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The Oval Window by J.H. Prynne (Bloodaxe Books)

The Oval Window by J.H. Prynne (Bloodaxe Books)

A new edition of Jeremy Prynne’s long poem which had been originally published privately in an edition of 600 copies in December 1983 is due to be published on 29th March this year. It is the third separate publication of this major poem since the second one appeared in Brisbane in 2002 edited by the Australian artist Ian Friend. On the cover of the first edition there was a photograph showing a window-like opening in the wall of a ruined ‘shield’, or shieling, a rough stone hut built by medieval farmers to house themselves and their families during the summer transhumance. The photograph is one of many taken by Prynne himself at Tinkler Crags, on Askerton North Moor, a desolate area near the village of Gilsland in Cumbria and twenty more pages of these photographs are now included in this new edition.

This finely produced new edition is edited by Neil Reeve and Richard Kerridge whose work on The Oval Window goes back to an article ‘Deaf to Meaning: on J.H. Prynne’s The Oval Window‘ published in issue 3 of Parataxis in 1993. They also wrote a chapter of fifty pages on the poem for their major publication on Prynne, Nearly Too Much (Liverpool University Press, 1995). The new Bloodaxe edition contains two new substantial essays on the poem and some fifty pages of notes. It is a must! This is merely a quick advert for the book to alert our readers in advance and I shall be writing a full review of the new edition in Tears in the Fence 68 later this year.

Ian Brinton 9th February 2018

Prynne’s ‘Refuse Collection’

Prynne’s ‘Refuse Collection’

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

The Collected Letters of Charles Olson & J.H. Prynne Edited by Ryan Dobran University of New Mexico Press

The Collected Letters of Charles Olson & J.H. Prynne Edited by Ryan Dobran University of New Mexico Press

As if echoing agreement with the British poet’s injunction from the 1983 sequence The Oval Window (“In darkness by day we must press on”) the clear and helpful introduction by Ryan Dobran to this long-awaited publication of a major correspondence is already a shade out of date!

“Prynne’s private collection of correspondence and manuscripts is scarcely known at all, and does not yet exist as an archive available to a scholarly public, although several letters to others besides Olson have been published in small magazines such as The English Intelligencer, Grosseteste Review, Parataxis and Quid.”

Well, the University Library in Cambridge does now hold the entire Prynne archive and work is already under way to have it catalogued and made available for research.
That said, in terms of the whole process of permitting the public to see Jeremy Prynne’s enormous output of papers and correspondence, drafts and teaching notes from the late 1950s to the very present this new publication of the Olson/Prynne letters will stand as a remarkably effective foundation stone. Dobran writes with modesty about his intention “to produce a readable book” and he has succeeded in this aim beyond all doubt. With an interest alerted by the introduction one can trace through the remarkable sequence of letters and recognise the importance of their argument in terms of what was happening in post-WW2 British poetry:

“Often loosely assembled via Eric Mottram’s term the ‘British Poetry Revival’, Prynne and his contemporaries were eager to renovate the stagnant ironies of the Movement poets prominently on display in postwar England. One instrument of breaking the hegemony of official verse culture was reading, discussing, teaching, publishing, and distributing postwar American poetry and prose.”

The awakening of infectious interest in poetry and language rears off the page in this collection of letters and Dobran notes that what makes the correspondence so vital is “not what these letters offer in terms of personal details, but rather the way they bind knowledge and writing, information and composition, feeling and articulation, history and poetry”.
The book opens in November 1961 as Prynne writes from Gonville and Caius College to ask if Charles Olson might send something for publication in the magazine Prospect of which he had just become editor. Prynne refers to reading Olson’s IN COLD HELL, IN THICKET which “speaks for me out of the fast centre”. Reading Olson’s work was for Prynne “like reading for the first time the back of my own hand.” Probably in response to Olson’s ‘Letter to Elaine Feinstein’ (the founding editor of Prospect) in which the American poet had suggested a need for some book of etymological roots, Prynne writes with exuberance about Julius Pokorny’s etymological dictionary:

