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Category Archives: English Poetry

Temporary Measures by Paul Rossiter (Isobar Press)

Temporary Measures by Paul Rossiter (Isobar Press)

When Auden composed ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’ it is possible that he was very unaware of how some of the lines would echo down the corridors of literary criticism. But they have done and they are worth recalling again:

“For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.”

In Paul Rossiter’s new volume there is an inherent emphasis upon the particular, the moment, the making of nothing into happening. There is a quiet humanity of attentiveness in the observation of railway workers that brings to mind the objectivist world of Williams or Reznikoff:

“the railway workers
cross the line
stepping

casually
over one
live rail

(turning to
each other
and talking)

and then
the other – they
do this every

day, almost
not noticing
they’re doing it

carefully”

The poem lurking behind this machine made of words is, of course, Williams’s 1930 poem ‘As the cat…’ about which Hugh Kenner noted in The Pound Era “It is one sinuous suspended sentence, feeling its way and never fumbling”. The “stepping” of the railway workers is placed in a line of its own and is succeeded by a gap before the single word line which defines the nature of the stepping: “casually”. The movement forward, fraught with potential danger from a live rail, is itself suspended by the bracketed picture of the steppers who turn towards each other in conversation; feet, like words, are so sure of where they should be placed.
The majority of poems in this new collection by Paul Rossiter take place in the world of common experience, effortlessly unrestrained. In the early morning of ‘Waking’

“the unanswerable landscape reassembles
in an instant
to what we always knew

and we go down
from the empty places, to walk”

The walking will be through the “ruined valleys” and the existing will be in the “abrasive cities”. However, this is not a post-apocalyptic landscape and the poem concludes with “delight despite ourselves / with only naked consciousness to clothe us”. When Marianne Moore addressed the Grolier Club in late December 1948 she had something to say about poetry:

“Concentration avoids adverbial intensives such as ‘definitely’, or ‘absolutely’. As for commas, nothing can be more stultifying than needlessly overaccented pauses. Defoe, speaking in so low a key that there is a fascination about the mere understatement, is one of the most persuasive of writers. For instance, in the passage about the pickpocket in The Life of Colonel Jacque, he has the colonel say to the pickpocket: ‘Must we have it all? Must a man have none of it again, that lost it?’ But persuasiveness has not died with Defoe…”

As the notes on the back of this handsome volume tell us, these poems are mostly set in London, with excursions westwards in England and southwards to the Dordogne region of France. In addition they cast a glance at Tang Dynasty China with versions of Du Fu and Wang Wei and offer responses to “places and occasions” in Kuwait, Egypt, Cyprus and Greece. The poems contain the “memory of countless small devotions” and they work “moment by moment / arising from the world”. Paul Rossiter’s poetry gives life to the everyday with which our lives are filled; it survives as a way of happening, a mouth.

Ian Brinton 8th September 2017

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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 Lovely Disciplines by Martin Crucefix (Seren Books)

The Lovely Disciplines by Martin Crucefix (Seren Books)

There is a tone of quiet humanity in these poems and that comes as no surprise as I look back on the versions of Laozi’s Daodejing that Martyn Crucefix published last year with Enitharmon Press (Tears blog 4/12/16). There is a seriousness in the poetry, an awareness of the passing of time, which does not resolve itself into an easily achieved sense of regret. There is no bitter twist that allows a reader to sport a wry smile to accompany his awareness of the value of lived experience. I make no apology for repeating some lines from Peter Robinson’s interview with Jane Davies (Talk about Poetry, Shearsman Books, 2007) that I used in my book Contemporary Poetry: Poetry and Poets since 1990 (C.U.P. 2009). Robinson was talking about poems which address lived experience in recognisable forms of human expression and in the interview he expressed some bafflement about the contemporary poetry scene. He was puzzled by the way by the way jokes are given such importance and recounted how the Italian poet Franco Fortini had approached him at a poetry festival in Cambridge in the 1980s to ask “why do all the English poems end with a little laugh?” It seems almost as if an ironic tone is adopted to protect the poet from being seen as nakedly serious and wanting to refer to genuinely felt emotions. In contrast, the quiet tone of Crucefix’s poems reinforces Robinson’s assertion that poetry is a response to other lives and the otherness of those lives.
In ‘House sold’ the poet records those moments when he unearthed the plastic urn containing his mother-in-law’s ashes which had been buried in the garden. Now that the house has been sold, that house “your mother dressed // and warmed all those years”, the urn will accompany the family on the next move:

