HOME / THE POETS / ESSAYS / THE NUTS AND THE BOLTS / RESOURCES.


Is J H Prynne Difficult?

The short answer to this is 'yes' in that Prynne uses strategies that defy the standard notions of what poetry should do. He uses short combinations of words that at first sight have little to do with the combinations around them. The work is not linear in that it doesn't make a sequential number of points that lead to a conclusion and Prynne incorporates allusions to scientific and economic concepts that many would consider 'unpoetic'.

This is compounded by him deliberately placing demands on the reader so that we have to do a fair amount of work in order to get past the' baffled and bewildered' stage. The good news is that Prynne rarely uses foreign words or phrases, the less good news is that he relies heavily on secondary or obscure meanings of 'ordinary words' and sometimes is marginally more interested in how a phrase sounds than what it might mean.

The thought occurs to me that the work wouldn't seem so remote if others had followed his example in the early seventies and this particular mode of expression formed a broader poetic 'thread' in our culture.

The more appropriate adjective for Prynne's work is probably 'complex' in that it operates on several interdependent levels and is also a conscious attempt to break with what has gone before.

This is the third poem/ section from Streak, Willing, Entourage, Artesian (2009) which gives some indication of why Prynne is both difficult and important:


    Cornice buffed to distrained volume how much
    worn as cloud treading a skyline, dependency
    revoked a figure told up marking did you see
    run to it. For to run intrinsic the water gate

    Look out, the same the same! Print besides, hot
    torment in storm see out nor new nor fusion peat
    a list for temper get the skin off at margin, see
    more out yet. Still eyes please are they found

    Catchment plaster grand rubble up ask again,
    same turn at given, graven indignant enough
    weak old and cheap remains. It is either joy
    certainly in a flood, plain for brim deepens to

    Fix out gaze on this, on virtue. Acknowledge
    skid forward or same plastic fervid embankment
    her link antler, rising and driven. Above his
    anthem converge tall preening slips to axial

    Image dilation eager for size, steep-side per
    macro run by dozen oh warship guage silent
    elated regimen. See the same hold for top flit
    margin payout, grab on eyes wide to ever fade, 

    Total extensor bin. Hold your to me ligate for
    free ply employ random either way countenance
    rebel gate, gate far over enter attracted win
    worn cumber ask, dazzle so profile ply to play.

I first wrote this four years ago in 2010 and I'm pleased to note that my understanding is still on the same lines. However, what is set out below has undergone considerable revision.

Initially this appears to be incredibly dense and incomprehensible but there are some footholds which may serve as a useful starting point. 'Streak, Willing' is written in four line stanzas which are divided into 12 sections consisting of 6 stanzas per section. An initial read of the poem as a whole reveals a number of apparent references to the so-called 'Troubles' in Northern Ireland which Prynne accurately regards as a civil wat. Not all of the sections appear to contain these allusions but there are enough of them to signal that the 1981 hunger strike at the Maze prison may be at least one of the poem's themes. Reading the rest of the poem reveals that the word 'same' crops up frequently but not in a way that reveals what the word is referring to, although "the same, the same" was used by Goya to describe the horrors of the Spanish Peninsular War (1808-1814).

Because there are no titles to any of the pages it isn't clear whether this is one long poem or whether each page contains a single poem that can be read in isolation. The only clue that we have is the fact that the last stanza on each page ends with a full stop whereas all the others run on. There are however enough references to Ulster throughout the sequence to suggest that it should be read as a whole.

In 2010 I was reasonably baffled by the first line but now discover that I should have followed my own advice and looked at the secondary meanings of the words. Starting with cornice, which I took to be " An ornamental moulding, usually of plaster, running round the wall of a room or other part of the interior of a building, immediately below the ceiling" - definition 1b in the OED. I should have scrolled a bit further down to discover definition 3a: " Applied to a path or road along the edge of a precipice" from 'corniche'. This now goes two ways, during the hunger strike, both sides were walking the same precipice by refusing to back down on the issue of political status for Republican prisoners. The deaths of these ten men did indeed increase the level of IRA violence throughout the province. The other preicipice is the one that the global financial systems fell from in 2007/8. Given the rest of the line both of these seem to be alluded to. A similar examination of 'buff' reveals that it can mean: " To cause to burst out by sudden force", the only instance given is from Ben Jonson: "A shock, To have buff'd out the blood From ought but a block". So, thus far we have a precipice and a shock whilst the more appropriate definitions of distrain as a verb are: "to hold captive, or in constraint"; "to hold in its grasp, as disease, sickness, love; to distress, oppress, afflict" and "to control by force, restrain, subdue", all of which might be supposed to retain some sense of starving Republicans and the shock of the last great economic fiasco.

This volume that is distrained is worth some broader consideration, the common defintions relate to quantity, size and sound. The sound aspect definition is taken from Busey's musical dictionary of 1786: " a word applied to the compass of a voice from grave to acute: also to its tone, or power: as when we say, "such a performer possesses an extensive or rich volume of voice" which I include for consideration chiefly because of Prynne's strong interest in the way we hear and listen to sounds. The third definition is 'poetical' and given as a: "coil, fold, wreath, convolution, esp. of a serpent" which was apparently used a lot by Dryden and Pope. This is from Dryden's Annus Mirabilis: " So glides some trodden Serpent on the grass, And long behind his wounded vollume trails". I don't think I need to go in to the many negative aspects that a serpent represents in Western culture but, in this context, convoluted malevolence would seem to 'fit'.

