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 diversity of works in this large volume is very great. Included are long, ferociously unpleasing works, others hauntingly beautiful which win one to the effort they require. There are Lennonesque conceptual twisters:

(There was a maid her
  name was Jim
they always took her
  name for him).

There is an epic which refuses the consolations of mythologising (‘News of Warring Clans’); a prose work which traces the route by which value thins out into exchange value (‘A Note on Metal’); and the deliciously funny and precise Proceedings of a conference at which plants attempt to observe and describe their movements in time – a botanised history (‘The “Plant Time Manifold” Transcripts’). Each of the component volumes has its individual character. The most wide-ranging is the largest, The White Stones (1969), which contains poems addressing personal grief and individual orientation as well as the brutalised evasions of international politics.

But despite this enormous range of tone and form, what nearly all of the works in this volume share is a cartographic attentiveness to contour and an unremitting curiosity about change and process. The question which Prynne seems always to be asking is ‘How does one get from there to here?’ ‘What is the route by which d became t?’ Changing states attract Prynne’s attention much as they did John Donne’s. Here we don’t get ‘gold to ayery thinnesse beat’ or flesh ‘calcined’ into dust. Instead we have syrups, doughs, pastries, and snow that melts into slush: images of reconstitution and dissolution. The first volume included in Poems is called Kitchen Poems (1968), but a concern with the way in which the raw materials – and the books – are cooked and transformed does not stop here. As the title of the most recent volume – Down Where Changed (1979) – shows, Prynne is always trying to locate the point of change, though, once located, it is a point no more momentous than any other:

    it’s the last time or
thing or some edge. Like cliffs, the departure
is overwhelming as a casual thread,
leading into this, that, the
gray darkness.

The unemphatic line-endings which turn to stressed first syllables emphasise the elusiveness of the crucial transformative moment: it is suddenly passed, lost or found in the space between words and lines. ‘Thoughts on the Esterhazy Court Uniform’ is a poem about our incapacity for the moment, our retrospective structurings, and our need for a music based on the satisfactions of return:

     if it would only
level out into some complete migration of
sound. I could then leave unnoticed, bring nothing
with me, allow the world free of its displacement.
Then I myself would be the
complete stranger, not watching jealously
over names. And yet home is easily our idea of it,
the music of decent and proper
order, it’s this we must leave in some quite
specific place if we are not to carry it
everywhere with us.
                          I know I will go back
down – that it will not be the same though
I shall be sure it is so. And I shall be even
deeper by rhyme and cadence, more held
to what isn’t mine. Music is truly the
sound of our time, since it is how we most
deeply recognise the home we may not
have: the loss is trust and you could
reverse that without change.

The shared finiteness of language, structuring the infinite and unique particulars of experience into identifying patterns, inevitably falsifies. Elsewhere Prynne writes of ‘cosmetic universals’ (‘News of Warring Clans’). The satisfactions of rhyme and cadence exemplify the same process of clarification by falsification. Cadence becomes a falling away. According to this logic, lines of poetry are as Walter Benjamin describes the lines of the face – records, not of experience lived, but of our failure to experience: ‘The wrinkles and creases on our faces are the registration of the great passions, vices, insights that called on us; but we, the masters, were not at home.’

Prynne is acutely conscious of language’s capacity for evasion. He endeavours to reverse this. Sometimes his object of attack is specifically ‘poetic’ language, and he is angrily aware of the moral failure of which a sentimental retreat into poetry may be a symptom. I was at times reminded of Coleridge writing in the Watchman of ‘the fine lady’ who ‘sips a beverage sweetened with human blood, even while she is weeping over the refined sorrows of Werther or Clementina’ (25 March 1796). Coleridge’s connection between breakfast sugar and the blood of the slaves who cut the cane is very much the kind that Prynne makes and that we have to make if we are to understand some of his poems. If metaphor is a matter of making connections, of seeing one thing in relation to another, those perceptions must enlarge our understandings and be figures of thought. But Prynne sees how metaphor can obscure and blunt the understanding by replacing one thing with another. There is room for treachery and falsification in analogy: it can be the source of enlarged sympathies (‘only connect’), but it can also be the source of a pious ignorance of pressing particularity. Prynne sees how much and how little metaphor can do. It can make rotten cheese interesting but not edible:

The cheese was fleeced
  in a gray crush, old – mouldy
as a gorge of brushed silk.

Prynne makes us experience the ways in which metaphor can displace and beautify:

Under her brow the snowy wing-case
  delivers truly the surprise
of days which slide under sunlight
    past loose glass in the door
  into the reflection of honour spread
through the incomplete, the trusted. So
  darkly the stain skips as a livery
of your pause like an apple pip,
  the baltic loved one who sleeps.
Or as syrup in a cloud, down below in
  the cup, you excuse each folded
cry of the finch’s wit, ...

