Smirk Host Panegyric

Robert Potts

  • Poems by J.H. Prynne
    Bloodaxe, 688 pp, £25.00, April 2015, ISBN 978 1 78037 154 2

‘It is the fate of some artists,’ John Ashbery once remarked, ‘and perhaps the best ones, to pass from unacceptability to acceptance without an intervening period of appreciation.’ For a long time – more than forty years in fact – there seemed no danger that this fate would befall J.H. Prynne: take him or leave him, it didn’t seem possible that he’d ever be acceptable. His name had become, as The Oxford Companion to 20th-Century Poetry put it in 1994, ‘synonymous with all that is most rebarbative in the work of the contemporary English avant-garde’. Considering his obscurity (limited edition pamphlets circulating among those in the know; no publicity, no interviews), it is remarkable how much fear and loathing the mere existence of his work once generated.

Something has changed. The number of admirers has grown, spreading far wider than the overlapping circles of avant-garde practitioners. The number of detractors has diminished, and the pitch of the denunciations has (mostly) lowered. Wholly and proudly conventional writers and critics, such as Ruth Padel, Fiona Sampson, Andrew Motion and Peter McDonald, have found positive things to say. Last year Prynne received a Society of Authors award.

The publication of the collected Poems in 1999, an ever fattening volume updated in 2005 and again last year, each time gathering in new collections and unpublished pieces, has done a great deal to effect this transformation. That these vast volumes – ‘yellow bricks’, as they have been described – were published by Bloodaxe, a successful, eclectic imprint, gave an unsought and immediate imprimatur to the outlaw. When Randall Stevenson’s Oxford English Literary History (2004) seemed to rate Prynne’s work above that of the ‘national monument’ Philip Larkin, John Carey reliably set up the easy symbolic row in the Sunday Times; the other papers, and the Today programme, pitched in predictably. Yet the result, interestingly and perversely, was to establish Prynne as the most significant alternative to Larkin, and thus to any mainstream English poet of the past few decades. (It’s notable that Don Paterson, for example, spends a significant amount of energy positioning his own practice in relation to Prynne’s.)

Acceptance, however unlikely it once seemed, has therefore arrived. (I’d like to think that a moment in 2013, when Prynne could be seen fleetingly on Celebrity Masterchef being served wood pigeon by Les Dennis, might be regarded as a serendipitous objective correlative for this phenomenon.) Appreciation, on the other hand, remains as tricky as ever. The easiest criticism of Prynne’s work has always been that it doesn’t make sense. Many accounts of his work get no further than discussions of this problem: the difficulty, the obscurity. For detractors this was all that needed to be said; for his admirers, it could sometimes be presented as a de facto virtue in itself. As Robin Purves noted as far back as 1999, ‘Critical consensus about the ethical centre of Prynne’s poetry flourishes without seeming to have understood anything he has written in the last 15 years.’ It’s a rare (and ironic) point of agreement by all parties, since even Prynne concurs.

I am rather frequently accused of having more or less altogether taken leave of discernible sense. In fact I believe this accusation to be more or less true, and not to me alarmingly so, because what for so long has seemed the arduous royal road into the domain of poetry (‘what does it mean?’) seems less and less an unavoidably necessary precondition for successful reading.

So we have a situation in which a major, award-winning poet, with a burgeoning following, has written hundreds of pages of poetry which doesn’t, in a conventional sense, mean anything. Of course, few good poems yield a short and interesting answer to the question ‘what does it mean?’; and most poets have at some point insisted that a poem’s meaning can’t be paraphrased, or that ‘a poem should not mean, but be,’ and so on. The more interesting questions are always ‘what does this poem do?’ and ‘how does it do it?’

