No 33 - Winter 2005
Andrew Neilson reviews Poems by J H Prynne (Bloodaxe £15) and Mandelson! Mandelson! A Memoir by David Herd (Carcanet £7.95)
The poetry of J.H. Prynne is, as one of his early poems is titled, The Glacial Question, Unsolved of contemporary British poetry. Here is the opening stanza of Unanswering Rational Shore, his sequence published in 2001:
Profuse reclaim from a scrape of belt, funnel do
axial parenthood block the mustard dots briefly
act forward, their age layer for layer in this
tied-off accession. Appellate at dictum at
its debit resonance fixing prolusion, optic rage
performs even dots right now. This is the top
passion play and counted for a renewal patch.
At this point some readers will recoil never to return. But let us pause to acknowledge the evident intelligence at work here – Prynne is not merely writing nonsense. The lines above form a parody of various forms of classic and contemporary discourse, chopped and interchanged through the course of the lines. At first glance, I can discern elements of the technical manual, latinate legal terminology, medieval Christian ritual and – in the passage’s most obscure word ‘prolusion’ (meaning a preliminary trial, an introductory essay) – the scientific textbook.
One way to understand what Prynne is about is to consider this given of phenomenological thought: that we, as human beings, experience the world as a subjective reality. Simply put: what constitutes as ‘real’ to us, with our five trusty senses, is not what is ‘real’ to a bat, for example, which pilots its way through the world using sonar. The visual impression that our eyes communicates to the brain, and which our brain tells us is a ‘chair’, may not be a chair at all. Indeed, what is a ‘chair’?
And so on. It is our consciousness which organises the first person impressions we experience and perhaps the most supreme creation of consciousness is language. What is language but a means to order, to name, the things that we perceive in the world? Prynne seeks to subvert language – the tool of the first person consciousness – to attempt to communicate what might actually be the reality of the world beyond our limited perceptions. This, combined with a variety of theoretical borrowings, from the linguistics of Saussure to the deconstructionism of Derrida, leads Prynne to passages such as the one quoted above. Linear syntax and narrative, as well as thoughts of entertaining the reader (or indeed the reader’s presence at all), are just some of the conventions thrown out as a means to disrupt language’s usual, but quite illusory, tasks of order and association. Parodic echoes of our discourse remain, but what we are supposed to hear in Prynne’s work is the ‘white noise’ of life beyond our own conscious experience.
Once we accept the rules of Prynne’s game, this collected Poems does an excellent job of communicating how he has developed his aesthetic over the years. Here is an early piece, from 1969’s The White Stones, titled The Wound, Day and Night:
…The covenants that bind
into the rock, each to the other
are for this, the argon dating
by song as echo of the world.
O it runs sweetly by, and prints over
the heart: I am supremely happy,
the whole order set in this, the
proper guise, of a song. You can hear
the strains so very far off: withdrawn
from every haunted place
in its graveness, the responsive
shift into the millions of years.
The visionary tone here is perhaps unsurprising for the 1960s and the lyricism can be found buried in even his most recent work. Nonetheless, it is strking how this piece of relative juvenilia reveals the Romantic roots of Prynne’s fascination with subjectivity.
Ultimately however, while I understand what Prynne is seeking to achieve, I cannot help but feel that he is an emperor without clothes. His work simply does not justify the exalted position he is held in by some of his champions in academia, whose appetite for his hermetic disquisitions seems directly linked to Prynne’s potential for reams of explicatory essays. The poet’s odd moments of lyricism are often fixed upon by his apologists as a means to emphasise his true status as a ‘genius’, as if the rest of his verse was the purgative necessary to allow the indulgence of a sub-Wordsworthian phrase. Needless to say, great poetry doesn’t work that way.
Great poetry does haunt Prynne, as here in the opening stanza of Marzipan:
We poor shadows light up, again
slowly now in the wasted province
where colours fall and are debated
through a zero coupon, the defunct
tokens in a soft regard.
Shakespearian language ( “poor shadows” of Cymbeline – “Poor shadows of Elysium, hence; and rest / Upon your never-withering banks of flowers” ), filtered through the beauteous minimalism of Samuel Beckett, is not uncommon in Prynne – but compared to those writers he is all tone and no cadence. Perhaps this is part of his deliberate policy of subversion. Perhaps it merely highlights a fallible ear.