Here, a plane drops its load of defoliating napalm. There are ways of describing it (as in the title, ‘Rich in Vitamin C’) which can domesticate this horror and lend it a false innocence. The way in which the sentences change course with the turns of the lines makes us re-orient ourselves and participate in the difficulty of discovering meaning.

In ‘Die a Millionaire’ (pronounced ‘diamonds in the air’), the second poem in the collected volume, Prynne explores the relations between knowledge and power:

                     the twist-point
is ‘purchase’ – what the mind
bites on is yours.

The range of ‘purchase’ – from mental biting to the appropriation of commodities and land – provides an example, not so much of a pun, as of an extension of meaning. Later in the poem, writing of colonial expansion and popular migration, the simile of altered current seems itself an example of expanded and extended meaning:

                               Otherwise it’s
purchase, of a natural course, the alteration
or storage of current like dams in the
river ...

Prynne’s metaphors are nearly always metonymic – determined by some kind of contiguity. His poetry takes one back to the sources of analogy, tracing a route of deviation and expansion and establishing connections as significant, not arbitrary.

Prynne has his way of seeing the world as vitally interconnected, and so passes, in a sense, beyond specialism. The chains of causality which link the parts of the world make the connections of metaphor revelations of relatedness which should enforce responsibility. His conception of metaphor and of the world which it reveals recalls the Medieval and Renaissance theory of correspondences. A belief in these never created metaphors, but it did have the effect of authenticating and motivating the discoveries of metaphor. The following poem, in its large anthropomorphic tenderness, lovingly parodies the capaciousness of Renaissance metaphor in which shifts of scale did not place objects beyond the range of the imagination:

As grazing the earth
                    the sun raises
its mouth to the night
                    rick, ox-eye’d
and burning, strewn over
                    the phase path
At the turning-places
                    of the sun the
head glistens, dew falls
                    from the apse line:
O lye still, thou
                      Little Musgrave, the
grass is wet
                    and streak’d with light

The greatest loss which poetry incurred during the post-Renaissance period of scientific and technical development was a circumscription of scope. From a world of necessarily but also perilously specialised and discrete discourses, poetry has often been excluded: left to express feelings and human values, but modestly refraining from connecting these with any physiology of sensation or economic theory of value. Prynne’s poetry insists on pursuing these connections. He explores the knock-on effect of atomic regroupings to their starry consequences. His imagination, and also his intelligence, expand out towards large consequence and contract to pursue the invisible point of cause. The perceiving human both causes and is caused. ‘Of Sanguine Fire’ describes the process of digestion and micturation with all the delightedly funny and loving precision of Rabelais (who anchored his own imaginative explorations in anatomical knowledge). And while Prynne shares Rabelais’s scope, he is in a position to know more about what constitutes that scope. Our great chain of being contains chains of nucleotides.

This poetry is often confoundingly difficult. Reading it, one is constantly made aware of the partiality of one’s knowledge. The difficulty of the poems is not the difficulty of Modernist self-reference: a good reader of these poems would attain a better and more responsible understanding of the interdependence of the universe which we, and they, inhabit.

Language inhabits, does not just comment upon, the universe. Prynne uses words as exploratory instruments, packing them round the unspeakable in order that its contours may be defined. Language occupies the boundary between the sensible and the barely intelligible:

   The name is the sidereal display, it
is what we know we cannot now have.
The last light is the name it carries,
it is this binds us to our unbroken trust.

He watches words, following their contours to see how meaning is created and enlarged. In the work of a poet so preoccupied with the implications of ‘drift’ and ‘slip’ – of snow, populations, land masses – I half-expected some speculation on the Great Vowel Shift of the 15th century whose causes no one seems to know. Instead, the following poem, shifting the vowels between ‘lack’, ‘luck’ and ‘like’, observes the way in which meaning is derived from difference:

Lack spreads like snow
back by the path to the iron pipe
flaking and not succeeding.
And over this luck comes, the bird
making shadows like fortune,
like heat and light, on the wing.
Lack warms, it is the conduit
of starlight through the shut window,
lack of love hot now, luck cool
by turn, the bird it likes.

The various vowel sounds tint meaning into appearance as the shadow of a bird may bring out a dazzling absence of colour. ‘Like’ is the most crucial word here and its prepositional function in lines 1, 5 and 6 is illuminated by the verb of the last line. The conjunctions we make through perceived similarity are, like those of affection, contingent upon difference. In this poem the careful scrutiny given to sound and meaning through the declension of the vowels extends to every word. Prynne can use words with the steady-handed investigative delicacy of an anatomist.

This attentiveness to the contours and momentum of individual words is behind the bewildering changes of direction which some of the poems involve. Consequences are explored by following associative paths. At other times Prynne uses the stepped turnings of his lines to home in upon a discovery:

      Cry as you
will, take what you
need, the night is young
and limitless our greed.

Whichever the direction, this poetry traces the lineaments of desire, before and after they are identified as such, with an imagination directed by an exacting moral intelligence. It is very demanding, and it is worth the trouble.