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Going Blind with Paul Celan

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George Herbert and Faking It

Coming Back to Poetry with Gawain and The Faerie Queene

Simon Jarvis and the good poet, bad man problem.

John Peck's Canitlena and Magnificence.

J H Prynne Interview in the Paris Review.

J H Prynne's Biting the Air, another look.

I'm approaching this with more trepidation than usual because;

In order to allay some of the above, I'd like to make a couple of things clear. For the last 50 (fifty) years Prynne has been the most important poet writing in English and consequently cannot be ignored. Paying attention to Prynne's work is a brow-furrowing business providing endless book-flinging opportunities. The poet himself has described himself as becoming less and less interested in the readerly expectations of meaning. The work, at its best is completely absorbing and involving and rewards readerly intention in spades.

In my previous explorations of BtA I've paid attention to individual lines and phrases and avoided thinking too hard about the sequence as a whole. This is the standard arduity/bebrowed route because it's easier than thinking about the thing as a whole. The latter has always proven tricky even when I've been most willing to follow the sense corridors to the bitter end. On this occasion I'm going for the poem or sequence or series of poems as a single and reasonably unified thing with an equally integrated 'theme'.

For those who don't know, Prynne is a bit of a lefty with quite a lot of Heidegger and Adorno thrown in. As a lefty he is particularly scathing of the more esoteric and nebulous features of Late Capital and here seems concerned with the workings of the money markets in particular. I'm also a bit of a lefty but not of this type which I continue to find old fashioned, wrong and rather quaint. Given this widish gulf, it might seem inevitable that I'd dislike the poem. This isn't the case, BtA makes me smile a lot and some of it fills me with startled delight because I read it as a poem and not as a message. As a poem it is exceptionally accomplished and packed with twists and gestures that turn my thinking inside out even though I don't 'agree' with a single word of it.

I see from my previous attempts that I started out in 2014 in thinking that this might be 'about' big pharma and the exploitative evils of the drug companies, then I realised that it might be to do with the money markets and the associated iniquities of capitalism. Both of these may well, at least in part, be correct but there's also the fact that BtA was published in 2003, the year of the invasion of Iraq. Given that this tragedy has been an ongoing feature of Prynne's work since, there is a possibility that the poem's bigger picture relates to this event and makes use of Things Capital in order to show that these two obscenities are clearly linked.

Of course, I want there to be this connection between rapacious capitalism and the neo-imperial destruction of the Middle East. At the time of writing (July 2018) Iraq still isn't 'fixed', the populations of Syria and Yemen continue to be slaughtered by various US and UK proxies and beneath all this there is a lethal obsession with maintaining economic dominance.

On a personal note, I've spent the last ten years traversing various aspects of Mount Prynne and still consider myself to be a beginner in that I remain completely flummoxed (technical term) by most of this stuff but absorbed by the stuff that provides me with a foothold. The way that I read him is entirely unplanned and atheoretical, the only claim that I can make is that it is both satisfying and enjoyable. Even though it may well be 'wrong'.

BtA is a sequence of 12 poems, all except one consisting of five four-line unrhymed stanzas. I'm making this assumption because each page ends with a full stop although most of the other verses end in lines that run on to the next one. As ever, what follows is both tentative and provisional.

The first poem is a good example of why our poet has got himself a reputation for the incomprehensible;

Pacify rag hands attachment in for muted
counter-march or locked up going to drainage
offer some, give, none ravine platter, tied up
to kin you would desire that. Even hand 

It being a while since I've looked at Prynne, I spent some time thinking quite hard about what a 'rag hand' might be about prior to scrabbling about in the OED. This was immediately rewarded by being reminded that to 'lose your rag' is to become enraged and to rag somebody is to belittle and demean them. It would therefore seem appropriate to place the second word closer to the first than the third.

At this point 'hands attachme nt in' points to attachment as given in the OED; "An act or the action of seizing and taking a person or thing at the order of a court of law. Also occasionally: the state of having been seized in this way". This may or may not be a reference to the post-invasion insurgence and the idiotic military response to it. This muted counter march could refer to the increasingly frequent demonstrations and protests by various political and religious groups against the American led occupation.

Something in last week's FT told me that drainage and irrigation systems in Iraq remain in a parlous state- one of the major causes of resentment in Iraq after the invasion was the failure of the occupying powers to provide a supply of clean water to households. I have no idea at all what 'none ravine platter' might refer to but 'tied up to kin' might relate to prisoners being roped together and/or to the strength of kinship groups in Iraqi society and culture.