“now she’s a little mixed
with its beloved soil and each step confirms

possession is temporary
even a place of rest
you lean against the car as if out of breath”

The word “mixed” could be an introduction to a tone of ironic laughter: ash and soil are combined as a result of the plastic jar (“the size of a sweet jar”) being punctured by the fork used to uncover it. But any hint of embarrassment is swiftly discarded with the tread of “each step confirms” and the overwhelming simple seriousness of the statement “possession is temporary” lifts the commonplace to the universal. Thomas Hardy’s squabbling mothers in the ‘Satire of Circumstance’ poem ‘In the Cemetery’ have no place here. Hardy’s women fall out with each other concerning whose flowers are placed over whose dead children whilst the sexton comments that the babies were laid in the graves at different times “like sprats in a tin”. In fact the women are crying over what is no longer there since “we moved the lot some nights ago / And packed them away in the general foss / With hundreds more”:

“But their folks don’t know,
And as well cry over a new-laid drain
As anything else, to ease your pain!”

There are other English voices behind this careful and patient poetry and it is impossible to ignore the presence of Larkin. The title poem focuses on the ward in a home which appears to be either a resting place for those with dementia or a hospice for those about to die. If I have any doubts about tone here it rests with the Larkinesque adoption of resignation which comes a little too easily; a resignation accompanied by a seemingly all-knowing distance.

“…no brighter hope

any more for Linda where she’s settled still
in her pink dressing-gown beside her bed

neat as a serviette her eyes fixed on a man
from her V of hands while he stares at her

from his V of hands at the woman he moved
coterminous with for years who now prefers

distance and darkness and being dumb –”

My doubts are raised by the word “prefers” with its sense of choice and commitment; it takes away from the sadness of the inevitable and becomes a matter of the poet’s awareness of the choices he assumes the woman to have made. However, there is another voice behind these crafted poems and it is that of Donald Davie. It seems no accident that Crucefix has translated Pasternak’s poem ‘In Hospital’ and his awareness of the importance of rhyme and music in the Russian poet’s work is movingly transcribed with subtlety and respect:

“As if window-shopping
crowds block the way
stretcher swung aboard
paramedics in place

street shadows carved
by the ambulance’s beam
city thunders past
police and pavements dancing

as doors swing on faces
gawping the nurse’s grip
on the saline bottle
loosening as she tips

to and fro – snowfall
filling gutters quickly
paperwork in triplicate
the roar of A and E”

In a radio talk he gave for the BBC’s Third Programme in 1962 Davie spoke about the music of poetry and quoted from Pasternak’s novel Dr. Zhivago:

“At such moments the correlation of the forces controlling the artist is, as it were, stood on its head. The ascendancy is no longer with the artist or the state of mind which he is trying to express, but with language, his instrument of expression. Language, the home and dwelling of beauty and meaning, itself begins to think and speak for man and turns wholly into music, not in the sense of outward, audible sounds, but by virtue of the power and momentum of its inward flow.”

Davie was a serious translator of Pasternak’s poetry and one of his finest poems, ‘A Winter Landscape Near Ely’ asks the sort of question that interested the Russian poet:

“What stirs us when a curtain
Of ice-hail dashes the window?”

Davie’s answer is in the sort of tone which I find in The Lovely Disciplines:

“It is the wasteness of space
That a man drives wagons into
Or plants his windbreak in.

Spaces stop time from hurting.
Over verst on verst of Russia
Are lime-tree avenues.”

Martyn Crucefix understands the central role language plays in our lives and in ‘Words and Things’ he places this awareness within the quiet context of an elderly individual who discovers “too late this absence of words” which now “builds a prison” – the poet recognises that “a man without language is no man” and that as the world of objects becomes too difficult to dominate he can only have knowledge of a world which “turns in your loosening grip”.

