Obscure v Difficult verse.

J H Prynne, our most difficult of difficult poets has recently made the following distinction between difficulty and obscurity:

When poetry is obscure this is chiefly because information necessary for comprehension is not part of th reader's knowledge. The missing information may be specific ( a personal name say, or some tacit allusion), or general (an aspect of religious belief, say) and finding out this information may dispel much of the obscurity. When poetry is difficult this is more likely because the language and structure of its presentation are unusually cross-linked or fragmented, or dense with ideas and response-patterns that challenge the reader's powers of recognition. In such cases extra information may not give much help. (Taken from "Difficulties in the translation of 'difficult' poems" in Cambridge Literary Review issue 3 p.160)

Prynne goes on to observe that things are made more difficult when the poet is both obscure and difficult at the same time.

Both Geoffrey Hill and Prynne combine obscurity and difficulty but they do so in different ways, Hill refers to obscure things (which can be looked up) but his use of language and sturcture are fairly straightforward. Prynne gives much more emphasis to cross-linking and fragmentation but also makes use of obscure references, he also makes this doubly difficult by not marking quotations as quotations so the reader is led further astray.

Obscure examples.

Poem CXXV of 'The Triumph of Love' sequence is an excellent example of using obscure references to make a complex point:

...............Estrangement itself
is strange, though less so that the metaphysics
of tautology, which is at once vain
and the logic of the world
[Wittgenstein]. Some of its moves - I mean
tautology's - call to mind chess moves: moves
that are in being before you - even as
you - make them. An actual play-through
from the Last Quartets could prove superfluous,
except to a deaf auditor. Then there is this
Augustinian-Pascalian thing about seeking
that which is already found. Tautology,
for Wittgenstein, manifests the condition
of unconditional truth. Mysticism is not
affects but grammar. There is nothing
mysterious in grammar, it constitutes
its own mystery, its practicum....

So, towards the end of a brilliant poetic discussion of the horrors of World War 2, we get this dense and complex argument about tautology and mysticism. Most readers will have heard of Wittgenstein but very few will know what he had to say about tautology because most readers of poetry are not readers of philosophy and will need to seek the context for Hill's remarks for themselves. Fortunately, there's quite a lot on this subject on the net but most of it is very dense and assumes that the reader has some prior knowledge.

The reader is then faced with the following questions:

  1. In what context does Wittgenstein say that the metaphysics of tautology is at once vain and the logic of the world?
  2. Which Last Quartets are being referred to and why?
  3. What (exactly) is the Augustinian/Pascalian 'thing'?
  4. How does tautology manifest the condition of unconditional truth and what led Wittgenstein to say this?
  5. What does 'affects' and 'practicum' mean?
  6. shouldn't 'that' in the second line be 'than'?

This kind of challenge to the reader is where Hill's reputation for difficulty comes from. Hill has said that he does this because he doesn't want to insult the intelligence of his readers but there's also a slightly hidden agenda that says that we ought to be completely familiar with the work of Wittgenstein, Augustine and Pascal and that we are being instructed to find out more. The reader is then left with the choice of either answering the above questions (which will take some time) or ignoring this passage altogether in the hope that the rest of the sequence will make things clearer.

Later in the poem there is this passage:

............The intellectual
beauty of Bradwardine's thesis rests
in what it springs from, the Creator's grace
praecedentem tempore et natura ['Strewth!!!
'already present in time as in nature'? - ED] and what it returns to - our arrival
at a necessary salvation......

The nature of grace is a fundamental theme in Hill's work, he is deeply religious and has said that his faith always takes precedence over his poetry. God's grace has been at the centre of theological disputes ever since Augustine took on the Pelagians in the 5th century. Bradwardine was an English theologian of the 14th century who restated Augustine's position in response to the 'New Pelagians'. He also occurs in other parts of 'The Triumph of Love' and gets a fleeting mention in the 'Canterbury Tales'. To someone like Hill, Bradwardine's argument isn't just a historical curiosity but a major compnent of faith. To the rest of us in this secular world, Brawardine is merely obscure. Hill would of course argue that we all should at least be aware of the points that he made. The faux editorial intervention also occurs elesewhere in the sequence but this is the only time that we get a 'strewth' which is an abbreviation of 'God's truth'.

This passage is primarily obscure because Hill is using shorthand to express complex ideas, it is entirely up to us to decide whether we want to explore those ideas further.

Difficult examples

J H Prynne is the primary exponent of difficult poetry that uses 'cross-linking and fragmentation' to achieve its effect. This requires the reader to pay attention to several aspects or dimensions at once.In terms of cross-linking, a good example is the repeated use of the word 'same' in "Streak, Willing, Entourage, Artesian" (2009) which is a sequence of 12 poems each containing six four-line stanzas. Prynne always uses words deliberately so it is fair to assume that this repetition hints at some underlying theme. Below are all the instances where 'same' is used:

a same summmer box

the same on over the way

same day mainly deprive rank

same too fast joined

same with to side livid in part

same-front glide to fill conduce

same till fallen till to breach

Look out, the same, the same!

same turn at given

same fervid plastic embankment

see the same hold for top flit / margin payout

Same terrace same fuse at delinquent

new all the same

more of same melt sleep loss

same after time can you

same orange simmer disturb / credible mortality

fair both same addition plan

So same deep pitch

slice open same slice plantigrade

same brows matching oh weigh out lamp

Same to less must illness contusion

less same fusion / More filter fractional beam to trip

for cluster same bonded propound

Salts hide them to same metal density

each one echelon mount / to reach the same

still to misery same lintel paint invidious rate

far for fear same foot bunt the instrument

All same lock / same neck asserted damp further

Same gluttony in / attach

at seven same verify pro digital fencer

tour foreswear same for left

Four offence same tune simper telling flow unrest for bent.

The above is an illustration of why Prynne is often written off as incomprehensible. This is unfair because Prynne is comprehensible if the reader is prepared to put in the work, which in this case doesn't require any deep familiarity with obscure bits of knowledge. Looking for connections linked by 'same' involves looking at each usage in the context of where it occurs in the poem and then trying to relate it to the sequence as a whole. It also involves forming a hypothesis for one instance and seeing if it 'fits' with the rest. This is a challenging process but it is also immensely rewarding as it demonstrates what poetry can do.There is a suggestion that in an earlier work Prynne uses 'same' to refer to Goya's print 'Lo mismo' which refers to the ongoing and repetitive horrors of the Peninsular War. Given that this sequence refers (at least in part) to the ongoing strife in Ulster, the use of 'same' may here refer to the repetition of centuries of senseless violence and brutality.

The other strategy is to look at each of the definitions for 'same' given in the Oxford English Dictionary to see if any of the secondary meanings make more sense when applied to any of the above.

To be fair, this is an extreme example and Prynne isn't the only poet to use such techniques but he is the one who is most committed to using them all at once.