The second 2014 wittering quoted the second poem in its entirety and highlighted three of the more glaring oddnesses before drawing a provisional conclusion 'about' conflict in general and Ulster in particular. This is the poem;

Or it may be better to do that. Thick mitts for
an early start, precious upward mounting oval
mannerism, his park molested. Or to match defer
to certainty got a banner, to a grade. Hold one

before leasing forage behaviour; wash the novice
wrist, finger-tight. Do you already know this or yet
allocate sufficiency. Altogether just say the word
as lex loquens inter-married in sparse programme,

its cancel front to dive in a blip forward, your
modest capture. Sudden glial remorse announces
armament redress canine grips, on the platform
a bevy in service affair driven. A forever dulcet

hesitation in the mouth long-dated ostensible tap,
stare in daylight, one hand washes the other. Dis-
tribute what it takes, parallel fog lights crested
vapour banks confirm this. Conclusive under-

written first arrival, safe as houses on a detour
or live transmission in packet throb, insurgency.
Better power assignments for the moment this
sharing by split singlet to mollify what there is.

I notice that my 2014 meanders quote from Prynne's Difficulties in the Translation of "Difficult" Poems essay which refers to 'corridors of sense' and 'meaning threads' I also note that I fail to make proper use of either in what follows. This is because it's Quite Hard to do. As my small brain understands it, these are components with something in common that run through the whole sequence and gesture towards a broader theme or meaning. This seems fairly straightforward and eminently simple to implement. However, Prynne adds a caveat or two:

But sometimes appearances are deceptive. In noticing what looks like a prominent link, the translator may overlook a more latent or dispersed alternative, or indeed several of them. Furthermore, within a poem a word or expression may precisely not fit at all, maybe even hinting at a connection which it is too discrepant in alternative signification to accommodate neatly. Or, indeed, problem words and expressions may include several of these different possible kinds of connection, all at once. If the original poem is full of alternative meaning-links and threads which do not overtly correspond to a central and single line of development, the translator must resist the temptation to make the behaviour of the original poem more orderly, and must respect possible word-meanings that do not fit in just as much (almost as much) as those that do. The translator has to be very sensitive to meaning, but not over-respectful towards its demands!

This provides a further excuse for inertia. It seems to me that Prynne is trying to get his cake and to eat it. There are too many qualifications and the last sentence sounds good but doesn't actually mean very much- the exclamation mark speaks volumes. However, an initial read through of even the most obdurate poems reveals the existence of what appear to be sense-threads and it seems that I should overcome my laziness and pay attention to a few of these.

The poem quoted above features one of those annoyingly elitist Foreign Phrases. A glance at the interweb reveals that 'lex loquens' is probably short for the legal term 'Judex est lex loquens' which is generally translated as 'The judge speaks the law'. This has a few apparent connections in other poems in the sequence:

The are the most obvious law-related phrases in the rest of BtA. These are the ones with a more tenuous link;

This particular thread may point in three distinct directions- the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the money markets and the pharmaceutical industry. With regard to Iraq, we have what seemed to be endless debates within the British elite as to the legality, or otherwise, of an invasion and whether or not a particular resolution would provide it. The setting up of the Iraqi Supreme Criminal Tribunal after the invasion was also (mostly) a farcical attempt to give legitimacy to the US occupation and (disastrously) underpin the process of de-Baathification which many hold responsible for the various insurgencies that followed.

The corporate world is full of lawyers seeking to further their clients' or employers' interests. Although Greenspan's notorious 'light touch' approach to regulation was in full swing, the courts still played a key part in attempting to ensure fair play.

Since the early nineties Big Pharma's ability to innovate has declined considerably. Although these companies justify their outrageous pricing by pointing to the expense of R and D, they now all buy innovation by taking over smaller companies with greater promise. The further maintain their dominance, these companies seek to maintain these prices by blatant manipulation of national and international patent regimes.

At this point I have to attend to the one-thing-pointing-many-different-ways aspect of some of Prynne's work. To this ordinary reader, this is disconcerting because it's more than ambiguity. All of the above points on the 'thread' can be shoehorned into each of these meanings thus undermining any readerly expectation of standard coherence. On the other hand, things begin to make a bit more sense if we think a bit harder about the relationship between these three elements, especially in the early noughties.

Those of us of a Lefty Persuasion take certain points for granted, as obvious givens. Three of these relate to the inherent badness of global capital, any kind of imperial adventures and the world-wide cartel that is Big Pharma. One of the most frequent accusations laid at the feet of Bush and Blair was that the Iraq War was motivated primarily by oil. This industry is also a cartel with a long history of corruption and environmental destruction.

