‘twist-point / is “purchase” – what the mind / bites on is yours’ … ‘we are the social strand / which is already past the twist-point & / into the furnace’ … so that what I am is a special case of / what we want, the twist-point missed exactly / at the nation’s scrawny neck.’ (Poems pp 13-16)
The English Intelligencer by removing a formal ownership and exchange value thus produced a newsletter divorced from the literary market. In so doing, they showed that words and poems, as objects, have properties beyond their meanings and exchange value within the community. This move can be seen as an extension of the work and thinking of the Objectivist Press and poets, such as George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff and Louis Zukofsy, who searched for a language outside of the ideology and practice of commodification.
The English Intelligencer fostered intense interest in a wide range of poetries and philosophy. These included Ezra Pound and the Imagists, William Carlos Williams and the poetry of things, the Objectivist poets, the Black Mountain College poets, the San Francisco Renaissance, the New York School poets, such as Frank O’Hara and John Ashbery and the European post-holocaust poets, such as Jabés and Celan. Beyond that widening flux of alternative poetries, Prynne continued his readings within the English tradition, especially the Romantic and Elizabethan poets, and within modern European philosophy, including Hegel, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty and the issues of language, being and the phenomenology of perception raised by their work. Amongst the questions that this reading raised would be the notion of the autonomy of the text and whether there is a singleness and moral structure to immediate knowledge. (For a discussion of these issues see ‘Capital Calves: Undertaking an Overview’ by Kevin Nolan Jacket 24 www.jacketcom November 2003 pp 1-37)
Against a backdrop of growing disenchantment with the Vietnam War, civil disobedience in relation to women’s, gay, environmental issues, industrial strife, a balance of trade deficit that led to the devaluation of the pound and student ‘revolt into style’, structuralism moved across from linguistics and anthropology cutting into sociological, historical, philosophical, psychiatric and critical thought, with the concept of the de-centred subject and de-centring of the structure impacting upon thinking within European human sciences. Doubtless buoyed by E.P. Thompson’s articulation of the impact of literary, satirical and political presses in the early nineteenth century in The Making of the English Working Class (1968) and Jeff Nuttall’s overview of more recent oppositional publishing and culture in Bomb Culture (1968), several English Intelligencer contributors became small press publishers. It was through these regional activists that J.H. Prynne chose to publish most of his early work. (e.g. Day Light Songs Resuscitator Books, Pampisford 1968, Aristeas Ferry Press, London 1968, The White Stones Grosseteste Press, Lincoln 1969) and Fire Lizard Blacksuede Boot Press, Barnet 1970)
Prynne’s early readership then consisted of friends, the avant-garde poets, intellectuals and critics associated with The English Intelligencer, his colleagues and students. The nature of his communication with that growing audience took the form of his poetry and a contribution to the thinking and reading of that audience. It always already posits a literary-social position in relation to a mode of poetic communication that involves questioning before and beyond any current ideology of text, authorship, intention and process of marketing and entails a wandering across and through both language and the literary canon. Over time he deepens and widens that range, by attempting not to suppress variable meaning and knowledge that impinge upon a thing, so that the reader might question various knowledge thresholds, in particular such concepts as ‘totality’, ‘immediate experience’ and ‘textual autonomy’.
Turning to the notion of ‘difficulty’. This familiar notion in the poetry world is encountered in the first line of the first poem, the magically sonic, ‘The Numbers’: ‘The whole thing it is, the difficult’. A note to the 1982 edition of Poems (Allardyce Barnett Books) referred to ‘difficulty as being the ardent matter and accompanying breadth of imaginative and political reference’. In other words, it is inherent in the matter addressed as the forces and relations of production and consumption already taint the nuances of languages and knowledge. There is no impartial discourse. ‘Difficulty’, though, is not misleading, that is to say the reader is either able to grasp something or not. It perhaps implies that the conflicting and impartial knowledge at work is beyond the reach of one reader and some of these poems are beyond comprehension, through the uncertainty of variable meaning. However, it should, at least, be seen as relative and in relation to ‘simplicity’. A seemingly transparent and simple poem, such as Blake’s ‘The Tyger’, may require considerable critical work in disentangling the complexity of discourses, method and intentionality and possible effects registered, in the same way as a ‘difficult’ poem as so much of its sub-text is out of view. This can perhaps be described as ‘subtlety’ in all its guises. Both ‘difficult’ and ‘simple’ poems demand intellectual work and are initially conditioned by prejudicial readings and the disposition towards response and effect. In other words, some poems produce effects and reference knowledge that are unseen or unread by certain readers and that is governed by reading history and preferences as much as ability of the reader. An awareness of that history, conditioned as it is by ethnic, social, educational, psychological and other factors, and its prejudice, may help dissolve some of the weariness generated by poems that refuse to be read. At the macro-level, it might help reader appreciate the divide between those who read poems as language only and those who read poems as social process only and show the need to resist closure on either side of the fence. ‘Difficulty’ can be distinguished from ‘subtlety’, meaning that which is not obvious in any way, possessing small and important data, often implying cleverness through its ability to withhold and disguise. Subtlety, then, wants to be acknowledged rather than seen. Difficulty, in contrast, has intrinsic value in the sense that a poem retains its vitality over time, as in the case of Wordsworth’s ‘Lucy’ poems, and implies an openness or opening towards the complex. It is potentially much less elitist than a work of subtlety.
