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Reading Prynne Very Carefully.

A few weeks ago I penned a slightly tongue-in-cheek guide to reading Prynne, so I thought I give a practical demonstration of the technique. Being ever up for a challenge, I've chosen the second poem from "Streak, willing, entourage, artesian" which is Prynne's latest work and probably one of his most dense. I started this exercise by reading all of the poems in sequence. One of the first things that struck me was that most of this is very abstract with very few 'obvious' phrases or sentences to hang on to. The second thing that struck me was the use of certain words- 'blanket', 'hunger', 'grand rubble' which pointed me in the direction of Ulster and what we refer to as 'the Troubles' and what Prynne has referred to as a civil war.

I must stress that this is a very early and tenuous hypothesis and I have learned that hanging on to first impressions can often lead to a lot of wasted effort. The blanket protest that morphed into the hunger strike (in which ten men died) and the Brighton Bomb (the hotel was called the Grand Hotel) are all I've got to go on so I proceeded with this and re-read the first poem which may or may not be about bomb making.

I have a view that successive British governments have, for the last five hundred years, failed to understand Ireland and the Irish and that this is also true of ordinary people. We view the anti-Catholic rhetoric on one side and the fervent republicanism on the other with a mixture of impatience and incomprehension.

The other 'point' of this is to test out Kerridge and Reeve's hypothesis that secondary meanings "accumulate and fill the poem in an unmanageable excess of meaning which reveals the repressed and concealed relations between discourses".

Set out below is the poem in its entirety-

Prolusion, stay near ever dry. Few tap transfer
second charge you let off stop surrender for
disarm, oh grant that, leave the grain why ever
less now less green took life by the tongue lit

In low pale extradite. A day this one assign
yours grow up to main, leaf round and round lie
cost plus crush split stamina. Me such unarm
same peril fovea pass fire mantle and glib overt

Tie to air close to, to disclaim that for. More
flute ignite nul wants subsume trill earlier ban
wrist digit restive to same. Be all best profane
broken tenuous, each strand as fine torrid at

Leave to play stare to east, ease denied off
by rush fracture on dismounting the pelmet crab
out over the foreland, the annexe. Moulded
profile accepts on its lateral crystal mistaken

Fragment at level counterparty brushed, mend
up to shock, same till fallen till to breach
its promise mine for spent at duration, noted
way ever on transit long for this and similar.

Tie to air close to, to disclaim that for. More
flute ignite nul wants subsume trill earlier ban
wrist digit restive to same. Be all best profane
broken tenuous, each strand as fine torrid at

Leave to play stare to east, ease denied off
by rush fracture on dismounting the pelmet crab
out over the foreland, the annexe. Moulded
profile accepts on its lateral crystal mistaken

Fragment at level counterparty brushed, mend
up to shock, same till fallen till to breach
its promise mine for spent at duration, noted
way ever on transit long for this and similar.

The first thing to notice is that it looks like a poem, all the poems in this collection are made up of six quatrains.

This one also contains some poetic touches- "oh grant that" and the use of the verb 'long' in the last line. The disappointing thing is the absence of handholds which can usually lead me into a way of making sense. Some phrases are particularly odd- 'dismount the pelmet' and 'round lie cost plus crush split stamina' at first sight defy logic but there is at least one reference which might fall in with the Ulster hypothesis. 'In low pale extradite' may refer to the English Pale which is an area of the Irish Republic that includes Dublin.

I seem to recall that in the seventies one of the bones of contention between the UK and Irish governments was the difficulties involved in extraditing republicans from the Republic to stand trial in Belfast.

There's also 'grow up to main' which may (or may not) be a reference to the fact (once explained to me by a friend with greater knowledge of these matters than I) that the Catholic population was growing faster than the Protestant who would be overtaken as the majority in a generation or two. This demographic trend explains why loyalist politicians became much more keen to reach a settlement in the nineties. I'm very aware that this is fairly tenuous and I may have to rethink at a later stage.

There's a couple of difficult words that we need to get out of the way, 'fovea' is latin and one of its meanings is 'pitfall' which would tie in with 'peril' that accompanies it. 'Trill' as a verb can mean to turn around which would kind of fit with 'earlier ban'.

The reference to 'flute ignite' is more problematic because it could refer to weaponry (pistols, rifles, pipe bombs etc) or it could refer to the musical instrument played on the Orange marches designed to intimidate the Catholic minority. 'Nul wants subsume trill earlier ban' could be saying "don't give up on your ancient rights and overturn the ban on marching". Again this is just guesswork at this stage and may need to be reconsidered later.

That's probably enough for now, in the next part I'll have a go at the first and fifth stanzas, both of which strike me as particularly tricky. Ill leave to others to judge whether the above meets Keston Sutherland's criteria for reading rather than consuming Prynne, all I will say is I think this is one of Prynne's most important poems to date.

Part two

I know that I said I would concentrate on the first and third stanzas of this (the second poem in 'Streak, willing, entourage, artesian') but further reflection tells me that this is a flawed approach to something this non-linear. I will therefore try to point out the bits that can be gleaned with a degree of attention and those that are utterly resistant.

My hypothesis (guess) is that this poem is 'about' the recent civil war in Ulster although I am still prepared to overturn this guess if I come across anything that points in another direction. To this end I have begun to delve into the Cain archive and to read witness testimony given to the Bloody Sunday Inquiry and I am amazed about how much I had forgotten.