Starting with the first poem, the 'legal stunt' may point to the spurious argument played out at the UN that Resolution 1441 in effect permitted the 2003 invasion. In the UK this point was a source of much debate. One of the key points was the advice given to Tony Blair by Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney General, who came (eventually) to the decision that the use of force was justified when Resolutions 678, 687 and 1441 were taken together. The OED points out the double meaning of 'stunt'; "In soldiers' language often vaguely: an attack or advance, a 'push', 'move'. Also spec. in Advertising, Journalism, etc., a 'gimmick' or device for attracting attention". This combination of military attack and gimmick neatly captures the Blair government's in preparing the British public for war. The main gimmick focused on whether or not Saddam Hussein still possessed what were referred to weapons of mass destruction. The public relations stunt was the presentation of evidence that ostensibly showed that he hadn't complied with 1441 and still retained numerous stockpiles.

The Blair administration was accused of 'sexing up' the intelligence material to make it more definite on this point. I'm taking 'glowing' as " That glows with passion; ardent, impassioned, fervid" especially as this seems best to characterise Blair's personal route to war since 9/11. I'm also reading advance in it's most ordinary sense of putting something forward and infirm as "To invalidate (a law, custom, privilege, etc.); to declare invalid, call in question" and referring to the coalition acting in a way that contravened the UN Charter". Incidentally, anyone who has read Blair's evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry can be in no doubt as to his fervid but entirely irrational view of these matters.

The start of this tentative meaning thread would thus appear to be a critique of the decision to invade Iraq. The next obviously legal point on the thread appears to be much more puzzling. I've already dealt with the Latin but the rest furrows my brow more than usual, I'm clinging on to the fact that "just say the word" usually ends with "and it shall be done" which 'fits' with this judicial figure who says things that have a legal force- things that must be obeyed. One of the main planks of the occupiers was to ensure that political power was shared by the three main groups, Sunni, Shia and Kurd. Needless to say this didn't 'work' fifteen years ago and isn't working now. I may be clutching at a straw here but the proposed/imposed arrangement could be seen as an inter-marriage. With regard to this 'sparse programme' I'm disregarding the fact that either / both of these could be verbs and relying on them to be adjective and noun. This inadequately detailed programme might be the plans that the US had for Iraq after the invasion. At the Chilcot hearings our political and military leaders queued up the ensuing catastrophe on the Americans who didn't have any kind of programme for what to do. This fact was known by our leaders prior to the invasion and I have to wonder why we took part in such a fiasco when we knew that it would end in disaster.

According to me, the final part of this component is " its cancel front to dive in a blip forward" which makes me smile because it's typical Prynne. A phrase that appears to confirm those critics who describe his later work as incomprehensible but is nevertheless packed with possibilities- not all of which are to do with meaning. All of these ostensibly simple words have many meanings and therefore point in a myriad of different directions. Whilst remaining sensitive to meaning, I have a couple of questions:

The first question throws up the possibility that 'cancel' is being used as a noun. It turns out that there are three likely candidates: " Prison bars, limits, bounds, confines"; "The act of striking out, erasing, annulling, rescinding, etc" and "The suppression and reprinting of a page or leaf. Hence concr.: "a page so cancelled or struck out".

If we take (tentatively, provisionally) 'front' as an adjective then this could be a forward-facing limit if we simultaneously take it as a noun it could refer to the limits of a military position. Of course, the word has a myriad of other possibilities- one is that of a an almost arrogant show of of self-confidence. If so,I would therefore leap personfully into the words "Job done." of President George W Bush which has turned out to be one of the most arrogant and stupid remarks of this century. It is now realised the the US never had any intention of staying in Iraq, the objective was simply to get rid of Saddam, a former ally that they were no longer able to control, and to impose democracy whilst the troops withdrew. Galloping on, this blip might be the 'dive' into the insurgency and its related protests being wrongly and disastrously interpreted as a temporary glitch. There are a further plethora of meanings and intentions within 'forward' but I'm taking it to indicate presumption and ardency as the ways in which the early protests were seen. As ever with imperialist escapades could not understand why all the people of Iraq weren't overcome with gratitude and delighted to be given their 'freedom from tyranny'.

I'm not entirely blind to the fact that all of this extract can be read both as a critique of the money markets and the role of the judiciary in promoting and sustaining Big Pharma. It's just that, in this instance, the slaughter in Iraq seems a better 'fit'.

If we follow this particular stab in the dark, the next example makes some kind of sense. I do however need to throw in a personal observation about the use of 'third' in this instance. I recognise that there are three significant groups in the population of Iraq and that these are often in conflict with each other. This way of thinking about the country overlooks the fact that the vast majority of Iraqi's are primarily ordinary men, women and children trying to make their way in the world with no desire whatsoever to kill members of the other groups. Whist getting an accurate count is difficult, all agencies are agreed that hundreds of thousands of civilians have lost their lives since the 2003 invasion. End of short rant. The third referred to here is likely to be the Sunni minority who continue to feel that they have experienced discrimination since the overthrow of Saddam. As for these thanks that are not plied, the OED details a now obscure usage of ply - "To yield, give way to; to incline, tend; to submit, comply, consent; to be pliant or tractable" which would seem to describe the prevailing attitude of 'ordinary' Iraqis to the occupation.

