Monday, March 03, 2014

Love and the gene pool

I'm still recovering from the party we held on Saturday to celebrate Aneirin's second birthday. Although the event was more or less alcohol-free, much to the disappointment of certain adult guests, and was over by five o'clock, when our son and his mates had chased, fought, dug, and splashed themselves to early bedtimes, it has left me more hungover than any of the all-night boozy bashes of my youth.

I spent much of Saturday afternoon jogging around our back garden, going from the sandpit to the paddling pool to the plum trees and back again, mediating in disputes over cones of ice cream, repairing diggers and air planes whose gears had become jammed by half-eaten lollipops, and reprimanding Aneirin for his habit of hurling handfuls of sand at anybody who challenged his control of the pit. When I wasn't attending to these official and solemn duties I attempted to follow a labyrinthine conversation - two of its recurring topics seemed to be Tongan politics and the proper rearing of pigs - between Paul Janman, Taniela Vao, and Hamish Dewe.

I mention all this in the hope that I can get away with posting a poem here, in place of the sort of worthy piece of prose with which more serious and organised bloggers like to begin the week.

Last year I posted a couple of excerpts from the little anthology of poems about kids that Cerian and I put together as a Christmas present for relatives and friends. In the era of facebook, many people are daily confronted by scores of photos of disgustingly cute youngsters - grandchildren, cousins, nephews, nieces, and the offspring of friends and acquaintances and workmates and celebrities - but Cerian and I figured that if we paired our photos of Aneirin and his mates with pieces of fine literature then we might make our product stand out in a crowded marketplace.

We argued, of course, about which texts to include in our publication. Cerian was keen on a poem by the legendary Welsh boozer Dylan Thomas, while I demanded something by his abstemious and under-rated countryman and namesake, the Reverend RS Thomas. I was determined to include one of Geoffrey Hill's Mercian Hymns, a series of thirty prose poems in which memories of the poet's 1940s childhood in Worcestershire leak into dreams of King Offa, who ruled the English Midlands a millennium and a quarter ago, but Cerian was initially dismayed by the bizarre and macabre phrases - 'Thor, butcher of strawberries' and the like - that punctuate Hill's hymns.

I was able to get RS Thomas and Geoffrey Hill into our anthology, but the door remained closed to one of the poems I'd proposed, JH Prynne's eerie 'Acquisition of Love'.

Prynne is not a poet I normally enjoy. He has lived and taught for decades in the picturesque and neurotic town of Cambridge, where a circle of explicator-disciples has gathered around him. In long essays published in academic journals and on blogs, Prynne's admirers carefully separate and analyse the various discourses - economic, biological, meteorological, metallurgical - that grow together in his hedge-like texts. A typical Prynne poem might begin with some notes on the prehistoric pollen spores that were discovered inside an artefact disinterred from the Cambridgeshore Fens by archaeologists, then turn without warning into an account of the problems of building a centrally planned economy in Soviet Mongolia, then look up at the heavens, and describe the counter-clockwise movements of clouds above one of Cambridge's dreary dreaming spires, then return, without any explanation, to that flint-shard pulled from the bog.
I can appreciate the range of Prynne's reading and his disregard for literary propriety, but I often find his poems a little cool. I wonder, all too often, whether a Prynne poem really needed to be written, or whether it was merely intended as data to be crunched by one of the poet's PhD students.

In 'Acquisition of Love', though, one can figuratively and literally hear Prynne's heart beating. The poem, which Prynne published in the 1969 volume The White Stones, investigates the state of anxious joyousness known as parenthood. Sitting on the front step of his home attempting to mend a lawn mower, surrounded by his curious children, Prynne ponders, in his restlessly erudite way,  the relationship between an emotion as urgent and apparently personal as love and the vast, seemingly disinterested processes of the universe, like the growth and decline of stars and the evolution of species. The poet's distressed awareness of his inability to protect his children from these processes is tempered a little by his awareness of the safety they now enjoy, as they spend a fine summer's day in their English garden.
Prynne does not seek shelter from unstoppable cosmic processes in religious verities. Instead, he seems to want to emphasise the inextricability of the link between the warmth of human love and the coldness of the cosmos.