“Pokorny has drawn on all the Celtic tongues, Tokharin and Hittite and a whole range of little-known Romance dialects: Phrygian, Thracian, Messapian, Venetian, Illyrian, Ligurian &c; it makes tremendously exciting reading. In the section given to KAR-, for example, with a root signification of ‘hard’ or ‘rough’, he shows an astonishing range of derived cognates embracing European words for ‘rock’, ‘crab’, ‘shell, peel, nut’, ‘strong, bold, heavy, difficult, firm’, perhaps also ‘cliff, crag, crevice’, ‘stone, scarp’, ‘cairn, burial-mound, temple’. And it merely confirms my own feeling to find ‘keel, hull, ship’ also included here; part 6 of the first Max. letter reveals the rationale behind this. Pokorny’s whole book sits on my shelf like a bomb, ready to explode at a touch with the most intricately powerful forces caged up inside, a storehouse of vectors.”

On November 24 Olson sent through a poem which he liked very much – “and hope you will”. The poem ‘GOING RIGHT OUT OF THE CENTURY’ was published in Prospect 6 and later became part of Maximus IV, V, VI.

This is an astonishing book of letters and I recommend that it should stand on the shelf of anyone interested in the world of post-war poetry.

Ian Brinton 18th June 2017

EACH TO EACH, J.H. Prynne (Equipage, 2017) NINE DRUGS, Ulf Stolterfoht, translated by Lisa Jeschke (Face Press, Cambridge, 2016) OF . THE . ABYSS, J.H. Prynne (Materials, Cambridge, 2017)

In Canto XXVI of Dante’s Inferno the voice of Odysseus issues from a flame as he speaks to Virgil of his last voyage which led him to the abyss. He had spoken rousing words to his men concluding with the injunction “Take thought of the seed from which you spring. You were not born to live as brutes, but to follow virtue and knowledge”. [trans. Sinclair]. Prynne’s interest in Odysseus has been there from that early poem ‘Lashed to the Mast’, written in Charles Olson’s house in Fort Square and first published in Andrew Crozier’s Wivenhoe Park Review; it was there also in the photograph of an early design on a piece of pottery, depicting the figure of Odysseus tied to the mast by his sailors as they rowed past the island of the Sirens, which Prynne pasted into the opening leaf of his edition of Pound’s Cantos, poems which themselves open with a journey of outwards:

“And then went down to the ship,
Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and
We set up mast and sail on that swart ship…”

The opening poem in this latest sequence of ten pieces by Prynne seems to set us outwards again upon a voyage:

“Billow under below known sat follow, happen so
to make thwart leaden fine to fasten up as
yes taken back, given to yield or space hold
to later denounce grave enough smiling in
turn the face back now, derelict ecstatic fee
advance never clear rack, the inclination pack
mouth breath wide, slight gasp for air what is
known here found all down, all child eyes
wide too, prow stove in cold leading outward
flake to glitter certain and sure, all ever
known down and reach to ready for gone shine
far out ported beyond, rate and known.”

When the Jargon/Corinth edition of Olson’s The Maximus Poems appeared in 1960 it bore the dedication for Robert Creeley, “The Figure of Outward” and when Ed Dorn’s poem about Olson appeared in 1964, designed and printed by Tom Raworth, it concluded with the “whispers of the most flung shores / from Gloucester out”. The last words became the title of the book.
Prynne’s poetry is known for the way in which quotations and references lie buried within the text and the 6th poem in this remarkable sequence is no exception. The lines move between a reference to Bonnie Prince Charlie’s escape on a boat to the Isle of Skye after his failed bid for power in 1745/6 and Charles I arriving in the House of Parliament some hundred years before to arrest the Five Members who had encouraged the Scots to invade England only to discover that the birds have flown. The movement shifts between a traditional narrow-boat and “A flute” which brings together music and a vessel of war:

“Oh strike the light, float the boat, for
sake of common peril they are fallen away
as gathered up in sight of lamentable in-
difference and will go down against us, the
birds have flown, break speed this blithe
boat fled, weapon unwilling guard the sure
place radiant with possession save up go
down ignore, in such wide eyes. A flute
drifted in darkness as engulfed without
pleat over plaint ever pitch no bird on
no wing we are the wing broken as to see
waves of longing rise and turn face up
o’er brim their clammy cells out from
the shelf undertow and follow…”

Keats’s autumnal richness takes its place within the voyaging and gives credence to those words that Nigel Wheale used in an article written about The White Stones and published in Grosseteste Review 12 in 1979:

“the purity of the wandering stranger is not ‘The Scholar Gypsy’, but a completely responsive lyricism.”

