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Tag Archives: Algernon Swinburne

At Raucous Purposeful by J.H. Prynne (Broken Sleep Books)

At Raucous Purposeful by J.H. Prynne (Broken Sleep Books)

Well into his eighties now, JH Prynne is enjoying the most prolific period of his career and indeed one that exceeds the output of every other poet I can think of. Since 2020, he has published some 25 new works, mostly chapbooks with small independent publishers. This puts into shade other notable late flowerings like those of Geoffrey Hill, Jorie Graham and John Ashbery although presumably it could be argued that because Prynne’s publications are all short-form sequences (At Raucous Purposeful, for example, amounts to only 15 pages of text) in terms of actual word-count they might tally with the prolix ruminations of, say, The Daybooks and The Book of Baruch by the Gnostic Justin. (I’ve always thought that late Prynne and late Hill have a good deal in common, sharing the hermetic, fulminating tone of a slightly unhinged don, over-erudite and over-immersed in the historical etymologies of their beloved OED, bent on an increasingly private vision that seems to distantly footnote their earlier momentous breakthroughs.)

    Who on earth could keep up with Prynne at this rate of production? Perhaps that’s the point; as time runs out, is he trying to outrun any attempt to coddle him into sedate poetic dotage, like an Augustus Carmichael sent to doze over his notebook on the lawn? On the one hand this scattershot approach feels like the great confounder sticking to his guns, keeping faith with the small presses and sequences of cryptic linguistic détournement which have formed the bedrock of his practice since the 1960s – not for him the facile conveniences of airing new work on the internet or quietly waiting to update his seminal and increasingly unwieldy Bloodaxe Poems every few years (“the big yellow (para)taxis” as a friend once called it). On the other hand, with a style as distinctive as Prynne’s – a poetic approach established over 50 years ago which, in spite of manifold formal permutations, has not really “developed” or reinvented itself ever since – eventually we are forced to read the work as self-parodic, caught in a loop of its own making, consuming its own hyper-extensive tail or choking on it.

   If poetry can become “an engrained habit” (as John Heath-Stubbs said to the Queen on receiving her Gold Medal for Poetry), there is a sense in which enduring poetic identity might be linked with continuing prolificity in the face of dwindling powers. One thinks of Swinburne, kept on a tight leash in early retirement in Putney, churning out volume after volume of hollowly sonorous lyrics which are almost non-referential in their formulaic melopeia. As TS Eliot wrote of one Swinburne poem, “that so little material…could release such an amazing number of words requires what there is no reason to call anything but genius.”

    Turning to the ten poem sequence At Raucous Purposeful, I was caught between open-mindedly approaching it (as Robert Potts advises) “like a painting or a piece of music”, teasing out connections and possible chains of association (Potts again: “sonically, prosodically, thematically and metonymically”) and at other moments wondering if these were just random word-lists generated by a computer, an algorithm whose parameters are set to explicitly avoid any conventional poetic techniques, figurations or meanings, to confront the reader with slabs of sheer aleatory verbiage in the same way that many bands, musicians and composers have brought out albums of pure dissonance and noise. Why? To challenge our complacent assumptions about what constitutes music, to clean out our banality-clogged ears? Or even to make us want to turn the racket off and listen more attentively to the birds in the garden or the human voices that surround us? 

    No doubt it would be unreasonable or irrelevant to expect an 86 year old poet to change course or develop his practice at this late stage but reading At Raucous Purposeful I also thought of Prynne’s own words about a poetry reading he’d just been to, from the fascinating Paris Review interview he did in 2016:

I want a poet to break out of his or her poetic identity, to ­establish a whole new set of possibilities for the reader and for him- or herself. To hear poems that must have been written by a poet is to find them trapped in the poetic habits from which they originate. There wasn’t a poem anywhere in that sequence that I heard that I would have been glad to read for a second time…I can’t imagine why he did them. What was the motive? What was the serious development of his practice that poems like that would help him to find his way to? ”

Oliver Dixon 19th July 2022

Edward Thomas: Prose Writings Volume V Edited by Francis O’Gorman (Oxford University Press)

Edward Thomas: Prose Writings Volume V  Edited by Francis O’Gorman  (Oxford University Press)

When I reviewed the first volume of O.U.P.’s ambitious project to produce six substantial volumes of the prose of Edward Thomas I remember being struck by the meticulous and engaging introduction by the editor Guy Cuthbertson. That review appeared in The English Association’s Journal The Use of English in the autumn of 2011. The same held true for the second volume edited by both Cuthbertson and his partner in the whole project, Lucy Newlyn. As I read through this fifth volume, edited by the Saintsbury Professor of English Literature at Edinburgh, the undoubted professionalism of the whole O.U.P. project becomes sparklingly clear.
In his prose work Timber, or Discoveries, Ben Jonson presented us with the way in which language reveals our identity:

“Language most shewes a man: speake that I may see thee. It springs out of the most retired, and inmost parts of us, and is the Image of the Parent of it, the mind. No glasse renders a mans forme, or likenesse, so true as his speech.”

