Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Monday, 12 January 2009

"Nearly Too Much: The Poetry of J.H. Prynne" by N.H.Reeve and Richard Kerridge (Liverpool University Press, 1995)

"The project of this book ... is to mediate between this radicalism and the more familiar ways of organising discourse it so thoroughly rejects" (p.viii). I applaud their intentions, but I'd query some of their assumptions regarding what readers find difficult about Prynne's work. The authors could, for example, have surveyed 100 poetry readers to find out. The book starts by dealing with alienating devices (shifts of scale and inclusion of non-poetic discourse in particular). I don't have too much trouble with such devices. Indeed, I wish Prynne would adopt a prose essay style sometimes. Instead, the authors derive conclusions that I can't follow rather than tackle what to me are the more problematic areas of alienation.

  • Here's an out-of-context quote with their attempted paraphase (also taken out of context) "No/ poetic gabble will survive which fails/ to collide head on with the unwitty circus" (p.6) - In order to survive, poetry has to 'collide' with the powerful instrumental discourses of the culture (smashing them into pieces) (p.7). So does this mean that gabble will survive as long as it crashes? Why "unwitty circus"? And doesn't "head on" suggest an explicitly intellectual confrontation? Isn't a street accident (where poetry, we later discover, is the more vulnerable party) a misleading metaphor?
  • The problem that I have with "the greed of ambition/ swimming in great seismic shocks through/ the beds of our condition" (p.16) is not that "an emotion or emotional idea, like ambition or hope, is talked about as a fluctuating chemical quantity or an agitation of physical particles" (after all, "all hope drained from him" is a common enough phrase). In fact, the example doesn't really illustrate that, it's more an example of a multiply-mixed metaphor that to me means less than the sum of its parts.
  • On p.87 they write "The curt epigrammatic brilliance of a line like 'Love holds me to the mallet path' produces a brief elation, arising in part from the sense that epigram itself speaks from a reserve of invisible, private but somehow adumbrated experience" Brilliance? What is "mallet path"? Does epigram do what they say it does? Isn't it as often someone showing-off or being glib?

In these examples they attempt to explain a sentence by picking out a few words, seemingly at random, and associating those with a theme, failing to note that the forgotten words don't support (or even conflict with) the theme. I'd guess they'd say that this is how Prynne ironises or problemises the reading.

Some interpretations seem inaccurate to me.

  • "the mention of oil (Prynne often plays on the double sense of 'spirit')" (p.21) - but spirit is alcohol, not oil, isn't it? If Prynne's being both sloppy and allusive I'm going to have trouble.
  • Discussing "Landing Area" they say "the staff assisting at some kind of surgical operation. 'Make a new blood count' makes this explicit." (p.19), but the poem seems more likely to involve a consultant doing the rounds in an expensive private hospital - blood-counts aren't done or discussed in operating rooms, are they? They say that "Later a 'bypass' is mentioned", but the quote is "on the bypass" not (e.g.) "for the bypass" which would keep the ambiguity open. Later "the poem reveals itself to be about a moment of death" they say (p.22). Well maybe a death, but why a moment? Why the title?
  • They say that "Prynne's poetry is perhaps the first to address seriously the cultural impact of computerised information exchange" (p.135, echoed in the blurb). Well maybe, but when they're talking about arrays in a computer program on p.155 they write "If more subscripts are fed in than there are locations available, the programme may crash". I know what they mean, but the phrasing's suspect.
  • On p.148 they write "From the first of its twenty-seven sections The Oval Window has an unmistakable drive ... The opening lines have a pace missing [from his previous book]". The first lines are "The shut inch lively as pin grafting/leads back to the gift shop, at a loss/ for two-ply particles". It's all relative I suppose.

For me, too much of the symbolism's unrealisable - words combine in a way that the associated objects or actions can't. And I can't see the wood for the trees - yes I know I shouldn't expect a wood, but phrases like "unwitty circus" seem dense in a Geoffrey Hill way, inviting Empsonian close-reading.

I think the authors have problems describing many of the effects because they're minor, weak (or subtle, if you wish), and don't merit the number of words and reader-effort required to produce them. The shifts of tone - from emotional to lofty moral to material - are combined with shifts of scale and viewpoint (flipping between insides and outsides of systems) and with quotes and asides (sometimes ironic, sometimes interruptive and unabsorbed) to produce various uncertainties - a feeling that a word's on the tip of your tongue, a feeling that someone's bringing closure to a story you've somehow sleep through, etc. Just as we think we've "got it", it moves on - ah, so like life. And of course the effects in themselves aren't new, though they may be described impressively - "the turns of the line-ends enact the constant slippage of what looked secure, underpin the engagement with a problematically intermediate position between statis and permanent flow" (p.64)

Prynne added some notes to 'Aristeas, In Seven Years'. Apparently "these references turn out to be extremely helpful in elucidating passages of the text which would otherwise appear all but impenetrable" (p.69-70). So I'm not alone. On p.27 they write "What is required of the reader who wishes to cross the frontier and reach the poetry is a suspension of the conscious search for meaning" but I haven't the trust, and besides, the book charts many conscious searches for meaning - just how much should one suspend?

The Kristeva section is beyond me too - not really the authors' fault.

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