Going Electric

Patrick McGuinness

  • Poems by J.H. Prynne
    Bloodaxe/Folio/Fremantle Arts Centre, 440 pp, £25.00, March 2000, ISBN 1 85224 491 7
  • Pearls that Were by J.H. Prynne
    Equipage, 28 pp, £4.00, March 1999, ISBN 1 900968 95 9
  • Triodes by J.H. Prynne
    Barque, 42 pp, £4.00, December 1999, ISBN 1 903488 01 X
  • Other: British and Irish Poetry since 1970 edited by Richard Caddel and Peter Quartermain
    Wesleyan, 280 pp, US $45.00, March 1999, ISBN 0 8195 2241 4

‘Calme bloc ici-bas chu d’un désastre obscur’ (‘calm block fallen here below from some obscure disaster’): this line from Mallarmé’s ‘Le Tombeau d’Edgar Poe’ seems an apt description of his own poems – aftermaths of stellar catastrophes, meteors sitting impassively in their craters, enigmatic wreckage from some temporal or spatial elsewhere. But it would also do for J.H. Prynne’s poems, which contain lines like these, in ‘Star Damage at Home’, from the 1969 collection The White Stones:

                              ... That some star
not included in the middle heavens should
pine in earth, not shine above the skys and
those cloudy vapours? That it really should
burn with fierce heat, explode its fierce –
unbearable song, blacken the calm it comes
near. A song like a glowing rivet strikes
out of the circle, we must make room for
the celestial victim; it is amongst us and
fallen with hissing fury to the ground. Too
lovely the ground and my confidence as I
walk so evenly above it: we must mean the
entire force of what we shall come to say.

Thirty years later, in his new sequence Pearls that Were, stars and star damage are still in evidence:

       Causing the charm, the pause never so alertly
       held abeyantly to flood entire
       its moderate premium diving like a crashed star
in salt water, outbroken fire.

In Prynne’s poems we find metamorphoses, spectacular and menacing natural phenomena, manmade disasters and cosmic ructions tapering down to the ‘home world’; but also, and infrequently mentioned, a fine ear for rhythm and cadence, and a way of managing lyric in strange and dazzling ways. Prynne, like Mallarmé, has tended to polarise readers around issues of obscurity, but where the Mallarméan poem strives for ever greater linguistic purity (it is in the Poe poem that the line ‘donner un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu’ occurs) and ever more giddying feats of abolition, the Prynne poem actively invites contamination, draws to itself the rags and rubbish (the ‘matter out of place’) that poetry typically excludes or refines. Its language is a site of migrating meanings, shifts of sense, appropriations of voice, the ‘I’ by turns supremely assertive against language and crowded out by it. It also contains moments of visionary beauty, of a yearning or pressurised lyricism which will, despite their estranged and self-estranging contexts, constitute the first-time reader’s most familiar point of entry. Such moments may also provide their most compelling inducements to read on:

No resolve about places, the latch-key to
our drifting lives, seems relevant without
this smallest notion of dust. How to
purge the dismal objection to this, remains
a question. Not to be answered, but used,
as a metabolic regulator: pulse rate, place
rate, dust. If you lie on your back the
literalness of that position is a complete
               transfer. Thus I
               dream about courage
               but love chiefly
               several friends
               and one woman
               who is the Lady
               of wherever we
               may go.

The evident shift in pronoun (what I now mean by ‘we’) is a clear question about place.

These lines in ‘A Gold Ring Called Reluctance’ (from the 1968 collection Kitchen Poems) open onto some of Prynne’s enduring themes. There is the question of place, both as landscape and as habitation, and the question of drift and anchoring; there is the intersection of idioms and vocabularies – economic, scientific, grammatical – and the tendency to recast emotional or moral states as minute physiological processes (blood flow, metabolism). The idea of domesticity, the ‘home world’, is also a reference-point, bound up here with the sudden interjection of a speaking or writing ‘I’. What of this ‘I’? Is it still central, pivotal, a trusted ground of selfhood, or is it endangered and unhoused? Are its declarations of confidence and assertion, of calm aspiration, or of extremity and danger? In the close of the sequence The Oval Window (1983) we can see the persistence of such themes across Prynne’s collections:

Standing by the window I heard it,
while waiting for the turn. In hot light
and chill air it was the crossing flow
of even life, hurt in the mouth but
exhausted with passion and joy. Free
to leave at either side, at the fold line
found in threats like herbage, the watch
is fearful and promised before. The years
jostle and bum up as a trust plasma.
Beyond help it is joy at death itself:
a toy hard to bear, laughing all night.

