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The Puzzling Poetic Praxis of J.H. Prynne - Part I

The Puzzling Poetic Praxis of J.H. Prynne - Part I

“Anyone who takes up this book will, we expect, have done so because at the back of his mind he has a half-formed belief that there is something in it.” - J.H. Prynne, epigraph to Down Where Changed (ostensibly quoted from Practical Crystal Gazing by C Thorpe).

The Belgian Surrealist René Magritte briefly co-edited a short-lived Dada publication entitled Œsophage in which he declared, “We refuse under any circumstances to explain precisely what people won't understand.” Throughout an artistic career devoted to intellectual puzzles, visual gags, and what he described as a “systematic search for disturbing poetic effects,” Magritte's constant goal was to surprise his viewers. Although he suggested we should always inquire “What does it mean?”, he never intended us to answer the question or solve the puzzle - “It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing either, it is unknowable.” When first confronting the poetry of J.H. Prynne, it is important to cultivate a similarly open approach, one that is simultaneously receptive to interrogating poetic form and to remaining inquisitive even when its purpose remains obscure.

Prynne prefers to publish his largely unpublicised poems in limited edition chapbooks through small, independent presses and seldom makes public appearances. At the request of the American poet Ed Dorn, who was dying of cancer at the time, he gave a rare reading in Bristol. When asked why such events were so infrequent, he drew a distinction between “the voice of the poem” and “the voice of the poet … an accident of biography … which does not interest me.” In March 2004, he addressed an audience in Paris, prefacing it with a few words in French about the violence recently unleashed by the police on immigrant youths on the Metro. Although he was introduced as the most important living English poet, he has resolutely resisted any effort to promote himself or his poetry, generally refusing interviews (The Paris Review being a notable exception) and photographs (The Sunday Times managed to snatch a shot of him cycling down a Cambridge street in 2004). There are a couple of amateur recordings from Canada and China available on Facebook and You Tube, and in November 2017 he appeared at London's Serpentine Sackler Gallery in support of his childhood friend Rose Wylie's exhibition Quack Quack. Despite his dislike of the spotlight, however, Prynne has developed an international reputation. His collection Poems garnered a nomination for a New Yorker book prize and a translation of Pearls That Were (1999) sold over fifty thousand copies in China, even though only five hundred were printed in the UK. Despite (or perhaps because of) his obscurity (in every sense of the word), Prynne remains a highly controversial figure, idolised by some, demonised by others, and largely ignored by the rest.

Love him or loathe him, Prynne represents the cutting edge of current British poetry. Like Magritte, he possesses a uniquely witty and idiosyncratic voice that is at once polarizing and perplexing. Hermetic and baffling, abstruse and rebarbative, dry and even downright incomprehensible are just some of the adjectives that have been used to describe his work. David Wheatley, in a 2015 Guardian review of the latest edition of his collected Poems, described him as “the ultimate poet of anti-pathos. Everything about him spells distance and difficulty. He ... does not appear in anthologies and is never nominated for prizes; his books have Captain Beefheart-like titles such as Her Weasels Wild Returning; … he attracts acolytes and execrators, rather than run-of-the-mill readers, and, most important, no one knows what any of it means. … It is an astringent approach, and the idea that Prynne’s poems are self-referential closed circuits is a handy excuse for the baffled. The truth, however, is that early Prynne is quarried from all too real and resistant material: frequent preoccupations include capitalism and commodification, scientific method and research, cultural archaeology, glaciation and the problem of waste (a recent pamphlet is titled Refuse Collection). ... Prynne has published poetry in classical Chinese ... but even in English he is never less than mandarin.”