Ian Brinton 20th August 2017

Lithos by Anthony Barnett (Allardyce Book ABP)

Lithos by Anthony Barnett (Allardyce Book ABP)

From the subtitle to this carefully crafted new publication from the pen and press of Anthony Barnett we should immediately be alerted to a Joycean sense of humour:

“LITHOS: OR, GULLIBLE’S TROUBLES, OR, A DISACCUMULATION OF KNOWLEDGE BEING NOTHING MORE THAN DRAFTS & FRAGMENTS THAT, NOT WHICH, ARE NOT ENOUGH”

In the world of Anthony Barnett words spill and spin in different directions. A reference to the easily deceived character from the voyaging creation of an Irish clergyman from the early Eighteenth Century is merged with that of a glyphic sans-serif typeface designed by Carol Twombley in 1989 for Adobe Systems. A tale of Shaun or Shem from Finnegan’s Wake holds the reader within the webs of a poetry moving from “I” to “We” and “She” to “He”. Joyce’s language is dream-like:

“Dark hawks hear us. Night! Night! My ho head halls. I feel as heavy as yonder stone. Tell me of John or Shaun? Who were Shem and Shaun the living sons or daughters of? Night now! Tell me, tell me, tell me, elm! Night night! Telmetale of stem or stone. Beside the rivering waters of, hitherandthithering waters of. Night!”

As the prose merges sounds of night-time farewell (“Night! Night!” & “Night now!”), sounds in the mind merge words and Shem and Shaun become “stem or stone”. Language petrifies as characters move from the vegetal to the stone-like; moments of memory are caught, held, in lithos.
As if to confirm this Joycean humour Barnett has a short poem on page 15:

“Neverending but ending

Who has something to say
Who has nothing to say

I sigh at this speech this speechlessness”

The need to communicate, accompanied by a recognition that the tools of communication are inadequate possesses a sly reference perhaps to another Irish source, that of Samuel Beckett whose ‘Three Dialogues’ contain the cry:

“The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.”

This is the painful world of the artist, poet or novelist, who recognises that whatever he/she says/writes it will never capture the ever-fleeing sense of what is thought. In an Anthony Barnett poem “speechlessness” is accompanied by a “sigh”: words become a noise of exhalation.
If there is a haunting theme weaving its way through these poems it is perhaps one of lost love, lost time, caught only in the sharp presence of language as in ‘What Bright Shoes’:

“Moss blown from the roof sweet mounds

Mistletoe blown from the red squirrel door knocker

Destined to repeat fallen for not spoken to

So very upset

What bright shoes you are wearing, thinking. You are a strange one. I think
it might be disruptive. Almost wandering, across the evening street, distracted disrupting sputtering”

In the words of ‘Sunday Post’, “She is present even when she is not” or ‘On a Starlit Night’

“On a starlit night, September 8th to 9th to be exact, I dream about you that
you are with me or I am with you or we are with each other”

Anthony Barnett is widely read and it is no surprise to find these pages containing references to writers and artists who have influenced him over the years. Zanzotto, Kästner, Nelly Sachs, Veronica (Forrest-Thomson?), Celan, Skvorecky, Walser… They become spectral presences throughout Lithos both in terms of styles and as shades both there and not there: present in their absence. Sometimes I am also reminded of the wonderful opening pages of Dostoevsky’s short novel White Nights in which the narrator finds himself alone in Petersburg during the summer vacation. Recalling his moral condition one day the Russian novelist writes:

“From early morning I had been oppressed by a strange despondency. It suddenly seemed to me that I was lonely, that everyone was forsaking me and going away from me. Of course, anyone is entitled to ask who ‘everyone’ was. For though I had been living almost eight years in Petersburg I had hardly an acquaintance. But what did I want with acquaintances? I was acquainted with all Petersburg as it was; that was why I felt as though they were all deserting me when all Petersburg packed up and went to its summer villa.”

The narrator in Lithos can feel ‘Much Better’ as he contemplates

“How lovely it is to sit in a café or a carriage and listen to languages one
doesn’t know very well or at all. Then one is shielded from all the latest or past its best nonsense.”