This important publication of a sequence of 10 poems is attributable to David Grundy and Lisa Jeschke and it follows the Equipage presentation of EACH TO EACH earlier this year. The two epigraphs to that collection of 23 poems are from Boethius (“All fortune is good”) and W.R. Bion (“All thinking and all thoughts are true when there is no thinker”) and the lyric grace of movement is caught in line after line:

“…..The notes slide to come
home deserved by succession ready to be glad, if
able to steer to hidden shore early after plain.”

Lisa Jeschke’s own translation of poems by the German Ulf Stolterfoht, handsomely produced in an edition of 200 copies by Face Press, is accompanied by a short introductory statement by Prynne:

“Ulf is one of the great poets of the German language…Ulf knows that he can make this language do new kinds of expression under the pressure of poetic vision and originality.”

That pressure of poetic vision has an alchemical touch to it and I am reminded of how Marguerite Yourcenar helped in the translation of her own 1968 novel about alchemy, L’Oeuvre au Noir, so that it became in English The Abyss.

Ian Brinton, 17th May 2017

For The Future Poems & Essays In Honour Of J.H. Prynne On The Occasion Of His 80th Birthday Ed. Ian Brinton (Shearsman Books)

For The Future Poems & Essays In Honour Of J.H. Prynne On The Occasion Of His 80th Birthday Ed. Ian Brinton (Shearsman Books)

This collection, with a beautiful cover designed by Ian Friend, ranges from the academic to the creative and anecdotal, and is both a festschrift and response to the poet and teacher, showing the awe and gratitude felt by many of his friends and admirers.

To begin with there are some fine poems by John James, Simon Smith, D.S. Marriott, Gavin Selerie, Elaine Feinstein and Rod Mengham in response to the man and his poetry. Several contributors recall the measure and force of tutorials in Prynne’s rooms at Caius Court and provide ample testimony to their challenge, depth and impact. Indeed Michael Grant responds fifty years later to a question asked of him about some lines by T.S. Eliot leading to a fine essay on retroactive and symbolic temporality enacted in the opening lines of Burnt Norton. John Hall eloquently draws the reader into the world of undergraduate Cambridge English 1964-1967, enlisting the memories of Paul Ashton and Colin Still for reading lists and poems discussed, to produce a moving insight into the world of a Prynne tutorial at that time. John Wilkinson recalls the staircase leading to the room that was open to all comers and the walk-in wine cupboard where Veronica Forrest-Thompson was once ‘propelled by the exasperated occupant’. Michael Haslam, Nigel Wheale, Masahiko Abe and Peter Riley also capture a sense of being and place.

Anthony Barnett describes how the first collected edition of J.H. Prynne’s Poems came about and set the template for future editions, a fact that Barnett is not sufficiently recognized for. His efforts are in stark contrast to the troublesome difficulties involved with the appearance of Brass in 1971 accounted for by Ian Brinton. Ian Friend and Richard Humphreys recall their literary and sporting conversations at the Morpeth Arms, Millbank, London leading to an evaluation of The Oval Window.

