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Andrew Duncan

Response to Steve Clark’s “Prynne and the Movement”

This piece is 6,500 words or about fourteen printed pages long.

Many years ago, and after a discussion of the Keery Thesis, John Seed said to me, “But have Prynne and Larkin ever been seen in the same room together?”. This new billow of the keeryite vague confirms this tentative insight: Prynne is Larkin, mixed with Donald Davie. I just have to disagree.

My problem with the talk about “heritage” and “genealogy” is that a poet’s genes are not delivered all in one glop, confined by a sturdy cell wall. Let’s admit that the number of separate stylistic and ideological items might amount to hundreds, and that potentially they have hundreds of separate histories and “fathers”. “The Appalachian system, then, though a decelerant, implied neither economic nor political discontinuity. The cismontane river system impelled the American society westward...” This passage (from a 1954 book by Bernard DeVoto) shows the matrix in which Prynne’s discourse — asking systems oriented questions about geography and social structure — was first formed, before escaping. I would think the closest comparison is with Colin Simms, who has written at length about just this northwest of the continental United States. “The acceleration of time had affected the equation and the equipoise held.” Steve’s juxtapositions of passages of Prynne and Davie show almost embarrassingly different poets; the resemblance is there, but it needs to be verbalised so that we can deal with it. Without a shared picture of the overall matrix, picking up fragments is only fumbling. No-one says there is a 100% overlap between Prynne and the wretched Davie, and I would put the overlap at say .0001%. My problem in writing about poetry as the utterance of a collective subject was that poetry is just speech and it is about anything at all and the history of anything at all is the real history of particular poems and of all poems. Anyone’s “collected poems”, in my view, is not adequately explained by the 200 other collected volumes one has just read, but instead by the whole climate of ideas of the time, the horizon in which the poet’s senses were confined. To follow mid-period Prynne, one has to know the books which intellectuals were reading in the 1960s. No doubt his own personal life is also crucial, but even that is verbalised in terms influenced by the conventions of the time.

The fifteen post-war years saw a reaction against enthusiasm and in favour of reason, because of the lessons of Fascism and Communism. They saw a lot of Christian poetry; because of the expansion of the academic jobs market, they saw a stress on responsibility and fairness, and a return to form and to historically legitimated styles. This is true in Germany, the USA, and Australia. At Oxford (as Eric Homberger has documented), this recursion was organised by Donald Hall and inspired by Richard Wilbur, both Americans. None of this is special to England, or to poetry. These qualities do not belong to the Movement (as the young Oxford poets became), and their presence is in no way proof of Movement influence. The Movement invented nothing, and produced no good poets.

The tactic of re-inserting Prynne into a safe body of normal and recognizable writing may have a didactic value; the assumption that because Prynne’s first book is within a Movement ambit his later books are (occultly, invisibly, without material traces) too is just not acceptable. Prynne accomplished no less a stylistic revolution within his own career than he did within the history of English poetry. He is not a kind of jam-jar where influences are kept, rather he accomplished a revolution at the associational level, where different parts of his brain began talking to each other in a new way, creating a new discourse of ideas, borne by a new music, which was self-organizing, did not regress to any pattern norm, and does not resemble any pre-existing discourse. I suspect that an inventory of the ideas in the new Poems (1999) might include the names of a thousand thinkers; so we have to start by an overall description of the surface of his writing, for separating off tiny part-aspects will betray us by always falling short by one dimension. Seeing local passages of his work straight so much depends on being swept up with the great curve of the whole that slowing down and separating, procedures dear to my heart as a philologer (by training), are simply forbidden here. I recommend reading The White Stones as a whole, and aloud.

“Repressing immediate heritage”: I take it this is a code-word for “revolution”, that when someone, gazing into the abyss of pure freedom, transforms the elementary practices of daily life and the basic relationships of language, the patterns passed on by the dead are, strictly, being ‘repressed’? I take it that freedom is the right not to repeat the patterns of the past, and that it is the opposite of repression?
Larkin was barely human. Davie was scarcely a poet at all. Prynne is a great poet.

