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PRYNNE'S POEMS

J.H. Prynne. Poems. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Bloodaxe Books, 1999.

Devin Johnston

    When a prominent writer associated with Language poetry visited Chicago to give a reading last year, a student asked her what contemporary poet she reads with the greatest enthusiasm. She answered—without elaborating— "Jeremy Prynne." And though Prynne's readership in the United States has been minuscule, it has included a devoted following among experimental poets. Perhaps ironically, such poets often wield considerable influence regarding what gets taught, written about, and sometimes even read. Until now, the fugitive nature of Prynne's publications, as well as his reticence to give readings or engage in self-promotion, have not permitted a wider readership (though such qualities have contributed to his mystique among the devoted). With the publication of this volume of collected poems, from a major British press, that situation may change. Recent issues of The New Yorker have included a reader's poll for the best volume of poetry of 1999: Prynne's book was listed along with those of Louise Glück, David Ferry, John Koethe, and Sherod Santos. Though The New Yorker has little clout among readers of poetry these days, such a grouping must come as a surprise to those who have sought out Prynne's pamphlets through obscure channels over the past decades.
    Unsurprisingly, the vagaries in Prynne's reputation have little bearing on the actual poetry—indeed, I often find the discussion surrounding Prynne at odds with the experience of reading his poems. Prynne was a friend of the American poet Charles Olson, and has written critical essays on The Maximus Poems: in attempting to locate Prynne's difficult and original writing in a tradition, readers and critics have often lumped him in a post-modern, post-Olson, and essentially American lineage. Such a direct influence from Olson does exist in contemporary British poetry—one might think of Allen Fisher's long poem entitled Place, which transposes the Olsonian omphalos from Gloucester, Massachusetts, to South London. Prynne, on the other hand, writes in an abstracted lyrical mode, a surprisingly urbane and elegant discourse that bears little similarity to Olson's flat, rangy lines. Prynne suppressed his first volume of poetry, Force of Circumstance and Other Poems (1962), from this collected volume. In these early poems, such as "Mining for Flint," one can detect the centrally British derivation of his style:
Below this fronded heath the casualness
Is closer packed and waiting for the blow
From the moon's incisive stare. Down to the black
Siliceous lode this glacial calm makes slow
Deliberate descent; the night's attack
Upon the branching daylight's understress.
Such desolated landscapes, invoked with a cool eye for metallurgical or geological detail, are strongly reminiscent of those one finds in W.H. Auden's early "Who stands, the crux left of the watershed," and in some of Thomas Hardy's poems as well. Intermittently throughout his career, this landscape returns as the ground for Prynne's political concerns. In the Oval Window (1983), the rural landscape takes on considerable ambivalence and complexity:
Now the willows on the river are hazy like mist
and the end is hazy like the meaning
which bridges its frozen banks. In the field
of view a prismatic blur adds on
rainbow skirts to the outer leaves.
    They appropriated not the primary
conditions of labour but their results;
    the waters of spring cross under
the bridge, willow branches dip.
     The denial of Feudalism in China
always leads to political errors, of an
essentially Trotskyist order:
     Calm is all nature as a resting wheel.
The red candle flame shakes. (337)
In such cases, Prynne's fluid movement between a geographical scene, a phenomenology of seeing, and the political implications of both (in both metaphorical and literal terms) would seem to be central to his point. In the modern world, he suggests, even the most pastoral scene undergoes a "cognitive mapping" onto a global or abstract space.
    Many of Prynne's most compelling poems investigate such concerns through an overt lyricism—a condensed yet peculiarly spacious mode that leads one to consider its place in a lyrical tradition. Take, for example, a short poem from The White Stones (1969) entitled "Love"—which I find to be one of his most appealing:
Noble in the sound which
marks the pale ease
of their dreams, they ride
the bel canto of our time: the patient en-
circlement of Narcissus &
as he pines I too
am wan with fever,
have fears which set
the vanished child above
reproach. Cry as you
will, take what you
need, the night is young
and limitless our greed. (118)
Though the "pale ease / of their dreams" is a touch sardonic in its Keatsian rhetoric, the poem seems genuinely concerned with desire. If desire locates the lyric self, Prynne suggests, limitless desire (or greed) renders that self unbound. In the lyric tradition, one often encounters a desire so strong it seems to broach the boundaries of the self. In Prynne's verse, the boundaries between erotic and economic forms of desire also dissolve. As he concludes in Kitchen Poems (1968), an exploration of desire often charts the disappearance of the self: "we give the name of / our selves to our needs. / We want what we are" (20).
