Being Surprised by J H Prynne's "Morning".

Let'sget a few things clear, Prynne is the most important poet currently writing in English, his work over forty five years by means of sustained brilliance has provided the clearest indicator of what the future of English poetry might look like. He's also overturned the 'unwitty circus' that is commonly referred to as the poetic mainstream. He's also the most intelligent and careful commentator/critic that we have.

I feel the need to make this point because Prynne is often dismissed as being either incomprehensible or a charlatan. I didn't look at Prynne until the first edition of his Collected and found the work too daunting to tackle. This is no longer the case and I've tried here and on bebrowed to chart my experience of the work over the last five years.

I've become a fan of the more obdurate end of the Prynne spectrum because this requires me to think in radically different ways but I've just come across the above from the recent AL-DENTE collection and feel that this may be a poem too far, even for me. This is the first verse:

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. Then from ever bring
along but far but, to under the this better
then to be along, few for some, not of or
at first so. Let by so ever go to, bind with
this the, these given same for him, off far.

Now, the patented arduity method for starting with Prynne is to locate the nouns, as in the previous AL_DENTE-related foray which found that the sky and things celestial might be a theme. As far as I can see, only 'sound' and 'down' in the above may be nouns but even these are more likely to be describing words. There are also many (many) conjunctions as in "an uninflected word used to connect clauses or sentences, or to coordinate words in the same clause" (OED) or what I still think of as joining words.

Before we get any further I think I need to deal with surprise, this is from Prynne's essay on the translation of "difficult" work:

What is probable and can be predicted by following normative links in meaning and structure, including the regular completeness of grammatically well-formed sentences and consistency of topic reference, is frequently split apart in poetic composition, so that disorder and anomaly crop up all the time. Poetry is surprising, and good difficult poems sometimes surprise us so much that we can hardly breathe.

With regard to meaning, this is from his essay Mental Ears and Poetic work:

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.

The first time I read this, as opposed to skimming it, I was surprised but still breathing because it's not a mode that is familiar to me and seems out of step with what I thought of as his current 'trajectory'. It continues in a similar vein in all three stanzas and initially gives the impression of being the sort of language game devised by the Oulipo group rather than anything Prynnian. There's also the apparent transgression of 'discernible sense' in a much more resistant and obdurate manner.

The word 'for' occurs in all three stanzas so it may be best to start with its deployment here. It is possible to read the first instance as 'before' which then could make the second as being in favour of and/or in the place of someone or thing. There might also be a play on "All for one and one for all". The second 'for' also presents multiple possibilities as in- to do something for somebody else, before or in front of something. 'To the or' makes no sense unless or is given its obscure meaning of 'gold'.

It's also worth paying some attention to 'then' - its two main senses are 'at that time' and 'in that case', both of which might 'fit' although other definitions may be equally appropriate. We might therefore have "To the gold so in that case..." which might make more sense, if sense is what we're after, than " To the gold so at that time....". Moving a little further, it turns out that 'AN' is an abbreviation for autograph note and 'an' has been used as a shortened version of 'and'. One of my stylistic tics is to make use of 'and / or' to indicate either an ambiguity or my uncertainty- this could be the case here. Investigation into the last part of the sentence indicates that 'fond' can also be a "the action of being tried" and a temptation and a foundation or groundwork whilst the verb would indicate putting someone on trial or testing a person or thing.

It's at this point that my brain starts to hurt but I've been brave (stubborn) and looked at the very many definitions of 'sound':

(All of the above are verbatim from the OED).

This in itself is daunting and may be a case of readerly overkill but there are far too few other words that might be nouns to hang on to. There's also two further possible allusions to sound later in the poem the second stanza ends with ".....Sent to say / out by where too in want seem all of or it." and the third has ".... As known / for the its also in tune, ....." which may indicate that there's something acoustic going on throughout the poem. It's probably as well to bear in mind what he has to say about sounds in his commentary on The Solitary Reaper and the Mental Ears essay.

A brief and personal note on readerly effort.