Since the revolution in poetry initiated over a century ago by Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, many have assumed it ought to employ the words and word order of common speech with no archaisms or inversions, relying instead for its effect on freshness of imagery and rhythm, on the sequence and concentration of thought. Pound noted - “We no longer think or need to think in terms of monolinear logic, the sentence structure, subject, predicate, object, etc. We are as capable or almost as capable as the biologist of thinking thoughts that join like spoke in a wheel-hub and that fuse in hyper-geometric amalgams.” But if we insist that all poetry must conform to such modernist conventions, we devalue a great part of the poetry of the past. We may well enjoy some poets whose preferred diction is pedestrian and colloquial (like Sam Hunt, for instance), yet refusing to accept this standard for poetry in general puts us in the august company of Ancient Greek poets and critics. Aristotle, for instance, applauded the use of rare words instead of customary ones, as well as the artificial lengthening or shortening of words to lift them above the vulgar and vernacular, while modern authorities have described Homer's method as follows: “Whatever its origins, Homeric Greek was not a spoken language” (C.M. Bowra); “The language of Homer is an artificial amalgam of elements from different regions and different periods, including many forms invented by the singers themselves” (G.S. Kirk); and “The remarkable but totally artificial dialect of the poems, which no Greek ever spoke but which remained permanently fixed as the language of Greek epic” (M.I. Finley). It is noteworthy that when Pound himself translated lines from the Odyssey, he chose to adopt neither a modern nor a Jacobean manner, but a modified Anglo-Saxon one.

All three descriptions are equally applicable to Prynne who is himself a scholar of Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon literature, relishing in particular the descriptive and phonetic profusion of the great Icelandic sagas. Language carries residual traces of its historical and philological uses and contexts. It is never chemically pure, like a coin that be simply exchanged for a single meaning, nor entirely innocent. Prynne's poetry presents us not with puzzles for our delighted decryption, but rather with the process of the evolving worlds implicated in and created by language itself. In what is perhaps the closest he has come to a personal statement of his methodology, he wrote - “It has mostly been my own aspiration … to establish relations not personally with the reader, but with the world and its layers of shifted but recognisable usage; and thereby with the reader's own position within this world.”

Prynne's poetry employs a breath-taking breadth of vocabulary that mines the historical layers of accrued meaning, as well as the specialist lexicons of disciplines as diverse as geology, microbiology, finance, astronomy, optics, medicine, neurophysiology, genetics, and agriculture. This employment of technical material would not have seemed perverse a few centuries ago, when popular poets such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley avidly engaged with the scientific advances to their era. The social contexts implied by Prynne's poetry are simultaneously part of our contemporary world and our current language, and their initial strangeness can induce the same combination of fear and wonder that the Romantics used to associate with the Sublime. Although initially the resulting agglutination of idiomatic language may appear like a “Dadaist barrage of unconnected words” (as Robert Potts put it in an earlier Guardian review), “it is a work informed by a vast amount of reading and its range and pitch are concomitantly daunting.” It may be uncomfortable to be made aware of these contexts (or to be reminded of our ignorance of them), but poets have no obligation to spare our feelings by reducing their frame of reference to that of a 'general reader,' and would be showing little respect for such a notional subject if they did.

Many modern translators and poets, however, aspire to writing in demotic terms that everyone can easily understand. In its most familiar and typical iterations, this is manifestly a debased form of English, the kind preferred by journalists, television pundits, publicity agents, and politicians. In the capitalist structure of our society, 'news' has become the controlled commodification and selective dissemination of information and disinformation - an understanding that the Trumpian notion of 'fake news' exploits unerringly. When constantly faced with the kind of “lies, each quite gross / and polished” predicted by Prynne in News of Warring Clans (1975), resistance may well seem futile -


in an outraged moral system the lying report,
subject to efficient causes, is bound fast
to a truth mostly formal, the efforts
at mendacious gab exceeded all limits.

The demagogic approach preferred by patronising popularisers assumes a degree of feeble-mindedness in their audience, alongside a deep distaste for using serious language to discuss serious matters, the more trivial word being somehow considered the more authentic. Fear, anger, and grief, for example, have remained common human experiences throughout the ages, but nowadays we prefer to describe people as anxious, annoyed, or depressed, suffering only from such superficial misfortunes as ads for Big Pharma can profess to cure. Such widespread disapprobation not only degrades the writer's authority, but also insults the reader's intelligence, whether it is applied to Homer, the King James Bible, or the poetry of Prynne. Homer did not sing down to his audience, nor did Shakespeare play only to the groundlings.

