Ed Luker, Review essay of The White Stones by J. H. Prynne New York Review Books, 135 pp, £8.99, May, ISBN 978 1 59017 679 6
As regular readers of poetry know, unwieldy large collected works are often not amenable towards how poetry may fit into our stretched lives. For a few years now the NYRB has been republishing aesthetically pleasing pocket republications of the work of poets. These editions are much welcome for their practicality in size alongside the simplicity of their design. One of the most recent of these republications is The White Stones (1969), the third book of poetry by J. H. Prynne. The original book is not particularly amenable to a pocket edition. It is by far Prynne’s longest stand-alone chapbook and it requires large space for the margins. However, the republication is a welcome one and this edition also includes the diurnal lyric work Day Light Songs from 1968, the short essay on the anthropological history of monetary value, ‘A Note on Metal’, as well as an excellent introduction by the poet Peter Gizzi. The introduction is written in the style of a fellow poet who has truly felt the power of these lines, who has been moved by what he calls the book’s ‘singular way to song.’
Although Prynne is well known it often feels like he is not well read. He is a figure of simultaneously diminutive and grand stature in Britain, seen as parochially small in the relevance of his concerns and impossibly large in the scope of his ambitions. It is fair to say that he is even less well read in the States than he is here. This was at least the impression I got whilst I was in Buffalo for official poetry business the other month, where his name resounds with the familiarity of an untried hallucinogenic, ‘Prynne, o yeah, I know people who’ve done that.’ It seems, too, that this new edition is predominantly aimed at a North American audience, especially because this collection contains the moments where Prynne’s poetry most acutely bears a resemblance to that of Charles Olson, Ed Dorn, and other luminaries from the Black Mountain tradition. However, this republication of The White Stones comes alongside a resurgence of interest in the poetry of J. H. Prynne in Britain.
The collected Poems was re-published last year on Bloodaxe Books, updated from the 2005 edition to include five small press chapbooks written in the interim period. It has been described by David Wheatley as a collection of, ‘luminous and unsettling poems [which] richly repay the attention they demand.’ More recently, in comparing Prynne to another Jeremy, Craig Raine has described the poet as proffering, ‘an ineradicable strain of high-minded, unpopular extremism’. Raine, in a tone full of Helen Lovejoy like concern, conceives of this extremity as having a damaging influence on our poetic youth, stating of those that take up with Prynne’s work, ‘I sometimes think of them as suicide bombers.’ What an accolade: someone call Prevent!
British Values For British Poesy aside, it may be that this resurgence of interest has been aided by the poet publishing much more declarative work recently. Famously indifferent to the public eye, in the past ten years Prynne has written extensively about the specific kind of thinking that poetry can do. There have been two extensive commentaries on singular poems, one on Wordsworth’s ‘The Solitary Reaper’ and another on George Herbert’s ‘Love [III]’. Alongside the commentaries there have been a series of lectures and essays published in the academic sphere, including, ‘The Poet’s Imaginary’, ‘Huts’, ‘Poetic Thought’ and ‘Mental Ears and Poetic Work’. These have been accompanied by two privately printed pamphlets, Concepts and Conception in Poetry (2014) and Graft and Corruption: Shakespeare’s Sonnet 15 (2015). Often these texts engage with the particular cognition that poetic language is capable of undertaking, how it relates to history, and how poetic language refracts the known world as one mediated by suffering, privation and extreme violence. The consideration of the poetic text forces us into a set of ethic dilemmas and questions about how language operates within the world and how we inhabit the world that such language structures.
