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J H Prynne in The Paris Review.

This is the first Prynne interview in Quite Some Time and it gives some valuable insight into both the man and his work. What follows is not so much an analysis but a further development of the arduity position on this particular exponent of the poetic craft. I'll probably follow this with a crass comparison with Geoffrey Hill's interview in the same rag many years ago, mainly because I haven't done this for a while.

It's probably best to proceed by means of headings;

Beginnings.

Prynne studied under Donald Davie and was initially focusing on Pound and William Carlos Williams and then Davie signposted Charles Tomlinson whose work in turn led to that of Wallace Stevens who is described as 'a seriously intellectual poet of cerebral focus committed to an active intelligence of mind' which Prynne didn't find in either Pound, Creeley or Olson.

He is quite self deprecating about his early attempts at poetic practice and explains his repudiation of Force of Circumstance by describing it as being the product of 'the extremely uncomfortable experience of being a beginner'. He does however see this collection as his way of making a start on the difficult business of placing his work in the public sphere.

As might be expected, there is some disparagement of the Movement group whose work is described as very defensive and traditional who were attracted to Eliot much more than Pound. We're pleased about this because it is very similar to the arduity view although I'd add that the traditional thread has led to the dismal state of nearly all anglophone work today. I now have by my side Penguin Modern Poets 14 from 1969 which contains some of Tomlinson's work and was bought at about that time when, as a callow youth, I was devouring as much poetry as I could. Prynne describes Tomlinson as a landscape poet and that, together with Williams, he provided a backdrop to Prynne's early thoughts about producing his own work.

Re-reading poets that you've almost forgotten about is a mixed experience, the least pleasant of these has been Robert Lowell whose malevolent mediocrity clashed in a Very Big Way with the clear impression made on my adolescence. Tomlinson turns out to be much better than I recall, one page has the corner folded over so I'm guessing I did at one of the readings what I used to do. The mix of Stevens and Tomlinson does seem to be unlikely but that might be because I haven't paid much attention to the latter. It's also at odds with my previous belief that Prynne's early main interests were in Wordsworth and Olson.

Olson

It turns out that Prynne's view here is much more qualified than this reader had previously assumed. He doesn't like the Mayan poems and think that some parts of Maximus are unduly self-indulgent:

I'm afraid the same would have been true with Olson. Some intelligent friend should have said, Look, Charlie, it's all very well, but there comes a point where you're answerable for certain uses of material. Your readers and students are going to say; Are we to follow down these roads. And if so, where are they going to take us? If you don't care about these questions, then you've abandoned one of the important things that it means to be a poet. Yeats made a regular ass of himself in his adoption of spiritiualist blarney, even if he was just playing with it.

(The odd punctuation in the above is produced verbatim).

The 'same' refers to Ezra Pound and his use of bonkers (technical term) economic theories in The Cantos. Olson's irresponsibility refers to 'bungling around' with various fields of study, Prynne highlights archaeology, Nordic myths, Old Icelandic verse, and glyph languages as examples where he was affecting a knowledge that he didn't have. I now have a couple of confessions to make. I read Maximus in a vain attempt to get a foothold on All Things Prynne. Needless to say this wasn't forthcoming but I found the poem completely involving. I also discovered that Prynne had done some work in putting part three together prior to publication and then he and Olson had some kind of falling out. From this I'd assumed that Prynne admired the work without any but the smallest reservations. That's thus a conclusion that shouldn't have been leapt to.

The other confession is that I reckon I'm pretty good at sniffing out this kind of bungling in The Poem but on this occasion I assumed Olson did know what he was referring to even though I didn't pay too much attention to the mythological elements. What I have paid some attention to is Olson's use of A N Whitehead's Process and Reality, a difficult work that argues, this is a mangled and very selective precis, that we should be concerned with events rather than things. In fact I've used Maximus on arduity to give a shining example of the 20th Century Philosophical Poem. In the light of the above, I may have to revisit at least the parts of the poem that I felt were fairly pertinent in order to check the amount of Bungle that might be present.

