Wednesday, 22 October 2008


‘Buxtehude in kedgeree’: on J.H. Prynne’s Unanswering Rational Shore (Glasgow: Object Permanence, 2001)

Emmanuel Levinas has written: ‘The rift between the rational order and events, the mutual impenetrability of minds as opaque as matter, the multiplication of logical systems each of which is absurd for the other, the impossibility of the I rejoining the you, and consequently the unfitness of understanding for what should be its function—these are things we run up against in the twilight of the world, things which reawaken the ancient obsession with an end of the world’ [Existence and Existents, trans. Alfonso Lingis (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1978), p.21]. Expressions such as ‘a world in pieces’ or ‘a world turned upside down’, trite though they are, succeed nonetheless in expressing something of what poetry is, or has become, in a time when the ancient obsession with the end reawakens in a darkening world: poetry has its place on the outside, on the hither side, of whatever it is that orders and gives meaning to how things are. It sustains what Heidegger has called the rift between earth and world, where the earthly character of a work shows itself when the work in question foregrounds what it is made of, appearing opaque, and resistant to clarification, shattering every attempt to penetrate into it, and subverting all merely calculating importunity. Earth shrinks from the domination of mastery, inasmuch as it shrinks from disclosure, revealing itself only to the one who is attentive to the elsewhere of undisclosure.

Jeremy Prynne writes:

Why don’t you try a globe for ripeness, this one
where the ore rifles through veins all fossil eyes
ahead, try me my keeper at key at bay contracted,
fingering fair play for fixed pay, tone on blank.

This is not a poetry of ideas, or of words. Prynne’s lines evoke something not unlike the kind of precarious balance of which Maurice Blanchot was so accomplished an exponent: ‘[the poem] is the point from which words begin to become their appearance, and the elemental depth upon which this appearance is opened while at the same time it closes’ [The Space of Literature, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982), p. 223]. For example, the play of repeated sounds in the first line, the ‘o’ of don’t and globe, the ‘y’ or ‘i’ of why, try and ripe, the echo of ess in is, establish patterns of auditory repetition, of similarity and contrast, that are extended as new elements are added—such as bay and play and pay, in lines three and four, where play becomes an element explicitly situated within the series it generates. The process exemplified here is a principle that informs the poetry as a whole. Local repetition is augmented to generate a double movement, whose going forward is also a folding back on itself, the enactment of which reveals or uncovers words in their palpability, in the fact of their existence as words, so that the reader is brought to experience them as external to, or other than, what they are as bearers of meaning. Language seems to take on a presence beyond itself: it stands, as it were, on this side, the hither side, of itself. In the passage quoted, the sense of movement or displacement of language beyond itself is reinforced by the allusion in the first line, via ripeness, globe and one, to ‘Ripeness is all’, ore and all in line two echoing and lending it their support. ‘Globe’ also supports the Shakespearian and theatrical reference, even as it connects ‘world’ to the implications of ‘all’ (‘All the world’s a stage’). However, the ‘all’ in question here is a totality the language of the poem is poised to split itself off from. The space the lines are trying to reach is not the space of another world, but a space which is the other of the world as such. They seek to open, not to what lies within the world or what is possible, but to the non-identical, the impossible, where the world is estranged from itself and ‘where the poem is exile, and the poet who belongs to it belongs to the dissatisfaction of exile’ [The Space of Literature, p. 237]. Prynne is employing one of the paradoxical tropes central to modernism, and making that fact evident as he does so.