Reading 'Acquisition of Love', we may suddenly feel estranged from what had been most familiar. The faces of our children 'switch on and off' like machines; our bodies no longer belong to us, but are vehicles for blood and genes; the warmth we feel in our hearts is 'borrowed', rather than autochthonous. This defamiliarisation can be alarming, but it has some of the terrible beauty of Blake's great visions. Like Blake's angels and tygers, Prynne's teeming gene pools and 'dream-like membranes' show us the majesty of the universe, and invite us to reconsider our place within that universe.

Acquisition of Love

The children rise & fall as they
watch, they burn in the sun's coronal
display, each child is the fringe
& he advances at just that blinding
gradient. As I try to mend the broken
mower, its rachet jammed somewhere
inside the crank-case, I fell the
blood all rush in a separate spiral,
each genetically confirmed in the
young heartlands beyond. The curious
ones have their courses set towards
fear & collapse, faces switch on &
off, it is not any image of learning
but the gene pool itself defines these
lively feelings. I get the casing off,
sitting on the flat stone slab by the
front door, you would think fortunes
could be born here & you would
be wrong. Their childish assertion is
bleeding into the centre, we are determined
that they shall do this: they look outwards
to our idea of the planet. Their blood
is battered by this idea, the rules for
the replication of pattern guide their dreams
safely into our dreams. The two rachets
are both rusted in; I file out their
slots & brush out the corroded
flakes with oil. They watch, &
what they watch has nothing to do
with anything. What they do is an
inherited print, I lend it to them
just by looking; their blood
seems to hold out against the complete
neuro-chemical entail. I guess their
capacity in pints, their dream-like membranes
which keep their faces ready to see. The
mower works now, related to nothing
but the hand & purpose, the fear of
collapse is pumped round by each linked
system & the borrowed warmth of the heart.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Anonymous Anonymous said...


1:15 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I have also had difficulty "getting into" Prynne but I had the same experience with the poetry of Montale until I kind of just let the poetry work. I also have that anthology 'a various art' Prynne has been relatively popular and even sold quite well in Japan and other places.

But the poem you have here is good. There he mixes "real" physical action and has that sense that I also have all the time that we are 'those chemical ghosts', that we might be ourselves determined machines whose "meaning" is simply to survive. Love and sex and all the rest having only a chemical or a biochemical existence: our significance being less, far less significant than we humans fondly imagine. And sometimes I look at a beautiful woman for example and she suddenly appears to me to be simply something that lacks being a man: that we are this strange transformations of chemical nature. That despite our 'cuteness' we are aberrations. From a microbes point of view we are monsters, and so on.

But this is not a constant feeling. But is more or less running in the background.

Pigs are intelligent animals.

6:35 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I do like Dylan Thomas. He is much more than just a boozer. He was a great craftsman and I think one of the great poets.

But R S Thomas and Hill are great also in their own ways.

I also like Gerald Manley Hopkins who I think has been criticized for the wrong reasons. He is one of the great innovators like Gertrude Stein.

7:06 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bourgeois wank.

10:47 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

And Hopkins was a reactionary Catholic. Yawn.

10:48 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Hi Richard,

I agree with you about both the difficulty of Prynne and the tendency of poetry to become trapped in very cliquish corners of the net.

It's amazing how many poets run blogs which talk about nothing - nothing at all - but poetry. Even when their work is good, and the work by other poets they link to is good, I feel claustrophobic! Don't they have any interest in something outside poesy? Prynne's work incorporates discourses from a huge number of areas - economics, the hard sciences, and so on - and so it seems a pity so much of the discussion of him appears in such narrow corners of the net.

12:17 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I don't necessarily worry about the cliquishness, although I think that it is a mistake or it is problematic that certain academics or members of the literati have or take no or little interest in say technical or matters of science etc, and politics. But I think most writers have a wider view.

Where are these Blogs? I haven't seen much anywhere about Prynne.
At one stage I started looking into his work but I couldn't find much explication of exegesis of his work: there is a book I tried to read but I found it even more difficult to follow than Prynne's poetry.

Again "difficulty" isn't the problem, nor that they don't say take any interest in politics or whatever: after all that is a stylistic or 'ontological' choice.