We might ask the question, then, why go back to some of Prynne’s earliest poetry when there is so much to be gained from the challenges of the more recent work? Keston Sutherland has described Prynne’s poetry of the 1960s as being as intellectually ambitious as Milton’s poetry of the 1660s. And perhaps, as with Milton, there has been a historical lag between the time of the work’s creation and its critical reception. Furthermore, understanding some of the key elements within the early part of Prynne’s oeuvre, such as his scholarly interest in place and landscape as a determinate fact of ‘where we are’, helps the reader to work out certain maneuvers within the later work. From the seventies onwards Prynne starts to trouble his earlier faith that basic acts of knowledge restitution through poetry can overcome the social quality of alienation. The commitment to reading through a vast array of knowledge-types remains, but the purpose to which that knowledge is put within the poetry shifts. For example, the Wordsworthian ‘flashes of where we are’ in ‘The Ideal Star-Fighter’ from Brass (1971), a book concerned with a Blakean unmaking of the poetic law through pastoral inversion and syntactic rupture, is part of ‘how we are gripped in the dark’, as both an image of the Western television viewer consuming the spectacle of the Vietnam war, and the Vietnamese insurrectionist being bombarded as the sky is lit up by the flashes of U.S. napalm.
The complexity of how to bear witness to extreme violence, the question of how to represent an experience of a distant suffering other is a continual preoccupation within Prynne’s poetics. This concern is brilliantly articulated in Matthew Hall’s recent study On Violence in the Work of J. H. Prynne (2015), where Hall works closely with the text to show how they interrogate the sites of major trauma and catastrophe within modernity. However, whilst this is not entirely the concern of Prynne’s poetry of the sixties, where he is still thinking through the Wordsworth of The Prelude, the landscape poetry of Charles Tomlinson and the inscription of place as geo-graphy in the work of Olson or Dorn, there is still a set of deeply relevant political concerns operating within this work.
One reason that The White Stones is one of the books by Prynne to which readers continually return is that it written with a force of utterance that is often beautiful. The lines contain a grace of simplicity in their tone. Consider the following from ‘Song in Sight of the World’:
The night is beautiful
with stars: we do not consider the end
which is a myth so powerful, as to throw
flames down every railway line
from London to the furthest tip
cape and foreland left by the axe.
Apollo it is that I love, that
shall be swallowed by the great wolf and be
reborn as a butterfly in the hair of a goddess.
The stars are the possibility of a mythic catastrophe, calling into question the ‘that which shall be’ of eternal return from Ecclesiastes 1:9. They are balanced against Apollo as the symbol of cosmic order. Apollo is not just the god but also NASA’s space program, a figure for the new order of American hegemony in the era of Vietnam, the Cuban missile crisis and the Cold War climate of fear. The love wills the destruction of order as the possible rebirth of the cosmos. This mythology of restitution was in part learned from but also shared with Olson; Prynne’s letters to Olson reveal a fascination with the way that mythologies and spiritual practices have guided human communities. This is a faith that Prynne would slowly abandon across the sixties as he started to equate mythic thinking, restituted or otherwise, with ideological thought, as cosmology would also become supplanted by systems theory and new measures of control. For Prynne the first photos of the Whole Earth from space represent cosmic alienation as such. These photos and the constant news reportage of space exploration appears in ‘The Ideal Star-Fighter’ where, ‘we hear daily of the backward | glance at the planet’.
It is Charles Olson that is the object of address in a handful of earlier poems from The White Stones, such as ‘Lashed to the Mast’ which opens, ‘Thus you have everything, at this | moment, that I could ever | command’. This poem was originally attached at the end of a letter to Olson towards the end of 1965. The separation of the deictic ‘this’ from the noun ‘moment’ that it wishes to possess is fairly typical of how the line breaks in this poetry demand the absolute presence of a moment. However what the break holds is that this moment is not yet capable of being realized. This is one of the main distinctions between Olson’s poetics, where the page is a field of immediate action, and Prynne’s work. Whilst the sense of a sustained deictic of presence that cannot quite urge for an immediate reconciliation with the presence it demands may be due to Prynne’s actual distance from the poets he cared about, they also mark his sense that language must be remade within a ‘community of risk’. The White Stones marks a faith across the book that a new poetic song be realized. This is most fiercely laid out in ‘Star Damage at Home’ where the myth of cosmic catastrophe contained in the image of the comet burning into the surface of the earth stresses, ‘We live here | and must mean it, the last person we are.’ Earlier in the poem, ‘I | mean what the name has in its charge, | being not deceived by the dispersal’. The lyric I is not yet reconciled with a true community of being. The gap between demand and affirmation within this task acknowledges a post-Romantic conception of song that held that modernity had inflected much damage to the Wordsworthian sense of poetry lending a needful voice in a poetic song ‘in the real language’ of the humanity it wished to sing for.
