George Ttoouli reacts to A Manner of Utterance: The Poetry of J.H. Prynne, ed. Ian Brinton, (Shearsman, 2009) pp. 188, £12.95
Ian Friend & Richard Humphries in dialogue on JHP:
"IF: Prynne has always impressed me with the diversity of his language and sources--it's a trademark I suppose. It can read very lyrically at times, particularly for me in 'The Oval Window', but at other times it is fractured or dislocated and without any traditional beauty to it. Often it makes one work very hard, but I don't mind that at all. I don't mind art being difficult and contradictory, so I suppose I can transfer that attitude to visual art and to my own work.
RH: Can you say a bit more about enjoying art being 'hard'?
IF: Maybe 'hard' is the wrong word. Perhaps 'multi-layered' or 'complex' are more appropriate. I don't like to get the 'story' straightaway. Having said that, I'm certainly not in favour of narrative in art."
This seems an important distinction to me: the initial response to Prynne as 'hard', is like saying, "This poetry is like double differential equations, or particle physics, or baking a wedding cake in one sitting, or fixing the engine on a Harrier." Whereas describing the work as multi-layered, or complex, means you can, if you choose, treat it one step at a time.
The responses to Prynne's poetry in this collection of essays is interesting, for the fact that they range from people who have taken several steps through the layers of Prynne's work, to those who have stopped on a particular layer to draw inferences about the whole. My favourite responses are Ian Friend's and Eric Ulman's, both of which take alternative artistic media (visual art and music, respectively) as parallels for understanding Prynne's poetry.
Ian Friend once again:
"I like the density in Prynne's poetry. One is simply aware of a profound intelligence at work. I feel that I am in the presence of an inquiring mind, someone with a curiosity and understanding of a wide range of experience and disciplines. I don't pretend to be in that league intellectually or academically, but I'd like to think that my work is the product of an inquiring and intelligent approach that understands the ramifications of knowledge and in particular of the history and methods and materials of my craft. That sense of inquiry in Prynne urges me on."
So the book becomes a statement not just about poetry, about Prynne's poetry, but something more important: artistic and readership practices, decision-making, self-awareness, motivation. It's life-affirming, mission-affirming. 'This is why I read.' 'This is why I create.'
"Prynne's poetry seems to me exemplary, of a rare fullness and invention. My initial encounters with it have often baffled me, and there are many sequences into which I have as yet only rudimentary insight; but my imperfect understanding mutes neither his work's immediate nor more gradual power. Few poets use language--as sound, as social fact, as historical object, as representation, as manifestation--with such thoroughness and agility. Prynne's works invite and endure exacting attention, in Empson's words, "with undiminished reputation." If much Language poetry takes modernist achievement into a realm of diminishing returns--the complacent impenetrability of a mere 'free play' of surfaces, or the repetitive exposure of the emptiness of social tropes, the poetic 'mainstream' in England and America is striking for the vacuity of its rhetoric and technique. Prynne avoids both culs-de-sac."
What he said, but louder, on every billboard in the country (and OK, I guess, edited into bitesize chunks). Isn't this the point? Once you're aware of the depth of experience you can pass through, as a reader, in certain texts, doesn't that suck the life out of so many other writings? And not merely in terms of the 'camps', types of writing. This is a challenge to the writers of experimental and traditional poetry, prose, whatever: why have you set the bar where you have, in terms of complexity, simplicity, layers of meaning, etc.? Do you, like these musicians and painters, have an awareness of your own process?
Is that even an essential quality? Simon has argued (well, discussed, I'm not in disagreement) with me that we should respect an artist in any medium when they've shown a willingness to acknowledge those giants whose shoulders they stand on. (That's the bitesize chunk for the new G&P side-of-bus posters, but he put it more eloquently than that. Still, I think I owe him an interrogation.)
Important yet again to note Ulman's distinction between the initial, immediate readings of Prynne's poetry and the gradual power that builds as you descend through the layers. There is a sense of more going on, but you don't have to tunnel deeper than you wish to go.
Professor Li Zhimin:
"When one reads Prynne's poems, it is actually unnecessary, not to say impossible, to refer to other poetical works, as all possible quotations from or adoptions of the other works have been assimilated into an organic part of his poems, which stand by themselves. One can just read and enjoy this in whatever way one likes without worrying about the meanings of the 'original'... Prynne has suggested that each word is a history for him, but we do not need to trace the history of every word as Prynne has done before cooking a poem. What a reader needs to do is to enjoy, not to go to the kitchen to see what Prynne has done, and not necessarily to have the abstruse knowledge or skills that Prynne has acquired."
Yes, yes, yes. And bonus points for the cooking metaphor. Why feel you have to 'get' Prynne? Why can't you accept that there's an immediate, initial power that just sits there? 'Getting' Prynne is an impossibility, but also something instantly achieved by anyone who wants to read Prynne with an open mind. You can throw the book across the room if you don't like it. You don't have to get anything there in whole units, in systems of interpretation. The old 'cryptic crossword' mentality is a waste of time, a way of allowing yourself permission to be dumber than you are. Take what you want, and if you don't like what's there, fine. And if some other reader tells you, 'You don't get it!' call them an elitist prick once you've gone to your level and tell them to fuck off. Say why you don't like it. Is it too cold? Too hot? Too analytical? Too Latinate? Too scientific? Do the neologisms make you queasy? Are they neologisms or just obscure/obsolete words? Do you not like reading poetry with a dictionary on your other knee because you lost a leg in an accident on an escalator? That's OK, that's all fine. You have permission to be yourself when you read.
Now I am hungry, and need to re-read Prynne's poetry, because I was unfair on it first time around, because I felt excluded by the Academy. I no longer feel excluded, not because I work in a university, but because I don't care if I don't get it.
A Manner of Utterance is available now from Shearsman. It's an interesting and eclectic collection. Some of the essays are downright odd, or boring. Others are very charged and entertaining, with a playful form, like Richard Humphries' & Ian Friend's discussion. I found Keston Sutherland's essay fairly unreadable; I made it through two pages and thought, "That's enough for me," mainly for reasons of time, but if you read it and get through it, tell me what you think. The book needs a proof-read. Desperately. Some of Li Zhimin's essay is incomprehensible. But that's OK too. This book is kind of unique, and I kind of like that.
And thanks (or blame) to Andrew Bailey for the pun in this article's title.