The arc of Prynne’s poetry may be seen as moving further into exile, 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. Consider the examples of Blake and Kafka, as psychological exiles, self-imposed or not, and the ways their work has entered the language. Now consider, at the micro-level, the individual forced by exceptional circumstances, e.g. the loss of several high school friends to suicide, into self-imposed exile, who returns and begins to campaign for social change. Consider also a woman who is sexually abused, attacked and raped or the female vagrant. This is the possible territory called into reference by Her Weasels Wild Returning (1994), see Poems pp. 412-416, where there are a series of explicit journeys out and back by the poem’s implied participants. What happens in these examples is a journey out to exile and a journey back, in altered state, with its concomitant changes. Of course, the exiled do not return to exactly the same place as time has elapsed since they left. In a way this is akin to the experience of reading Prynne’s poetry.
Interestingly Prynne has spoken of a poetry that journeys out and back. It is a poetic and critical example that clearly informs Prynne’s method of composition and reading. Prynne reads Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems IV, V, VI as having set ‘the literal founding of history and its local cadence into speech extend outwards by feeling into the sacral and divinised forms of presence upon the earth’s surface’ and established as primary writing, ‘with a lingual and temporal syncretism, poised to make a new order’. In other words it places language as a mythological likeness resting on the earth through geological time and the monogene which ‘reaches back into two entwined histories: the geochronology of land-formation and cytochronology of biochemical evolution’. (Charles Olson, Maximus Poems IV, V, VI: J.H. Prynne The Park 4 & 5 Summer 1969 pp. 64-66)
In his 1971 Simon Fraser University lectures on Maximus Poems IV, V, VI, Prynne equates the homecoming of Maximus with the homecoming of The Odyssey and argues that the poem brings in the cosmos, that is knowledge of the universe considered as whole. At the beginning of Maximus IV, V, VI the narrative turns back from the sea, by which the narrator, for Prynne, means space and the large condition of the cosmos. For Olson to look from the Gloucester coast out into the Atlantic is to look into the whole economic support of early New England settlement and to look back to the mid-Atlantic ridges, that is to the residues of the birth of the earth. Olson then has an outward journey and inward journey, stretching lyricism into epic through the folding back of the voyage out. Prynne argues that each of the Maximus fragments participates in the whole so that it is literal and not an insistence of something else and therefore escapes metaphor. As such this leads to a condition of being, which is beyond the condition of meaning. The arc of the Maximus Poems is a singular journey to the limits of space and back to local historical roots achieved as a curvature that moves beyond the lyric into the condition of myth. (See Minutes of the Charles Olson Society No 28 April 1999 pp. 3-13 for J.H. Prynne’s 1971 Simon Fraser lecture on Maximus Poems IV, V, VI)
Olson provided Prynne with a modern epic template, of the journey out and back, and of poetry that places language on earth in geophysical time through the monogene. Prynne has extended this model into a reading experience that is uniquely his own, redolent with acute vocabularies and terse energy points. He offers encounters with language and the various discourses that impinge upon the individual showing how the individual is formed by processes that are outside immediate perception and cognition. His movement beyond metaphorical language seems to be entirely consistent with the scope of his initial enquiries and an attempt to find a more adequate measure of discursive pressures. Recurrent figures and sound patterns replace normative narratives. The use of juxtaposition and enjambment to move seamlessly from one thought or perception to another is done, as Olson advised in his 1950 ‘Projective Verse’ essay, at speed so as to bring seeming disparate discourses or elements of discourses into the sphere of activity being registered. Olson’s impact on Prynne is most noticeable in his early work, especially The White Stones, which can be read, in part, as an investigation of the transfer of language to the human account. It is Olson’s 1959 ‘Human Universe’ essay that forms a backbone to the collection’s frame of reference. In this essay Olson saw all post-Socratic philosophy as a false discourse of logic, classification and idealism, as opposed to a discourse that takes language as an action upon the real. ‘We have lived long in a generalizing time, at least since 450BC’ he wrote and went on to distinguish between ‘language as the act of the instant and language as the act of thought about the instant’. (See A Charles Olson Reader: Ralph Maud Carcanet 2005 page 113) To Olson, Aristotelian logic and classification have fastened themselves on habits of thought so that action is absolutely interfered with. In other words, the habits of thought are the habits of action, collapsing language from an instrument into an absolute with the Greeks declaring all speculation as enclosed in the ‘universe of discourse’. Olson calls for a writing that does not fall back ‘on the dodges of discourse’, a demonstration, a separating out, a classification. ‘ For any of us, at any instant, are juxtaposed to any experience, even an overwhelming single one, on several more planes than the arbitrary and discursive which we inherit can declare’. (A Charles Olson Reader page 114) This could surely stand as a preface to the work of Prynne’s Poems. Olson further notes that a thing impinges upon us by self-existence, without reference to any other thing, by its particularity that is to be found beyond reference and description and wants to bear in rather than away from a thing so as to discover and reveal.
Olson’s Maximus and ‘Human Universe’ essay, combined with Homer’s epic The Odyssey, leads Prynne and the reader to consider the exile in terms of the founding moment of historical self-awareness and, at the same time, as the site of various philosophical and individual splits and boundaries. It is the exile posited on the material foundation of historical change or reinstatement and displaced from any singular viewpoint. By challenging our ordinary linguistic ordering of the world, beginning with an analysis of concept formation in the financial world, Prynne’s poetry makes us question the way in which we make sense of things.