Unanswering Rational Shore comprises a series of unnumbered pages composing a sequence of fourteen fourteen-line poems, each poem divided by a space into two stanzas or blocks of seven lines each [J.H. Prynne, Unanswering Rational Shore (Glasgow: Object Permanence, 2001)]. The book itself is divided into two groups of seven poems, with a blank page separating the groups. It is a patterning that, perhaps, the epigraph of the book—lo mismo//lo mismo—serves to prepare for. The text is notable also for the absence of the word ‘I’. This latter feature, together with the repetition of the same announced in the epigraph, as well as the general lay-out, intimates something of how the book offers itself to be read: insofar as it initiates anything as decisive as a movement from one point to another, the movement so initiated is a series of beginnings without sequence, or, as Blanchot would have it, beginnings whose only movement is a return that starts over again, a restless dissemination of beginnings or fragments. ‘Elastic bravery tell your friends, profile margins/dilate the soft annular parallax.’ Marked as standing outside the laws of identity and the logic of the same, Prynne’s text conforms to a conception of poetry as that which ‘revokes the true, eludes signification, designating that region where nothing subsists’. It is the site of ‘the exterior darkness where man withstands that which the true must negate in order to become possibility and progress’ [The Space of Literature, p. 237]. Whereas discourse expressive of truth typically takes the form of propositions, whose structure can be fixed in advance, this is writing that would have us see it as errant and excessive. It is a poetry of exile, of wandering, and ‘where the wanderer is, the conditions of a definitive here are lacking’. The wanderer’s country, the dwelling-place of the nomad, is not a place of truth, but the abandonment of place altogether: such a figure ‘remains outside, on the hither side, apart’ [The Space of Literature, p. 238]. While reading Prynne’s book, one is made aware of language as though one were this side of it, this side of the process of its being uttered. Rather than passing through it to what is said or meant, one is struck by the visibility and fleshliness of it, as the event of it occurs in the here and now, in the singularity of the one, unique, repeatable, and unrepeatable, moment of it.

All the fun of the pit gets well and then better,
sand spun off as yet to bind promise to tap up
one clock via another, either to both, sky-divers
like swallows gorging their young.

The effect of the sudden contrast between the sharp and focussed simile attached to the sky-divers and the surrounding displacements of meaning is to make the physical shape of the language emerge or arise as it were out of the possibilities of significance, and as this takes place one comes to experience in that same emergence the poetry in its solitariness. That is, words and utterances come to the fore as being freed from, or having failed to acquire, any context of significant use, so that the poetry never quite achieves sense or direction. The impression given is of a missed encounter with an endlessly deferred meaning that is always on the verge of departing, or is on the very edge of arriving, so that one is suspended as a reader in the curious interval between the two. What movement there is is not towards repose or conclusion or an achieved realisation. The manner of it is errant, nomadic, effecting a traversal of space, but a space that is surface, not volume. Paul Celan has spoken of art as ‘going beyond what is human, stepping into a realm which is turned toward the human, but uncanny—the realm where the monkey, the automatons and with them . . . oh, art, too, seem to be at home’ [Collected Prose, trans. Rosemary Waldrop (Manchester: Carcanet, 1999), pp. 42-43]. The lines from the stanza quoted above continue:

In staple pairs
all so sudden with a tumult, written for nothing
to skip a beat, break open the shells; dexter risen
forward, new zonal application as leaf by shaded

leaf glows with wanting itself so. None other for
both or neither, before this after that, hall-way of
desire in fairest placement rising.

The poem endorses the freedom implicit in the refusal of death and negation, seeking escape from confinement within totality and the world and assigning no name to what there is in the ‘hall-way of/desire in fairest placement rising’. Eschewing the dialectic, based as it is on the name and the fatality of the name, it offers a letting-be or letting-go of beings, releasing them, not from the subject of desire, but the subject of mastery. The realm of such writing is the uncanny—disclosed in their separation from essence, identity or ground, and no longer subject to category and concept, beings are no longer negated, or denied their singularity. These lines conclude the poem, and the book:

As brood so on
donation true to tint momentous, all is too hardly
much to clear unaided: hot justice pleading for penalty
in a rigged-up camp of love, courtship plays requited
and branded so faintly at implicit final appeal.

