Thursday, November 15, 2007

Prynne & pleasure; incoming

What with J. away in Phoenix for a drama conference, I'm one day into a four-day stint of single parenting, & am thus far just plain exhausted. Not necessarily in a bad way – some of the day's events have been very pleasant indeed, & the weather at least is cooperating by not being godawfully hot (which in South Florida is still more than possible in mid-November).
Among the great stacks of unsifted mail I find the latest Chicago Review (53:2/3), which I'd opened and briefly glanced at. Too briefly, it turns out, for I find to my delight that this issue publishes the hitherto unpublished Book V of Ronald Johnson's Radi os, as edited by Johnson's executor the estimable Peter O'Leary. I can't wait to read it – but it'll have to wait till tomorrow, when I'm a bit less bleary.
Tonight in the graduate poetry workshop I pretend to lead (moderate? ride herd on?) a student did a stunning presentation on JH Prynne's Furtherance, turning up all sorts of riches that I hadn't yet uncovered in my own readings of the book. That in itself was delightful, especially in contrast to what I'd been reading lately myself (in addition to the big Bloodaxe Prynne Poems), NH Reeve & Richard Kerridge's Nearly Too Much: The Poetry of JH Prynne (Liverpool UP, 1995).

This, I will admit, is my 3rd assault on the book – the 3rd time I've started to read it; the previous two attempts have petered out somewhere in the second chapter. It's by no means a stupid book – quite the contrary – nor is it poorly written: indeed, it's marked by a refreshing lucidity. But once again I'm reminded of why I've started and abandoned the book twice now, & am unsure whether I'll get thru it this time. R&K, that is, pay far too little attention to the phenomenology of reading Prynne; while they give an obligatory nod to the notion that JHP is notoriously "difficult," they entirely ignore the reaction that the average reader – & even the average reader of modernist & late modernist poetry – has to work of such obduracy: a reaction, that is, of boredom, of resentment, of grudging labor, ultimately perhaps of abandonment. In short, they spend precisely no time exploring or discussing what sorts of pleasure Prynne's poetry might offer.

I for one value Prynne's work very highly indeed. While I came to it relatively late – I think I bought my first Prynne book, a little second-hand copy of High Pink on Chrome, around 1992 or so – I've always taken a particular pleasure (perhaps in part masochistic) in the dense & shifting textures of his poetry. And I know a lot of people who do likewise.

But Reeve & Kerridge, in their intelligent but profoundly dispassionate analysis of Prynne, fail utterly to present any reasons, apart from the intellectual unpacking of the verse*, why anyone who isn't already committed to the poet would want to read JHP's work. It's true, one doesn't have to make such an argument for Pound, or Joyce, or perhaps even Zukofsky – at least not now – but in the first book devoted to a "notoriously difficult" writer, the failure to make any sort of partisan appeal to pleasure strikes me as a significant misstep. Maybe that appeal's just yet to come, somewhere in chapter 3 or 4. But that'll be too late for non-Prynnites, I'm afraid.

*R & K's actual readings of Prynne's poems, so far as I've read, too rarely go beyond the "let's see what kind of sense can be made of these lines" move – ie, let's see how we can try to translate them into something resembling a coherent line of discourse. Sorry, gentlemen, but I can do that sort of work on my own – & end up liking my naturalizations better than yours.


Nicholas Manning said...

I know what you mean Mark, but I'm also sympathetic to the Reeve & Kerridge reluctance not to laboriously elaborate on how such difficulties do exist, but how there is also something beyond them and within them, and thus we must always maintain our critical awareness of such readerly barriers by constantly incorporating them into our own interpretative schemas etc.

I mean, are we supposed to write, for a vast number of contemporary poets, a specific apologia of semantic or interpretative difficulty? Perhaps R & K precisely feel that this battle has been fought too many times. It’s sometimes irritating for me, for instance, to pick up any of the most recent university press Celan monographies, and to find space which could have been so profitably devoted to syntactic or prosodic or thematic analyses instead taken up by “the Mallarméan heritage of obscurity”. Same goes for books on Mallarmé himself! It often makes me think that I’ve enrolled for chess lessons, only to have my teacher spend several hours saying: “you know, you’ll need to overcome a lot of barriers and difficulties in your learning of chess.”