Prynne though is reputed to have some interest in Marxism and also knew Ed Dorn and Olson. Poetry, no matter how "abstract" it is, has a place in the 'real world' realism of course failed, in the 90s I was very averse to any political issues, at one stage I stopped watching the news on television and reading the newspapers for quite a long time.

There is a tendency to retreat from life, so to speak, as one gets older - approaches death in fact - and to think of more fundamental issues. To retreat too far though can lead to madness.

There is a certain claustrophobia - I sense that with some of those who are overburdened with theory.

But I don't abjure theory: I think E P Thompson and such as Eagleton keep a sense of the combine of theory and mystery, religion and socialism, art and life, tradition and the new and much else.

Part of the problem is the way we place aspects of knowledge in various "bins" or files, when that knowledge and practice are connected.

(But we cant avoid a certain amount of specialiation).

3:42 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

This piece, which was published in the Guardian a decade ago by Robert Potts, argues that Prynne not only should but does have a substantial audience:

Potts makes a good case for Prynne, but in this amusing essay puts the sceptic's argument:

4:06 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I had read the first thing by Potts, and I read something by Emily Witt, but I couldn't find the "sceptic's argument" thing. Prynne is like the Language Poets and also certain of the Modernists.

Remember that even Jack Ross apparently abandoned him as "too intellectual"! Which is a worry considering Jack's formidable abilities and literary knowledge and understanding.

I kept meaning to get 'Poems' which I used to see for sale at Unity but never seemed to have enough money. I borrowed the book from the library a long time ago but I think I was quite baffled by it or I didn't have time to study it much.

I see Carol Ann Dufy was mentioned - after reading Sarah Broom's book I bought a book by her and some of the other poets (Eavan Boland) she mentioned in her book. She leads up to such as Raworth, Muldoon, and Denise Riley who sounds interesting.

I enjoyed Dufy's work - one great thing is a poem in which a whole school of girls start laughing in class, it spreads, and in the end the school has to be closed! Rarely for the Poet Laureate she is good indeed.

Muldoon looks interesting. Jen Crawford asked me once if I had read Alan Fisher. I had read Roy Fisher (and Finch). I recall you had some interest also in Anthony Barnett.

But is hard to get Alan Fisher's work here in NZ.

But I cant see Prynne or his ilk as "socialists" - sure they have some vaguely political "message".

I might find if I spend more time on his work he will "grab" me.

I've had that anthology and I think apart from Raworth (of his comic early poems) - and Raworth isn't in 'a various art' - apart from him I haven't read much of the writers. I did like Iain Sinclair's book 'Flesh Eggs and Scalp Metal'

But I found a book - 'Poetic Artifice' - by Veronica Forrest Thompson on literary theory but I have to concede I found it rather abstruse. Charles Bernstein (whose poetry I really do like a lot) writes about that very book in his book 'A Poetic'.

12:51 am  
Blogger Richard said...

I like Middleton. In the US apart from Ashbery, Schuyler and others of the 'NY School', and Eigner, Jack Spicer - I have a high regard for James Lowell, Plath, and John Berryman (most of whose sonnets etc I have read). Of course there are the Modernists - Eliot, Stein, Pound, WCWs, M. Moore, James Merrill and others.

(I acknowledge the 'Beats' but they are not very interesting to me. I'm not interested in Ginsberg.)

Now I came across Ed Dorn when I heard Alan Riach give a reading (ca 1989) at Poetry Live, and I was interested in 'Gunslinger' which was a book Riach quotes at the start of his book 'For What it Is' (Alan Riach and Peter McCarey) and there is a note at the start that says: (We want to acknowledge the debts we owe to the work of Edward Dorn, in particular 'Recollections of Gran Apacheria' and 'Gunslinger'; and Sergio Leone's film 'Once Upon a Time in the West...[knowledge of which while not necessary] will enhances reading of what follows.)

I don't know the film but I did look at 'Gunslinger' which is a strange the time I bought Riach's book (readers used to offer their books for sale) I knew little of recent literature as I hadn't read much since about 1968 so it was all quite new strange and sometimes exciting.

