An armed camp on marshy ground
The question of the Prynne Nachfolge is raised by Don Paterson’s claim in the Observer that he had ruined a whole generation of English poets. While only one or two per cent of publishing English poets actually read JHP, and while I don’t think Paterson has any understanding of the recent history of English poetry, as opposed to sporting the crocodile-skin-handbag self-assurance which that magazine demands of its cultural commentators, it remains true that JHP influenced a large number of poets who attended Cambridge University between say 1965 and the present day; the names Roger Langley, Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Michael Haslam, Denise Riley, Nigel Wheale, Kevin Nolan, and Helen Macdonald spring to mind. (Quite possibly Andrew Crozier was also encouraged in pursuing his philosophical bent by the example of Prynne.) Surely English poetry was ruined by Larkin? However, there is a more treacherous heredity, which we will expound. The long-time association of learning and poetry with the Church of England has led to a believed link between verbal style and morality. The most just exposition of the sacred texts, and relation of them to the issues and causes of the parish, gave the expounder a right to judge and to minister to spiritual needs. Incorrect exposition led to dethroning and to the status of heretic, essentially without a flock and a job; Misch recounts the case of The Bazaar of Heracleides, a third-century work published under a pseudonym because the author (Nestorius) was so shunned after his heresy trial that no-one would have read it under his own name. (“Bazaar” is also the result of a mistranslation from Greek into Syriac.) The introduction of a layer of precision revealing speaker A as crude, and therefore as unworthy, was a way of seizing legitimation by delegitimizing speaker A — even if he was a bishop. It is hardly a secret that the stakeholders of the Counter Culture are in the condition of banned heretics who regard the titular authorities as heretics.
How do you decide who is a judge, when a dozen people are in the courtroom, refusing to shut up, wearing silly robes, quoting Latin, and seated high off the floor? Outside the State church, we have a residual right to choose the magistrate who will teach us what choices are good.
This unconscious set script became entangled with the study of literature during the modern foundation of the Eng Lit world in the 1950s, an accession of institutional power and public money coinciding with a Christian revival and a post-totalitarian distaste for the State service; a complex (related, by a mythological simplification, to the name of Leavis) attributed moral power to the academic literary critic, and, as a blind reflex of writing off so many (rival) styles as immoral, attributed morality to a single verbal style — that favoured, and indeed practiced, by the present speaker at any moment. In the context of commodity capitalism, favouring maximum differentiation of cultural goods in order to achieve exclusivity and originality, this inevitably led to the association of morality with a certain poetic style — and for some, that practiced by a few unread poets in the purlieus of Cambridge. This is the context in which Prynne can be claimed as the most moral person in existence; and in which, in fact, morality is reduced to the object of merely-verbal competitions held and adjudicated within a small academic in-group. People who are merely kind, hard-working, and good, without using the enfieffed verbal style, or without even having matriculated at Cambridge University, are left standing and written off. Ordinary people are excluded from being acknowledged as moral in very much the same way as they are excluded from receiving academic titles or from owning land or from political office.
Consider then the fate of the poets who have swallowed all this; to exhibit themselves in the knowledge that they are the most moral people on earth before an audience which not only does not recognize this but looks down on them for their malice, pedantry, and self-regard. As I do.
The line between in and out is drawn more aggressively in the literary world of Cambridge than in some other places. Perhaps the admission that there is a world outside Cambridge is enough to make you hated by the Cambridge true believers, and chased by their beaters. The script called the loyalty test is set in motion by a belief that there are only a few jobs available and that succession to high office occurs by assassination of one’s rivals; a primogeniture by decree which we can compare to the attitude whereby only six people in the world can write poetry, or possess morality. The popularity of Theodor Adorno is due, not to his intellectual discernment (we laugh), but to his steady hatred of almost everything, and his capacity for being used as an invalidator, allowing a monopoly of prestige. The in-fighting for heir status corresponds, rigorously enough, to the struggle for acquisition and seizure of ancestors — a form of genealogical rhetorical contest over an estate.