The notion of ‘play’ in all its complexity is internal to the uncanny, thus understood. Words like requited and branded shift between past participle and noun depending on their relation to the line end, so that courtship plays and is played between them, just as the love that is requited or returned is also revenged, branded, and yet all is done so faintly it results only in an implicit final appeal, which is all the answer there is to the earlier pleas of hot justice for penalty (connotations of games and play run through the whole passage). Taken in this way, as the non-identical, an event of language irreducible to anything other than the specific emphases of syntax, alliteration and assonance that compose it, the poem ends without ending, ‘branded so faintly at implicit final appeal’, allowing the reader no sure foothold on the slopes of conventional interpretation. The writing here is working through a process of articulating a sense of itself, not so much as an expressive poetry of response, but as the responsibility of response—of courtship, and so of love—as between text and reader, reader and text. The difficulty in coming to terms with this is that it involves a sustained avoidance of whatever would reduce it to mediation or expression, a stance that leaves it withdrawn, outside the alternatives of subject and object, self and other, as though it were seeking to stand on its own, contained within the very self-divisions of which it is itself the origin.

Prynne’s work is sometimes seen in relation to that of Charles Olson, and his attempts to transform poetic language into language experienced or undergone as the ‘projective act’ of the instant and not thought about the instant, an act no prior concepts of coherence are imposed upon, or preconceived limits laid down for. By attending to the syllable and a pre-logical, paratactic syntax, Olson believed he could recover an archaic, pre-Socratic vitality in which the poet’s creativity would be nothing other than a fusion with the unceasing flow of creation itself, and the poem a natural event embodying and releasing the cosmic forces of which both it and the poet are a part:

If [the poet] is contained within his nature as he is participant in the larger force, he will be able to listen, and his hearing, through himself will give him secrets objects share . . . It is in this sense that . . . the artist’s act in the larger field of objects, leads to dimensions larger than the man. For a man’s problem, the moment he takes up speech in all its fullness, is to . . . cause the thing he makes to try to take its place alongside the things of nature. [Selected Writings of Charles Olson, ed. Robert Creeley (New York: New Directions, 1966), p. 25.]

Olson’s claim is that certain syntactic relationships, certain ways of attending to sound and syllable, are more authentic than modern sentence forms based, supposedly, on the subject/predicate structure. It is these more authentic relationships of internal patterning that he finds in the grammars of certain Native American languages, and in the spatio-temporal paradigms of Homeric narrative. However, objections have been raised to this proposal: ‘Like the Fenellosan Pound, Olson pursues a language of nature beneath the language of convention, tracking down the raw, uncooked real in the tradition of American poetry’s obsession with the hieroglyphic and its promise of an archaic, “picturesque” or emblematic, language’ [Andrew Ross, The Failure of Modernism: Symptoms of American Poetry (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), p. 100]. The problem is that some kind of identity must be presupposed between the form of the real and the form of the poem’s ‘language of nature’, if the poem is to be, as Olson puts it, ‘equal . . . to the real itself’. Propositions purporting to assert an identity between the logical form of language and the logical form of the external world may well be nonsensical. Certainly, any inclination to think that the logic or grammar informing our use of words to say what we mean to say is in some manner derived from, or justified by, an appeal to extra-linguistic reality is misconceived. But, putting these disquiets to one side, the fact is that Prynne’s writing in Unanswering Rational Shore gives no grounds for thinking that it is based on assumptions similar to Olson’s.

Olson’s method depends upon him defining and positioning objects and places, while Prynne undertakes no such thing. Indeed, the poem seems to parody definition:

Petrol in search of flame hardly a ham sand-
wich, where the draft pulls out neither fear nor
care less, any cap provokes lateral adventure call
it tip to tip brownfield rematch.