Defining the Movement as “the primary reference point for subsequent genealogies of post-war British poetry” is unacceptable when most of the authors cited simply defined the Movement as a form of viral banality with which any significant poets had nothing to do. They all said “the Movement had nothing to do with poetry and we had nothing to do with the Movement”, and you really shouldn’t convert that to saying the opposite.

Altering the borders of the Movement (on page 1) to include Hill, Hughes, and Tomlinson, is like referring to “Tariq Ali, a member of the Conservative Cabinet from 1968–72”. This is really too much. Why not include Cliff Richard, Cliff Mitchelmore, and the Dagenham Girl Pipers?

So Prynne was begotten by Larkin and Davie, and is not allowed to differ from them except by an act of denial (that is, of self-assertion). Tracing genealogies (those with only one father) is a way of avoiding a description of the whole cultural field of poetry, demanding because it has to be done at such length. But surely the field of poetry is divided into at least eleven major groups, each largely ignoring the others, each with their own pantheon of favoured poets, their own set of besetting aesthetic and ideological preferences, their own internalised and cherished vision of the world (which each poem partially realises)?

This bespeaks hostility, and the withdrawal into separate spaces reduces conflict. James (Keery) believes that Dylan Thomas, Larkin, and Prynne are all partakers of one shared poetic style because he is a kind man, and wants to do away with (our) hostility along with our differences. One can easily identify the aesthetic per se as the suprapolar space beyond personal identity and intellectual property, where language flows in and out of us. Neither here nor there. Beyond stylistics. “I’m one of you!” “You’re one of me?” (exchange from one of those great Canadian horror films of the early 80s.) Yet behind this detoxifying lies his scholarly and fascinating unpublished work on the 1940s and 1950s, a major revisionist project which (first of all) takes apart the Movement’s official account of mid-century history. What estate were they carving out?

The past of the poetic present is the arrival during the 1960s of a new cohort of students and academics from a class previously denied higher education. (I have discussed this at length in an essay, not in fact “forthcoming”; of course I was watching this process, as a child, at Loughborough University; it’s where I come from.) The new cohort was hedonistic, but wanted a higher morality imposed on business (and the government); it was suspicious of inherited, and bourgeois, culture, but was lured into competing with the “old academics” (and the “old middle class”) by winning a deeper knowledge of that culture. And so the new middle class was born. One strand of poetry, even today, represents the resentment of the old middle class at finding its assets devalued by a flood of competition; its hauteur towards the arriviste working class graduates. Larkin was the laureate of this resentment.

The long perspective reveals that the conflict between new and old academics in the Arts faculties was won at the expense of the hedonism which the new arrivals had at first proposed. The road to pleasure and “nature” was also defined as running through a phase of greater morality and self-denial (at least in the form of self-criticism). When compared with (pop) work devoted to hedonism, gratification, sensation, Prynne’s poems belong, like those of his followers, with the camp of responsibility, and so with all academic poetry, even including the Movement. This contrast shows up when we compare the poetry of A Various Art and related publications to that in Foil, a new anthology of a generation “emerging 1986–2000”. In the latter, an interest in politics, social realism, morality, or even self-analysis, is barely visible: everything is virtual. Those things have been thrown away, as tainted by a link with an older generation of Left academics — and indeed Left politicians.

Telling the truth about the personality imposes limits on the person’s self-aggrandisement; psychological insight is something which one wishes for only as part of a project of self-improvement which is today deeply unfashionable.

The formula for the good contemporary (British) poem is, perhaps, that which switches on the massively developed circuitry of serious intellectual effort and the quicksilver infantile play circuitry of pleasure simultaneously and at the same time. The White Stones is the defining classic of this genre. The formula is heteronomous with regard to history, in the form of the ‘new academics’: surviving the hostility of the  conservatives, who controlled their career prospects, only by hard work, enthralling the great hedonistic insight of the 1960s to a self-discipline which so closely resembles the life-values of the Nonconformist sects, the heirs of Luther and Calvin. This is the combination which has become inoperable for a new generation.