The sad truth is that Prynne has founded a career on the mimetic fallacy: that in writing about disruption, disassociation and impenetrable mysteries one must write disrupted, disassociated impenetrable mysteries. Or close enough to. The emphasis on the impersonal in Prynne’s work appears to stem from a common misreading of T.S. Eliot’s seminal Modernist essay Tradition and the Individual Talent. Eliot’s essay is a polemic, and like all polemics can only be understood if we understand the context in which it was written. It is the twee and easy emotionalism of the Georgian lyric popular in the early 20th century that Eliot was in particular provoked by, and which led him to describe art as “impersonal”. Eliot is rejecting many Romantic notions – of great poetry channelling through the poet, of the image of the poet as an exceptional being, of the primacy of the poet’s subjective emotions. What could be glamourously persuasive in the work of Shelley was much diminished in the tired rehashings of the Georgians. Eliot is not necessarily advocating the finished work itself to be impersonal – a cursory glance at The Waste Land will demonstrate how Eliot repeatedly ignores his supposed advice if that was the case – but advocating an impersonal approach to the process of writing. In his austere monologues however, Prynne seems to take Eliot’s injunctions at face value.
In point of fact, Tradition and the Individual Talent talks much about using emotions and the “ordinary ones” at that. Eliot would have frowned upon the excessively subjective and visionary language of that early poem of Prynne’s quoted earlier. And while Prynne moved on to develop the style he is known for, I suspect that this style is merely another way of portraying the poet as an exceptional being, handing down hermetic texts for his disciples to decipher. It is easy to see the difficulty of Prynne’s work as a virtue, and indeed great poetry is almost always difficult, but difficulty does not for and of itself elevate the verse in question to the heights of Parnassus. True, Prynne’s grand endeavour – in seeking to subvert language and attempt to portray the world beyond our subjective experience – sounds notionally impressive. How brave of him to venture there! Of course, he must deny himself a community of feeling with his readership. Yet equally it can be seen quite differently. Here is a writer who has valorised theory above practice and who has developed a style which is not original but merely novel. As Eliot also writes:
One error, in fact, of eccentricity in poetry is to seek for new
human emotions to express; and in this search for novelty in the
wrong place it discovers the perverse.
Prynne’s methodology is based on the presumption that only radically new ways of writing can hope to interpret our postmodern, globalised, fragmented world. But he lacks the essential humanism of a writer like W.S. Graham, say, and in straying so fundamentally from a shared emotional response with his readership, Prynne is guilty of the same hubris as those avant-garde contemporaries of Eliot that are warned not to seek “new human emotions” in the passage above. It is unfortunate, as Prynne is not a writer without talent, but the perverse novelty of his work swiftly wears off.
David Herd, erstwhile co-editor of Poetry Review with Robert Potts, has now published a debut collection of his own poetry, Mandelson! Mandelson! A Memoir. It is a whimsical affair, considerably less dry than the journal which he edited, and is aligned with what might be described as the avant-garde in British poetry. Herd has previously written a book of criticism on John Ashbery, and the New York School of Ashbery and O’Hara form a clear influence on his own work.
I should pause to explain the distinction I have just made. It would be easy to describe Herd’s work as simply postmodern in its concerns – as also the work of J.H. Prynne – rather than as ‘avant-garde’, a once respectable term made ridiculous by some of its continuing adherents, like Marxism or the music of The Cure. I resist terming Prynne or Herd as postmoderns for the simple reason that we are all postmoderns. Whether one is a fan of the theory or not, one would be hard-pressed to deny that we live in a postmodern age, or the “age of Mandelson” as Herd’s blurb chooses to describe it. What marks out someone like Herd to my mind as avant-garde is his inability to get over the fact of postmodernity. Most contemporary poets worth their literary salt have accepted postmodernity as a given, assimilated its lessons into the traditions they are working in, and moved on. Take two great luminaries – Paul Muldoon and Seamus Heaney – one often seen as exclusively a postmodern ironist, the other an ‘old-fashioned’, undoubtedly ‘mainstream’ writer. Yet the neo-Platonism of Heaney’s Seeing Things is as inextricably bound up with his intelligent encounter with postmodernity as Muldoon’s Madoc. Muldoon himself, meanwhile, resists classification with the sheer breadth of his oeuvre. Take two younger British poets: the metrical and rhyming Paul Farley continually engages with a world of surface, his odes to objects finding pathos in his alienation from the same Platonic certainties that Heaney renegotiates, while the freer verse of Kathleen Jamie asks whether we can root the self in a rootless world – without denying the complexities, difficulties and perhaps impossibility of that question.
