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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

Between So Many Words (Red Squirrel Press) Hut (Woodenhead Pamphlets) by Ric Hool

Between So Many Words (Red Squirrel Press) Hut (Woodenhead Pamphlets) by Ric Hool

The seven pages of text in Ric Hool’s little pamphlet, Hut, open with three assertive lines:

‘Hut is mind
by which man lives
within & outside himself.’

With his hallmark concern for the etymological sources of language J.H. Prynne wrote about the derivation of that little word ‘hut’ and, in his essay ‘Huts’, tells us that its use was first recorded in the seventeenth century, ‘probably from French hutte which is only a little earlier, cognate with Middle High German hütte, Old High German hutta, huttea, perhaps from Old Teutonic hudja with connection from roots meaning to hide, protect, conceal.’ In this 2008 essay, originally published in Textual Practice, Prynne looks closely at ‘Ode to Evening’, the 1746 poem by William Collins before moving from there to focus on the word ‘hovel’ in Shakespeare’s King Lear. He concludes with some thoughts about the meeting that took place in July 1967 between Paul Celan and Martin Heidegger in the latter’s writing hut near Todtnauberg.

Ric Hool’s contrast between ‘within & outside himself’ becomes in that poem’s second stanza (and I use that word advisedly thinking of its own derivation from the Italian for a room) ‘A place of shelter / & invention & / close to the wildwood’. The contrasts between shelter and danger which are contained within the purposes of building a hut are suggested in visual terms in Prynne’s essay when he refers to the title-page of the first edition of Collins’s Odes on Several Descriptive and Allegoric Subjects:

‘The title-page…was adorned with a quite distinctive engraved device, even if not original in this use: within an oval chaplet of leaves and flowers, of which part is laurel and part fruits of the woods and fields, and all surmounted by the twin face-masks of joy and sorrow, is set a pair of musical instruments. Uppermost is a classical lyre, signalling the composure and equipoise of Apollo; and beneath can be seen a set of panpipes, signal of panic urgency and ungoverned passion.’

Ric Hool’s opening poem ends with ‘estrangement’:

‘man from nature
nature from man.’

In ‘Hut 3: Castles & Cabins’ the poet contemplates that space between the self and the other, ‘within & outside himself’, and wonders what might warm a man whose separation from the outside world has been emphasised by a closed door. The conclusion to these contemplations is a trust in language since surely

‘it is nothing that is kept
so bolted and secure it cannot
radiate into the world.’

It is the poet’s words that radiate beyond the closed door and when he goes on to contemplate ‘Why We Use Language’ in the first section of the substantial publication from Red Squirrel Press Ric Hool arrives at the conclusion that ‘There is something / in a word towards reality’. Prynne’s conclusion to his focus on the double-edged sense of huts is that the ‘house of language is not innocent, and is no temple’:

‘The intensities of poetic encounter, of imagination and deep insight into spiritual reality and poetic truth, carry with them all the fierce contradiction of what human language is and does. There is no protection or even temporary shelter from these forms of knowledge that is worth even a moment’s considered preference, even for poets or philosophers with poetic missions.’

Whilst this sense of the baggage of meaning carried by the word-porters is web-like in its binding I have a quiet admiration for the type of experience which Ric Hool seeks to clarify in one of his ‘La Gomera’ poems in Between So Many Words:

‘There is a central idea extending from the kitchen out,
by whatever means, and back, which sustains. It is
not just food but the prattle of everyday happenings
that nourish these people, sure as transfusion,
from the coastline inward; from the island’s heart out.’

These are lovely books and I recommend them both to everyone:
• Woodenhead Press: 5 Merthyr Road, Abergavenny, NP7 5BU;
• Red Squirrel Press: http://www.redsquirrelpress.com

Ric Hool, of course, runs the Hen & Chicks Poetry Readings in Flannel Street, Abergavenny and it will be worth going to hear Peter Hughes read next week on June 14th.

Ian Brinton 9th 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

InExperience and UnCommon Sense in Translation

InExperience and UnCommon Sense in Translation

a lecture given by Anthony Barnett,

 

published by Allardyce Book

 

This beautifully produced little pamphlet is simply a delight and it should be acquired by anyone who is interested in the art of translation. The opening paragraph of this guest lecture given at Meiji University sets the scene for some serious debate:

 

I start off with the premise that there is no usable theory of translation other than the one that says that each text to be translated dictates, in the necessary rather than the tyrannical sense of the word, its own requirements—and that you must use your head. It is in that fresh innocence of each text to be translated, and the fresh naïvity of the translator’s approach to each text, that I have used the word inexperience in the title of this lecture.

 

The fine combination of good sense and sympathetic understanding expressed here reminds me of J.H. Prynne’s 2007 paper titled ‘Some Aspects of Poems and Translations’ in which he says that translating poems into poetic form in a foreign language is difficult in many ways and that no individual translation can be satisfactory in every direction at once:

 

There is very often a conflict between the effort to convey the meaning in a recognisable way, and the effort to communicate the formal aspects of composition, to show the shapes and patterns and energies of the writing as much as its meaning.

 

Prynne goes on to say that translation ‘is for sure a noble art, making bridges for readers who want to cross the divide between their own culture and those cultures which are situated in other parts of the world; and yet a material bridge is passive and inert, without any life of its own, whereas a poetic translator must try to make a living construction with its own energy and powers of expression, to convey the active experience of a foreign original text.’

 

Anthony Barnett is himself a translator of immense subtlety and power and I urge our readers to look for his 2012 publication of Translations which he published in association with Tears in the Fence. In that extraordinarily powerful collection we can read the entire script of Akutagawa’s A Fool’s Life as well as major poems by Roger Giroux, Anne-Marie Albiach, Alain Delahaye, Andrea Zanzotto and Paul Celan amongst many others. That volume, like this excellent little lecture, is a model of the art of fine printing and it is available from www.abar.net

 

Ian Brinton July 22nd 2014

 

 

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