The closing lines of ‘Soliloquy’, the last full poem in Lithos before a short ‘Requiem’, refer us to flight

“I shall not try to worry too much about the perfect unless I am building / a spacecraft / Or a parachute.”

And this, as in Finnegan’s Wake where the ending takes the reader forward to the beginning, leads us back to the opening lines of the collection and “It is the way it is” with the “newborn bird dead on the ground” with the “rooks wanting it”. That first poem concludes with self-explanation:

“Everything can be explained with a dream. Once I did not believe that.

I want to say it doesn’t matter.

It will always be in the writing.”

Lithos…lithography, written in stone.

This book can be obtained from the author’s website: http://www.abar.net

Ian Brinton, 12th August 2017

Jargon Busters by Clive Gresswell (KFS Press)

Jargon Busters by Clive Gresswell (KFS Press)

In this remarkably powerful first collection of poems Clive Gresswell combines what Timothy Jarvis refers to on the back as “language experiments, raw humour, obscenity, keen-eyed observation” with a compelling lyricism. Jarvis connects this uncompromising world of language with that of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze quoting him as describing how the writer of potent literature will return “from what he has seen and heard with bloodshot eyes and pierced eardrums”. In an excellent book on Deleuze, Sensation, Contemporary Poetry and Deleuze, Continuum, (I reviewed this book in The Use of English, Vol. 62, Number 1,soon after it appeared in 2010) Jon Clay referred to Prynne’s 1994 sequence Her Weasels Wild Returning. Quoting from the opening poem, ‘The Stony Heart of Her’, Clay wrote about “a material force that can be felt in the mouth and in the body”:

“This is obscurely connected to the vitality of the poetry; so, too, is the fact that both the dynamism and the material feel of the language are intensified by the undeniable difficulty of understanding what the lines might be supposed to represent. This material and aesthetic prominence in the poetry causes it to stand forwards, to exist in the way that a table or a mountain exist, rather than signalling away from itself towards, or signifying, the existence of something else. This urgent, material existence impinges upon a reader’s experience.”

There are sixty-six poems packed into Gresswell’s explosive new production from Alec Newman’s The Knives Forks And Spoons Press and number 39 reflects the tone of authority which threads its way throughout the sequence:

“where plagued soldiers ovulate & sing-song
abashed among weeds infamy
to tell stranger stories inherited
dust books dishevelled plumage frightening
new regulars distance overhanging vowels
thumb & forefinger trace elopements
a trigger-happy resolution bursts out
ripples circumnavigate
stars squashed into night dust
hunted tinsel sounds a tiny
belonging questions
where this arrow fell
quivering into your habit
fresh on the ground
a flower-study of you grew chased away bitter dregs
a woman’s flesh betrayed”

Writing about Prynne, Jon Clay had asserted that the sense of authority in Weasels “is the result of an aesthetic force that is not so much accessible as undeniable”. This is authority which avoids “truth faithfully represented” but which asserts its importance in the world “forcefully claiming its own absolute”. In Gresswell’s poem the focus upon “trigger-happy” is presented visually with “thumb & forefinger” and the violence connecting shooting with sexual activity is merged as the world of soldiers and ovulation moves inexorably forward to an arrow’s destination which finds itself quivering in the dress of an innocent “fresh on the ground”. This “sing-song” recitation of “stranger stories” concludes with “a woman’s flesh betrayed”.
In the 2003 book What is Philosophy?, Deleuze and the psychoanalyst Félix Guattari asserted that Art did not have opinions:

“Art undoes the triple organization of perceptions, affections, and opinions in order to substitute a monument composed of percepts, affects, and blocks of sensations that take the place of language. The writer uses words, but by creating a syntax that makes them pass into sensation that makes the standard language stammer, tremble, cry, or even sing: this is the style, the tone, the language of sensations, or the foreign language within language that summons forth a people yet to come…The writer twists language, makes it vibrate, seizes hold of it, and rends it in order to wrest the percept from perceptions, the affect from affections, the sensation from opinion – in view, one hopes, of that still-missing people.”