Close reading is not the same as accurate reading. Clark tells us that, in “The Numbers”,

The politics, therefore, is for one man,
a question of skin, that he ask (etc.)

is Powellite racism, as if the skin referred to skin colour. But in the phenomenological context of Prynne’s writing, it would seem that skin appears here as the folds of our intimate surface, the sensory organ which links the mind to the sensory world, as the precondition of all abstract thought; in function of which space is the precondition of all mental experience, imposing paradox by its own qualities of foreshortening and passing out of sight. The skin is to feelings what the horizon is to sight; it is the origin of “inside and out”, Adrian Stokes’ book, also crucial for Prynne. The shrinking the confines down to the edges of the body opens the theme of transcending limitations by moving, and of experiencing liberty by changing direction, by election (to escape the influence of terminal systems), which recurs throughout The White Stones. He announces the new wandering star. Could we take a vote on this? how many people think this is a Powellite poem? Clark’s misinterpretation stems from his saturation in Larkin: Larkin was a trivial Nazi, so Clark projects racism onto everyone else. Once you decide that Prynne is Larkin, this is quite natural. We are told that

“Impending but subterranean violence is a recurrent motif: ‘The leaves lie spent upon the ground,/ A dozen razors, keen, without a sound’, for example echoes Lowell’s later-reviled confessional mode, ‘Waking in the Blue’’s ‘each of us holds a locked razor’.”

This does not echo Lowell. It is not confessional. Razors are not to do with violence, but shaving. The leaves are shaped like the old folding razors. Prynne is making a visual comparison, Lowell making a suicide threat. The leaves are not subterranean, but on the ground. The action is not “impending”, it is spent. Clark’s overall hypothesis is a phantom based on detailed mis-constructions, and probably vice versa. There is such a music as he does not hear.

The Organisation of Behaviour is the title of a book not only by Maurice Merleau-Ponty, but also one (1949) by Donald Hebb, Canadian expert in sensory deprivation studies. Clark offers us, with apparent approval, a gloss of Reeve and Kerridge’s study of Prynne as presenting “the punishment principle of avant-garde aesthetics”. What I perceive in Clark’s essay is a kind of sensory deprivation experiment, in which the victim is faced with an environment deprived of all meaning, seizes on tiny scraps of deceptive familiarity to get handholds, overrates these handholds, projects into the whirling grey blur their own dominant cognitive patterns, and finally declares the unknown environment to be completely familiar and interpretable. Hebb, a good gestaltist, tells us that the dynamic properties of the brain lead it to project pattern where pattern is missing. The pattern to which Clark reduces the unknown is the poems of Philip Larkin. In general, he seems to be clutching at straws and flailing at phantoms. There is indeed a link between the withdrawal of resolution, hypersuggestibility, and paranoia. Of course, Prynne’s aesthetic of difficulty often causes panic anxiety, feels like sensory deprivation, and invites misconstruction. Clark’s hypnagogic version of Prynne as Larkin in disguise is evidence of a problem of clarity, beside an aesthetic problem; namely that people have different perceptions of what “good pattern” is, and may experience incompleteness as anxiety as well as cognitive freedom. I know I can’t understand late Prynne, and attempts by other people to explain it seem dishonest and like fistfuls of straw. However, as long as there are people who can hear the music of mid-period Prynne, their stories are more interesting than wild projections. And while the brain’s capacity for forming hypotheses (the very act of construction) is the most extraordinary thing about it, the development of unresolved cognitive environments will be a path to mystery and delight, not to punishment.

The following is actually nothing to do with the ‘response’, but has been included here in an act of foregrounded discrepancy as homage to Cinema Discrepant and the surrealist film editor Stewart McAllister (1914–62).