Prynne, as well as being a poet, is a scholar; for many years he was librarian of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, and a much loved lecturer and tutor. His published lectures and works of criticism often help readers find some points of orientation when they turn to his poems. In Graft and Corruption, a commentary on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 15 published last year as a limited edition pamphlet, he notes an insoluble difficulty with the clinching couplet, and adds that, in any poem, ‘These moments of contradiction are experienced by the reader initially … as immobilising thought in favour of a vehement perplexity, strongly coloured by cross-reference of significance and emotion.’ That’s as nice a description of reading Prynne as I’ve found, though a rather different one has distinct merits too. In a recent seminar on Prynne’s late poetry, the poet Timothy Thornton spoke of reading one of Prynne’s sequences:

Acrylic Tips is, I think, a truly horrible book, violent, liverish, and unpleasant to read and to write about … garish, lurid, unsettling, and to me full of a vivid and threatening bodily trauma. Not only does it leave me indignant, dumbstruck and annoyed, it makes me feel unwell … For a sequence full of imperative, of the noises of assertion, command, demand, Acrylic Tips seems to turn back on itself and efface itself at every moment. It is obviously a difficult and nasty sequence, but it is much more than that a devastatingly negative one, speaking of and through disfigurement and contusion and laceration. The threats which issue from its heady pulp, which seems to traumatise itself further and with more vigour the more you read it, are that any new beginning is doomed to fail, and that its haemorrhage and infarction are not local and temporary, but are universal, permanent, contagious and indiscriminate.

It may seem odd that this kind of emotional and visceral experience can be prompted by a poetry more usually accused of being merely literary, cerebral, philosophical – but it can. Thornton’s description rings truest for passages like this:

Dental roof in spasm word by word expulsed for lack
for roasted spit, latter spatchcock pronation; aver
grapple juices. Acrid flash over over, across even
next overtaken and stuck subdued, each one quick

Spinal attempt discarded. His arms roiled back into
sleeve fluid …

The first half of Acrylic Tips (2002) is less violently biological, and contains flashes of pathos and beauty: ‘to cry/and mourn for her as he goes, to bring her home, this/downward streak affirmed’; ‘her hair touching/his knee I heard it on the radio’. Yet Thornton is still right; and what makes this poem ominous and unsettling from the beginning is that, in the absence of anything easy to grasp on a first reading, the individual words carry a lot of associations, many of them unpleasant: ‘worthless’, ‘denounce’, ‘infarct’, ‘savage’ on the first page; ‘sickness’, ‘stultified’, ‘damnable’, ‘punitive’, ‘infringed’, ‘infertile’, ‘daunted’, ‘distress’, ‘terror’ by the sixth. Not to mention disturbing phrases: ‘fissures nailed front and back; hair roots adrift’. The poem steadily references more and more organs and body parts. At moments, even the syntax seems to carry a sense of twitching biological activity.

What Acrylic Tips does summon are a number of different phenomena, laid on top of one another, and combining at the level of metaphor and reality: they include the settlements in Israel – the bulldozers, the economics of property ownership, the contested stories of grief and revenge, the violence of military policing, the physical geography – and biochemistry (a reference to ‘heparin’, as Andrea Brady noted in a Festschrift for Prynne’s 70th birthday in 2006, opens up many of the poems’ more nauseating passages about genetic growth and mutation). There is more, much more than this, but it is typical of Prynne’s work that you can’t be sure whether the body is a metaphor for the land, or vice versa: he keeps both possibilities in suspension. (The word ‘brow’, which also serves this function, is one of his favourites throughout his work; here, adding a Wordsworthian echo, we have: ‘The ploughshare has been through/the ground browbeaten …’)

The stunned and perplexed early reading of a Prynne poem isn’t devoid of meaningful experience: a poem (as Eliot noted all those years ago) can communicate before it’s understood. In Prynne’s case, I don’t think a reader ever wholly loses that sense of stunned perplexity. It’s not that any of the effects he uses are wholly unprecedented; it’s the density and concision of their deployment that unsettle. Allusions, for example, aren’t the chummy handshake found in some authors (‘we’ve read the same books, you and I’) or the posing found in others (‘I’ve read the classics, and am claiming kinship’). In Prynne the allusions and quotations are often from quite unusual or obscure works, even when from canonical authors; many would remain forever obscure without Google (his 1983 collection The Oval Window is packed with lines from a 1981 book on database systems). I once asked Thomas Nagel where I could find the line attributed to him in Not-You (1993) – ‘Love of semiconductors is not enough’ – and initially he denied having written it. When, having found the answer elsewhere, I put it to him, he was delightfully surprised. (Prynne said of Nagel’s Equality and Partiality that ‘it is the only book I read right through thinking “this is exactly how I would have argued it” … though less clearly of course.’ Not-You contains more of Nagel’s book, mashed up a little.)

