Ramez Qureshi

J.H. Prynne
Poems
Bloodaxe Books Ltd., 1999, 440 pp.

It has been commonplace to assume that American poetry of this century surpasses its British counterpart, certainly at least when one is speaking of a modernism infused with an avant-garde spirit: America can claim Pound and Williams, the objectivists, any number of schools which constituted the "New American Poetry," and the "Language" poets of the 1970’s; British poets who come to mind may include Jones and Bunting, but few others. Among non-conventional contemporary poets, only Tom Raworth is well-known on this side of the Atlantic, that is, with the exception of J.H. Prynne. The publication of Prynne’s Poems by Bloodaxe introduces Britain’s leading contemporary avant-garde poet to an American audience to whom his work has not readily been available.

Prynne, a Marxist, has done reading tours in the United States with Ed Dorn, and early in his career wrote on Olson’s poetics. With studies of the likes of the projectivists and the Black Mountain school, as well as Celan and Rilke, he found himself among a group of experimental writers during the 1960s (which included John James, Wendy Mulford and Peter Riley) of which he would become the center-piece—the "Cambridge School."

Ever since, Prynne has continued to make it new, be it in conventionally formatted collections, or in chapbooks containing twenty or so poems in a loose sequence, where interpretability resides not in a single poem but in sliding factors which appear and disappear as one reads through the texts. Although this is the closest Prynne will get to radicalism in form, his material qualifies him for anyone’s vanguard.

One aspect of Prynne’s work which jumps off the pages of his life-time work is his utilization of scientific phraseology. One finds, on going through these pages, such phrases as "glandular riot," "polythene lung," "petromorph," "sodium street-lights," "cretaceous ridge," "morainal deposits of the last deglaciation," "liassic beds," "limbic mid-brain system," "geodetic base vectors," "brietal perfusion," "di / methyl hydroxy / thiopentone," "Aliphatic hydro-carbons," "dimercaprol," and "sisal entreaty," to mention a few. Where many poets are content to keep their worlds to ninety-nine things—sun, moon, rose, stone, or river—Prynne captures the full ten thousand, composing in a poetic language that magisterially fuses the colloquial and the erudite, fully one of our times.

Incorporating scientific terminology into his poetic diction serves precise ideological services for Prynne. Prynne has iterated an ars poetica. "The voice sways out of time / into double image, neither one true / a way not seen and not unseen." The materiality of poetic language takes from the materiality of reality, each of whose official truths Prynne attacks, somewhere along the lines of a social constructivist critique. Prynne builds his reality tropically in language, writing in "On the Front":

. . . we are
blown over & suffused with nutrient salts,
cathodized & protected, the threads spin
like a candle.

The materiality of language is an "acrid wavering," put into an "insurgence of form." Yet the insurgence remains at an impasse:

Watch the thin, pat the dry
of course the thing is
this one, this one too

as must be said when
that’s said and done
to set one’s sight thereon

can’t you just see what
in the course of things, a fat lot
one bites one’s lip right through.

The impasse of holding a deformed mirror—however better than the average writer’s—up to an invisible, not completely known, reality is central to Prynne’s ideological understandings. The scientific language of his mirror, interestingly, divides into foci on human biology and geology, on the actual material subject and material dwelling of humanity, micro- and macrocosmic Marxian gestures.

Prynne is often explicit about his politics. Indeed, the first book in this collection, Kitchen Poems (the second of his career) reads like a position paper as key in/to his later work. "Die a Millionaire" attacks capitalist enterprise and its injustices which "the current chic / of information theory will tell you how / many bits of that commodity it takes to / lift one foot/lb. of shit to a starving mouth." "Sketch for a Financial Theory of the Self" examines the instrumental treatment of the subject by the "system." Prynne reaches new levels of excellence in the remarkable The White Stones of 1969, which begins with "Airport Poem: Ethics of Survival," a poem suggesting that

The music, that it should
          leave, is far down
     in the mind
just as if the years were part of the
same sound, prolonged into the latent
action of the heart.

The subject is a dignified one, poetically so, but the "system" remains callous. In "If There is a Stationmaster at Stamford S.D. Hardly So" Prynne takes issue with the invasion of Vietnam. "Moon Poem" hopes for a collective will, "A community of wish," recalling Marx and Lukacs on class consciousness, and concludes with the beautiful, "These are psalms for the harp and the shining / stone: the negligence and still passion of the night," so that the possibilities for social change are concomitant with nature. "Discovery. . . That this could really be so & of use is my present politics," writes Prynne in "First Notes on Daylight," Prynne the poet as scientist as unveiler of reality. Prynne returns to social progress later in the collection, seeing current indications as hope for future change, a marxian extrapolation, writing, "we are ready for this, the array is there in the figure we name brother" in "In Cimmerian Darkness." One’s only complaint is the possible over-use of the first person plural, which may become tendentious.

