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Clarifying Difficult Poetry

Infusing with JH Prynne. Again.

I want to continue here with the initial attention paid to Infusion from the Al Dente collection in order to see if the early guess as to intent, (Grexit), holds up and to attempt to estimate the value of the poem. Both of these, as with Most Things Prynne, are tricky but seem often to get misplaced in the densely theoretical attention that is usually paid to his work.

The first piece dealt in more than a little detail with the first stanza but here I want to deal with the poem as a whole in a much less probing manner. This is Infusion:


This mercy will replace to them near first
exactly, as taken from clear at new payment
tacit doesn't reduce the few. Natural as due
not meaning to align song even reverted by
fixity, grant is yours.

                       Is description as
assert this brand get into advancement offer
agree to credit, must agree even so offset
along the close margin, is yours.

                                    Watching
is the site when agreed to break outward pass
claimed in front by either filter, in promise
adept cede a pledged condition willing to
give prominence flat-long fall. Walk over
quickly is yours.

                    However and so far, as or
will accept without presume limit, or foremost
latitude, will discover to steady if brilliant
sky gets easily by admit from iron former melted
intermit. Will line for, is yours.

                                         Does this
scrape or grate whenever veering to harbour
a fusion incline yet to feel redress faction,
in link acceptance, grant is yours.

                                         Be given
is yours, grant for this, is so quickly to be
is too and for, is yours.

At least on a drive-by reading this seems reasonably explicit. There's these:

I think these point towards matters financial in a way that's even more direct than Prynne's Refuse Collection which was his response to the torture inflicted by American troops at Abu Ghraib. We have a description of Greece's dilemma, having been initially destroyed by the casino that is the international bond market, a 'rescue' was proposed by the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund. This was, and remains, conditional on the Greek government making extensive economic and social 'reforms'. These have had the effect of perpetuating and deepening the Greek Depression resulting in the further impoverishment of the Greek people. As well as this Troika, the German government was very involved in setting and approving the terms of the various deals over the last five years. This constitutes a loss of sovereignty and one nation dictating to another how to act.

I'm happy to accept that the above hunch may well be completely wrong and that I'm, yet again, ignoring the many ambiguities herein. I'd justify these guesses by pointing out that all arduity readings are tenuous and provisional as to meaning and that these extend and change over time. In the future, I may well attend in some detail to 'iron former melted / intermit', to explore the possibilities around personal debt and loan sharks and to health issues especially the 'push' for us to adopt healthier exercise and diet regimes. What I want to do here is attempt to assess the value of the poem.

This is a particularly tricky quality to establish, especially for serious and challenging work. The (tentative, provisional, subjective) criteria are reasonably straightforward:

Poetic honesty.

By this I think I mean work that is a congruent expression of thought and/or feeling. Much of what passes for high quality material at this end of the spectrum turns out to be a deceitful and manipulative exercise in technique. With regard to Prynne, I've never had the impression that there's any of this going on. His politically charged work over the years has had an old-fashioned leftie stance which is expressed with integrity and commitment. Obviously I share the general thrust of this position but would wish to take issue, as you'd expect, with most of the details. I have however very few problems with what the above appears to be an analysis of. Unlike most political poetry, I don't feel either assaulted by ill-informed polemic nor is there an attempt to inveigle me into a position of any kind. What seems to be going on is an invitation to think in a different way which I find useful and refreshing.

Poetic Intentions.

The notion of a poet's intent is freighted with most things lit crit. I'll therefore try and give a couple of examples of either side of the fence. Sir Geoffrey Hill's Oraclau collection is mostly intended as a celebration of all things Welsh. This objective falls flat on its face because of disastrous attempts at rhyme and cloying sentiment, Elizabeth Bishop's In the Waiting Room is a technically brilliant evocation of how children acquire consciousness, Ezra Pound's Cantos, an attempt at political and cultural polemic, fails because of obscurity and technical inconsistency, Paul Celan's Aschenglorie is a completely successful exploration of the poet's role in bearing witness to the Holocaust. Infusion succeeds, as with most things Prynne, in analysing an issue in way that subtly prods the reader into further thought and reflection. Early in his career, with L'Extase de M. Poher he stated that "No / poetic gabble will survive which fails / to collide head-on with the unwitty circus:", the circus being the vast majority of poetry being made then and now. As with the rest of his output Infusion is a successful example of this disruptive defiance in that it's a poem which apparently eschews every single feature of what passes for contemporary form.