Prynne’s poetry and essays are covered in various ways and his interests and concerns are well illuminated. Harry Gilonis, for example, gives a highly informative and contextual reading of Prynne’s Chinese poem, ‘Jie ban mi Shi Hu’. Michael Tencer writes on the poem, ‘Es Lebe der König’, written in response to Paul Celan’s death, providing part of the poem’s historical, etymological and literary context in order to open up perspectives on the poem. The title comes from Georg Büchner’s play Dantons Tod and was discussed by Celan in his 1960 Georg Büchner Prize acceptance speech. Anthony Mellors shows how the exchanges in the English Intelligencer from March 1966 to April 1968 shaped a poetics and poetic intervention that has subsequently broadened whilst being cognisant of the sonorities and sedimented sense-patterns of language as historical record. This sense of how Prynne’s poetics and poetry widened and took on the shapes and approaches that it did also comes into the essay by David Herd on Prynne’s 1971 Simon Fraser University lecture on Olson’s Maximus IV, V, VI. Herd shows Prynne scrutinizing and reassessing the defining axis of the poem and Olson’s lexicon from the distinct outlook of viewing from another part of the world. This reassessment establishes a new tension between the rhetoric of lyric, view, geography, spatial geometry and coast and leads Prynne to question how language voices its condition and address the issue in The White Stones. Key terms such as lyric, localism, cosmos, planet, curve, border, home and wanderer are subsequently tested. He thus used the terms of Olson’s epic to reach an understanding of the necessity to register that we are all continuous within language past, present and future. Matthew Hall offers a compelling reading of Acrylic Tips as a response to the colonialisation of Indigenous people in Australia and the politics and lexical complexity of the female pronoun. Hall argues that the structural patterns of landscapes, argot, botanical studies and Indigenous knowledge in the poem are unique to Australia. He cites John Kinsella’s poem, ‘The Hierarchy of Sheep’ as a parallel text stemming from Prynne’s time in Australia with Kinsella.
Joseph Persad notes the way conventional formal structures help focus the emotive artifice employed in the later poems and locates Kazoo Dreamboats within a context of historical protest and resistance citing Prynne’s reading at the 2011 occupation of the Lady Margaret Hall against the government’s dismantling of higher education. This fittingly returns us to the dedication of the 2015 edition of the Poems: ‘For The Future’ and the privilege of being challenged by a mind that firmly believes in pressing on.

This treasure trove of celebratory thoughtfulness, affectionately introduced by Ian Brinton, is reminiscent of Tim Longville’s For John Riley (1979) in the way that it eschews any chronology for a more impressionistic and sonorous response.

David Caddy 14th June 2016

On Violence in the Work of J.H. Prynne by Matthew Hall (Cambridge Scholars Publishing)

On Violence in the Work of J.H. Prynne by Matthew Hall (Cambridge Scholars Publishing)

It may seem strange that I should be writing this review since a few lines of my blurb appear on the back of the book itself. However, the point of the review is that it enables me to say more about why I think that this highly intelligent book is one of the best accounts of Prynne’s oeuvre that I have read for some considerable time. It also gives me space to explain why I should think this!

Within the network, the weave, of Prynne’s language there is a compassionate sense of Humanity and a lament for the distortions of language and self-delusion which enable the Human to become soiled by his most basic aspirations. Hall’s comment on ‘Refuse Collection’, that terrifying glimpse into the atrocities of the Second Gulf War, refers to the poem’s elegiac quality which is ‘linked to the pastoral elegy by establishing spatial locations that are unified with ceremonial mourning’:

‘The use of the pastoral elegy establishes connections with the poem Acrylic Tips, as well as ‘Es Lebe der König’, where the elegiac is a feature associated with landscape constructions.’

There is a movement to and from within this book and individual chapters centre upon different texts while never losing sight of how the accumulation of reference builds up into a glimpse of the extraordinary range of Prynne’s work and recognition of the profoundly integrated nature of his poetry. After the first chapter on the Celan poem from Brass we are moved on to a close examination of News of Warring Clans, Bands Around the Throat, Acrylic Tips. The last thirty pages then focus upon that language of ‘Refuse Collection’, a poem which should stand among the most powerful War poems ever written.