Jon Clay referred to Prynne’s 1994 sequence in terms of its doing something aesthetically that was very powerful and recognised the significance of that aesthetic force. One little element of that aesthetic web in the Prynne sequence is the titles given to individual poems echoing those in the sequence by Ben Jonson, ‘A Celebration of CHARIS in ten Lyrick Peeces’. Jonson’s sequence of ten poems opened with ‘His Excuse for loving’, ‘How he saw her’ and ‘What hee suffered’. Prynne’s Weasels, a sequence in seven pieces, opens with ‘The Stony Heart of Her’, ‘What She Saw There’ and ‘Then So Much She Did’. Similarly in Clive Gresswell’s poem number 40 there is a sly echo perhaps of Bertolt Brecht’s ‘The Chalk Cross’ from Poems of The First Years of Exile. Gresswell’s world of violence and betrayal is anger spat from “scabbard” and “trapeze” that becomes “footprints meshed / in circular / nazi regalia”. This is a world in which “faces implode / meld into re-workings” and “tears of silent mothers / draw flesh/ flattering thorn”. It concludes with un trahison de putain:

“walk into my path
turn away
i mark your back
a huge red cross in lipstick”

In Brecht’s poem from those early years of Nazi betrayals a maidservant has an affair with a man from the SA who shows her how they go about catching grumblers:

“With a stump of chalk from his tunic pocket
He drew a small cross on the palm of his hand.
He told me, with that and in civvies
He’d go to the labour exchanges
Where the unemployed queue up and curse
And would curse with the rest and doing so
As a token of his approval and solidarity
Would pat anyone who cursed on the shoulder-blade,
Whereupon the marked man
White cross on his back, would be caught by the SA.”

Clive Gresswell’s first collection of poems concludes with a reference to “offshore companies” and “distinguished crowns”. In the aftermath of Grenfell Tower and housing shortages his is a voice not to be ignored. He may give the last line as

“a jester turns his back on the world”

but we would be short-sighted if we forgot the role of the “all-licensed fool”.

Ian Brinton, 7th August 2017

Tears in the Fence 66

Tears in the Fence 66

Tears in the Fence 66 is now available from https://tearsinthefence.com/pay-it-forward and features poetry, prose poetry, fiction and flash fiction from Rachael Clyne, Camilla Nelson, Steve Spence, Isobel Armstrong, Anna Reckin, Jeremy Reed, Greg Bright, Adam Fieled, Maurice Scully, Zainab Ismail, Michael Henry, Sarah Cave, Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese, Paul Kareem Tayyar, Jinny Fisher, Alison Frank, Bethany Rivers, Nick Totton, F.J. Williams, Vahni Capildeo in Conversation with Suzannah V. Evans, Mike Duggan, John Welch, Jill Eulalie Dawson, James Midgley, Richard Foreman, Andrew Henon, Cora Greenhill, Peter J. King, Jane Wheeler, Jonathan Chant, Martin Stannard, Kate Noakes, Jonathan Catherall, John Goodby, David Clarke, Ren Watson, Claire Polders, Flash Fiction 3rd Prize winner, Keith Walton, Flash Fiction 2nd Prize winner, Sheila Mannix, Flash Fiction 1st Prize winner.

The critical section features Ian Brinton’s editorial, Jennifer K Dick’s Of Tradition & Experiment XIII, Steve Spence on Poems for Jeremy Corbyn, Norman Jope on Austerity Measures: The New Greek Poetry, Andrew Duncan on Seditious Things, Nick Totton on J.H. Prynne & Non-Representational Poetry, Lesley Saunders on Jane Draycott, Geraldine Clarkson, Jeremy Hilton on Sharon Morris, Alfred Celestine, Ulrikka S. Gernes, Scott Thurston on Allen Fisher, Steve Spence on New Plymouth Poetry, Will Daunt on Amos Weisz, Oliver Dixon on James Byrne, Cora Greenhill on the Scottish Women’s Poetry Symposium, Suzannah V. Evans on Richard Price, Mandy Pannett on Trumbull Stickney, Morag Kiziewicz’s Electric Blue 2, Kat Peddie on The Sovereign Community, Notes On Contributors and David Caddy’s Afterword

For The Future (Shearsman Books)

For The Future (Shearsman Books)

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

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