A Manner of Utterance, ed. Ian Brinton (Exeter: Shearsman, 2009)
No living poet causes quite such a partisan commotion as J. H. Prynne. For some, understanding or at least grappling with his arcane, multivalent, multi-vocal poetry has become a sort of litmus test of avant-gardism: you either ‘get it’ or you don’t – and if you don’t, well, stuff you. For others, the Cambridge don whose poetic beginnings lie adjacent to Edward Dorn, Charles Olson and the Black Mountain School has done little but publish gibberish and bamboozle a readership made gullible by an hysterical psychological weakness for the ‘different’ and ‘new’. On the one hand, Prynne is the reluctant figurehead of a poetic experimentalism which was effectively banished to the margins by Andrew Motion and Blake Morrison’s 1982 convention-defining anthology The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry (which ostentatiously ignored the ‘Cambridge School’ and other leftfield strands into which and from which Prynne’s poetry feeds). On the other, he’s an over-intellectualising con artist who’s probably best left in the woods while the Carol Ann Duffys and Don Patersons of this world get on with writing poetry the public can readily understand.
The truth, of course, is that Prynne is none of these things. Certainly, he is donnish (if donnish means having an active knowledge of an astonishing spectrum of poetry) and, certainly, he writes in a way which makes even the most ‘difficult’ poems in the Motion-Morrison anthology seem almost overly accessible. What, for example, are we to make of this?
Now a slight meniscus floats on the moral
pigment of these times, producing
displacement of the body image, the politic
Well, to be frank, who knows? It’s not exactly Wordsworth. Or Browning. Or even Pound. But, then, here at least, in the opening lines of ‘The Ideal Star-Fighter’ from the 1971 collection Brass, there is a sense of density, of a rightness about the proximity of words like ‘pigment’ and ‘albino’, ‘meniscus’ and ‘image’, ‘body’ and ‘politic’. With adequate time and resources, it seems, you might just be able to tease out what these lines and the rest of the poem are about.
Whether you want to do that, of course, is another matter. And in many ways the message which emerges most clearly from the diverse essays collected in A Manner of Utterance is that if you’re asking what Prynne’s poetry is about, you’re already coming at it from the wrong angle.
Written by a variety of readers and collaborators, these essays are not primarily concerned with elucidating the overarching themes of Prynne’s poetry or tracing the development of his work from the shifting but still fundamentally grounded Kitchen Poems of 1968 to the slippery, unleashed verbiage of 2004’s Blue Slides At Rest. Rather they approach Prynne’s work as a reading experience: the predominant question is not ‘what is this about?’, it is ‘what does it feel like to read it?’ As such, they constitute a more useful introduction to the wild world of Prynne than more conventionally exegetical critiques. How reassuring, after all, to come across statements like Erik Ulman’s: ‘My initial encounters with [Prynne’s poetry] have often baffled me, and there are many sequences into which I have as yet only rudimentary insight.’ And yet how encouraging to find quite so many baffled readers also asserting that, even though they still haven’t reached any kind of rudimentary insight, they believe that the pursuit is going to be worth it in the long run. Unlike that kind of literary criticism which attempts to exhaust the possibilities opened up by poetry, these essays strongly refuse any kind of closure. Like Prynne’s poetry itself, they keep their options open, and are all the better as a result.
Not that there are no traces of exegesis here. Simon Perril’s reading of Prynne’s 1987 collection Bands Around The Throat in ‘Hanging on Your Every Word’, for example, is an entirely convincing and illuminating critical engagement with the surfaces and depths of a peculiarly dense and near-apocalyptic series of poems written in the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster. Whatever Prynne himself might think of the Cambridge discipline of close reading, Perril’s deployment of that technique in combination with contextualising references to geo-political studies of the Chernobyl fall-out brings the poems to life in a way which also illumines their author’s political and poetical displacement. Similarly, Richard Humphreys’ conversations with artist Ian Friend – whose work has included a profound engagement with Prynne’s 1983 collection The Oval Window – draws out and explicates some of the many scientific allusions in Prynne’s work, while Keston Sutherland’s ‘X L Prynne’ usefully questions the ways in which Prynne might be seen as a radical, not simply in terms of his foregrounding of injustice (which is, in fact, one of the supposedly ‘donnish’ poet’s most pressing worldly concerns), but also in relation to his understanding of humanity’s ‘size’, its correlation to the world.
Above all, what these essays bring out are the aesthetic qualities of Prynne’s work, the richness and colour generated by the different voices and vocabularies which cut across it. On the face of it, those cross-cuts render the writing rebarbative, almost hostile to the reader’s interest in or desire for ‘getting something’ from it, but here Brinton and his fellow contributors argue cogently for a different approach, an approach, in fact, which is more relaxed, more forgiving, more hospitable – and more cosmopolitan. As Chinese poet Li Zhi-min points out, reading poetry in the longstanding Chinese tradition involves – indeed, requires – an engagement with the work which might well last a life time: only by repeating and repeating a poem can a reader come anywhere near close to understanding it.
Prynne’s work seems to offer precisely this kind of life-long opportunity. Whether one wants to take up that offer is, of course, up to each individual reader, but the essays Brinton has collected in A Manner of Utterance make for a persuasive argument that, for all the frustrations, bafflements and temptations to waste whole days punching arcane vocabulary into Google, the effort of taking up that offer has its own unique rewards, if only to enable an encounter with a poet whose work could well be described as ‘the/most intricate presence in/our entire culture’. In that sense, at least, Prynne, his readers and his would-be readers are well served.