Rather than definition, what we get is that ‘cunning intertexture of identical and contrasting features’, which, as an effect of the selection and constellation of phonemes and their components, Roman Jakobson saw as integral to the poetic function [Language in Literature, ed. Krystyna Pomorska and Stephen Rudy (Cambridge, MA, and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987), p. 426]. Prynne discusses Jakobson’s notions of the poetic and his critique of Saussure’s ideas on the arbitrary nature of the sign in Stars, Tigers and the Shape of Words (London: Birkbeck College, 1993)]. The lines develop in ‘lateral adventure’ a variety of series (such as the one going from petrol to flame to draft, cap, call and rematch), which bring to the fore the process whereby words, selected on the basis of their similarity and contrast, engender the combinations, the lines or stanzas, in which they occur. The series articulate and enact the otherness or lack of the process that engenders them. This, for Jakobson, is what the poetic function amounts to. He defines it as follows: ‘The selection is produced on the basis of equivalence, similarity and dissimilarity, synonymy and antonymy, while the combination, the build-up of the sequence, is based on contiguity. The poetic function projects the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection into the axis of combination’ [Language in Literature, p. 71]. The poetic function, Jakobson argues, promotes the palpability of signs, and so deepens the fundamental dichotomy of signs and objects, an occurrence fundamental to the letting-be of beings. Seen against this background, Prynne’s writing may be said to actualise, not those discriminations of sameness and difference that Olson so exactingly attends to, but an irreducible process of projection, aiming at nothing other than a situating of itself in the here and now of the one who reads.

In their book on Prynne, N.H. Reeve and Richard Kerridge discuss the significance for his later work of his engagement with Chinese poetry. Drawing on his account of the ‘Palace Style Poetry’ of the Southern Dynasties, published as a postscript to Anne Birrell’s translation of the anthology New Songs from a Jade Terrace, they note the centrality to the poetry of absence and separation. The subjects and intended readers of the poems are women, kept apart, by convention, distance and the difficulties of travel, from their lovers. Lonely, isolated, gazing out from their windows for some sign of their absent lovers, they are confined within a world of cosmetic surfaces, and subjected to the strict control of highly ritualised forms of life.

Emotions whose real targets are absent are displaced onto precious and symbolic objects; Prynne comments in his critical study on what he calls the ‘window/mist/curtain/screen/mirror cycle, in which hidden feeling is variously projected metonymically upon the screens which hide it' [Nearly Too Much: The Poetry of J.H. Prynne (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1995), p. 180. The quotation from Prynne is cited by Reeve and Kerridge from his postscript to New Songs from a Jade Terrace, trans. Anne Birrell (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986), p. 374].

The replacement of the lost object in this way is not the operation of disavowal constitutive of fetishism, but a metonymic displacement proper to the projective act integral to the poetic function —a conception of that act far from what Fenellosa and Pound (or Olson) were after in their dealings with Chinese writing. A closer approximation than theirs to Prynne’s understanding of it (and to his own poetic practice), may be found in Jakobson’s essay, ‘Grammatical Parallelism’, where he endorses J.R. Hightower’s view that in Chinese poetry there is ‘an underlying pattern or series of patterns’ onto which ‘more subtle forms of grammatical and phonic parallelism introduce their counterpoint, a series of stresses and strains’ [Language in Literature, p. 171. The remarks in question are citations from an essay by James R. Hightower]. Jakobson notes elsewhere that ‘in the Chinese metrical tradition the level tones prove to be opposed to the deflected tones as long tonal peaks of syllables to short ones, so that verse is based on the opposition of length and shortness’ [Language in Literature, p. 74]. That is, adapting Prynne’s idiom, grammatical and metrical parallelisms can be said to establish the metonymic patterning of the poetry as itself the screen onto which hidden feeling is projected, while being, at one and the same time, the screen that hides it. It is perhaps not too much to say that Prynne’s texts in Unanswering Rational Shore are acts of a similar projective intent, whose double nature is illuminated by Blanchot’s comment, cited near the start of this essay: ‘[the poem] is the point from which words begin to become their appearance, and the elemental depth upon which this appearance is opened while at the same time it closes’. The enclosed, interior world of the Chinese women whose condition Prynne considers in his postscript is a place no less of exile and otherness—a space of literature—than that prepared by Prynne himself for the reader of his book.

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