Prynne was in communication with Olson and Dorn across the sixties. He worked as an informal researcher for Olson, gathering and copying materials for Olson’s Maximus epic from various sources that were unavailable to the older poet. Later in the sixties, Dorn and Prynne were both trying to work away from the foreboding stature of ‘Big Charles’ and his influence upon them. In earlier letters Prynne sets up the breakthroughs of the Black Mountain’s projective poetics as being entirely in its outward-looking perspective, especially their study of the non-human world as the landscape within which the human is present. The young writer saw British poetry as trapped within the confines of a closed Symbolist tradition exemplified by T. S. Eliot, and further hemmed in by the anti-Modernist counter-revolution of The Movement poets. Prynne’s geographical distance from the North American poetry he most admired is felt as a lament by Prynne in, ‘The Wound, Day and Night’ as ‘the plaintive chanting | under the Atlantic’. However, this is not just subjective lament but the wound speaks to the damage done to the human community within modernity, going so far as to infer that the Atlantic slave trade is part of the formation of subjectivity within the development of capitalism as such.
The title of the book points towards how Prynne responds to the political concerns of the mid to late sixties. It is in part a reference to Revelation 2:17, as the possibility of a new language for the human community. In his highly thorough scholarship on Prynne, Ryan Dobran has unpicked the mantic arguments within The White Stones. He argues that this mantic element is figured as part of a spiritual relation to landscape where any religiosity of the possible human community is firmly inscribed within place, rather than located in an abstract heaven, as a materialist conception of spirit. Hence, in ‘Song in Sight of the World’ the mantic-inscription is ‘the glyptic note that we carry’ as a white stone in the pocket. The earlier poems in the collection contain patient and stoic descriptions of wanderers, those located outside of the civic-settlement who must survive and endure the landscape they walk through before their restitution within the ideal city. The ideal polis was of course highly important for both Ezra Pound and Olson. Pound saw the poet as the sage-like advisor to political leadership, where the strong state could overthrow usurious capital (by which Pound meant Jews) to create beauty through order. His perfected leader figure was of course Mussolini. In Canto LXII Pound writes, ‘These are the stones of foundation […] These stones we built on.’ Prynne’s interest in nomadic manticism as a stone that we carry, in part works to undermine Pound’s fascist poetics of origin and property rights.
In the aftermath of catastrophe felt in the post-war era Prynne works through the relation between memory and loss. In the poem ‘Thoughts on the Esterhazy Court Uniform’, the question is, ‘How can we sustain such constant loss.’ Survival is what we make of it such that, ‘home is easily our | idea of it’. This idea of a state of wandering as determinate homelessness has been recently reconfigured in Fred Moten’s The Feel Trio (2014) where ‘place is our new | destitute imperative.’ Prynne’s work calls into question the kind of sanctuary domestic life within the city is supposed to offer us, the very foundations of exchange on which the city is built. He attacks the post-war compromise of the new consumerism, as, ‘we should not be so bribed, by incom- | pletion.’ Prynne’s Maoism is well known, and like Wordsworth he perhaps too readily lends nobility to the peasantry or those imagined to be outside of consumer capital. However, what Prynne’s poetry continually implores across his writing career, is that it asks its reader to take up an ethical stance towards the world they inhabit, to be vigilant and not let go of their minimal sense of agency. The questions that his work raise do strike with our age. The image of Europe currently functions to exclude those outside of it whom are merely seeking a better life. It is the denial of that plea that murders thousands offshore. The White Stones invites us to reimagine a human community beyond the confines of the one we inhabit. This community, based on trust and risk, is not utopian but will be borne out of the present.
[Ed Luker is a PhD student at Northumbria University. He is writing on J. H. Prynne's relation to the poetry of Ezra Pound and Charles Olson in the sixties and early seventies. He is also a poet. He is the author of Peak Return (Shit Valley Press, 2014), Headlost (RIVET. Press, 2014) and The Sea Together (Materials Press, 2016). He is currently working on a long prose-poem on detainment and attainment called Universal Attainment Centre.]
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