Prynne was Director of English Studies and a Fellow of Gonville & Caius College at Cambridge University for over three decades and has published more than thirty collections of verse. Various themes and images run consistently throughout this corpus, which becomes more forbidding and unapproachable with each subsequent edition. This strategy of increasing occlusion is entirely deliberate. Prynne demands that his readers work hard to mine such deeply embedded semantic seams. Whether the extreme effort involved in quarrying for meaning is ultimately worth the expenditure of energy depends on the calibre and capacity of the backhoe. Each excavator's expectation of reward from digging into le plaisir du texte will be different, as will his degree of patience when faced with some fairly adamantine rock faces.

It is no coincidence that one place to start is by noting the geographic and geological aspects of much of his verse: images of stones, rocks, glaciation, and water abound; gradients, tilts, and slopes are often referenced; as are horizons, perimeters, margins, boundaries, edges, and landforms of all kinds. As Prynne explained in a 1967 letter to Peter Riley, this representation of landforms, and its connection to the pastoral/elegiac convention in poetry that traditionally connotes a process of mourning through natural symbols, attests to the fact that the “landscape becomes acculturated by the subsistence of social memory.” Prynne is intensely interested in how poetic language and the representation of landforms are conditioned by the social and literary history of place. Spatial locations are defined by enclosing perimeters and the establishment of boundaries, connecting them to historical issues of both privatisation and privation. Thus northern latitudes tend to predominate in his poetry, with their preponderance of ice, snow, frost, rain, and tundra, as well as their cosy and comforting antonyms - the heat and shelter provided by fires, hearths, homes, huts, and houses. Through these descriptions, the natural world is often inscribed within an enveloping threat of violence, coming to represent a complex metonymy of sanctuary and sanctity, echoing the conventions of pastoral elegy in which natural symbols are employed to suggest both purity and perseverance. Prynne's later poetry makes frequent allusions to violence and coercion, the global economy and market forces, the manufacture of armaments and advanced tactical weaponry, and recondite scientific theorems, often juxtaposing images of the stars, the moon, leaves, and clouds against such mercantile terms as income, value, interest, desire, need, want, and gain.

Another puzzling obsession of Prynne's poetry is its unfailing interest in the physical properties of the human body. References to cutting, ripping, bleeding, flaying, and bruising extend from Wound Response (1974) to For the Monogram (2009), which consists of rigid sixteen-line sections of lyrics suggestive of sonnets. Any expectation of fixity, however, is immediately dispelled by unexpected clause breaks, discordant nominal phrases, and the use of highly specialised vocabulary from mathematics, geology, and computer science. Whatever freedom exists in these poems comes from within the shimmer of words that retain the unpredictability of meaning when juxtaposed against each other. Although the neurochemistry of the brain, medical operations, the inner structure of the ear, wounds, sutures, and corporeal forms of opening and purchase are all mentioned, the presence of actual human beings is largely absent. There is often a profusion of confusing pronouns and deictics, but never the sort of dramatis personae we come across in the poems of Browning, Eliot, and Pound. Subjectivity is radically dislocated, with the 'I' becoming a largely impersonal pronoun. Prynne's poetry remains both allusive and elusive, alluvial and lapidary, full of sedimentary emphases, but entirely lacking in sentiment. In addition to the traditional lyrical elements of Romantic landscape poetry, a constant emphasis is also placed on images of social stratification, as though bearing witness to the appropriation and commodification of both natural resources and emotions. Stranger still, Prynne's abiding interest in sacerdotal, eschatological, and liturgical literature goes hand in hand with a profound fascination with such pre-Aristotelian philosophers such as Parmenides and an enthusiasm for Hegelian dialectics, especially as they were subsequently conceptualised by Theodor Adorno and in the early writings of Mao Zedong.

Prynne has traveled all over China, lived and worked in Hunan Province for a time, and read most of Mao's works with “a great deal of attention.” He considers Mao's 1937 essay On Contradiction to be a major text due to its complex understanding of the task of the dialectic, which Mao conceived of as a principal of relationship and activity not just within the intellectual order, but also permeating the material and natural order itself. Prynne was encouraged in this oriental enthusiasm by the example of the great natural scientist Joseph Needham, whose portrait hangs in the Gonville & Caius dining hall, the only figure among the other Masters to wear a blue Chinese worker's smock and hold a pair of chopsticks in his hand.

