In 2004 ‘Refuse Collection’, a poem written in response to the allegations of the torture of prisoners by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib jail in Iraq, appeared in the Barque Press magazine, Quid 13 edited by Keston Sutherland.
In 2007 Jeremy Noel-Tod wrote a letter to the Times Literary Supplement in which he suggested that Jeremy Prynne’s recently published chapbook To Pollen (Barque Press) was ‘directly concerned with the “war on terror” and its vicious circles’, quoting the lines
“Afflicted purpose they hail we cut them they in
turn line the route denied, holding it most.”
In 2013 Noel-Tod went on to edit the Oxford Companion to Modern Poetry in which he commented on Prynne’s concentration upon the etymological source of words and the extent to which the language is used by those in financial or political social power to control and command the thoughts of others. He suggested that the “presiding discipline of the oeuvre, however, is philology” and here he took over from Donald Davie who had commented back in the 1970s that “The structuring principle of this poetry, which makes it difficult (sometimes too difficult), is the unemphasized but radical demands it makes upon English etymologies.” Noel-Tod again alerted us to what has been for many years the fascination of Prynne as a poet:
“What has drawn readers to the demands it makes is the intellectual urgency and aesthetic intensity that animates Prynne’s reinvention of traditional lyric subjectivity in a world governed by market forces and scientific empiricism.”
That stratified field of rich linguistic construction is exemplified in ‘Refuse Collection’ written on May 8th 2004 in response to the allegations of torture at Abu Ghraib.
“To a light led sole in pit of, this by slap-up
barter of an arm rest cap, on stirrup trade in
crawled to many bodies, uncounted. Talon up
crude oil-for-food, incarnadine incarcerate, get
foremost a track rocket, rapacious in heavy
investment insert tool this way up.”
The brutality of the language here with its bitter puns crushing together idiomatic phrases with both slang and Shakespearian reference makes for difficult and uncomfortable reading. However, there is a clear difference between difficulty and obscurity: obscurity is to do with a range of references, in the manner that Alexander Pope’s The Dunciad is now an obscure poem which needs a considerable number of footnotes so that local and contemporary references can be recognised. Difficulty is where the language is not complicated in itself but its layers of meaning require the reader to be especially vigilant and alert to nuance. The controlled violence of those opening lines to ‘Refuse Collection’ is intricately bound up with some of the following ideas: the prison-like geography of a light leading to a pit in line one. The human outrage emphasised by the pun on sole/soul, is followed by the phrase ‘slap-up’, a term often used in reference to a festive meal but here tinged with the brutality of beating. In line two the reference to ‘barter’ presents us with the financial dealings involved with trade where the roots of that word of commerce are to be found in the Middle Dutch or Middle Low German trade and Old Saxon trada, footstep. The word ‘stirrup’ casts not only a glance back to the festivity of consumption (a stirrup-cup) but also presents us with the theme of dominance which appeared in one of the photographs taken of Iraqui prisoners being piled on top of each other as if to be ridden. The reference to ‘crude’ in line four is not only echoing the scientific term for unprocessed oil but also suggests a deeply embedded feeling of the uncivilised given a further emphasis with the word ‘incarnadine’ immediately recognisable as part of Macbeth’s vision of wading through a sea of blood. The final reference which merges finance (‘investment’) with technology (‘insert tool this way up’) is made grotesque as we recognise the well-known euphemism for a penis.
In his unpublished notes on ‘Some Aspects of Poems and Translations’, April 2007 Prynne commented upon language in a manner that is pertinent to a reading of his own later work:
Individual words are placed in close relation in a new way, so that it is
not easy to guess how the meaning of one relates to the meaning of the
other. Sometimes a whole string of words seems to be making uncertain or
doubtful connections, so that when the reader or translator consults a full,
inclusive dictionary the different meanings for each word all seem at least
partly possible, because the guidelines of sense and idiom seem to point in
so many different directions at once.
Ian Brinton 27th August 2017
In his essay, On Difficulty, George Steiner gave four recurring types of difficulty in writing: Ontological etc – and I am ashamed to say i cannot remember the others off hand . I once analysed a Prynne poem (Rich in Vitamin C) and found these four types were fully illustrated in his usage of language. It could be the types are so general, and all-embracing it would be difficult to find anything that does not fall under their umbrella… but I suspect Prynne is writing from the same ethos as Steiner.
So many poets conform to lyrical dictatorship! That’s what makes Prynne’s work so refreshing.