Out of context, his epigraphs can seem like sly jokes and maybe some are. The quotation from William of Ockham that begins Biting the Air – ‘Every property is the property of something, but it is not the property of just anything’ – relates to language and logic; but the poem is partly about intellectual property, and it isn’t uninteresting that Ockham belonged to a Franciscan order that didn’t believe in property ownership. ‘The volatility smile is not symmetrical’ (the epigraph to Red D Gypsum from 1998), which sounds like straightforward Surrealism, is from a hedge-fund expert; chasing this reference led me to Donald MacKenzie’s fascinating work on ‘counterperformativity’ – the idea that the application of certain models or theories actually makes their predictions less likely.

Prynne’s work persistently evokes interdependence and mutual influence, and the difficulty in grasping it. His ironies, similarly, are multiple and ramifying. To take a relatively simple example, the early lines, ‘Your tender looks are/frankly incredible,’ packs impressive ambivalence into six superficially romantic words. But by Unanswering Rational Shore (2001), that confusion of intimacy and calculation is horrifically elaborated, and the (increasingly abstracted) strategic and symbolic moves of the political and financial arenas feed back into all human relationships:

On the track the news radiates like a planet auction,
for the best rates hard to chew. If it seems too good,
sucker, the pap is surely toxic, unless the glad
hand goes your way, soft as velvet. The strokes
of the palm not even touched, a waft of livid air
gives the take its donation; sexual preening overtly
lavish in symmetry; your flicker goes to mine and
locks into warranty, well why not …

Throughout Prynne’s work, there has been a gradual (and not smoothly continuous) disintegration of conventional linguistic usage. The earliest poems are grammatically orthodox, and seem to be almost lecturing, sometimes tetchily and sometimes rhapsodically, in pursuit of a new philosophy of everything (‘That we could come off the time standard is/a first (and preliminary) proposal; having/nothing to do with some zeal about traverse/or the synchronous double twist of a minor/protein’). By Brass, things are a little more disrupted and despairing, but more Surrealist than anything else (‘His/herb-set teeth are impossible,/tropic to R.E.M. and the white doll’), and you always feel if you could just locate the right books it might all mean something. But the later works are much more like sculptures of language, in which the connections are not made by syntax but by juxtaposition and association, or pieces of music, in which motifs and themes work with and against each other. And by Al-Dente (2014) – a stretch too far for me – we get Beckettesque lines like: ‘To the or so then for all for on, both for/these an or then, down as before in fond and/too sound by, this.’

Prynne’s disrupting of habitual idiom over his work ranges from the alteration of one expected word (‘you cut your chin on all this’, rather than ‘teeth’) to the near constant juxtaposition of words that are found together in no other writing (‘omega blench’, ‘smirk host panegyric’). The reference points and contexts that allow for confident and swift interpretation of words and phrases are frequently either absent or located much further away than in most poems. And his use of any word is founded on a deeper knowledge of etymology and historical usage than many poets and readers can lay claim to: one of the pleasures of his commentaries on other poems is to see simple words yield vast social and literary histories.

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All that said, some Prynne poems are more obviously ‘about’ something than others. To Pollen (2006), for example, takes the war on terror as its occasion. Several lines, as Jennifer Cooke noted in an online essay, are direct quotations from victims, from Haditha to Forest Gate; others evoke checkpoints, surveillancing, profiling and military equipment, and their steady penetration of civilian life; others allude to contested episodes such as the Gaza beach explosion. But the poem goes much further, questioning the media (including literature) through which victimhood is publicised and vicariously experienced, and then weaponised to prolong the conflict: ‘our prison of worthless/grief rescript to harden daily tormented undilute, why/each shot hateful and fearful right along the ravine’.