I'd like to start with 'Be all best profane / broken tenuous' from the fourth stanza. I'm taking 'Be all best' as an instruction to do your best which seems fairly clear but 'profane' is causing me problems. As a noun profane means someone or thing which makes something secular or unholy, as a verb it can also mean to desecrate, abuse or insult whilst the adjective can be used to someone who is uninitiated in religious practice. Throughout the Troubles, Ulster was sunk deep in religious issues, from the casting of hunger strikers as martyrs to the anti-catholic rants of Ian Paisley and his ilk the conflict was mired in arguments about God with each side viewing the other as (at the very least) profane.

This use of the word to refer to the conflict doesn't help very much with this part of the poem, it occurs to me that these words could be an address to the reader. Prynne has done this before in 'To Pollen' with its reference to the 'resilient brotherhood' and the question about 'the one inclined'. I'll try and show how this reading makes more sense than does a reference to the Ulster conflict.

'Be all best' could be an instruction that recognises that all readers can only do what they can because the full meaning of a poem will always remain elusive. 'Profane' as a verb may be an instruction to overlook the religious elements of the conflict in favour of a more materialist analysis. Part of the first stanza reads 'folly to love acre the same'- if we give acre its subsidiary meaning of 'land' then this could point to the fact that the fundamental political difference separating both sides was (is) whether the six counties should become part of the Irish Republic or remain as part of the United Kingdom. This would seem to make sense but taking religion out of the equation overlooks at least some of the fuel that lit and sustained the fire.

'Broken' and 'tenuous' are words that have a direct bearing on Prynne's work. Many writers have commented on the fragmented nature of poems where competing discourses collide with each other and I've found this one of the most attractive (if that's the right word) aspects of the work.

I've used tenuous to describe my own reading of Prynne and others have stated that readers are only ever likely to get a partial understanding of what's going on. Some have pointed out that readers should construct their own meanings from the poem, treating each piece as an open text. I don't hold with this view because I find that there's enough in even the most obscure poems to glean what Prynne may be about.

'Tenuous' could also refer to the actions involved in writing the poem. The disaster that was the Ulster conflict was multi-faceted and does not lend itself easily to analysis. There are territory, religion, civil rights, colonial and military dimensions to consider as well as the fact that the working class of both sides were intent on killing each other in large numbers. So, any analysis will be tenuous at best- is this what Prynne is saying?

We then have a comma- these are often missing from Prynne's work and they are often used to introduce a new line of thought but on this occasion I'll try and show that the line continues to make some kind of sense. 'Each strand as fine torrid / at leave to play' refers to the poem and the act of reading it. I'm taking the primary meaning of each and strand to indicate that both the elements of the conflict and the various dimensions of the poem are being referred to. 'Fine' as a noun can mean the end of something and the verb can mean bringing to and end so this may be an instruction to follow both types of thread to their conclusion.

'Torrid' is interesting because, in addition to its normal meaning, the OED states that it can refer to the atmosphere affecting those at risk of religious persecution. It may therefore allude to Ulster Catholics feeling persecuted by the Protestant majority or to loyalists feeling that they are being killed because of their faith. On the other hand it could refer to the position Prynne feels himself to be in as a poet. It is true to say that Prynne has been more vilified by the poetry establishment than any other writer in the last thirty years and that this has often taken the form of puerile personal attacks which could be seen as a form of persecution. Whilst this may or may not be correct, it is interesting to note that Paul Celan (a major predecessor in the difficulty stakes) had a persecution complex too.

'At / leave to play' I'm taking as a description of the activity of the reader who is free to construct her own reading of the various strands. I don't think this is a reference to Prynne because his work suggests that he takes himself far too seriously for that.

Part three

I started reading this poem in part to test Keston Sutherland's assertion that Prynne's work demands readers rather than consumers of poetry, those who are prepared to work at the task of interpretation and so achieve a level of intimacy with the poem. Since my last post on this poem from 'Streak, Willing, Entourage, Artesian', I've given myself a bit of a rest (I've got my own stuff to write) but I have had a flash of inspiration which vindicates my original hunch that this work is 'about' the recent Troubles in Ulster.

This was one of those 2 am moments as I was trying to get to sleep. In the 5th stanza I'd worked out that there isn't such a thing as a pelmet crab but there is a helmet crab, for some reason I extended this 'sounds like' principle to 'foreland'and came up with 'four lands' somewhere in my brain I knew that Ireland was historically divided into provinces but couldn't remember how many these were. The next day Wikipedia informed me that there were once five provinces- Meath, Leinster, Munster, Connacht and Ulster. This was a revelation comparable only to the discovery that Cern could be described as 'ultramont' in 'To Pollen'.

According to the OED, an obscure definition of 'crab' is to "go counter to, to cross, to put out of humour or temper, to irritate, anger, enrage provoke." The Troubles were characterised by one side wanting Ulster (the 'annexe') reunited with the Irish state and the other side wishing to remain part of the United Kingdom.

With regard to dismounting from the pelmet and sustaining a fracture I can only take this to be meant literally and to refer to the contortions readers have to put themselves through to gain some understanding. If that's the case then it isn't very funny. 'Rush' may refer to a specific type of robbery common in the 17th and 18th century whereby a group of men would rush past the householder and steal all his goods- this is pure speculation for the moment.

I still haven't much of a clue about the first and last stanzas, in particular I don't know why 'same-front' is hyphenated and I'm troubled by 'suffuse. The last stanza is even more problematic 'mend up to shock' defies my small brain and I haven't a clue what we're supposed to be longing for.