Joseph Needham

Needham was a great scholar of Chinese science, philosophy, and culture, somehow managing to be simultaneously a committed Taoist, Marxist, and Christian, which is “a pretty difficult mixture … contradiction was something he was very familiar with.” The narrative that Mao devised to produce a native style of Marxism is made evident in Kazoo Dreamboats; or, On What There Is (2011), which is “full of an extremely complex system of self-contradictions which ought to produce serious disorder in the thought process … Sometimes I'm quite satisfied with the confusion and sometimes I'm deeply mortified by it. The process of composing it was very peculiar and discrepant.”

Even more confusingly, frequent imperative injunctions and commands are to be found throughout Prynne's poetry. We are constantly being to told to take precise actions and forbidden to do others, as different levels of discourse jostle and compete for our attention - scientific, economic, and literary, side by side with the debased chatter of advertising commercials. Abrupt shifts and variations in scale take place, from microscopic and sub-atomic particles to theories of continental drift. Prynne is especially interested in the first epoch of the Quaternary period, otherwise known as the Pleistocene epoch, which lasted from 1,640,000 to about 10,000 years ago, and the system of geological deposits that were laid down during this era. The Pleistocene was marked by great fluctuations in temperature that caused the ice ages, when spells of glaciation were interspersed with warmer interglacial intervals. Several extinct forms of human beings, forerunners of modern humanity, first appeared during this epoch. Such extreme shifts occur in Prynne's verses as well, whisking the reader instantly from dermatological close-ups of exfoliation to galactic and interstellar expansion which have occurred over millennia. It is all rather disorienting, like trying to solve some hugely complex and cryptic crossword puzzle. Various attempts have been made by commentators to interpret the pellucid luminosity of Prynne's output, with varying degrees of success. Such efforts, however, demonstrate a highly active and discerning humanist intelligence behind the poetry, no matter how private and self-effacing the poet himself may be.

After studying under Donald Davie at Cambridge University, spending a few semesters at Harvard, and performing his national service, Prynne was appointed lecturer in English Literature at Gonville & Caius in 1962 and served as College Librarian from 1969 to 2006. Alongside Andrew Crozier and Peter Riley, he was instrumental in producing The English Intelligencer, a highly innovative and influential publication that briefly and loosely grouped together such disparate poets and writers as J.G. Ballard, Elaine Feinstein, John James, Jeff Nuttall, Douglas Oliver, Tom Pickard, Tom Raworth, and Barry MacSweeney. It played a key role in the emergence of many of the poets associated with the British Poetry Revival, in a conscious effort to create a British avant-garde in response to similar developments in the US. The Intelligencer was circulated among a limited number of correspondents, varying from 25 to 65, but with a constant core of about a dozen. It was mimeographed and appeared roughly every three weeks, with the total run amounting to thirty-six issues between January 1966 and April 1968. Until the four editions of his collected Poems came out in 1982, 1999, 2005, and 2015 respectively, all of Prynne's poetry was equally inaccessible, published by small presses in limited editions. His first volume, Force of Circumstance, appeared in 1962, but was excluded from subsequent collections. As Prynne describes the process, “I had to work my way through, almost like the psychoanalytic process, and have the extremely uncomfortable experience of being an incompetent beginner.”

Having enjoyed the privilege of being a student of Prynne's in the late 1970s, I can personally attest not only to his always penetrating and occasionally baffling command of the English language, but also to his wry sense of humour, gentle irony, and personal generosity. Draped in his customary black velvet jacket and orange tie, Prynne is a soft-spoken, gently lisping, and somewhat Dickensian character whose eclectic musical taste ranges from Elizabethan madrigals to Alban Berg, from Karlheinz Stockhausen to Frank Zappa. Ben Watson's Frank Zappa: The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play is an impassioned attempt to prove that Zappa was not only a musical genius, but also a wordsmith as eloquent as Joyce and a philosopher as serious as Adorno that contains several comparisons to Prynne's poetry. The cartoonist Matt Groening, who was a friend of Zappa's, described his approach as "demented scholarship," which seems equally applicable in many ways to Prynne's output. Just as all three composers experimented with extreme forms of orchestrated atonality and aural dissonance, he shares with them a fondness for similarly jarring modernist tendencies in poetry.

