Prynne’s Principia

Elizabeth Cook

  • Poems by J.H. Prynne
    Agneau 2, 320 pp, £12.00, May 1982, ISBN 0 907954 00 6

A volume as thick as this, with an index, and a cover of Gallimard plainness, entitled simply Poems, inevitably suggests the accomplished authority of an Opera Omnia. The book includes the contents of 12 volumes previously published by small presses in more or less limited editions, interspersed with clumps of previously uncollected poems. The last poem in the book seems to announce a long ensuing silence:

What do you say then
well yes and no
about four times a day

sick and nonplussed
by the thought of less
you say stuff it.

It’s well-placed as a last poem, but it needn’t be final. The lowest common denominators of our thinking are the ‘yes’ and ‘no’, the plus and minus, of neuronic impulses. These constitute the first principles, the minimal security, from which we can proceed. That last ‘stuff it’ need not be casually nihilistic: it might even contain the grotesque suggestion of labroscopic taxidermy. At any rate, this poem does suggest the possibility of more complex utterances whilst reminding us that such complexity depends upon the neurones doing their sums.

So this book is not an Opera Omnia. It is not even an omnia opera so far. It does not include the contents of a volume called Force of Circumstance, published by Routledge in 1962. Those earlier poems have in common with the later ones an obsession with questions of location and implication. But in the earlier poems the patterns of rhyme and metre tend to create a dynamic and conclusiveness which is at odds with the inquiry impelling the poems. This does not happen – unless knowingly – in the poems collected in the present volume. In ‘L’Extase de M. Poher’ these lines occur:

  poetic gabble will survive which fails
to collide head-on with the unwitty circus:
          no history running
            with the french horn into
                the alley-way, no
              manifest emergence
           of valued instinct, no growth
            of meaning – stated order:
        we are too kissed – fondled ...

It is the head-on collision with ‘the unwitty circus’ that makes these poems so very demanding and difficult. While the language is charged with the self-awareness that distinguishes poetic language, these poems are not primarily self-reflective. When poetry is in some sense the subject, the process is more one of self-interrogation. The above poem is concerned with principles of ordering: of arrangement and derangement. The image of the Luxembourg Gardens in their desperate and stranded formality provides a visual focus and analogue to these concerns. The route by which one arrives at the Luxembourg Gardens, property of the French Senate, is through a chain of connections initiated in the title’s mention of Poher, the head of the Senate (as I learnt through inquiry) and the part which stands for the whole. The relations, and the conversions, of power are experienced within the poem. The conversions – of the instinctual into the economic, for example – with which power operates, obscure as they seem to simplify. Prynne’s delight in disorder is not an aesthetic caprice but is motivated by a rigorous attention to particularity:

1. Steroid metaphrast

2. Hyper-bonding of the insect

3. 6% memory, etc

any other rubbish is mere political rhapsody, the gallant lyricism of the select, breasts – elbows,


else is allowed by the vebal smash-up piled under foot. Crush tread trample distinguish put your choice in the hands of the town clerk, the army stuffing its drum. Rubbish is

   pertinent; essential; the

   most intricate presence in

   our entire culture; the

ultimate sexual point of the whole place turned

                       into a model question.

Like Alexandre Surin, the garbage man in Michel Tournier’s Les Météores, Prynne can discover in rubbish, in what has been discarded, the most detailed index and contours of existence. The model question defines its answer.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in