Matthew Hall is very good in directing us to the backgrounds, the heritage, the traditions within which Prynne writes. In the introduction he refers to the importance of Keats as a presence lurking behind some of the lines in that poem Prynne wrote immediately after hearing of the death of Paul Celan, ‘Es Lebe der König’, published in the 1971 collection Brass. Hall directs us to look at how, in the second stanza, Prynne’s ten lines mimic ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ and how Prynne’s line ‘It is not possible to / drink this again’ reverberates off Keats’s line ‘That I might drink and leave the world unseen’. Prynne’s poetry is well-known for its buried resources, its incorporation of his own reading, and one has only to recall the use of Dickens in ‘Of Movement Towards a Natural Place’ or the words of Lear in the opening lines of ‘As Mouth Blindness’ to recognise the wholeness of a life dedicated to reading, teaching and writing.

The first chapter of Matthew Hall’s book is devoted then to looking in close detail at the way in which that intensely important early poem actively investigates the ‘sense of alienation in the postwar world’. According to a letter sent by Prynne to Anthony Barnett that poem (for Paul Celan 1920-1970) was written on the same night that he heard of Celan’s suicide ‘from a Frenchman here in the city, long before it was reported in the Press’. It was not published until December of the following year.

It has been excellent to read some accounts in this book of the importance of music and its influence in ‘informing the poetic structure and technical operation of Prynne’s poetry’:

‘Throughout Prynne’s poetic oeuvre, music is represented and interrogated for signifying ontological sustenance. The reliance of ‘Es Lebe der König’ on the fugal pattern informs the technical and thematic orientation of the poem, by creating fidelity to the event of Celan’s death and evincing the role of ideology in perpetuating the Holocaust’s inescapable cycle of violence.’

Throughout this highly readable book we are left in no doubt as to the importance of Prynne’s poetry and I am reminded that in 1972 the Cambridge poet was deeply involved in reading early work by the French contemporary André du Bouchet. It seems just, perhaps, to end on a short quotation from one of du Bouchet’s Notebooks in which he commented upon the ‘Readable Poet’:

‘Poetry—this miracle—
the secret on the surface: what is most secret, unique, or so you’d assume, in broad daylight, and circulated through this ordinary language—as though it could only become aware of its secret through this public measure—man.’

Ian Brinton 22nd January 2016

Poems by J.H. Prynne (Bloodaxe, 2015) ‘The Figure in the Carpet’ Part II

Poems by J.H. Prynne (Bloodaxe, 2015) ‘The Figure in the Carpet’ Part II

With a mixture of playful good humour and mordantly intricate style Henry James came to terms with the failure of his venture into the world of the London stage. The hissing and booing that greeted the curtain call for Guy Domville in 1895 gave him, according to Frank Kermode, ‘one of his worst moments, and confirmed his scepticism as to the existence of any considerable literate public’, a public capable of that measure of cooperation an artist might reasonably look for.
Reflecting perhaps upon the difference between a quality of writing and ‘fame’ in the market-place James wrote two short stories in response to his ‘failure’. ‘The Next Time’, published in The Yellow Book, deals with a lady novelist whose potboilers have ensured her both fame and money yet who also, just for once, wishes to be taken more seriously, to reach the ‘heroic eminence’ of being regarded as ‘an exquisite failure’:

‘A failure now could make—oh with the aid of immense talent of course, for there were failures and failures—such a reputation!’

Her desire to be serious flies directly in the face of a literary world of ‘trash triumphant’.