A particular predilection for parataxis - the placing of clauses or phrases one after another, without words to indicate coordination or subordination - distinguishes his poetry, which has grown increasingly dense and dislocated over subsequent decades. David Caddy has described Prynne's later poetry as follows - “Two words invariably used to describe the initial experience of reading the poems are 'arid' and 'difficult.' … It is, as it were, poetry of the desert.” For Prynne, poetry only becomes real work when it has exhausted all the possibilities of the common idiom in which life has so far been lived. According to Keston Sutherland (another ex-student), "poetic thought" in Prynne's sense of the phrase is located “at what he has called 'the borders and edges' of language, that is the vastest and most nearly untraversible distance from the material corruptions of workaday language, which Prynne in 1986 called 'the false & corrupted idiom of residual, vernacular commonalty as almost pure cant'.” For many less committed readers, the consequence of all this finely-wrought linguistic intricacy is that his poetry is “unreadable according to any conventional approach to reading,” as Willam Fuller has argued is the case with Red D Gypsum (1998).

Like Eliot and Pound before him, Prynne also had a penchant for the rhetorical effect of ekphrasis - the incorporation of, or references to, works of literary, verbal, or graphic art within another work of art. He frequently employs, quotes, and mimics newspaper reports, scientific data, and other technical discourses as means of testing and highlighting systems of language used in everyday communication. Prynne's close attention to elements of syntax does not follow formal grammatical structures, however, but results instead in the construction of highly ambiguous lexical dislocations. Since there is no requirement for a poet to preserve the forms of prose syntax, whenever we come across verses that deliberately luxate syntax, we are not simply dealing with blurted-out ejaculations (although plenty of these certainly occur in Prynne's poetry as well). The fractured arrangements of Pound's Cantos may superficially resemble those of William Carlos Williams, but it is articulated by a syntax that is essentially musical, not linguistic, by what Susanne Langer in Philosophy in a New Key termed “the unifying, all-embracing artifice of rhythm,” understood in its widest sense to mean not only the rhythm that rides through tempo and meter, but also the recurrence of ideas hinted at in one Canto, picked up in another much later on, then suspended for many more.

When first encountering Prynne's poetry, extremely close attention to words and phrases needs to be accompanied by keeping a close eye on their socio-historical contexts. There are often several of these going on simultaneously, which makes navigating his texts especially absorbing. In a 2009 review of Sutherland's Hot White Andy, Prynne employs a series of military metaphors that provide an interesting glimpse into his own creative process: “Excess and degraded speech slide rapidly across registers that are riddled with disorder, yoked by violence and impacted into a blitz of damaged lexis and syntax. The narrator's luridly partitioned body-image is split into numerous factions of agency, hemmed into states of … negotiation, all barraged by scads of hyper-obscure data.” Prynne's approach to history differs from Sutherland's by providing a more multifaceted, crystalline view of each contextual situation, which he described in a letter to Andrew Crozier as the “retrospective formalism of the occasion.” In his seminal essay Poetic Thought, Prynne insists that poetry should articulate and preserve the unnameable aspects of history: “Poetic thought is empowered within and through energies of language under pressure;” and “the language of poetry is its modality and material base, but whatever its relation with common human speech, the word-arguments in use are characteristically disputed territory, where prosody and verse-form press against unresolved structures and repeatedly transgress expectations.”

This is by no means'open' or 'free form' material, however, in which anything goes. Prynne is well aware of the rarefied poetic tradition within which he is working, especially the four Williams (Langland, Shakespeare, Blake, and Wordsworth) and the Romantic movement in general. He has also acknowledged such European influences Friedrich Hölderlin, Martin Heidegger, Paul Celan, and Gabriel Marcel, for whom he shares an affection with Geoffrey Hill (another 'difficult' poet who was a teaching fellow Emmanuel College, Cambridge, from 1981-88 and Professor of Poetry at Oxford from 2010-15). When approaching his poetry it is also helpful to have some knowledge of such twentieth-century precursors as Pound, Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens, George Oppen, Frank O'Hara, and Charles Olson. Prynne was one of Olson's earliest advocates, corresponded with him over a number of years, and spent some time in the mid-1960s trying to get the later parts of The Maximus Poems into a publishable format. This is the general literary lineage from which Prynne's puzzling poetic praxis has emerged. In Part II, I will investigate in more detail the specific forms it has assumed and the historical and socio-cultural worldview within which it operates.

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