Prynne’s writing is not impersonal; it is constantly and urgently concerned with questions of personal agency and presence, and with the natural, political and social environments these are involved with or alienated from. It takes on timescales remote from those which measure human life and production: the time of geology, glaciers, crystal formation on the one hand, and of neurochemistry, photosynthesis, plant-life on the other. The poems unfold at different speeds, their landscapes are places of geological and historical process, of tribal migrations or demographical shifts; but they are also places of minute observation and microscopic detail. They describe edges, thresholds, points of transgression and the figures who inhabit or cross them: exiles, nomads, shamans. The difficulties we encounter in Prynne’s poetry stem not from vagueness or secrecy, but from the competing assertions of different frames of reference, and from the fact that it does not promise, at some culminating stage, to fall open like a cracked code in the hands of the expert reader.

J.H. Prynne has been writing and teaching in Cambridge for nearly forty years, but the nature of his publishing and readership history means that this collected poems is as much a launch as a consolidation. His first collection, and the only one to appear from a mainstream publisher until now, was Force of Circumstance (1962), a book that reads like a culmination (which in a sense it is, since he has never republished it) rather than a first collection. It is Prynne’s most recognisably ‘traditional’ book and enables us to identify two important early influences: Donald Davie and Charles Olson. The rest of his work has appeared from small presses and in little magazines. It has been regular and prolific: more than two dozen books or pamphlets to date, of which two – Pearls that Were and Triodes – appeared last year after the publication of Poems.

Poems shows us the poetry in the round. It also suggests a gradient of increasing difficulty, although books like the more limpid Pearls that Were complicate such linear plottings. Although Prynne has remained disengaged from any poetry establishment, above all from prizes, patronage or commissions, his audience has been growing. His work was the subject of an excellent Radio 3 programme in 1999 and there is a fine introduction to it by N.H. Reeve and Richard Kerridge, Nearly Too Much (1995). For some, all this exposure, combined with a move to a ‘mainstream’ publisher, has been like Bob Dylan going electric, but it represents an opportunity for the most radically innovative poet now writing to extend his readership.

Prynne has been compared with John Ashbery, but there is little of Ashbery’s canny slackness of tone or perspective. The poems, by contrast, are dense and alarming; where Olson conceived of the poem as an ‘open field’, Prynne is inclined to think of it as a battlefield, as in ‘Die a Millionaire (pronounced “diamonds in the air”)’ from Kitchen Poems:

The grid is another sign, is knowledge
in appliqué-work actually strangled – latticed
across the land; like the intangible consumer
networks, as the market defines wants from
single reckoning into a social need, graphed
for instance as ‘contour tangent elimination’.
And the drift of that is again to divert the
currency (as now in England to the north-
east). As, it was actually losing its grip
on the population: real people, slipping off
the face of that lovely ground, leaving the
green – pleasant lands of Northumberland
to be nearer the belly – catch scraps
with the shit we set out so grudgingly
on plates for the blind to eat in gratitude.

What makes poetry like this so inhospitable is, ironically, its radical openness: management-speak, free market capitalese, exasperated vernacular and information technology collide and interpenetrate, generating tensions between abstractions (maps, grids, money) and the particulars (‘real people’, ‘lovely ground’) they refer to. It is tonally various – angry, ironic, urgent; it compels attitudes, wants to direct feelings, but it also wishes to enact rather than describe. In a 1969 review of Olson’s Maximus Poems IV, V, VI Prynne wrote: ‘this poem, which might seem in some ways close to that panic-stricken encyclopedic impulse ... which merely confronts the decline – splittings of awareness, is something else; i.e., not secondary assemblage but primary writing.’ In his essay on ‘Projective Verse’ Olson envisioned the poem as ‘a high energy construct’ with ‘at all points, an energy-discharge’, and energy is what a Prynne poem both emits and requires. However, the busy and imbricated poems may be contrasted with sparer, clearer and differently suggestive poems such as ‘Love’, a rare short and self-contained piece in The White Stones:

Noble in the sound which
marks the pale ease
of their dreams, they ride
the bel canto of our
time: the patient en-
circlement of Narcissus –
as he pines I too
am wan with fever,
have fears which set
the vanished child above
reproach. Cry as you
will, take what you
need, the night is young
and limitless our greed.