It therefore appears to me, tentaitively and provisionally, that we have a precipice that is suddenly destroyed and thus throwing things into greater chaos whilst this given quantity and/or malevolence is oppressed or gripped or afflicted by some calamity. The use of 'to' implies a progression or movement from the broken precipice to this controlled but convoluted serpent. To my small brain it would seem that this points to the financial fiasco more obviously than the civil war in Ulster but it is likely to 'stand for' both. To start with the fiasco, Prynne has always been a lively critic of the current economic order and it is possible to read many crisis-related aspects but I'm going for the obliteration of thin line between orderly and self-regulating markets and chaos resulting in the need to control further acts of reckless and destructive speculation. With regard to the war, the hunger strike can be seen as one of many broken precipices that led to further repressive measures by the security forces and the sound 'aspect' of volume may refer to the banging of dustbin lids as a form of protest- these were particularly cacophomous on the night that Bobby Sands (the leader of the hunger strikers) died.

In the above poem we are given a number of instructions and are asked a number of questions- 'run to it, look out, ask again, fix out gaze on this, did you see, are they found, how much worn etc and this is a common feature of Prynne's more recent work and it may be helpful to work out (as with Celan) who else may be being addressed here, apart from the reader.

There are two places in the above that would appear to be fairly clear- 'grand rubble up ask again' is most probably a reference to the Grand Hotel in Brighton which was blown up by the Provisional IRA during the 1984 Conservative party conference. Given references to hunger, blankets and starving in other sections, it is likely that 'grand rubble refers to this event and 'ask again' is a reference to the IRA statement made after the bombing which asks again for the 'occupation' of Ulster by British troops to be brought to an end. Slightly less likely is the notion that 'grand rubble' could be a reference to recent imperialist adventures in Irag and Afghanistan with our poet pointing to the fact that military intervention has only succeeded in creating rubble. The other possibility is the destruction of well established and 'rock-solid' financial institutions during 2007-8 (Bears Stearns, Lehman Brothers, AIG etc etc).

'Same fervid plastic embankment' looks nonsensical until consultation of the OED reveals that 'embankment' was a term used in the 19th century to describe a 'banking speculation'. 'Streak, willing' was published in 2009 after the recent banking farce so this is likely to refer to that event. 'Same' in this instance may refer to the fact that excessive speculation has always in the past led to a financial catastrophe- Prynne has never been able to resist a dig at the money men.

'Fervid' refers to the intensity with which over-excited bankers pushed themselves into ever riskier and ruinous deals thus over-heating financial markets. It's also important to notice that the word comes from 'fervidus' which means both vehement and burning which would seem to 'match' the intensity of support given to the free and unfettered market by Alan Greenspan and other morons of his ilk.

This line of thinking would suggest that 'plastic' hints at something that is at once fake and, as in credit card, a gateway to increasing amounts of debt tied to ruinous interest rates. In this case the fakes were the sub-prime mortgages which were arranged for people who could only pay them back if house prices kept rising and the way that these were re-bundled to hide the levels of risk and sold on to banks and other institutions all over the planet.

With regard to the sight words, Prynne's recent commentary on Wordsworth's 'Solitary Reaper' demonstrates his almost obsessive interest in immediate perception, he has also witten approvingly about the work of Marcel Merleau-Ponty who stresses the essentially partial nature of our view of things. At this point it's probably useful to consider the difference betwee the sight verbs used in this section.

The difference between 'look' and 'see' is one of intent, we consciously choose to look at something, we don't see at something- we see things without deciding to do so in advance. 'Gaze' is of a different order in that it implies looking at something intently for a length of time. These differences may be important in making sense of this section.

Another repeated word is 'gate'. The first stanza has 'to run intrinsic the water gate'. This could refer to the scandal that removed Richard Nixon from office but this seems unlikely. The most famous water gate in the UK is Traitors' Gate at the Tower of London so this could allude to treachery and execution or it could refer to the regulating function of water gates in general. It may be as well to bear in mind that 'gate' is also a term used in electronics with three different meanings- Prynne is fond of using scientific / technical terms in his work. 'Water' may also be a verb but this seems fairly remote, even for Prynne.

On the other hand, paying closer attention to the OED we have 'gate' as "the action of watching or lying in wait; a watch; an ambush" and 'intrinsic' as " Inward, internal (in fig. sense); secret, private" which casts a whole different light on things, In 1979 Lord Mountabatten was killed by a bomb blast whilst sailing off the coast of Ireland. On the same day, August 27th, 18 British soldiers were killed by two explosions near to Warrenpoint near to the Irish border. In 2010 I'd half-pondered whether this in the sixth poem referred, at least in part, to Mounbatten's death:


    To grip to peak. So seek in profile one size or even
    earlier titrated wood on wood the touch harmless said
    gorgeous in symmetry. On wood slice to ply made up
    trade winter advancement, when did. Slope to gather

    A force trellis influx would you septic eye-lid fuel
    to glove soak, seawater decking did they all, would
    they. You do know it, soon matched one to one off
    left lid flicker, stand up. Said what choice spoken

When reading Prynne I find enormous value in this from his 2010 essay Difficulties in the Translation of Difficult Poems:

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 irections 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.

Without paying adequate attention for the moment, I like to think that this is a 'corridor of sense' running between these two poems and provide perhaps a deeper context for what the poem might be trying to do.

'Rebel gate' becomes clearer when the OED reveals that gate was once used to describe a strategy or a way of doing things. This would then be 'IRA strategy' and far over could be 'far from over'- most of us can read behing the upbeat headlines and realise that the old hostilities and aspirations on both sides are still very much alive.

The above is one small example of the kind of attention that Prynne's work demands. It is difficult but it isn't obscure and it more than repays the amount of effort. I can however appreciate that this level of attention and uncertainty as to 'meaning' is not for everybody, that life may indeed be too short pay detailed attention to this one poet,(I feel the same about Hegel) but I would also argue that this work stands (with very few others) high above the dross that characterises so much of what is currently produced.