When the first collection of Poems by J.H. Prynne appeared in 1982, splendidly published by Allardyce, Barnett, it attracted the notice of Peter Porter who observed that there was ‘more of the world most of us live in, where people meet and talk, read books and exchange opinions, than there is in the poetry of Hughes and Heaney’. He also noted the ‘ghosts of traditional rhyming poems’ lurking like a complex figure, a string that Vereker’s pearls are strung on! The appropriateness of James’s image is brought into focus when one looks at Prynne’s note appearing at the end of ‘The First Students’ English Magazine of Guangzhou University’, published ten years ago, in which he referred to the ‘pearl-bright moments and shining articles all moving along in the currents of these changing times’.
When the first Bloodaxe Poems appeared in 1999 it was dedicated to Bernard Dubourg, the French translator of Chansons A La Journée-Lumière (1975), Séquentiel Diurne (1975) and Poèmes de Cuisine. The last of these was a collaborative effort between the English and French poet. The wording of the dedication made it clear that it was in memory of this French poet who had died in 1992 and when the second edition of Poems appeared in 2005 from Bloodaxe it was dedicated to Edward Dorn who had died in 1999, ‘his brilliant luminous shade’. This third edition which brings the reader right up to date with the inclusion of Refuse Collection (2004), To Pollen (2006), Streak—Willing—Entourage Artesian (2009), Sub Songs (2010), Kazoo Dreamboats; or, On What There Is (2011) and Al-Dente (2014) is simply given the epigraph ‘For the Future’. The new edition also contains ‘6 Uncollected Poems’. Whilst the whole volume looks both forwards and outwards it may not be too fanciful to suggest that the concluding poem in Al-Dente acts as a type of personal dedication to Tom Raworth, ‘fill to all loyal found’.

This is a note merely to alert readers to this important publication which is due to appear on the Bard’s birthday, 23rd April. A full-length review will certainly appear in the next issue of Tears.

Ian Brinton 30th March 2015

New book on J.H. Prynne: Levity of Design

Cambridge Scholars Publishing, based in Newcastle upon Tyne, has just produced a new book on Prynne’s poetry. Written by Wit Píetrzak, an Assistant Professor in the Department of British Literature and Culture at the University of Lódź in Poland, this book is divided into four sections:

 

  1. Subjectivity under Siege
  2. Disentangling the Subject
  3. Beyond Stagnation
  4. Stories of Disentanglement in Blue Slides at Rest

 

The author’s acknowledgements page conveys an engagement with the work which is thoroughly explored in this splendid new book. Wit Píetrzak writes that his book ‘is the result of a sudden, yet profound fascination with the poetry of J.H. Prynne. Not only has his work exerted an enormous influence over my

understanding and appreciation of poetry but also has brought about changes in my perception of the task of the literary critic.’

 

‘There are books that we simply have to write, in order to put in writing the genuine amazement with a particular oeuvre, to phrase the peculiar thrall in which it has kept us; this is one of those books.’

 

On a personal note it is heartening to see that there are numerous quotations in this book from David Caddy, Rod Mengham, Simon Perril and Nigel Wheale whose essays on Prynne appeared in A Manner of Utterance: The Poetry of J.H. Prynne, edited by Ian Brinton (Shearsman 2009). Ian will be contributing an account of the late Prynne poem, ‘As Mouth Blindness’, to Tears  57.

 

Thanks to Peter Riley I now have a copy of the review of Kitchen Poems that Douglas Oliver wrote for a Cambridge newspaper. Titled ‘Pioneer in Poetry’ it is a refreshing view of that early sequence of pieces that had first appeared in Andrew Crozier’s The English Intelligencer. Here is a taster:

 

‘Prynne’s verse-line is often itself a glissade, but an intricate one always subject to a masterly use of pause. Line-endings and beginnings are important clues to what he is doing, partly because of the way they make meaning stagger into the awkward and difficult entrances and partly as a clue to the glissade’s return and departure.’

Meridian by Nancy Gaffield (Longbarrow Press)

Meridian by Nancy Gaffield (Longbarrow Press)

“The idea was to walk the line from Peacehaven to the Humber. I had devised the notion that the physical act of walking would help me to locate what was lost”.

We are immediately presented with a topographical focus and I can feel myself wanting to reach for Edward Thomas’s The Icknield Way in which he opened his 1913 walk with the words

“Much has been written of travel, far less of the road. Writers have treated the road as a passive means to an end, and honoured it most when it has been an obstacle; they leave the impression that a road is a connection between two points which only exists when the traveller is upon it.”