Where does Prynne come from? The question is not one of origin or influence but of approach. It is important to insist – in advance of the predictable accusations of élitism, difficulty and so on – that there are many directions from which readers can come at these poems, and that Prynne’s work offers many opportunities for rewarding engagement. For all his perceived (and sometimes critically overplayed) isolation, Prynne belongs to a tradition, and is also part of a vigorous poetic and critical counter-culture. His work sends critics to Blake or Wordsworth or Coleridge as often as it propels them to the OED in search of what Beckett called ‘semantic succour’; it is as likely to draw us back to the Metaphysical poets, to Hardy or to Herrick as it is to refer us to Heidegger, Bakhtin or Adorno. It was in order to extend a tradition – rather than to domesticate Prynne – that Donald Davie devoted a section of his 1972 Thomas Hardy and British Poetry to a discussion of Prynne’s contexts, and much of the best criticism of Prynne since has seen him as a writer bristling with contexts.

Prynne is mentioned as an enabling presence in Richard Caddel and Peter Quartermain’s anthology, Other: British and Irish Poetry since 1970, which attempts to reveal to Britain and Ireland a poetic culture it has set to one side. The book contains more than fifty poets, no two of whom are remotely similar, and no more that a handful of whom can be found in the Penguin, Picador, Harvill or Faber anthologies. The editors give us a spread of generations, from Brian Coffey (1905-95) and Jonathan Griffin (1906-90) to Catherine Walsh (b. 1964) and Fred D’Aguiar (b. 1960), and represent a wide diversity of poetic practices. They also tell us the names of another fifty-odd poets they would have liked to put in – ‘significant omissions’ we can pursue elsewhere.

As a rule, anthology introductions are full of cod-historicising, straw-targeting and dumbed-down sloganeering, but Caddel and Quartermain’s is free of all this while remaining combative and historically useful. It gives us a sense of the growth of ‘other’ poetry in Britain, through small presses, magazines and writers’ workshops, and describes the development of an experimental literary culture to sustain it – particularly in the 1970s and 1980s (a period Robert Sheppard has called the ‘utopia of dissent’), when Basil Bunting was president of the Poetry Society and Eric Mottram was editing Poetry Review. Certain key figures emerge as influences or promoters, but the

tradition ... is long, dissenting and largely disregarded if not indeed suppressed. Its history has yet to be written, and stretches back to Clare, Blake, Smart and the two Vaughans, Henry and Thomas. It is a tradition that in this century has not been ashamed to borrow from overseas models ... and that runs counter to the mainstreams of British verse.

Ezra Pound dedicated Guide to Kulchur to Louis Zukofsky and Bunting – ‘strugglers in the desert’ – and it is in the space between the words ‘disregarded’ and ‘suppressed’ (the ‘struggle’ and the ‘desert’) that the avantgarde project both defines itself and hazards that self-definition: the oppositional nature of the project might be a mirage, since the ‘dominant’ culture (dominant through distribution, public funding, commissions etc) doesn’t really notice and so the oppositionality remains one-sided. In the last half-century alone the list of ‘strugglers in the desert’ reads like a roster of the British writers who have received the most international recognition: Bunting, David Jones, Hugh MacDiarmid and W.S. Graham are just a few of them. The work of these poets, and their successors in Other, is not inaccessible; it is ‘differently immediate’. Both the Prynne Poems and the anthology are easy enough to find in the shops, so there’s no excuse now; as Bunting, another recent Blood-axe acquisition, said of Pound’s Cantos: ‘There they are, you will have to go a long way round/if you want to avoid them.’