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J H Prynne and Money- the case of Biting the Air.

Since the later sixties, Prynne has been against money. I know that some may see this as a vague and over-wide statement but I can't think of a more accurate way of putting it. Many money related aspects of our lives have received withering criticism over the intervening decades, ranging from the beginnings of metal currencies through the finance markets and the retail trade.

Biting the Air from 2003 contains many references to things financial and I'm going to try to make some sense of these by using this paragraph from the Difficulties Involved in Translating "Difficult" Poetry talk which was published by the Cambridge Literary Review in 2010:

But in certain types of "difficult" poetry this corridor of sense is much wider and more open, more like a network across the whole expanse of the text, with many loops and cross-links of semantic and referring activity which extend the boundaries of relevance, and of control by context, in many directions at once. If these many directions are developed so as to produce strong contradiction and self-dispute then the method may become a dialectic practice, in which poetic form and expression are brought into internal contest with themselves and with each other.

Leaving the second sentence until later, it does appear that much of Prynne's later sequences are open to the identification and subsequent investigation of 'sense corridors' and thus allowing the reader (me) to get some kind of a clue as to what Might Be Going On.

Starting, unusually for me, with the epigraph which is taken from William Ockham's Summa Logicæ:

Every property is the property of something, but it is not the property of just anything.

I haven't checked but it would seem to me that this influential medieval philosopher and theologian is referring to property here as " Any attribute, characteristic, or quality of an object" (OED) rather than any object that belongs to someone or something as in 'this table is my property' or 'that aircraft carrier belongs to the state'. However, I'm going to start with the second of these as it might open a way in to the money 'corridor'.

The sequence contains 12 poems, 11 of which contain five 4-line verses, the exception being poem 9 which we'll get to later. I'm not going to go off on wishful speculation at this stage but intend to flag up those money-related 'semantic and referring' elements that are obviously present.

The other potential corridor relates to pharmaceutical companies and medicines but the money aspect is enough to keep me busy here.

These are the last 15½ lines of the first poem, all of which seem relevant:


........................................Enough out of hand

to grasp another, nearly hot dump for this at
angle dropped outwards, everywhere selected
at rising cost. United, non-brand stay there
by a maternal oversight, glinted horizons so

blue and bright forever we say, pinching the
promised drip. Nostalgia for G7 par minuted
assess parallel offset, your tongue. Creature
chatter damp margin, drug outsourcing denies

active pivotal racer hot-rod, all price diluted
and fuming over nil-paid: it's easy to make
a country prosperous and blue and bright over
and blindness forever in hand on hand proverb.

Starting with 'out of one hand', this could be to be:

To grasp has two 'ordinary meanings, to reach for or grab something and to understand something. If we take 'enough' as sufficient or adequate then this might be about the fact that the developing world would be entirely self-sufficient were it not for the first world grabbing these resources for its own (wasteful) use. This may very well 'point' to something completely different but I'm going to stay with this piece of sense because of 'dump and 'cost' in the next sentence. In commercial/financial parlance to dump stocks or commodities is to sell a lot of these at once, thus driving the price down. Any fall in commodity prices entails damage to the economies of developing countries who thus face 'rising costs' in terms of poverty and levels of related deprivation.

Attentive readers will notice that I've glided elegantly over the dropping outwards malarkey because this is where the straw clutching begins. One of the reasons why speculators dump things on the market is to force the price down then buy back at a lower price and make a profit as the price rises again. You will notice that this doesn't require a great deal of intelligence or effort but it is one of the basic mechanisms that assist in rigging markets 'everywhere'. Paradoxically, rising property prices isn't good for all producers. A fairly recent UN study pointed to the direct link between the price of copper and the number of conflict related deaths in the ongoing tragedy that is the DRC.

Now, before we get any deeper into these corridors, we need to address the difficulty / pleasure equation. It would be easy for me to state that people either get pleasure from this or they don't and leave it at that. This would miss several points that need to be made:

This is not to suggest that all less difficult work is less than worthwhile. Great pleasure is to be had from some accomplished and gifted poets whose work can be grasped and appreciated without that much effort. It's just that there aren't very many of them.

Turning back to the poem, 'non-brand' in retail refers to those products that are sold with the retailer's own label rather than one marketed and sold under the producer's brand name. In the pharmaceutical business, this refers to generic drugs that are produced and sold once the original producer's patent has expired, thus substantially curtailing the amount of profit that the original manufacturer was accruing.

The nature of the horizons requires some readerly effort, 'glinted' carries connotations of glittering or flashing lights or surfaces as well as to move quickly and to peep or glance at something. As an adjective it points towards 'slippery. In terms of money there's "all that glitters is not gold" so that these horizons may be promising more than they will deliver. For the moment, it's probably best to take 'blue and bright' to suggest a positive future that is, in fact, entirely illusory. The 'promised drip' (on this tentative, provisional reading) could then be the promise that capital drip-feeds a promise of fulfilment and progress into consumers and also the neo-con expectation that developing countries will begin to thrive once they have accepted democracy. Both of these 'horizons' are cut off by 'pinching' the tube that provides the drip to the metaphorical patient.