The further expansion of higher education in the 1960s made the prizes too precious to share. The Counter Culture inside the universities faced an older generation whom they could not stand, and who also controlled the public sites of poetry, and who lacked all moral dignity. The impasse of campus protests around 1968–70 saw the radicals grabbing the assets of moral seriousness, self-control, and academic prowess — over-fulfilling the local imperatives to assert a monopoly of legitimacy. The new thing in academic life did invalidate the ancien régime, its poetry and scholarship now seeming grotesque. As a traumatised riposte to being so threatened, the father generation did disinherit the radicals; people like Donald Davie and Michael Schmidt devoted their careers to excluding them from the palaces of official culture. As a result of neglecting the expressive aspect of art, of leaving out the affect of revolt and overthrowing of the old, and of investing too much in self-congratulatory morality, the post-humanist poems didn’t interest a popular readership, and so their authors are unable to call on a non-academic source of legitimacy. (The absence of poetry of revolt is puzzling; it’s very difficult, amidst all the counter-cultural brouhaha, to point to a poem which is rebellious or against something. Perhaps the stylistic legitimacy contest excluded this path.)
“(T)he paranoid with their influencing machines” (p.81, “Concerning Quality, Again”) refers to a paper by Victor Tausk, where the Croat psychoanalyst recounts the belief of a schizophrenic patient, Natalija A., who thought that her thoughts, feelings, and acts were being controlled by an influencing machine, shaped like a body. I was surprised, later, to discover that Ernst Jünger’s father actually possessed one of these machines, and there is an entry for them in the German dictionary (Mackensen, s.v. Influenzmaschine); I suspect they were electrical massage machines for toning up the muscles, shaped like caskets into which the body is placed. Fluidum is an old Mesmer-era word for “electricity”, and Influenz does not mean “influence”. (Tausk uses the word Beeinflussungsapparat, which is not quite the same as Influenzmaschine, but perhaps the two words are the same in Serbo-Croat, as masina vlijania or something like that.) Since the central event of art is having feelings and thoughts influenced by those of a figure (in the shape of a body), this technology is not without interest for us. For Prynne, this passage has to do with the problem of agency, which one has to solve in order to believe in political action, and which most small press poets so notoriously failed to solve. The belief that we are under the malign control (of the government? the BBC? the CIA? the Oxford English Department?) led to a belief that one can seize the fixed capital and control the thoughts of others, for example changing society by writing in a particular way. The fluence machine merges, curiously, with the fluency of ice: the thermal repacking of water at around — 32° F is a discontinuity which acts as a metaphor for discontinuity in political affairs; one cannot accuse the water droplets of will, or therefore of voluntarism. Yet, the transition from ice to water of a few particles at a moment in prehistory (described in “The Glacial Question, Unsolved”) had as its consequence the possibility of growing crops in the soil of England, and so of the Neolithic Revolution, whose consequences are, partly, the theme of White Stones. The Altai Mountains setting of “Aristeas: in Seven Years” shows the still frozen soil of upland South Siberia partly because it continues the condition of glacial England, with the geohistorical lesson that our social order, so far as it differs from that of the Arimaspaeans, is the result of the thermal level of the water in the soil of our country. The book foresees, without knowing it, that the disruption of thermal economy by the oil price rises of 1973 would end the optimism of the counter-cultural period, a product of the economic growth of the 1960s (and not of the “moral beauty” of its leaders and their hair-dos).
