In June 2016 David Caddy wrote a fine review of this little book. In October Tom Phillips also wrote a review and this was sent to all the contributors whose work had made the book important. As a consequence of some computer difficulties suffered by Tony Lewis-Jones’s Various Arts website, based in Bristol, this review never saw the light of day and so it is with great pleasure that I include it here under his name as a guest-blogger. It is important that Tom’s work is seen at large not least because it can now be included in Michael Tencer’s Full Bibliography of the work of J.H. Prynne.
Ian Brinton 8th July 2017
Review: For The Future: Poems & Essays In Honour Of J.H. Prynne On The Occasion Of His 80th Birthday, Ian Brinton (ed.), Shearsman Books, 2016
Of course, the usual starting point for discussing Jeremy Prynne’s poetry is to say something about how difficult or daunting it is. Saying this, however, is tantamount to not saying much at all. As several contributors to A Manner Of Utterance – the 2009 collection of essays about Prynne also edited by Ian Brinton and published by Shearsman – pointed out, if you start from the assumption that Prynne’s poetry is ‘difficult’ and therefore like a puzzle which needs solving, you’re probably coming at it from the wrong angle. Indeed, as Prynne himself has demonstrated with his extraordinarily expansive critical investigations of poems like Wordsworth’s ‘The Solitary Reaper’, even relatively simple-seeming work has multiple complexities and, yes, ‘difficulties’ if you look at it hard enough.
As in A Manner Of Utterance, then, the poems and essays in this insightful and wide-ranging new collection edited by Brinton counter the notion that Prynne’s work is the literary equivalent of the north face of the Eiger and that all it does is make exhausting intellectual demands of its readers. To be sure, the absence of a recognisable and autobiographical lyric ‘I’, the polyphonic assemblage of idiolects and specialist vocabularies and the unexpected shifts in grammar are disorienting, unfamiliar and have been at odds with the predominant modes of poetic expression for the fifty years that Prynne’s been publishing his work, but as the poet Peter Hughes puts it in his contribution to For The Future, that work has a “peculiar mass” nevertheless – and with mass comes gravity and you are drawn in.
Hughes also likens reading a Prynne poem to arriving in a foreign country – “Everything is going on around you and you do your best to go with the flow and pick up what you can” (which seems like very sensible advice) – while for Peter Gizzi the poems in the 1969 volume The White Stones have a “necessary and productive restlessness”. For Anthony Barnett – the first publisher of Prynne’s Poems (the steadily evolving ‘collected’ whose latest manifestation appeared from Bloodaxe in 2015) – it is a question of refusing “to be intimidated by the so-called difficulty or those critiques on difficulty, positive or negative, that have infected our academic and popular literary cultures both.”
Despite its sometimes abrasive surface textures, then, there is an energy coursing through Prynne’s work which keeps you reading it even if “the figure in the carpet” isn’t always readily apparent. Some of the essays here, of course, do posit hypotheses about what the ‘figure’ might be in specific poems or collections. Matthew Hall, for example, makes a persuasive case for understanding 2002’s Acrylic Tips in the context of “the physical landscapes and colonial history of the Australian continent” while Masahiko Abe finds a way into 1989’s Word Order through Rosalind Krauss’ concept of the ‘grid’ (as she applied it to modernist/minimalist art). Michael Tencer, meanwhile, unpacks the allusive density of Prynne’s ‘Es Lebe der König’ and identifies the multiple sources which feed into one of the very few poems dedicated to a specified individual – in this case the Romanian-German poet Paul Celan. Harry Gilonis’ discussion of Prynne’s Chinese poem ‘Stone Lake’ also illuminates how the indeterminacy and myriad ambiguities of Chinese poetry in general might offer a way of understanding how Prynne’s English poems operate and how we might approach them as readers. With Chinese poetry, after all, the general assumption is that it takes a lifetime to understand a poem as fully as it’s possible for any individual reader to do so.
For The Future, though, is not a book of critical essays per se and while the insights into specific corners of the writerly labyrinth sent me back to Poems with the thought “Ah, so this might be a potential starting point …”, the memoirs about Prynne and the poems dedicated to him also shed light on the man, the poet and the teacher. Brinton himself, for example, details the protracted negotiations between poet, publisher and printer over the publication of 1971’s Brass – thereby illustrating the care with which Prynne approaches the physical appearance of his texts – while John James’ poem ‘Affection’ steers a course through the ethical and political concerns which animate the work of a poet whose avant gardism is not an affectation but the inevitable product of a heterodox set of ethical and political concerns about transaction, encounter, power and language. Above all, perhaps, what the many and varied contributors to For The Future do is provide a reminder that Prynne is also a generous and profound teacher (more than a few of the essays here are by former students who encountered him at Cambridge) and that, whatever response you have to his poetry, he’s the kind of writer whose work needs to be read – much like that of the Black Mountain poets he did so much to champion – if you’re going to have any kind of understanding of what poetry has done in the past and what it might do in the future. As Nigel Wheale writes in his essay here: “What comes across so vividly is the range of concerns vigorously worked through, worked over, in these books, an intellectual project uniquely ambitious.”
With both A Manner Of Utterance and now For The Future, Ian Brinton has served that uniquely ambitious project well. In so doing, he is also helping to restore the contours of contemporary English-language poetry to the shape they might have assumed had the silly/shameful ‘poetry wars’ of the 1970s not disfigured them or turned them into the boundary markers of the literary cliques which are, as Michael Haslam observes in For The Future, “the scandal of poetry in England”.
Tom Phillips, October 2016