The thing about poets such as Prynne as the very fact they are "difficult" is offset by the fascinating use of language and there is always the possibility of finding more as I am slowly finding with Celan via 'Breathturn' translated by Pierre Joris which lead me to try writing like Celan but using neologisms that used German words joined directly either to part or the whole of English ones, and using his method there of cutting a word in 2 at the end of a line to emphasise the polysemic or 'punning' or ambiguous nature of his language use.

But Prynne is more like a poetic Heidegger or a Derrida than he is a "Marxist", he's as socialistic as my big toe! But poets can never really be politically committed to anything - it is fatal to their art. Poets are kind of outcasts, creative nut cases...Like Middleton of say 'Pataxanadu' (!) he is, well, he is quite unique.

(It amused me to read that the Chinese liked his work! English speaking writers are baffled by him in droves...but it is sometimes the case, like the French appreciating Poe and others).

12:51 am  
Blogger Richard said...

I just played the video. That is good also. That made me think about the poem - I don't think it is very "human friendly" but one might say it is "true" ("true" to art not necessarily life): the video and Prynne's poem are in some ways quite eerie.

9:36 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

...pretend u haven't rd Prynne b/f...
..that folk hadn't...

11:47 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Anonymous - that is a good link - an amusing approach. Prynne is the kind of writer who you feel is saying something (and he is) but you feel or know perhaps you don't have the key so to speak. Potts is good but his comment doesn't lead one any closer. All these comments and explications leave you closer to the poem but what happens is that one sees something like:

'Everything is here and is being burned here and is enough'

Which is a line that he remembered and he talks about that here:

"I approach the poems in the only way I know how. I walk into an art gallery and stand in front of an abstract painting and don't see any figurative representation, don't see anything I can latch on to and say 'Aha! A parrot!' (for example). But if I and the painting connect on a level that is by its very nature unpredictable then I will respond in some way, and I can't say here in what way, or how, because there is no recipe, but the mind is excited, ideas buzz, and imaginative life happens. Something unexpected happens. If art doesn't do this then I worry. This isn't about the individual, and some vague expression of celebrating the imagination. I think this is just about the artist doing something true, and the audience responding to it. Positively or negatively, but responding. The positive is exhilarating, I think. And bewildering can be good. But you can narrow this down, and say 'One afternoon I was reading a Jeremy Prynne poem and came across the 'Everything is here and is being burned slowly and is enough' phrase and I liked it, and it stuck with me. I found myself thinking about it on the bus an hour later. Isn't that good?"

I think it is to be able to take something "away" in some way.

12:29 pm  
Anonymous Brett said...

I warmed to the Prynne poem after initially not thinking much of it.

1:57 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Poets and writers can have that effect. I spent ages on one or two of Prynne's poems the anthology of "avant garde" British poets 'a various art' which includes Iain Sinclair, Forrest-Thompson, John Riley, Barnett and others (I haven't really read much of any of them, I just seemed to get diverted every time I started... ) but with Prynne I used Dictionaries and etymology etc but it is like Jen Crawford's and indeed my own! Or the case of Montale where suddenly something, just a phrase or two has some effect: it hasn't quite happened for me with say Celan and the (different but equally "difficult" Prynne etc), but with Montale it was some of his poems in a book of poems I had had for years and hadn't noticed. What were they about? I couldn't say, there was some philosophical or even 'religious' implication...I think it narrows down to a kind of intuitive response. The theory or biography can help but it can also obscure,

Prynne is big on Wordsworth and his use of language. He also helped Olson which might explain his gesture at "open field" and was a friend of Ed Dorn but how to connect him up with any of that and his alleged political motivations is obscure.

It comes down somehow to the intensity of his language use, his images or lack of them, his 'jumps'. Hard to say but whoever gains something from a poem by him will no doubt study his work in more depth. Or read more of it which might mean the same thing.

2:46 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Waht's jack doing with Brief? I'm eagerly awaiting his next installmant on The Novel and the list of books I will one day perhaps acquire but probably never read although I am making my way through Don Quixote...

But Jack is maintaining "radio silence" ... is he well? Or is he deep in another quest for ghosts? Spending hours marking papers by recalcitrant students? Depressed? Preparing a mammoth edition of Brief? Bibliophiles and other sad beings await the next issue of his mammoth work on the novel...

2:50 pm  

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