What follows is proving a little trickier for my small brain. This is because I can't find a way in to begin to attend to what might be going on. I understand the money words, offset, margin and drug-outsourcing but I can't, as of yet find a way to get them to relate to the rest of the words. I thought I'd got something with 'chatter' which is used to describe the smaller stones that separate the two outer 'skins' of a dry stone wall and prevent the wall from collapsing but this definition doesn't appear in the OED which is odd because it was the term used when I was building them in the eighties. So, I can't go off on the idea of the smaller components (people) holding the financial and commercial edifices together. There might be something about the G7 group of countries feeling nostalgic for the time when the Bretton Woods agreement still held sway in the global financial sway but this is clutching at quite a slight and ephemeral straw. Offsetting can refer to obtaining tax relief for losses incurred, the OED gives two definitions that might be useful here -

Something set off against something else so as to counterbalance it, as an item on one side of an account equivalent to one on the other side; anything that counterbalances, compensates, or makes up for something else; a consideration or amount diminishing or neutralizing the effect of a contrary one.

And -

In international trade, esp. in the aerospace industry: an agreement whereby a country selling products or services to another undertakes to invest in that country's products or services to an equivalent or percentage value; (hence) trade proposed or carried out in fulfilment of such an agreement. Freq. (and in earliest use) attrib., as offset agreement, offset purchase, etc.

The second of these is the most promising given the dismally corrupt deal (which was known in 2004) between those medieval nutters (diplomacy term) in Saudi Arabia and BAE centering on the provision of flying death machines. This was being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office when it was halted in 2007 by Blair on the v slender and equally corrupt grounds that it wasn't in the 'public interest' for the investigation to continue.

Outsourcing usually refers to a company paying another company to undertake one of its functions- Google pays Asus to make its tablets, the Home Office pays private security firms to staff and manage some of its prisons, there is currently professional and some political concern as to the level of outsourcing in the NHS etc. etc. This doesn't help with 'drug' because drug companies, as far as I'm aware, only outsource the writing up of drug trials to specialist writing agencies prior to applying for approval. The only (tentative, provisional) alternative that presents itself is the role of the state and the media in anaesthetising the public in order to allow the free market to continue on its pernicious and generally inhuman way. So, it might be said that the higher echelons of our current financial and industrial systems outsource this role to politicians and cultural agencies in order that we accept the obvious stupidity of the free market ideology and all its associated depredations. In the UK, politicians and the media have failed to acknowledge the simple fact that this particular stance led directly to the last financial crash and that state spending had nothing to do with it. We can argue as to whether this drugging is a good or a bad thing but it does work.

Given Prynne's interests, 'tongue' is likely to be related to language and/or speech rather than taste but there are many other possible meanings that I'll need to return to after this initial survey.

The first line of the last stanza seems initially beyond reach but some help might be gleaned from 'pivotal' because a pivot word is, apparently, belongs to a central set of words around which a child builds her vocabulary and a pivot pun is, according to the OED;

A device in classical Japanese poetry, and subsequent literary forms such as linked verse, drama, and prose fiction, involving the use of a pun which implies one meaning with the words preceding it, and another with those following.

Readers will be delighted that I'm not going to delve into the finer points of Japanese literature but I'd like to provide this example given by the OED from R. A. Miller's Japanese Language;

Chikamatsu has examples of phrases as long as 13 or 14 syllables which serve as pivots in their entirety, and some of these are even employed not only on two but on three different semantic levels simultaneously.

This sounds like one of Prynne's main modus operandi and thus might indicate what is going on here with regard to forwards and backwards punning. Incidentally, another OED example states that this kind of pivot is a 'peculiar jeu de mots' which would be impossible to deploy in any European language. So the adjective may be 'about' this central set of words, as in the money words, and a direct nod in the direction of this particular form of impossibility.

The recently acquired Princeton Poetics wrist-breaker has a useful article on the Japanese waka poem which contains some further clarification of what it refers to as pivot words (kakekotoba as "the most distinctive means of linking mono (things words) with kokoro (mind words) elements together by using a cluster of syllables to signify both.

A brief discussion on the broadening of horizons, everything I know about Japanese Literature I learned about 45 years ago as a spotty adolescent who was determined not to be outdone by an older youth who claimed to have written a haiku. Thanks to Prynne, I now find myself delving further into things Oriental just as Simon Jarvis has led to an increasing interest in Greek tragedy, which I haven't thought about since school. My point is that seriously difficult work does bring you up against stuff that you can either choose to delve deeper into or leave alone. I don't need to know anything about the waka, just as I don't need to know anything about Hegel, in order to live my life but I usually find a brief reconnaissance at least to be worthwhile. Some of this extraneous delving doesn't take long, the increasingly essential Wikipedia has a brief but helpful article on kakekotoba with examples of these pivot words in use. It also observes-

The presentation of multiple meanings inherent in a single word allows the poet a fuller range of artistic expression with an economical syllable-count. Such brevity is highly valued in Japanese aesthetics, where maximal meaning and reference are sought in a minimal number of syllables.