So, wouldn’t demanding this indeed important contextualization be rather like having to predicate, for every contemporary argument about epistemology, a Cartesian disclaimer? That is, most people know that such a disclaimer already exists, and that people have different positions regarding it, so let's move on? I figure that is, in any case, the reasoning behind the R & K move. I don’t think it’s entirely convincing, but I get why one might choose that path. It’s different of course if you’re teaching Prynne, where I suppose the Prof is supposed to initially warn about these interpretative gaps.

It’s all representative though of one of the primary problems in interpretative strategies in the wake of the (near-)death of New Critical apparati. It’s like we’re nostalgic for what we “used to be able to talk about”, when in fact that itself isn’t as clear as Empson or Richards once felt! And that's probably where the R & K desperate dig for "meaning" in Prynne - the, as you put it, "let's see what kind of sense can be made of these lines move" - starts to look very limited.

It’s what Ashbery pointed too years ago in saying that criticism of the postmodern poem was increasingly impossible. And yet look at the Ashbery-industry! Perloff was right not to be convinced by Ashbery, because we can of course still talk about myriad formal, procedural and semantic effects, although close-reading strategies – or indeed any readerly strategies – do need to complexly take account of the development of poetry, and its happy outstripping of the development of criticism.

But that’s why I’m over the “difficulty” prefacing. Readers know barriers when they see them. Before you get into an airplane, do you really need to be told you’re going to fly?

E. M. Selinger said...


An interesting comment, Nicholas, and one which reminds me of the various and quite disparate agendas of literary criticism nowadays.

As a professor (like Mark), I deal on a daily basis with skeptical or indifferent readers--and the older I get, I suppose the more I am one myself. My students haven't enrolled for chess lessons; rather, they've been forced to take them. I haven't enrolled for chess lessons, in Prynne's case. I have so many competing demands on my time--so many other poets to read, so many other pleasures to pursue--that if I open a book about P's work, the first thing I want it to do is to convince me that it's worth enduring the initial phase of (to quote Mark) "boredom, resentment, grudging labor, ultimately perhaps abandonment."

Life is short. Why should I bother? That's a question I'd like to see answered. You, on the other hand, have already come to an answer to that, and are ready for something else. Fair enough. But I'll move on--and, as a result, R & K and Prynne as well have lost a potential reader. No great loss, I suppose, but a small one, worth noting as we pass.

L.T.R.G. said...

"... the reaction [of] the average reader ... a reaction, that is, of boredom, of resentment, of grudging labor, ultimately perhaps of abandonment."

Is this really true? For me, at least, Prynne's work is a breeze when compared to, say, Auden, with whom I experience a continuous struggle for 'correct' interpretation. With Prynne, I feel liberated from the tyranny of semantics; criticism becomes necessarily creative.

P.S. I found this post via a search engine. Quite a coincidence that it was posted so recently.

Mark Granier said...

I haven't read enough Prynne to comment at any length. The handful of poems I have read (or begun to read in a few cases) have left me largely cold; the language seemed flat, the juxtapositions uninteresting. But I am someone who gets stumped by cryptic crosswords, and so doesn't take any pleasure in them, or in poetry that reminds me of crossword clues.

But I am curious that L.T.R.G. experiences in reading Auden's work "a continuous struggle for 'correct' interpretation". Sure, Auden can be difficult and allusive. But his greatest poems (the ones that stay with me anyway) persuade by virtue of their rhythms, imagery etc. (and also daring): "Poetry makes nothing happen", "The words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living", or this, about The Old Masters:

"They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree."

Jesus, who cares about "interpretation"? Do you worry about the meanings while listening to Dylan's 'Desolation Row'? It is all there, in the bloody music and poetry. Just give yourself permission to ENJOY!