One angle on Prynne is that his style is Anglo-Catholic and too moralising. My informant not only dislikes the idea that men can ever be good (in competition with women, and especially one-parent mothers), but also regards the act of writing as largely one of displaying valid signs of goodness and kindness, to be tested by the reader in ways which The White Stones arrogates for itself and does not satisfy. I would qualify these remarks, as Prynne’s rhetorical style is not specially Anglo-Catholic, although it is Anglican; the concern with a personal moral experience outside the Bible stories, i.e. the valorisation of lay and secular life, is Anglican but distinctively non-Anglo-Catholic. The scale she had in mind was a different high-low scale, that of splendour and gravity of language. Legend has it that there is a Jeremy Taylor commemoration service held in Cambridge where Prynne delivers one of Taylor’s sermons. Taylor was at Caius, like Prynne. These Baroque sermons, where the complexity and continuity of argument is so great that they cannot be followed perfectly, are basic to the question of classic Prynne and its deliberate overflow of the semantic compass of the reader. Indeed, the sixties thing of the return to the oral is incomplete if we look only at the pop nincompoops of the Brian Patten kind, and overlook the high-oral, referring itself back to Elizabethan plays and Donne’s sermons, and culminating in The White Stones. The physiological theory behind White Stones is that a verbal text which is attractive and yet too much to be taken in arouses total attentiveness, lighting up the brain to the immediate present so that it has no anchors, and so realises its own capacities, recognises social rules as fictions and forms of sleep, and so perceives the possibility of a new consciousness. The oral nature of university life, too little considered, flows through lectures, seminars, tutorials, and arguments; the brain will not wake up properly without dialogue and contradiction, and the paradoxes of The White Stones play the part of virtual contradiction — the dialectic, as a marxist like JHP might call it. Lecture, examination paper, and political argument — staples of the system — are time-based, social, and sharp and enjoyable just for those reasons. The recitative nature of the experience is essential: adrift in the ocean of meanings that reverberate and constantly vanish, one lives in a pure present and comes eventually to the realisation that there is only consciousness and the immediate present, and that all props are unnecessary. A number of the poems in White Stones are simply about transience, and they work best when read aloud so that the lines of the poem are themselves transient. Consciousness is runtime only.
Whose lenient foam inlet now passes through innervation,
check one the grating etched with a prism of gaps,
check two parching with myrrh and black smoke swirling
in rapt successor logic. First try on the ground
Gilead to Nablus high and dry balsam matrix by how they
bleed, distal cuts raging in the street;
I have no idea what this means, but obviously it’s beautiful to read aloud. (It’s from For the Monogram, 17.) “Living in History” shows the speaker planning a walk along the foreshore. The point of the whole poem is freedom of choice; we can set off in either direction, or, to put it another way, the poem is de-seizing our habits and projects in order to isolate the fact of choice. The sand, debatable ground, will take whatever marks we put on it, and, as we look back, it will show us the result of our conscious acts, as a series retaining details like length of stride; but the returning tide will efface all this, as the present constantly vanishes, leaving us only with time which has not yet become and with the choices we must make. This is a very simple poem, although there are a number of moments I would be hard put to explain. I think the possibility of change recurs often in TWS, almost as a shared subject.
Since I must hold to the gradual in
this, as no revolution but a slow change
like the image of snow. The challenge is
not a moral excitement, but the expanse,
the continuing patience
dilating into forms so
much more than compact.
I would probably not even choose to inhabit the
wish as delay: it really is dark and the knowledge
of the unseen is a warmth which spreads into
the level ceremony of diffusion. The quiet
suggests that the act taken
extends so much further, there
is this insurgence of form:
we are more pliant than the mercantile notion
of choice will determine — we go in this way
on and on and the unceasing image of hope
is our place in this world.