In the introduction to this finely-crafted book containing not only Edward Thomas’s critical studies of Swinburne and Pater but also some of the reviews the poet wrote between 1904 and 1909, O’Gorman suggests that “A critic’s identity is always some part of what he or she presents as knowledge of someone else’s”. For Edward Thomas, a writer troubled with trying to get words exactly right so that he could present his readers with the shades of reality that constituted his thoughts “readings of Pater and Swinburne are peculiarly dense with the literary conundrums for which he was seeking an answer, the problems of his professional relationship with words, the troubles of making a living from language while not betraying it”. For O’Gorman these two book-length monographs on Oxford-educated poets “provide a broken narrative of an as-yet voiceless poet journeying towards himself.”
In a subsection of his introduction, the editor directs us to Chapter 8 of the book on Swinburne and makes a convincing case for the chapter’s distinctive qualities in terms of Thomas’s own progression from prose to poetry. He notes the intensity of Thomas’s absorption, “his detailed enumeration of the many turns of Swinburne’s language that figure a mystery”. He conjures up for us a picture of Thomas “entranced by a poet on the edge of theology; a poet handling what might loosely be described as unsolved or numinous ideas that avoid mere clarity and summon possibility without adjudication”:

“Thomas is drawn to Swinburne’s capacity to write in ways that suggest rather than inform. He calls attention to Swinburne’s ability to compose poetry that contains ideas but is not reducible to them. He describes the ineffable objects of Swinburne’s imagination.”

In this chapter Thomas mused on ways in which poetry was able to communicate differently than merely through the literal sense of words:

“His criticism points to an aspiration for poetry that trades in un-paraphrasable moments of understanding, luminosity, emotional poise, mystery, or even – to borrow the title of a book he never wrote – ecstasy.”

When we read Thomas’s poetry we recognise time and again that reach for some meaning that lies beyond the empirical, that concern for trying to catch, as F.R.Leavis expressed it in 1932, “some shy intuition on the edge of consciousness that would disappear if looked at directly”.
The sixty page introduction to these two important prose works of Thomas, both written in the two years leading up to the outbreak of war, relies upon imaginative use of manuscript material from the Thomas archives in order to present us with what amounts to a portrait of Thomas himself. Or, as O’Gorman puts it, “They are, in significant ways, versions of Thomas as he was and as he imagined he could have been. They are certainly versions of his literary problems, solved and unsolved”. Tracing this path of the poet’s life in which his acumen and honesty as a literary critic of considerable renown was brought to bear on two writers of substantial importance to the late nineteenth-century and the early years of the twentieth O’Gorman dwells intriguingly on Thomas’s early years as an Oxford student of History and the disappointment to himself of his second-class degree. We are directed to the seemingly easy judgement made by the poet’s widow in her biographical account of their lives, World Without End, as she refers to the birth of their first child:

“As was natural his work suffered a good deal during this last term, and it was no surprise to David [Edward], though a bitter disappointment to his father, when he got only a second-class degree.”

O’Gorman suggests that the use of the word “natural” is apt in one sense, after all the arrival a baby is bound to interrupt the study for Finals, but it is also a cagey one:

“Its sense of normality, of what is merely to be expected, throws into the shade the aftermath (perceived or real) of not taking a higher class of degree; of not having made the most of that last Trinity term; of not being free from the responsibilities of marriage and children. Behind that ‘as was natural’ is the sad history of a man who felt he had had to live unnaturally.”

I remember writing that review in 2011 after reading the first volume of this superbly presented series, ‘Autobiographies’, and commenting upon one of the central themes haunting the work of Edward Thomas: the inability to ever go back; the inaccessibility of a past which haunts and beckons whilst always being one step away from actualization. This new volume complements the two earlier publications and I wait with considerable anticipation for the next volume to appear.

Ian Brinton, 30th May 2017

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