J H Prynne's 'Mental Ears and Poetic Work'.

'Mental Ears and Poetic Work' was first published in the Chicago Review- a lecture given by Prynne in Chicago and Cambridge 2009 and printed with extensive footnotes.

Prynne provides the examples where phonetics are crucial- Wordsworth's 'Tintern Abbey' and 'Prelude' and Milton's 'Paradise Lost'. I'm not familiar with the first two- my only reading of Wordsworth has been 'Solitary Reaper' and what Prynne has to say about it. I am however very familiar with 'Paradise Lost' and the passage that Prynne uses- Eve's description of being born into Eden. From the first poem, Prynne draws our attention to the line 'Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart' and then launches into a deep and complex analysis of the words 'felt', 'blood, 'along' and 'heart', noting that along has a nasal ending whilst the other three have plosive endings. So far, so good. We then come to a brief history of the word 'blood' which Prynne derives from 'bleed' because "'living blood' precedes bleeding but our observationally confirmed knowledge of blood has until recent times been consequent on bleeding events". For me, this confirms that Prynne does not think like the rest of us, there's nothing at all wrong with this argument but it is the way that it is formulated and expressed that belies someone with a deeply idiosyncratic way of thinking about language and the things it does. This is equally evident in Prynne's recent work on 'The Solitary Reaper' which I now realise that I'll have to read again with my mental ears firmly in place. This almost wilful determination to stand aside from any notion of mainstream lit crit is laudable especially when it produces such valuable insights and challenges, I just wish it was given a wider audience so Prynne's criticism could more fully collide with the 'unwitty circus'.

We now come to my problem with the Romantics and Wordsworth in particular. I'm more than happy to concede that Wordsworth is one of our finest poets and that some of his stuff contains really great lines but the ideology of Romanticism still offends the materialist in me, it's not so much that I deny the power of nature to exalt the soul- I just don't see that it matters very much. The cusp of the 18th and 19th centuries was a time of enormous upheaval and grinding poverty, what was needed was a poetry that engaged with these times in the manner of Godwin and Cobbett. What was not needed was a group of privileged young men going on about nature and their emotional response to it. I almost exclude Shelley from this but Wordsworth is firmly in the frame.

Prynne quotes another passage from 'Tintern Abbey' and examine the words 'trust', 'gift' and 'blessed'. He points out that blessed can be traced back to blood which is linked by an early meaning of bless which is to "make sacred or holy by ritual shedding of blood". There then follows an analysis of the word 'sublime' for which I am truly grateful. Prynne points out that 'sub' means "up to, as far as" and that 'lime' derives from 'limen' which is "the lintel or entrance portal to the spirit world of beatitude and love". As an attentive reader of all things Prynne, I have frequently speculated and fretted over Prynne's recurrent use of 'lintel' in his poetry. Now that the mists have cleared, I am able to return to the work with greater confidence although it isn't yet clear that this definition will help. I also have to point out that it would have taken me years to get to this understanding without explicit help from the man himself.

In a paragraph which starts "See how this works", Prynne lays out with great clarity the central 'thrust' of 'Tintern Abbey'. Whilst I'm not sure that the end-stop in the word 'heart' signifies our mortality and feel that Prynne's argument for phonology is still a little tenuous, the argument that the poem points to the potential of living souls to be transposed by nature even in the face of death is both cogent and forceful- it does not make me want to read any more of Wordsworth however.

What does send me back to my worn out copy of Paradise Lost is Prynne's analysis of Eve's account of her birth- "That day I oft remember, when from sleep / I first awaked and found myself reposed / under a shade of flowers...". As readers we are told at the very beginning of the poem that Eve is doomed and we read the description of the time in Eden with a sense of foreboding. Prynne points to the use of hard end-stops (oft, sleep, awaked, found, reposed, shade) and speculates that these may point to the trap that Eve is already in. As an attentive reader of Milton, I find this wholly credible and realise that I'm going to have to pay attention to phonology the next time I read the work.

Prynne's use of the dialectic is to be admired, he doesn't over-elaborate nor does he drown his argument in cliche-ridden analysis. He does point out the contradiction involved in the root of 'blessed' being derived from blood sacrifice and he points out that 'poetic form within the textual domain' can disrupt apparent harmony and bring "discrepant aspects face to face".

For those of us who are confirmed fans, the essay contains many delights. We get again the notion that language is compromised but also "clean hands do no useful work". As an advocate of the (fairly) quietist approach to poetry, I'm probably going to give this more than a little thought. We also get "Language is itself an intrinsic fault system, and it is worse than a mistake not to understand this as best ever we can". This is the final line and I wish to draw your attention to the contrast between 'worse than a mistake' and 'as best ever we can'. The first phrase smacks of a rather aggressive piece of polemic whilst the second throws in a bit of humility, a case of Prynne wanting more than his cake?