As we know, the occupation was accompanied by many idiocies but one of the earliest and most disastrous was the ideologically motivated appointment of L Paul Bremer in May 2003 as Director of the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance with authority to rule by decree. Without going into detail, this incompetent's reign was a single minded pursuit of the neo-con agenda including the privatisation of the Iraqi economy and the above mentioned de-Baathification. As an aside, there are many 'might have beens' in the last fifteen years but leaving the governmental and economic structures in place is very likely to have saved many thousands of lives. Needless to say if we read 'partial' as 'biased' then this makes sense.

Having had some previous dealings with Prynne, the next part of the thread is too obvious. The most prominent candidate is the speech given to the UN by Colin Powell, the then US Secretary of State, as to the dangers that Saddam posed and the consequent necessity of a military invasion. If we read 'step to' as 'step up to' then this would denote responding to a challenge as well as giving evidence. Speaking 'real' slow is an American turn of phrase sometimes used sarcastically to denote that the speaker thinks his or her audience is gullible. The again, a 'credit witness' could be a reference to the inexorable rise of credit agencies such as Moody's and Standard & Poor, who many now hold at least partly responsible for the financial crash of 2007/8. The pharmaceutical companies in the early noughties were busily providing evidence that sounded credible for a wide range of drugs that were subsequently found to be Very Damaging Indeed. In these cases the evidence was not only partial but had also been 'dumbed down' by hired writing agencies to ensure approval.

Fortunately for me the OED has only one definition for 'taxon'; "A taxonomic group or unit, esp. when its rank in the taxonomic hierarchy is not specified" which demystifies what might be intended but is also too broad to be decisive. A taxonomic hierarchy can be applied to anything, taxonomy being the classification of things. We would thus be led to look for a group of things, usually living organisms, that have been classified as a unit but have not yet been given a rank or position within the wider world. These would seem to be the most helpful definitions of 'marker':

  • "in hunting and shooting, a person employed to note the places where game goes to cover after being put up";
  • "a person who records prices (in a stock exchange, betting shop, etc.)"
  • "a receiver of stolen goods"
  • "An object or indicator that acts as a guide to direction, position, or route, or that marks a boundary, limit, etc.; a distinctive object, feature, characteristic, etc., indicative of some quality or condition";
  • "A gene or allele that produces a readily recognizable phenotype and is used as a reference esp. in genetic mapping; (later also) a nucleotide sequence so used; (occasionally) the phenotype associated with such a gene or allele";

  • "A distinctive feature, characteristic, molecule, chemical group, etc., used to identify a type of cell, cellular process or fraction, or molecule, to diagnose a specific disease, to serve as a reference point in separation procedure, etc";
  • A big part of me really wants this to have something to do with the classification of people and specifically of the way that the four main groups (Baathists, Shia, Sunni and Kurd) can't be classified within a hierarchy- one relates to a political allegiance, two to religious beliefs and the fourth to a national identity. In support of this, it is possible to read 'copy' as a noun and 'out' as in the imitation of western democracy being extinguished, blotted out or abolished. Warming to this theme, if we read 'stem' as the verb to stop or staunch then 'absorption' as "The action or process of accepting or coping with unexpected, unforeseen, or difficult circumstances, esp. without apparent disruption" may 'imprecisely' tally with the failure to deal with the insurgencies.

    I'll finish this with the 'class action remix' which ostensibly relates to a type of legal action taken collectively against a company or official body. As already noted, the social and economic classes in Iraq tended to be subsumed in the minds of the coalition by the various religious and national factions. This also might be a nod towards the forced privatisation of state assets by Bremer as an attempt to loot the country and do destroy the existing socialist infrastructure.

    To conclude, this is only one of many potential threads and corridors that run across the poem and components of it also point in different directions. I'm going to leave the five more tenuous links for the moment - my only excuse being that my brow is sufficiently furrowed already and attending to these will further complexify the bits of clarity so far achieved.

    Writing about Prynne after an absence has re-inforced my view that his work is both brilliant and unique. Unlike any other poet, his poems force my brain to think in different and surprising ways whether or not my readings are 'successful'. There are still some of the later poems that I dislike and some that disappoint me but most hold me in their demanding thrall. Doing this has also reawakened my enthusiasm for poetry and the impetus to carry on with arduity.

    Comments on or responses to any of the above will be warmly received. These should be forwarded to me at bebrowed@gmail.com. Thanks.

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