So, being pivotal is being a kind of hinge for the opening and closing of doors, a crucial point around which things revolve, a set of central/key words which form the basis of language and this peculiar linking feature in Japanese waka poetry. Needless to say, I'm Quite Keen on this range of readerly possibilities and these potential combinations of possibilities but I'm a little nervous of applying the Japanese device to any more of the work at the moment.

I'm not terribly good with puns as in homonyms (words that sound alike) because I find them neither witty nor amusing and I'm more than a little suspicious of those who seem to seize opportunities to use them in conversation. This is, of course, an entirely unreasonable position but I thought I'd better be clear about it before proceeding. The only homonym that I can come up with for racing is raising and that doesn't seem to help very much. It does, however occur to me that there might be a connection with the fact that many of the wheelers and dealers in our global financial centres are under thirty, ridiculously overpaid and consume much more than their fair share of high-grade cocaine- a drug which does (I believe) tend to set your heart racing. Warming to this particular theme, 'hot-rod' is American slang for a criminal or gangster and, as a verb, can refer to modifying something to make it go faster.

In 2004 the global economy was growing at a hectic pace fuelled, in part, by more and more 'sophisticated' investment opportunities and idiotic lending to people who were bound to default. Prynne has been consistent throughout his career in condemning the casino capitalism that eventually leads to a crash that always pushes the poorest deeper into poverty and deprivation. In Big Gambling parlance, there's a difference between active and passive investment in that the latter follow a particular index whereas active funds employ real people to make investments (bets) dependent on the current state of a company's prospects. So, many of these boy racers would be involved at this particular table.

Turning to this price (cost) that is diluted and fuming, the first of these can be to weaken a liquid by adding water but also to reduce the strength or force of something. In financial terms this could refer to share prices, commodities and/or currencies. Markets in these are said to be strong when prices are relatively high and weak when they are low. Either way the financial institutions usually make money except when they're all being exceptionally stupid, as they were in 2004 when all of them believed that the merry-go-round. Prices that fume is a little trickier, there are too many choices ranging from to be angry, to emit smoke or vapours or to be perfumed. Starting with smoke, two phrases spring to mind- no smoke without fire which usually indicates something bad or dangerous or threatening being masked by a less dangerous event or entity. Alan Greenspan (now discredited chairman of the US Federal Reserve) once described the internet boom of the late nineties and very early noughties as 'irrational exuberance'. In this instance this particular exuberance was the smoke that led to a reasonably catastrophic collapse. This masking activity would also apply to perfume which can be used to disguise the fact that something is rotten and emitting a noxious/bad smell. The other phrase is 'smoke and mirrors' which usually refers to an illusion being created to make things appear more efficient/effective than they are. It's a phrase that I frequently used when I ran my e-commerce venture (a bet that paid out) both to the apparently mysterious workings of internet technologies, especially cookies, and also to the illusions that can be put together by a proficient accountant. Enron, a huge company that crashed in 2001 was using financial smoke and mirrors to undertake a whole range of shenanigans with disastrous results. In this instance the illusion was given additional credibility by the company's external and thus 'independent' auditors.

I've already paid some attention to these bright and blue horizons and want to concentrate on the last line. The eternal blindness may refer back to the smoke and mirrors but also to the incredible effectiveness of capital in rendering us unable to see or recognise its fundamentally explotaitive and destructive nature. We also seem to be blind to the fact that allowing 'market forces' to run rampant increases inequality and that governments become more repressive in order to keep any resultant discontent manageable. We allow our eyes to be plucked out by being conned into believing that new and nice things increase our happiness and contentment whilst being spoon fed increasingly anodyne cultural products that discourage any kind of self-reflection. End of short rant.

Looking through the sequence, it does appear that hands and gripping/grasping form another corridor of sense that I'll need to pay attention to at a later date. With regard to this particular proverb, many of these contain hand references but the 'hand over fist' idiom seems to 'fit' better at this initial stage, especially if I ignore the earlier 'out of hand' on line 8.

I've gone on for much longer than intended about the start of this corridor but Prynne does drag me into a thoroughly different and completely absorbing way of reading and I hope the above demonstrates this.

I'm now going to attempt corridor identification and list the points through the sequence that seem to be money-related. I accept that I'm ripping these entirely out of their surrounding context but I'm hoping that this will provide sufficient ground on which to proceed next time.

Poem the Second:

Poem the Third:

Poem the Fourth:

Poem the Fifth:

Poem the Sixth:

Poem the Seventh:

Poem the Eighth:

Poem the Ninth:

Poem the Tenth:

Poem the Eleventh:

Poem the Twelfth:

Hopefully the above demonstrates that Biting the Air contains at least one corridor of sense worthy of further attention which I shall begin to look into over the next couple of weeks.