Another illusion shattered is the Black Mountain College that lives in my head. This stands at the pinnacle of academic/creative excellence but mostly because of the Rauschenberg / Johns / Twombly trio and Josef Albers rather than the poetry squad. Prynne is critical of what he saw as the bullying culture perpetuated by the teaching staff during Olson's tenure and makes the same charge of bungling, citing Robert Creeley leading an 'absurd' discussion on 'Putnam' when he meant George Puttenham.

I'm going to skim over the part that deals with Ed Dorn because his friendship with Prynne is well known and I'm less than keen on his work although I'd probably have a completist's interest in the 'fifty binders' of correspondence between the two.

Marx, Mao and Adorno.

I've always thought of Prynne as an old-fashioned leftie without thinking through what that might mean in any greater detail. Here Prynne, by way of illustration, contrasts his position with that of Keston Sutherland, well-known 100% Marxist and his former pupil. He describes his own Marxism as being 'peculiar and extraneous' and elaborates this by describing his view of Marx' work as being 'a humanistic projection of political narrative. He seems to express some regret at Sutherland's increasingly Hegelian stance and points out that he's not really interested by this particular slant. There's also this preference, if that's the right noun, for Hegel's dialectic of nature. I like to think that all of this 'fits' with my initial characterisation mainly because it's redolent of my discussions with activists of that generation.

Prynne's enthusiasm for Mao takes me by surprise. This leaps out as an extraordinary observation:

I would have been more comfortable in the bad period of Chinese Maoism than I am in the good period of post-Maoist China which is full of unwholesome abandonments of serious disposition.

Which is qualified later with reference to Joseph Needham by:

Contradiction was something he was very familiar with. But the later career of Mao Zedong was a matter of great distress to him, and indeed it was to me. Because it all flies off the rails, most conspicuously with the Cultural Revolution. But there's a period before this, too, when the agricultural policies are imposed on commune-type farming practise, which have disastrous, terrible, destructive consequences. We in the West didn't understand that for a very long time. Information was very slow to come through.

Starting with the obvious, the 'bad period' was much, much worse than bad. The Great Leap Forward between 1958 and 1961 was a policy of criminal stupidity that killed, by means of famine, between 20 and 45 million people. Those with even a vague understanding of the events (me) know that this was purely ideological and driven by Mao. As with Stalin and the Russian famine of the early thirties, the Great Leap Forward, for me, far more than the Cultural Revolution, destroys Maoism in all it's forms. It negates all of the many achievements of the Mao period because that number of lives can never be a price worth paying. End of short but heartfelt rant.

In terms of ideology, there's also this:

The essay "On Contradiction" is one of his major essays. Most Western readers find it nonsensical, and pour scorn on my interest in it- fat lot I care. It's been a serious connection for me because Mao has a complex understanding of the task of the dialectic. He believes that dialectic is a principle of relationship within the material order itself, and not just within the intellectual order. It has meant a lot to me.

Purely in the interests of research, your humble servant has glanced at "Contradiction" and can report that it doesn't look like nonsense but nor does it convert me to the dialectic as a method. The arduity position remains entrenched because I don't understand how it's supposed to work and how some contradictions can be selected over others. During the summer, in the interests of fairness, I waded through ninety pages of Hegel applying the dialectic to aesthetics and it still doesn't make sense. With regard to 'the principle of relationship', Mao has this; "As a matter of fact, even mechanical motion under external force occurs through the internal contradictoriness of things. Simple growth in plants and animals, their quantative development, is like likewise chiefly the result of their internal contradictions". The obvious response to this is that it's incorrect and to draw attention to "as a matter of fact" and "chiefly" but that doesn't mean that Prynne is deserving of my scorn. It is nevertheless fascinating with regard to Kazoo Dreamboats to learn how much Mao there is in some of even the later work.

Adorno

Further tearing my assumptions asunder we have this which begins with reference to Mao's dialectic:

It has meant a lot to me. As Adorno's Negative Dialectics did. I'm not an Adornoite. Quite a lot of Cambridge literary intellectuals have signed up for an Ardorno-type commitment. I've never quite been of that commitment, but his understanding of the dialectic process, particular to self-enfranchisement from the metaphysical German tradition, which is so overbearing and so constraining- Adorno finds ingenious and very witty ways of liberating himself from the constraints of the German tradition.