I'll be the first to acknowledge that this kind of material isn't easy to get to grips with and that many readers will feel that it isn't worth the effort. I can relate to this because I feel the same about Hegel, Lacan and Althusser- working through these would be a slow and arduous task and it is v unlikely that my life will be significantly improved if I did take the required amount of time. There are other things that I need to read that are likely to be much more worthwhile. However, with Prynne, as with Celan, reading is a fundamentally different experience, paying close attention really does turn my thinking and cognition inside out. If this wasn't the case then I wouldn't bother, if both poets weren't able to make a few words say Very Big Things then I wouldn't be such a passionate advocate for their work.

According to me, the mistake many people make is that discovering what things might 'mean' is their primary/only goal with this stuff. This road will lead to disappointment whereas the pleasure lies, for me, in a sense of being involved with the work, of entering into a personal, tentative, provisional but absorbing relationship with work like 'Morning' and many others.

Punctuation and a few guesses.

To return to the above few lines, we do at least have more punctuation than usual with this level of tersity (technical term) and this does help, but not very much. The next few lines are a single sentence which contains four commas. One or more of these might delineate subsidiary clauses, so we might get - "Then from ever bring along far but few for some...." or "....but not of or at first so". which could make things a little easier. One of the main problems here is the apparent absence of 'sense' in bringing 'from ever'. Ever is a very big word and covers a lot of possibilities, the most obvious in this instance being eternity and infinity with the religious/poetic connotations of the first and the mathematical / scientific aspects of the second. To bring something out of these is to, perhaps, give them some kind of material fixity, either temporal or spatial. On a more mundane level, ever can also signify 'always' or 'on every occasion' as in "it was ever thus". The first example that leaps into my small brain is that increasingly laissez-faire economic policies always entail more oppressive social policies.

Substituting 'always' here could begin to clarify a few things, especially when we take 'few for some' which might relate to the growing inequalities that currently infest the 'developed' economies, especially the UK and USA. As far as I am aware, Prynne's only public reading in the Uk for many years was at an Occupy meeting, thus expressing some solidarity with their concerns about the distance between the haves and the have nots. This would make more sense if the phrase was 'few for most' rather than some because the current figures and concerns relate to the vast majority of the world's population remaining in poverty whilst the top 1% become ever richer.

At this point, I have to confess that I want this to be 'about' inequality because it's a concern that I share. This isn't just about blatant injustice but also about gross economic inefficiency- the personal expenditure of the very rich will never make up for the dearth of wealth in the lower echelons. Of course, the above guess might be entirely wrong.

'Along' is used twice but (probably) with different meanings, the first as in ":in a continuous line, onwards. Later also: (esp. qualifying a verb of motion) in a direction continuing forwards; progressively onwards; following the line of something (often in weakened sense, indicating little more than continuous action)" whilst the second is more likely " to come to a place; to arrive" - one of the examples that the OED provides is " They'll be along as soon as it's done" from Mark Twain.

So, we might have "always bring (or lead) forwards in a continuous line" and "better in that case to arrive". I must stress that this is entirely provisional, especially given the other possibilities for 'along'. The notion of solidarity as in to stand alongside might be an echo of 'all for on' mentioned above. It does nevertheless give some way through my initial bafflement.

I've already looked at 'few for some' and made a guess, 'not of or at first so' seems fairly straightforward - 'not inherent, or belonging to, at least not at first' but no doubt further digging will bring this into question.

The last sentence has the baffling 'this the' which I'm going to leave for the moment, the first part however may well be read as 'Always admit entry' and the final part might just be referring to the fact that all humans, wherever they're from, are equal and should be treated as such. This would seem to coincide with the moral panic currently being agitated about immigration (race). The same qualifier of want this to be the case also applies in this instance.

It is more than likely that all of the above is completely wrong in terms of 'meaning' or authorial intention but to get thus far I have had to enter into a relationship with these seven lines that is both involving and satisfying. I'm going to leave the next two stanzas for the moment because I probably need to clear my head before proceeding but will return in the near future.