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J H Prynne on Poetry: a brief selection of the more recent prose.

This is intended to give a rough sketch of how one of our greatest living poets thinks and writes about poetry in that it might give those interested a couple of footholds when climbing the ladder.

This is from "Mental Ears and Poetic Work" which was published in the Chicago Review in 2009:

"I want to present experimentally a scheme for the description and analysis of poetic language mounted in the domain of poetic discourse. The specific domain is that of English poetry and the English language considered as a system and as a history; this choice is arbitrary except that a native-language aspect may be important, and in my own case I have only one of these. The task is not attempted with systematic reference to any known practice of explanation, though drawing on several; and to be satisfactory it should be inclusive, that is, give account of the centrally normative characteristics of how poems work. 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; while also activating a system of discontinuities and breaks which interrupt and contest the intrinsic cohesion and boundary profiles of its domain, so that there is constant leakage inwards and outwards across the connection with the larger leakage inwards and outwards across the connection with the larger world order. That's an outline in broadest abstraction, for a start."

and from the same essay:

Because active human knowledge is thus inherently dialectical and in dispute with itself and its base in reality, the apparently segregated domains of poetry turn out, by reverse transit through the mental ears, to connect at full intensity with the disorders of public conscience; so that, in my own view at least, even silence on this account must be reckoned and held accountable." We get direction and sometimes proper warning from the "mental ears" active in poetic work and in our reading practice of poetic textuality. Language is itself an intrinsic fault system, and it is worse than a mistake not to understand this as best ever we can."

The third issue of the Cambridge Literary Review has published a 'Keynote Speech' given by Prynne in China in 2008 entitled "Difficulties in the translation of 'difficult' poems" which turns out to be the best guide to Prynne's practice that I have yet seen. What follows is a crude synopsis but I hope it gives more than a flavour of his analysis/argument.

He starts with a general description of modernism noting that:

"In difficult modernist poetry there can be obscure and complex aspects relating to thought and ideas, to imagery and structure, to condensed or broken linkages and to embedded references to other texts or works."

I read this and realised that this wasn't so much a general description of modernist poetry but a list of some of the main aspects of Prynne's work, nobody else that I'm aware of combines all of these elements together. Prynne also talks about the difficulties that the reader/translator faces when trying to work out which of the many meanings of a word or phrase and which of the many pathways should be followed. This is very redolent of my own experience of reading Prynne's work which is littered with moments of what he describes as 'rich uncertainty'. He also makes the point that good difficult poetry is surprising and that this surprise sometimes takes our breath away. Geoffrey Hill makes a similar point in 'Language, Suffering and Silence' where he writes about 'semantic shock' being an important component of a successful poem.

I think the following usefully sums up the Prynne project:

"In a more technical way we can acknowledge that unfamiliarity plays an important part in pattern-recognition, and we can ask how this feature gains its effect. If two words are placed together that are not normally associated as from the same field of reference or meaning, a kind of semantic spark or jump may be created that is intensely localised within the continuity of the text process: it may be a kind of "hot spot" that burns very bright but which the reader can quite quickly assimilate within the larger patterns of composition. Sometimes these sparks can follow in quick succession, many of them, producing disturbance patterns of their own, extended trains of unfamiliar words and phrase which break the rules of local sense. Even so, a reader can feel carried along by the energy of surprise and unresolved ambiguity, and the translator can recognise the challenge to translating skills even if good solutions are hard to find."

Prynne's brilliantly detailed investigations of Wordsworth's The Solitary Reaper and George Hedrbert's Love III demonstrate the kind of attention with which Prynne reads verse. This is from the introductory examination of The Solitary Reaper:

For the reader, the narrative of encounter acts at outset as a mirror for subject-passion, so that we have little or no direct clue concerning the maiden's own feeling, which is expressed in a language completely foreign to the embedded listener, and still less clue concerning the tale of this lonely work and the narrative of how it came about: if there might have been a direct gateway into that tale, the entrance is blocked by the opacity of her foreign speech. The principal tale thus comes to be the poet-traveller's story, and then to be no story at all but an enhanced moment of arrested insight and deep consequence in the 'long after' about which not other temporal clue is given to us. The central stanzas may in this light be read as the poet-taveller's attempt to re-open the potential story of this maiden's singing to in vent a narrative frame (surrogate-georgic) to replace the narrative displaced by the moment of total arrest in which it was encountered.

This is the first paragraph on 'O listen' which is the start of line 7 in the poem:

This impassioned expression of strong wish or command (perhaps invitation) is full of paradox, with its entwined homophonic etymologies of desire and inclination. There is also a distinct if refined lexical nuance as set out in OED 2: listen, v., is divided into sense 1a (transitive): "To heaar attentively; to give ear to; to pay attention to (a person speaking or what is said). Now arch. and poet., and sense 2a (intransitive): "To give attention with the ear to some sound or utterance; to make an effort to hear something; to 'give ear'. These sense allocations are set very close; but the first bears towards 'pay attention with the ear strongly and intently, so as to receive the full import of what (someone or something) is to be heard', and is marked as transitive; whereas the second bears towards 'make an effort to hear what may be faint or indistinct, so as not to miss the sound of someone or something', and is marked as intransitive (normally with to. In the imperative mood as here in line 7 the grammatical force of either form fits equally well yet sense 1 mostly overrides sense 2 (both in line 7 and potentially in line 29), by virtue of a greater intensity and vehemence; we are not distracted from hearing as unable quite to catch the sound but rather focussing our full attention on the inflow of sound-presence into consciousness and feeling-awareness. This would expand the grammar as 'O listen the sound' and not 'O' listen to the sound', which seems in error to the modern ear; but OED 2 cites instances from Milton, Southey, Byron and Tennyson to demonstrate this difference. Aptly comparable would be Antony's injunction in Julius Caesar: 'And now Octauius,, Listen, great things (The Tragedie of Julius Caesar, (IV.1.40-1), and Wordswoth's 'Listen! the mighty Being is awake', from 'It is a beauteous evening, calm and free' of 1802 (line 6); compare also 'O listen, listen, how they wind away from 'There was a spot', in Appendix B Poetical Works, [V], p. 342.

The above is followed by seven equally complex paragraphs on these two words. A further example is this paragraph on the comma from My deare, which begins line 16 0f Love III:

The momentary pause in thought and feeling thus marked in the rhythm of this sentence may also perform another function, which is to demonstrate in so minute a form that there is no mere slide from deare to serve to will, as a kind of grateful surrender by the speaking I which involves final relief from weariness and tumbling into a comforting. That would be facile in the kind of way near-approached by the conclusion of 'The Pulley' (The Temple, pp.153-4). In this aspect the guest's stubborness is also a certain strength of character; this pause is not a mere delay and is not self-important, but it is important in itself, sufficient as a balancing point, to allow the notional speaker here to catch breath and thus to decide just what intonation to place on then before will and serve. Part of the delicate mystery here is that the reader cannot accurately pick up this most critical tuning, even though we have reason to be confident that it is taking place; this happens before our eyes but only by reconstruction in our ears, and we take this into our minds by what Herbert might have thought to be a species of spritiual infusion.

The next paragraph is a discussion as to whether or not this particular comma is an 'Arminian comma'........

All of the above give some idea of the sort of readerly activity that may be needed in reading Prynne. Many, many readers will find the required effort to be too much bother. Others, however, will become increasingly absorbed by and involved with the work.