This assumption was that All Things Cambridge were/are wholehearted Adornoites so it comes as a bit of a shock to discover that Prynne has never 'quite' been fully signed up to his way of thinking. I've just looked back and in 2010 on the bebrowed blog I made an attempt to marry together Adorno's view on poetry with the Prynne 'project'. What I didn't emphasise enough at the time is that Adorno is wrong about the poem and makes the same (ish) mistake as the rest of German tradition in ascribing too much importance to the Poem as a privileged mode of expression.

The simple equation of Prynne = old fashioned leftie Adornite is now mostly jettisoned and replaced by a Maoist old-fashioned leftie with a non-Ardonoite interest in dialectic. I'm not entirely clear why this should matter to me all that much, I'm much more interested in the poetry than a poet's politics. It may be that, as with Hill, politics clearly matters to Prynne and perhaps the poetry does, from time to time, form a satisfying backdrop to a particular poem or sequence.

Kazoo Dreamboats, a Maoist Poem?

I don't like KB because I've never been sure what it's trying to get to and I'm not keen on its tone. Incidentally, my bebrowed blog contains more than a few meanderings on this particular piece of awkwardness. 'Maoist' is not an adjective that I would have chosen even though it contains two longish quotes from Contradiction. However, the interview's discussion about Mao starts with:

The discussion about Mao starts with:

The narrative that Mao Zedong invented and devised to produce a native Chinese style of Marxism was and is still extremely interesting to me. That interest is written on the surface and in the crevices all over Kazoo Dreamboats.

I'll get to this shortly but I'm told that JC in the TLS has poured further scorn on Prynne (fat lot he cares) for confessing in this that he doesn't know what KD 'means'. This is an example of the kind of lazy jibe that gets thrown at serious writers, especially Hill and Prynne, of serious work by lit hacks that Should Know Better. Having paid some attention to the words on the page, this is not what Prynne says. He's very clear that the poem is an exercise in self-contradiction, an account and examination of positions. It's a should-know-better quip because it ignores the areas that good poets have been exploring down the ages but particularly in the last century. It's lazy because it preaches to the converted, to the reactionary ignorance of the mainstream literati and it's a quip because it's designed for an easy laugh (sneer). In fact, Prynne gives an unusually detailed examination of KD and its composition. This is how it starts:

It was full of an extremely complex system of self-contradictions which ought to produce serious disorder in the thought process, and I simply said to myself, I'm going to let it do that. I contradicted some of my deeply held beliefs and opinions. I deliberately as if by kind of necessitous instinct wrote myself into overt opposition to them.

I'm about to take issue with the implications of this rationale but it can't be argued that it doesn't provide more of a 'meaning' than most poets of every hue are happy to provide. Can it? My concern here is as a practitioner rather than a reader and whether or not these kinds of process and deployment are more than a little self-indulgent. I'm a Prynne fan and have paid close attention to most of his later work but I'm not that interested in this kind of game, what does interest me is whether the poem is any good. As a maker of poems I'm fairly clear that I wouldn't inflict this kind of exercise on my audience/readers because it isn't very interesting. even to me. Of course I didn't know this rationale when I first read the poem but this information only serves to increase my dislike.

For those who don't know, it may be as well at this point to mention that all of KD is in prose which takes us into the tricky object that is the prose poem. This isn't mentioned in the interview but, as it's the first of this type for a Very Long Time, it might be worth some further consideration.

What does catch my eye however is this idea of a poem as a very 'complex system', a notion that gets a more detailed treatment in the Mental Ears and Difficulties in the Translation of Difficult Poems essays. These have lodged a notion of trajectories and connections that slide past each other without actually making the connection, a conceit that has helped this reader get a better grip on 'difficult' poetry in general. The question here is whether or not KD is such a system or more of a progressive sequence.