However, it very quickly becomes clear that Nancy Gaffield’s 270 mile walk, the Greenwich Meridian Trail from Peacehaven to Sand le Mere, is immersed in far more than topography. Her opening epigraph is taken from Charles Olson’s study of Herman Melville, Call Me Ishmael, and it is neatly adapted to her venture of discovery, a venture which prompts her forward whilst reawakening the past: “SPACE” is the “central fact to [wo]man born in America” and Gaffield’s movement through space is guided by Robert Moor’s exploration of trails:

“The key difference between a trail and a path is directional: paths extend forward, whereas trails extend backward”.

The reference to Olson at the very start of the book’s journey is by no means accidental and in the opening poem ‘ORDNANCE SURVEY MAP 122: BRIGHTON & HOVE’ we read of “Disturbances within the threshold / of hearing are sampled in time” and those disturbances have a lyrical echo down the years. This is a person who is “six years old again / learning to read / the landscape”. The musical echoes of wisps of language become

“The song that the rigging makes,
Port of Gloucester. The acoustics
of the sea. Here / there”

If we can hear Olson in that reference then when, extending backward, we look at the trail that got us moving we can also hear T.S. Eliot and the Gloucester poet’s “space of enunciation” traces a landscape that contains a reference to the last section of Bostonian ‘Preludes’ which itself looks backwards to the Whitman who sings the body electric “out on the vacant lot at sundown after work”.
In the generous section of Acknowledgements at the end of this book’s adventure Nancy Gaffield expresses her gratitude for those who accompanied her on the walk (Kat Peddie) and those who were there “in spirit”: Helen Adam, John Clare and Paul Celan. And here lies a major point about this autobiographical expression of how path and trail belong within the same covers: we carry our reading, our influences, with us as they have formed the person who we are. Some of these influences lie buried and do not obtrude themselves as landmarks on the pathway and in this way Edward Thomas’s ‘Lob’ emerges as

“The man in the street says: “I’ve
lived here all my life. I’m telling
you there’s no road in or out. You
could slip into a ditch. No one
would ever find you.””

Thomas gives us an old man who has a “land face, sea-blue eyed” who says

“….Nobody can’t stop ’ee. It’s
A footpath right enough. You see those bits
Of mounds – that’s where they opened up the barrows
Sixty years since, while I was scaring sparrows.
They thought as there was something to find there,
But couldn’t find it, by digging, anywhere.”

Nancy Gaffield is following the Greenwich Meridian Trail as a path, walking forward in a northerly direction “recalling snippets from books, scenes from films, or events… following a trail backwards”.
Meridian is no mere scrap-book of reminiscences but instead is a carefully wrought accumulation of reflections. The notes offered at the end of each poem are helpful and they echo the very movement of the poetry itself. In the second poem which deals with Greenwich and Gravesend we are confronted with a reference to a notorious pub, The Grapes, in which strangers to the area were known to have disappeared before turning up on the dissecting table. Dickens had presented us with that pub now disguised as The Six Jolly Fellowship-Porters in his mid-1860s novel Our Mutual Friend and Gaffield offers us a quotation from the early pages which includes the reference to being able to “trace little forests” on the surface of an old corner cupboard. This is no chance quotation and the paragraph had earlier included the suggestion that the pub seemed in its old age to also look back at its youth: both trail and path. The little forests, where the very word conjures up the world of the fairy-tale, are part of the “gnarled and riven appearance of old trees” where the past “seemed to twist itself into some likeness of boughs”. In Nancy Gaffield’s “migrant” language she contemplates being at the “forest’s fringe” and the whole sequence of poems becomes as Jeremy Prynne suggested about Olson’s Maximus IV, V, VI “a lingual and temporal syncretism”.

Ian Brinton 3rd March 2019

Collected Poems by Peter Riley (Shearsman Books) Part II

Collected Poems by Peter Riley (Shearsman Books) Part II

About three-quarters of the way through the first volume of Peter Riley’s Collected Poems we will find the long piece of poetry and prose Lines on the Liver which had originally been published by Andrew Crozier’s Ferry Press in 1981. Re-reading this piece I am struck by echoes of Charles Olson:

“To the west, beyond Stoke, are Welsh hills and the sea, and eastward behind me stretches a simple and wide monotony to the coast, perhaps the most blessed condition of all land: unexciting and open. But the past I dwell in is not so distant, and the distance that worries me is not so extensive. West and East stay with me as I move around like a left and a right, while also beyond me and fixed. It is not a problem of extent but of accuracy, and the only true spatial index to that is the night sky.”