I'll finish with my favourite quote which is a kind of riposte to those critics (and there are many) who feel that Prynne has written himself into dark obscurity. He's absolutely right both about his own stuff and that of others who are also considered to be difficult (Hill, Celan etc.).

"The discourses of modernism in Western poetics make steeper descents into sub-intelligibility; and in my own case 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".

I know that I've gone on about this but I do see it as a bit of a landmark with many, many things for us practitioners to consider. I, for one, will try to apply my mental ears from now on.

Two things have struck me in addition to the stuff about phonology. The first is that the preamble contains a definition of poetry and it is reasonably clear -

"This because for all the pungent games in which poetry can engage, it comprises at its most fully extended an envelope which finds and sets the textual contours in writing of how things are; whilst also activating a system of discontinuities and breaks which interrupt the intrinsic cohesion and boundary profiles of its domain, so that there is constant leakage inwards and outwards across the connection with the larger world order. That's an outline in broadest abstraction, for a start."

Although this is clearly expressed, it does require some careful thought. The first thing that strikes me is the notion that poetry can 'engage' a range of 'pungent games'. Prynne always chooses his words very carefully and pungent (in the sense of convincing, trenchant, biting, persuasive as well as painfully or strongly affecting the feelings) seems particularly acute given what he has to say about poetic work at the end of the essay. To describe poetry as engaging with games is more puzzling. Prynne is well known for his refusal to enter into dialogue with what he describes as 'the unwitty circus' and he may be attempting to contrast what he sees most poets doing with his own aspirations. There is also the possibility that he's using pungent in the pejorative sense (smelly).

The next part presents us with the idea that poetry can be extended to find and set in writing the textual contours of 'how things are'. This is redolent of Prynne in China in 2006 when he said that poetry should aspire to radical economy and truthfulness. I do tend to stumble over this 'how things are' business because I still can't see (and I've tried) how poetry is in a privileged position with regard to reality and describing it as it is. This is not to deny the importance of poetry, I understand and accept its potential to alter the way we view the world and the way we think about language but I do feel that this kind of rhetoric makes a claim that can't be delivered. I also admit to being a Rortian relativist with a profound mistrust in the status of objective truth but that doesn't prevent me from observing that poetry is no better at saying 'how it is' than any other form of creative expression.

Prynne and Geoffrey Hill both take poetry incredibly seriously and this is to be admired, I would never denigrate their lifelong dedication nor their skill as poets. I would however question their ability to present me with an objective statement as to how things are. Prynne's socialism says very little to me politically and I already know that contemporary imperialism is a very Bad Thing. With regard to his devotion to Wordsworth, I'll still need a lot of persuading although I do share his admiration for Olson.

Prynne is clearly one of the two finest poets writing in English and I read him because I find his poetry to be both challenging and rewarding. I don't expect him or any other poet to be able to tell me how it is.

I'll now turn to Prynne's description of how poetry functions. He claims that it 'activates a system of discontinuities and breaks'. This notion of activating, which I read as putting into operation or giving life to, is an accurate example of what some poetry seeks to achieve. It isn't what all poets set out to do and again the implication is that only this kind of deliberately energising verse is somehow worthwhile. Causing 'discontinuities and breaks' would appear to be what Prynne is increasingly about as were the later poems of Paul Celan, both of whom have suffered critical opprobrium for their insistence on creating rupture as a decisive feature in their work.

These ruptures are said to contest the 'intrinsic cohesion and boundary profiles' of poetry's domain. I'm not sure that this is the case, poetry's domain doesn't appear to me to have that distinct a boundary profile, nor does it exhibit any kind of intrinsic cohesion. What's good about poetry is its tendency to seep into other forms of expression. Many artists and musicians use poetry in their work, McDonald's are currently using a poem to sell their wares so the boundary profile would seem to be fairly fluid. As for intrinsic cohesion, the world of poetry has always been riven by factionalism and their are poets working with many different kinds of verse so it's difficult to see what there is that can be contested in any kind of focused way.

Prynne ends this telling paragraph by saying that these discontinuities promote constant 'leakage inwards and outwards across the connections with the larger world order'. I'd like to know how exactly this occurs, Prynne's poetry is notorious in its refusal to engage with the wider world and the lay perspective of his work shows that this has been a success. The media response to Geoffrey Hill's elevation shows that any leaking of serious verse is usually met with complete bafflement.

The end of the essay is also instructive in that Prynne makes a case for the poetic text providing 'the templates for ethical seriousness' by being in dispute with its own ways and means. Prynne suggests that poetry must engage with the harsh reality of the world and have bloody hands in order to do worthwhile work. This harks back to something he said about twenty years ago with regard to the fact that language is never neutral, never pure but is always fully implicated and complicit in the deeds of men.

So, is this any help at all with the climb up Mount Prynne? Perhaps it is but it also gives me a much clearer idea of how he views his work and how it may function in the wider world.