Prynne’s interest in the inherently political aspects of language is longstanding – see, especially, Bands around the Throat (1987) and Word Order (1989). But the later work more urgently sends the message that language is not innocent of political use, and never has been; and that ‘art poets’ and their readers should not so easily feel that they are immune from these usages. Responding to Peter Handke’s assertion that ‘language is the first casualty of war,’ Prynne writes:

The history of Europe in this century is full of those terrible events supposed to have traduced or contaminated language, along with those sorrowful bystanders, perched upon some peak of purity, who can bewail the loss of a model of rational, passionate and poetic discourse that would somehow resist the ruptures of historical process. But, how silly … .

Human language is the tribal continuity of expressive human behaviour, and is marked in its very core by whatever depravity or nobility an exercise of linguistic analysis may discover within the human record. If writers and poets think that language can somehow resist this involvement with the worst, while claiming natural affinity with the best, then they are guilty of a naive idealism that ought least of all to attract those who know how language works and what it can do.

To Pollen concludes with an allusion to T.E. Lawrence’s line from Seven Pillars of Wisdom that ‘war upon rebellion was messy and slow, like eating soup with a knife’:

From a front seat it is bearable to suck a knife
blade to scrim in broth. Perfect on truth for steel
vernier axil you could easily cut this. It would be
ancestral brood-genitive in knowledge laid out be-
low your look to be alike, all the same blind enter
concisely a claim card membership. For blood, brown
in mouth fitment, taste of metal run along clamant.
Fortunate aside leading tone will open our lips to
pout worn in tangible overglide. Hammer each one,
break note climb neck and neck. Knife lustre facing
the music get the whole thing in your pocket, keep it
open. Diminish the haft affix loosely proponent span

blood group indexical self-cut. Try doing it now.

That final phrase is overtly sarcastic, but not without ambiguity: the urgency of the attempt and its utter impossibility and self-deception are precisely suspended. The stanza as a whole segues even within a phrase between the glib disentangling of the claims and counter-claims of rival forms of kinship and identity, and their further entanglement. The decisive blade proves unsuitable for broth, and rather more likely to lead to self-harm.

In Refuse Collection (2004), written in the wake of the Abu Ghraib atrocities, the criticisms are still more explicit: it is an unusually overt long poem, possibly influenced by the urgently political work of some of his protégés, like Brady and Keston Sutherland, in whose radical magazine Quid it first appeared. It evokes both the torture and the responses to the iconic images of that torture, and attends to the economic and religious factors at play in the conflict, but its most pointed assault is on the delusion of any Western observer who felt unimplicated: ‘They do our will, to deny what they do is ours,/the wanton ambit of self-possession.’ It was an attack on what he has elsewhere described as ‘climax outbursts of sanctimony’.

Few writers (certainly in English) have taken quite such a sceptical and vigilant approach to the medium they work in – Celan would be the most obvious exception. Most poets talk up their art, and are unsurprisingly very good at doing so – ‘the unacknowledged legislators’, ‘the word-hoard’, ‘purify the dialect of the tribe’, ‘speak truth to power’ etc. Prynne makes these claims look self-serving and sentimental. Combined with an exacting definition of complicity, of a sort with which readers of Adorno will not be unfamiliar, the effect is constantly discomfiting.

It is not, however, as despairing a position as it sometimes seems. Prynne is not an anti-poet: he just sets the bar very high for what might qualify as poetic work. Perhaps his poetry could be described as ‘truth work’. (He would call it ‘dialectical thinking’, but it’s far from clear what he means by ‘dialectical’.) The most concise way of describing this might be a comment by Prynne’s former mentor Joseph Needham:

I reached the conviction that life consists in several irreducible forms or modes of experience. One could distinguish the philosophical or metaphysical form, the scientific form, the historical form, the aesthetic form and the religious form, each being reducible to any of the others, but all being interpretable by each other though sometimes in flatly contradictory ways. This conclusion was supported by many thinkers.