There are one or two little changes here from the first edition which offered us “Smoke” and “Celtic hills” and these little shifts are symptomatic of a concern for the type of accuracy referred to later in the passage. Similarly the “past I dwell in” was originally given as “the past I mean” and the shift brings us closer to the Olsonian sense of our being inescapably incorporated in history. Referring to different identities in the work, an ‘I’ and a ‘We’, John Hall had focused upon something central to Riley’s work: the urgently serious movement towards our understanding of ourselves by recognising who we are in relation to the world around us. In The Many Review No. 2 (Spring 1984) he had described it as “the plural form of the person assiduously involved in the rhetorical transactions of metaphor”. Hall also referred to a collective sense

“coinciding with the idea of ‘the town’ as a specific social and emotional force-field within the land-form, as extended home, a specific community lived from within rather than sociologically describable; or it might be the human figure implied by an archaic term like ‘the plain’ or an understanding of humans in which geology is socially incarnate.”

I am reminded here of lines from Riley’s earlier collection which Crozier’s Ferry Press had published in 1969, Love-Strife Machine:

“work: to make it at least feasible
that the lines should intersect the way they do
on the map of it all.”

Or, again, “knowing this stone / also as a city / I underwrite”. As if emphasising again the importance of that Hastings poem of the mid-sixties which I referred to last week, in this 1969 volume we read

“learning to (speak, listen, dance, be, etc.)
there comes a point when you have to act simply by
throwing out blindly onto whatever surface
seems likely to bear the weight, throw
the whole body forwards onto
the bright substance and hope it floats…”

Towards the end of the first volume of Riley’s Collected we arrive at the remarkable series of ten sonnets, ‘Ospita’, which had originally appeared as No. 4 in his beautifully produced Poetical Histories series that had started in 1985 as a result of his obtaining a hoard of mould-made paper from what had been the print shop of The Brooks Press, Wirksworth, Derbyshire. When James Keery wrote a fine exegesis of this sequence for The Gig he brought our attention to the “intensity of the speaking voice” being “palpable” and illustrated this in his reference to the poem’s “compelling” opening sonnet:

“Seeking a bearing point on hurt I find
Hollows and rooms in the thick of the night,
A building hard at work flashing its bright
Offers into the star dome.”

As Keery puts it the speaking voice undertakes an enquiry into the problem of pain with “a discursive cogency that the Age of Reason might have approved”. This ‘Ospita’, this house or shelter for a guest, is in Nigel Wheale’s account for Chicago Review, “some kind of visionary hospice, a post-war Britannia hospital where fundamental categories such as harm and care…roughly trade their terms.” For myself I am drawn forward to J.H. Prynne’s 2008 essay on ‘Huts’.

In an early piece from Love-Strife Machine the poet had wondered how the knowledge of knowing “how to sustain the music” could be kept alive “beyond the first bright hope”. Reading the opening lines of the tenth ‘Ospita’ sonnet we have that question answered:

“I walked out on the morning of May 12th
The blades were bright and coy and loud,
Thick with languages I walked without stealth
The fields of angry farmers, proud
To be harmless and legal, half and half,
No one could fathom my strong shoes,
There is no paradise but tongue of love.”

In an unpublished letter to Michael Haslam from September 1980, and now resting in the Cambridge Modern Poetry Archive, Peter Riley had raised a question about the world of Charles Olson and it has an interesting bearing upon his own forward movement:

“…the things (readings, informations, modes) he used for his poetry became items of a proscription, and that academic inflation slowly took him over. He began to think he was delivering important messages to the world at large, which is where you stop speaking to any particular member of that world and they become a ‘public’.”

Peter Riley’s poetry is firmly particular and his self-portraits are of ourselves.

Ian Brinton, 23rd December 2018.

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