The Bazaar of Sarotti

JH Prynne, Collected Poems (Bloodaxe, 1999)

(Note: This piece began life as an introduction to a planned issue of Angel Exhaust magazine where many upscale culturati were to write about Prynne; it was meant to fit around the edges of them, and give an overview. So its shape is rather odd. Sarotti’s is a Berlin chocolate manufacturer represented in my collection of chocolate wrappers; once owned by Georg Simmel’s stepfather. Prynne’s enthusiasm both for Simmel and for the display of wares makes this an appropriate symbol. The Prynne enthusiast sits around eating Sarotti’s edelfein and drinking Kümmel, into whose last droplet palest blue Reinheit is washed. Ah, but we have to check that it’s so.)
Good and bad Prynne

The chronological span offered by this collected Prynne re-presents us with the notorious split between the sweet (the Donnean eloquence of The White Stones of 1969, widely regarded also outside the small press sector as the classic achievement of English poetry in the past 40 years), and the fierce, scratchy, and impenetrable, hedged about with self-righteous and palpably false interpretations by the Faithful. One of the problems with these incomprehensible texts is that they can be used by the mainstream to wipe out the small press sector, in the following terms:
a) these poems are not understood by their readers
b) they are linguistic failures and so aesthetic ones
c) Prynne is the best small press poet, by general consent
d) therefore the rest of the small press sector is worse than a failure, and we can safely ignore it
e) and claim that Maxwell and Armitage are the new and progressive wing of British poetry.

So it becomes important to draw a dividing line between the Prynne poetry which is comprehensible and exciting, and the fuliginous growls. This is not simple. Brass (1971) is often given as the turning-point; however, I find that For the Monogram (1997) is appealing, in the sense that it is fun to read aloud, it has a humanistic fluency and openness, even if these qualities inhere in the “left hand channel” of gesture, such as syntax, line length, and enjambement, as the “right hand channel” of detailed meaning is completely irretrievable. I think everyone would agree that Bands Around the Throat, Not-You, and Her Weasels Wild Returning are rebarbative and opaque. The Oval Window is an interesting case, because its apparent opacity has vanished since Reeve and Kerridge’s paper given at the Cambridge Conference of Contemporary Poetry in 1992 (was it?), and later printed in their book on Prynne, Nearly Too Much. They demonstrate its sense as a depiction of the gravity organ in the inner ear, a cluster of unstable lumps, responsive through instability to fine shifts, which provides us with precise orientation and so with the ability to achieve stability in the vertical dimension. This is one of the great moments of modern criticism. The suggestion that identity is located in the inner ear is plausible, since it has been found out that people whose sense of spatial orientation is weak easily become disoriented, they are prone to anxiety and confusion; an integrated map of space is the prerequisite to self-possession.

On the other side, it holds among most of those who have read them that The White Stones  and Brass are classics, whose beauty consists in arousing our alertness and not in cheating it. Word Order (1986) defeats simple chronology, because it is lucid; its meaning is written in it, even if that meaning is a despair about the act of meaning in a linguistic community whose shared symbols have become corrupted by a modern panoply of abuses. The other classificatory attempt, dividing the work into “complex syntax and long lines”, held to be sweet and beautiful, and “simple and gnomic syntax, short lines”, taken as spiky and unpalatable, fails as a chronological divider, as Fire Lizard (1970) clearly belongs to the second group, and For the Monogram (1997) to the first. Opinions are divided about the works of the 1970s, an era when the collapse of central political accommodations sucked poetic language into a turbulence of simultaneous joy and despair; the instability which, at its crudest, brought an upsurge of the Left of the Labour Party, so a potential socialist ministry, and at the same time the rise of the Right of the Conservatives, with its sequel of nineteen years of “dancing with dogma”, wiped out the marvellous equanimity of The White Stones, and either subsumed and destroyed that voice, or was subsumed by it to stage instability, a whirl in which both the poem and the world outside it were disintegrating and re-creating themselves at the same time. This period would include A Night Square, Into the Day, Wound Response, High Pink on Chrome, News of Warring Clans, and Down Where Changed. To aid judgement of this promise of discontinuity, recall that although the era since the 1970s has been one of rising property prices and strong returns on capital, the social order under attack really has broken down; the structures of everyday life have changed, and just as these resist the political history which looks at the ministers in charge in Whitehall, the statues being melted down or erected, so also poetic change is locked into fine details, in overall process rather than in varying appropriations of public symbols, of the virtuous working class or the problem-solving power-dressed entrepreneur.

I find the distribution of difficulty and lucidity in these works so complex that it is pointless to set it out; one can define them as transitional.

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.

            (“Moon Poem”)

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.

Jacket 24 — November 2003  Contents page
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