The different perspectives in a Prynne poem – geological, biochemical, financial, philosophical, emotional, political, linguistic, literary etc – are presented or combined in such a way that none can quite contain another. The poems are full of images of frames, margins, filters, offcuts, waste – every moment of focus implies or carries with it a reminder of what is excluded from view. His 1983 book The Oval Window is exemplary in this regard: filtering and orientation by the human ear (the ‘oval window’ is an anatomical term for part of the inner ear) is persistently juxtaposed with the financial and technological ‘windows’ onto other data, as well as the literary use of windows and screens. The effect is haunting, with moments of beauty, pathos, terror and satire: its anticipation of what technology and deregulated financial markets might go on to achieve is impressive.

A Prynne poem requires several slow readings to grasp its dispersed echoes and connections. On each reading a different pattern might appear: clusters of words from a particular semantic field, or words with similar sounds or letters. These patterns strongly evoke quilts, crystals, lattice-work: many of the poems contain oblique and probing references to their own formal composition. In Unanswering Rational Shore (2001), long before the philosophical, erotic, financial and political facets become slowly clearer, a sense of mirroring is overt, from the epigraph (‘lo mismo, lo mismo’ – ‘the same, the same’ – probably from Goya) to the form of the book: 14 poems, with a blank page after the first seven, each poem consisting of 14 lines, with a line space after the first seven: a symmetrical arrangement, a sonnet of sonnets, a hall of mirrors. Late on, a quotation about an ‘arithmetical curiosity’ is presumably taken from a letter by Benjamin Franklin about his love of magic squares (whose columns and rows all add up to the same number). A sense of constant movement – forwards, backwards, lateral, circular, tightening – is pervasive, as is a tension between pairing and splitting. What adds to the sense of eerily tight cohesion is the echoing and repetition even of phonemes, in particular ‘gra’ (‘granted’, ‘upgrade’, ‘engrave’, ‘grafted’, ‘granite’, ‘gravamen’; and, in anagram, ‘garland’, ‘braggart’, ‘discharge’, ‘ragged’, ‘margins’, ‘garden’ etc). It’s a phoneme that, at its root, links movement (gradus, grex) with writing (‘engrave’) and death (‘grave’), a connection Prynne makes explicitly in Graft and Corruption. These themes flow in and out of one another; a preoccupation with ‘futurity’ – ‘Steroid upgrade therapy/arouses braggart hopes … to engrave profound mottoes of survival next time … to raise the stake beyond demise’ – links them with the financial markets. The trading pit and the theatrical pit, the planetary globe and Shakespeare’s Globe (there’s a lot of strutting and fretting); everything in Unanswering Rational Shore seems to work on several planes with extreme economy, or, as the poem itself puts it, ‘not a word left on the plate’.

‘Beyond demise’: as one might expect from a poet who turns eighty this year, whose ambitions for his art have been unusually high, the question of a desire for literary immortality was never going to be ignored in the poems themselves. Prynne views that desire, I imagine, as both vain and unavoidable; in the riposte to Handke, he writes dispassionately that ‘language in its more elevated functions trades forward upon a future, upon readers yet to come, “just as” the other social modalities of money and war also trade forward in order to buy out the future by competitive power-investment against the status quo.’ The latest version of Poems bears the dedication ‘For the Future’.

One of the hoary accusations against Prynne’s work has been that it is deliberately aimed at an academic audience (now viewed as the likeliest purveyors of literary immortality) – Joyce’s line about needing to ‘keep the professors busy for centuries’ is generally trotted out at this point. But I don’t think it stands up. Decades of quiet, committed work, spanning the twin peaks of philosophy and poetry, trekking to the furthest limits of language, knowledge and feeling, have created something that exceeds the grasp of most literary methods. I have focused on some of the poems that offer immediate points of orientation to a reader: there are just as many poems with which I never expect to make any headway however often I return to them, and which might as well be music. Or nonsense. (Where is the line between a messy truth and an unintelligible mess?) But other readers, equally drawn to the yellow monuments (and in ever greater numbers), will take their own journeys through the outermost territories Prynne explores, and each will find that they’ve learned something different.