Those who have looked at KD will know that there are a list of 22 'Reference Cues' which are books, essays and pieces of music from the sixth century BC up to the present day. Extracts from some of these of these are produced verbatim in the text of the poem. A few are quite lengthy and are marked off as blockquotes, there are two extracts from the Mao Essay, the second half of one of these is reproduced above, and Langland's Piers Plowman is used as a repeated device at the beginning of the poem (see below).

Some of these cues are reasonably standard but others aren't, this is all of them as they appear:

With regard to the first of these, Prynne has this to say:

When I saw that this book,....., had been published by the Cambridge University Press, I just knew it was going to be an important book to me. I couldn't tell you why but I'd already encountered this phenomenon of molecular forces and I knew I was going to care about it, partly because it was going to support a certain instinct I had about the structure of material things, which was increasingly an important question to me. I'd become a materialist in some abstract sense of the word, more progressively as my thought practises have developed.

In the interests of completism, I have a copy of this tome on my hard drive and have to report that I have major problems getting past the first three pages. This is because I'm mostly clueless about science and Very Bad at equations but it's also because I don't find it interesting. However, if I was interested, then I might make some effort to get a grasp on the outline of the theory But life is probably too short to make it a priority.

KD and Piers Plowman.

Moving on to something that I'm more familiar with, Prynne explains the presence of Langland (the use of "I saw" at the beginning of some paragraphs) with:

The one major thing was this extremely unexpected and forceful presence of Langland and the Piers Plowman enterprise. He just appeared, I took that very seriously. Partly because the structural contradictions in Langland's thought were so central to the whole idea of his being a poet and doing the tasks of poetry. The Franciscan idea of a sacred poverty was so important to him and was so visibly violated by everything in the social world around him. He cares deeply and is worried stiff by what kind of answers he can find to the questions of human conduct, the questions of equitable justice, the questions of honourable satisfaction of one's sacred religious duties. The line movement and the whole structure of these rather long lines that Langland writes are movements of profound worry. He suffered this poem, and didn't avoid what writing it seems to have been thrust upon him.

It so happens, for entirely different reasons, that I've been making my slow but attentive way through the Pearsall edition of Piers for Quite some Time and I'm now intrigued about these 'structural contradictions' and what it might mean to suffer a poem. This tentative response is especially provisional because I'm only halfway through the poem but feel that I might be able to identify something of what might be meant. I must also confess that I'm only familiar with the 'C' text although I understand that this is a milder social critique than the 'B'.

As Pearsall points out, the main concern about the Franciscan itinerant preachers was that they had betrayed the original principles of their order by using their position by pursuing material gain rather than adhering to their initial vow of poverty. I'm not convinced by Pearsall's suggestion that Langland was further trouble that his role could also be seen as a travelling beggar. What does seem more pertinent is the role of Rechelesness, a character who is both cynical about and defiant of Christian teaching and practice. This oppositional view is expressed with such force and clarity that this character might be seen as our poet's alter ego, as the embodiment of doubts and anxieties that have beset our poet. These kind of doubts may well cause this kind of afflicted soul to be 'worried stiff' about the answers to his questions.

Prynne describes the difficult business of becoming and being a poet in a particularly heartfelt way and I'm guessing that he's also suffered more than a few poems in his long career. I'm sure that many poets are familiar with the experience of being compelled to express some keenly held concern yet are daunted by what the result of such a poem might be I struggle with an unhealthy mix of cynicism and moral doubt which continues to hinder my attempts to address the things that mean the most to me.

In the course of writing the above, I've given more than a little attention to KD and have to confess that I find it more or less unreadable. This comes as a shock as I usually take great pleasure in attending to the rest of the opus. Prynne indicates that he's quite ambiguous about it and seems a little mystified as to why he wrote it in this particular way. I still have to observe that I don't think it works.

In conclusion, a fascinating interview with many other elements that I've omitted. It gives many insights to both the man and his work over the last 50 years. If anyone needs a copy, please e-mail me at bebrowed@gmail.com and I'll send you the pdf.

Recent

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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.