Prynne eventually mellows out in his political concerns. A brilliant "Note on Metal" has been included in this collection, a tour-de-force essay on how coins have collected exchange-value over human history. After this piece, in the 1970s Prynne’s political outrages are recast, and by the 1980s have devolved into subjects and personae as victims, not necessarily of overtly political aggravations. Early signs of this show up in The White Stones: in "Questions for the Time Being" the persona broods over "the temporary nothing in which life goes on." Such a persona resurfaces: "Nearly too much / is, well, nowhere near enough" complains the speaker in the 1979 chapbook "Down Where Changed," who later complains of "the whole / falling short" and ill health: "lately poor eyes." In the 1993 chapbook, "Not You," the persona weighs "to suit no less either than just bearing." The epigraph to "Wound Response" is a paragraph from a scientific monograph Touch, Heat and Pain: Prynne pushes dissatisfaction to levels of corporeal extremes. At times he seems almost Shamanistic, creating personae, from and to whom one can introject or project therapeutically, all the while subverting any monological authoritarianism.

Prynne pairs his social vision with a healthy vision of nature; one thinks of Adorno and Horkheimer’s campaign for rightfully understanding the relationship between the two. In "The Western Gate," from The White Stones, Prynne writes of the "The gleam" of the night’s stars, "history, desire for a night sky / during the day too, since the stars circle the hills & / our motives without reproach." Nature is understood materially as humanity’s dwelling-place. In "Against Hurt," Prynne writes:

We love the brief night, for its
quick passing, the relative ease as
we slide into comfort and
the trees grow and
grow.

Again Prynne understands humanity leaving in peace with nature, at once part of and sealed from it. His nature writing sometimes sears with lyricism: take "All the milky quartz of that sky, pink and / retained, into the sun," evoking the aura of a master Impressionist. Prynne the nature-poet is not just a Marxist capturing the materiality of the world and championing a non-dominating view of nature. He is also a Romantic understanding subject and object, in the tradition of Wordsworth, but this too partakes of the politics of his vision. Take, "The forest, of stars. The roads, some grey. . . The light will do all this, to / love is the last resort, you / must know, I will tell / you, this, love, is / the world," an ultimate Romantic synthesis.

There is more to the side of Prynne that is a traditional lyricist. Unafraid to lift the hem, he happens to be a modern erotic poet of the first order, and this only expands his vision. His words can blaze with eroticism:

Where we go is a loved side of the temple
a place for repose, a concrete path.
There’s no mystic moment involved . . . love is
when, how &
because we do

he writes in "The Holy City," naturalizing sexuality. He understands the neediness of desire; take:

love the set, tight, the life
the land lie & fall, between
also the teeth, love the
forgetfulness of man which
is our prime notion of praise:

imperfection is expected, but the pleasures of love are not suppressed. Such a view surfaces throughout his opus: in 1994’s Her Weasels Wild Returning, Prynne writes,

Light distracted from its vent holding will so
grace a line blunted . . . Save whom
in fancy sent away, both will do if as by choice
made ready for vocals. Now washing the front place
quickly, speak to her: on tap here, here, here.

Prynne’s sexuality is not merely a romanticism; it is also a chief part of what Jameson might call cognitive mapping: his synthesizing vision of reality. Time too plays its role in Prynne’s world: "I love you / so, here but how long again, the / history of what we allow, are per- / mitted to have" he writes in the appropriately titled "Just So." Nevertheless it is a lovely world, of "wild flames / feeding from the / star in the forehead." Prynne does not hesitate to bring his materialist scientific sensibility into the world of desire, bold as he is, can write, "Heavy Metal then is the storm / of a sexual fury," in his brilliant chapbook High Chrome on Pink.

As mentioned above, one can easily divide Prynne’s work, on a formal basis, in two: there are the conventional poems, and the innovative sequences of the chapbooks. This volume also includes previously uncollected poems, two essays, and several poems in Chinese. When Prynne is not experimenting in the chapbooks he is subverting the formally based structures he chooses to write in by means of subject matter and linguistic material, often presented indeterminately. Prynne is a visionary, a visionary of reality, one of those rare poets who is able to recast reality in very fabric of his words. This volume, released at the end of a great century of poetry, indicates that the politically radical aesthetic and possibilities of making it new are not yet exhausted.

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