     Much of Prynne's poetry could be characterized as tracking the capricious movement of thought or consciousness, though it is not entirely clear that such cognitions are embodied in any sense. In this respect, Prynne's poetry has a general resemblance to that of Ashbery or—closer to home—Tom Raworth. Raworth and Prynne, along with a few others, have been dubbed "the Cambridge School" (mostly because they both live there). In temperament, the two poets are quite distinct: Raworth is sharp and funny, and comes closer to Ashbery's ability to encompass the highs and lows of culture in a single bound; Prynne, on the other hand, tends to be more circumscribed and elevated in tone. Yet they share a poetic technique for which they could take out a patent. Both poets often use line- breaks to slip into another frame of reference, enjambing one thought into another without any disruption of syntax. The resulting lines tend to move faster than our ability to process. Such is the case in a poem from White Stones (1969) entitled "Foot and Mouth":
Every little shift towards comfort is a manoeuvre of capital loaned off into the jungle of interest: see how the banks celebrate their private season, with brilliant swaps across the Atlantic trapeze. Such del- icate abandon: we hold ourselves comfortingly braced beneath, a safety-net of several millions & in what we shall here call north Essex the trend is certainly towards ease, time off to review those delicious values traced in frost on the window or which wage-labour used to force to the Friday market. Actually as I look out the silly snow is collapsing into its dirty self again... (107)
Each line snaps back into the next, and it is only through reflection that the seemingly disparate elements begin to cohere. In this case, the experience of reading the poem is instructive, for it is collapsing two spheres we tend to hold apart—the transcendental world of high finance and personal experience.      At times, over the course of this career-spanning volume, the obscurity of Prynne's verse proves frustrating—particularly given its insistent gestures toward ideation. His strong rhetoric occasionally verges on mannered or pedantic, with the lingering insistence that the experience of the poem is that of the postmodern condition. This frustration can derive from Prynne's arch formality as well, which is rarely concerned with "musicality," but rather with a vaguely ironized patterning of thought. Such is the case, I think, in the following poem from Into the Day (1972):
What swims in the eye
is mortal dread, solar
flare. The ear spins
with sharp cries, there
is shear at the flowline.
Honour thy father,
anguish as the sign
deflects through water,
into port. The shell
crossing is sport,
they are childlike
and their limbs intact. (214)
The half-emerging scene—involving an Oedipal relationship? and a sea-side locale?—is in itself compelling. Yet the irregular but full rhymes here suggest an irony that is difficult to account for in the poem's content. The result is an invocation of lyric affect and its simultaneous dismissal, which can seem a little coy. At such moments, Prynne recalls the involution—and resulting frustrations—of Louis Zukofsky at his most hermetic.      Over the last few decades, the mannered quality in Prynne's poetry has been filtered out to some degree, and he has favored a slighter, more obscure, but more lively mode, usually consisting of a sequence of short lyrics. In Word Order (1989), for instance, one finds,
We were bribed and bridled
with all we had, in
the forms of marriage
close to the target, very near
we held out brightly
that, there is a door shut
in whispered turbulence of the air
flow, echo virus inversion
in cardiac shadow to see over
the lights of common day. (362)
Though not much subject to paraphrase, one detects in the diction Prynne's characteristic concerns—an erotic relationship, thermodynamics, private and public forms of identity. Indeed, such poems may rely on some familiarity with Prynne's earlier work in order to identify the key elements at play. In its abstract lyricism, this recent mode may be comparable to that of any number of experimental poets now writing in Britain and America. Yet its elegance is a rare accomplishment: one senses an economy at work before the utility of that economy becomes apparent (if it ever does). It may be this quality—a floating sense of urgency—that has gained the trust of a growing number of readers.
     Prynne is already the subject of one collection of essays—Nearly Too Much: The Poetry of J.H. Prynne, edited by N.H. Reeve and Richard Kettridge—as well as numerous essays published in small poetry journals. It is worth noting that this process of exegesis and evaluation already exceeds the criticism on many more "prominent" poets, and I suspect that it will only increase in coming years. Prynne's commentators tend to value his work for its excess of signification and resistance to authoritative interpretation. Such reasoning tends to place an ethical value on difficulty and uncertainty because such qualities instill vigilance and hard work in readers and critics. Though I sometimes find poetry shallow or trivial, I never find it "too easy"—and I thus remain skeptical of such reasoning. It may be that we link reading poetry to the critical enterprise too closely these days. Whatever impossible hermeneutic challenges Prynne's poetry poses to the critic, it offers many mysterious pleasures to the reader. Uncertainty—of the sort one encounters in Prynne's verse—often sends commentators irritably reaching after fact and reason, while readers are happy to linger in that state. Beyond partisan debates over his place in contemporary poetry, Prynne has developed a deeply original body of writing, and this collection offers rewards commensurate with its demands.