Reading Aloud

I'm of the firm but probably old fashioned view that a poem that doesn't 'work' when read aloud is a failed poem. Of course, I know what I mean by 'work; but have enormous difficulty explaining this to others. Roughly and entirely without evidence, this is about firmly occupying a space somewhere between the aural effect of prose and that of music. This involves carrying the way that words sound combined with the many and various musical sounds. Prynne is a challenge to read aloud in that you have to struggle to 'reach' his cadence in a way that does justice to the poem's theme. I frequently read aloud in public and in private and like to think that I'm quite good at it. I've found that the point of entry into Infusion is primarily by means of punctuation, repetition. To take the second first, 'grant is yours' comes across stronger than the more frequent 'is yours' but both create the effect of both a summary and the 'point' of the preceding lines. This may or may not be helpful in terms of working out meaning/intention but the sound these make is certainly provocative and thus effective. The commas and full stops obviously help with phrasing and indicate where emphasis should be given in order to gain the position referred to above, they also enable the reader to create more of a sense of the words. This isn't always the case with Prynne but it is here.

Readerly Involvement

Because I get bored really quickly, I prefer material that furrows my brow and holds my attention for longer than a minute or so. I find most of Prynne completely absorbing and some (Kazoo Dreamboats, Triodes for example) of little interest. By involvement (a developing benchmark) I think I mean the feeling of a kind of committed immersion. Alighting on Planet Prynne requires a cognitive shift in that the standard readerly techniques and approaches don't produce results. What is needed is a commitment of time and effort together with a readiness to give up standard ways of thinking and enter into large amounts of brow furrowing. When I first encountered Prynne with the first edition of his collected, I wasn't sufficiently interested to get through the first few pages and dipping into the rest just amplified this view. The attention I then paid to Geoffrey Hill led me to recognise the attractions of involvement and I approached the extended second edition of Prynne's collected with much more interest and quickly became absorbed. Infusion is perhaps not as involving as some of the later work but carries sufficient fascination and challenge to drag this reader into the possibilities and provocations it contains.

Skill and Intelligence.

I could never write anything as striking and complex as Infusion, I lack the technical ability and the intellectual panache to be able to produce anything but a pale imitation. Many of our literary critics and their acolytes sneer (there is no other verb) at Prynne's work as devoid of any of the standards by which things Lit. Crit. are judged. What they fail to recognise is the mastery of technique and device that this kind of collision entails. The other deliberately overlooked qualities are knowledge and intellect. We might not agree with some of our poet's judgement and predilections but we have to concede that his analyses spring from a complete and detailed account of what Poetry is about and how it is achieved.

Provocation.

The question is whether this jaded but opinionated soul is nudged into re-examining his established views on an issue or issues. I have been although the effect here has resulted in a change of emphasis rather than position. I've always been 'for' a federal Europe for all kinds of reasons. I don't view it as only playing into the hands of global capital. This may well be the case but it's outweighed by the many other social and cultural benefits that accrue from closer ties.

I have a complete set of prejudices with regard to Germany and Germans which are lifelong and difficult to shift. I also have personal experience of the damage wrought by personal financial debt. In terms of the possible health references, I've recently being diagnosed with a condition that brings the various 'deals' made with my body into sharp relief.

My thinking anew is mostly about the nature of identity, national and personal, and what happens when elements of that are taken away. I've now realised that identities are provisional and can be subject to quite rapid change. The Greek slide from a prosperous nation to a basket case was fast and brutal. The lure of apparently manageable debt can lead a well regarded family into abjection and estrangement. The onset of a serious health condition transforms the individual into both a victim and a patient, neither of which are helpful.

Infusion has also given me a different view on national sovereignty and personal autonomy. For many years I've sneered at both of these for the usual anarcho-lefty reasons. I now realise that both of these are important and many-faceted and I need to take them much more seriously than I have. This is a revelation as well as a provocation because the kick in the teeth delivered by our Brexit vote and the rise of nationalist populism had merely extended the sneer.

Although I've had to incorporate these new facets into my view of debt, Infusion hasn't provoked me out on to the streets, I haven't marched or campaigned on behalf of the people of Greece, I haven't picketed payday sharks nor have I petitioned credit card issuers. I have, however, found myself thinking about my (progressive) condition in economic terms. The efficient, least wasteful expenditures of Time and Energy have overtaken my cognitive frame since attending to Infusion. I'm also a much more cautious proponent of a federal Europe, no longer avid for commonality at any cost.

This is a hopefully rational assessment. This particular poem isn't one of Prynne's best, it's not involving as many others, it's closer to the tone of the poems in sub songs than I'm entirely comfortable with and it falls well short of some of the others in this particular collection. It does, however, stand head and shoulders above the mediocrity of the unwitty circus and deserves much more readerly attention that I have paid it so far.

Recent

Infusing with J H Prynne. Again.

Simon Jarvis' Jerusalem Deleted and Long Difficulties.

David Jones and the Importance of Reading Work Aloud..

Why Sir Geoffrey Hill is Right about the Poem.

Geoffrey Hill's Soul.

Infusing with J H Prynne

David Jones, In Parenthesis as Documentary.

Paul Celan's wordwords from Timestead.