Temple (“Living in History” l.6) represents the primary Latin meaning of the word, templum dicitur locus manu auguris designatus in aere, as a formal division of the sky made by augurs with a special white wand; Varro gives an Old Latin form of words for the purpose, which we will omit; the procedure has to do with planning the future (by observing the flight of birds). The templum is also the horizon, in the philosophical sense of the ideas available to someone at a given moment in history; and the momentary universe of discourse, in the Jakobsonian sense. The drawing of a line in the sky is arbitrary, just as the meaning given to the birds’ flight is arbitrary, though jurally valid; I think this passage is ethnomethodological, in that the human agent is being confronted with the boundless to which he affixes distinctions and meanings: it is a bearing into certain distinctions. The act of looking sets limits which derive from the limits of our bodily powers; consciousness is self-referential, but proves itself as much as it refutes itself. Prynne was much concerned with spatial orientation, the sense that space acquires psychological reality for us through the body image; out there the temple of which way he goes, the future is determined by which way we face. Space is no longer subsuming and benevolent, but something fleeting and blank, the image of hope is our place in the world.
He avoids telling the path which was chosen, or the merely sensuous appearance of the sand; the poem sticks, with a stendhalian poignancy, with the moment when decision is still possible:
That is, a quality of man and his becoming,
beautiful, or the decoration of some light and
fixed decision, no less fluent than the river
which guards its name.
(“Frost and Snow, Falling”) The use of sand is an antonym to someone who asks for words to be hewn in stone, an objectification and petrifaction which are essentially passive and conservative. Poetry virtualises everything it touches, so poets struggle to turn thought into substance, a vain anxiety which Prynne, always harking back to nomads, the pilgrim is again quality, and/ his extension is the way he goes across the crust/ that will bear him, dissolves by centring the desubstantiated and returning history to its conscious subject.
What sustained English poetry to reach the High Oral was Protestantism, demanding that everyone follow the arguments, and the slipping away of this since the 1950s has given us performance poetry which sets out to switch off that organ of close attentiveness and leaves us in a doze where pointless jigs make momentary and shallow gaps. Attention is not something the reader (outside the classroom) owes to the poet on pain of punishment, but something that has to be nourished by food pleasing to it, and in quantities large enough to match its continual assimilation (a kind of destruction) of information. This means the big issues, verbal precision, and allowing doubt into the text rather than excluding it. The continuity of affective attention is sensationally attractive, because we recognize that someone who has this quality is capable of true love, or that if we acquire it we will be capable of enduring love, as registering all the signs of someone’s feelings is a step towards contenting those feelings; a fact unpopular among poets who feel that the audience don’t immediately notice their self-regard, shallowness, and indifference to others. Of course, this allure of moral depth has induced other poets to write tedious poems as a sign of unselfishness, numbingly protracted poems as a sign of attentiveness. In the Agenda-Carcanet camp, poets use dullness of style as a mark of moral integrity.
(In the quoted lines, the graticule is presumably etched onto the bombsight a pilot looks through, prismatic to cut out flares; check one check two are the stages of a drill to release the bomb or missile; and the successors are the chemical products of burning, as the ground target goes up; the site is presumably the Gulf, the myrrh was the first Christmas present, a different kind of delivery, though it is also a burnt offering; the balm is what you smear on burns.)
The time drew out such work that banked on instability. Henri Lefebvre, a Marxist-surrealist, wrote at great length about everyday life: the structures of everyday life, everyday life in the modern world, etc., and was the main influence on Situationism, leading for example to Raoul van Eigem’s The revolution in everyday life. When we read The street is a void,/ its surface slips, shines and is/ marked down with nameless thoughts. If we could/ level down into the street!, it is clearly Lefebvre we think of. In parallel, ethnomethodology, a school of American sociology emerging in the late fifties, proclaimed that there are no “unconscious rules” of action, but that the social fabric is constantly running down and constantly being remade by the conscious classification decisions of individual human agents who all of them face the unstructured world and translate it into “signed events”. This threatened to dissolve the knowledge contained in sociology textbooks. Lefebvre decentralised the subject of politics, cutting out the national government to look at the daily acts of millions of human subjects; the site of most of the poems in The White Stones is domestic, changes in our daily life not waiting on the overthrow of the socioeconomic system but vice versa, freedom flickering over the whole domain of the social like glints of light.
References to freedom and the ceaseless image of hope disappear from the later work.