Herd’s poetry, on the other hand, is stuck at a realisation that seems almost adolescent. It’s as if he’s just discovered that people have sex, and can’t stop talking about it:
‘How comfortable are you?’ ‘Do you feel relaxed
in your universe?’ ‘Are there some days you feel a
little hemmed in, like you can’t quite breathe, as if
there’s no possibility of expansion?’ ‘Looking back
at it now, is this what you’d been given to expect?’
‘Do you fit the bill?’ ‘Does the bill fit you?’ ‘If you
were drawing up the bill now, what would it look
like?’ ‘Who pays?’…The trouble with questioning,
of course, is that once you’ve started it’s hard to
It is indeed. This is an extract from Herd’s interminable and extraneous preface, or ‘Disclaimer’, to Mandelson! Mandelson! It is made doubly extraneous as the collection is full of disclaimers and qualifying statements, from the painfully arch titles (‘In Which the Poet, Trying to Come Up With a Title for the Book he is Writing, becomes Anecdotal; and his Loyal Companion of Several Years’ Standing Helps Out By Throwing a Log on the Fire’) to his flat attempts at emulating the inimitable wit and adroit shifting of registers found in Ashbery and O’Hara:
America, though, that’s something else isn’t it.
(I mean the landmass, clearly, and not the state.
Not that there’s not an overlap;
Just something over also.
Let’s call it ‘space’ for a moment.
Let’s call it ‘light and space’.)
Call it, ‘standing, beside a body of water’,
Trees growing towards the water’s edge,
And there is State, this is Maine or Massachusetts,
But there is standing also, in unseasonable clothes,
If happily. To clarify, ‘My clothing though unseasonable
was happy’; ‘I was happy standing in seasonably inappropriate
clothes’; Regardless, I was standing, happy in Massachusetts.’
(‘In Which the Poet Speaks of Time Spent in America,
While Noting, in Passing, an Alimentary Complaint’)
Is this really poetry? Where is the tension to the lines, the skilful handling of sound and metaphor - techniques that I fear might be dismissed by some as ‘outmoded practice’? I suspect that Herd is simply a bad writer, but in relation to his work – and to some extent Prynne’s Poems – let me quote Don Paterson, who in his T.S. Eliot lecture last year talked about “the deliberate and inept foregrounding of form and strategy over content” and
poems whose main subject we ultimately identify
as the self-consciousness of their own artifice. It
is a project wholly blind to one of the first rules
of reading, something any literate, non-practising
reader would tell them: that there is nothing quite so
boring and predictable as a work consisting solely
Meanwhile, Peter Mandelson has little to fear from this collection. Herd does not approve of New Labour and he has deduced, quite correctly, that the postmodern concern with surface is mirrored in New Labour’s own practices – all that stuff about public image, focus groups and malleable approaches to the truth. None of this is new to the world of politics, of course, but this does not stop Herd getting excited in that slightly adolescent manner once more. As the
primary architect of New Labour, Mandelson becomes the poetry’s oblique target. And a most oblique target he proves to be, as Herd’s idea of political engagement is a poem such as March 9th, 2001, referring to circumstances surrounding Mandelson’s first resignation from the Cabinet, and quoted in its entirety:
‘I did not lie, I did not deceive, I did not set out to mislead.’
The jokiness, the coy avoidance of direct address, the sheer non- event of this kind of writing means that the poet comes across as little more than a dilettante – which is ironic, as the received image of Mandelson as dilettante, the ‘guacamole not mushy peas’ Mandelson, is one which Herd seems to be uncritically embracing. Behind all the supposed subtlety and cleverness is hidden little more than crude political caricature. Poetry is meant to be about embracing life’s complexities but in his treatment of Peter Mandelson
and all he represents, David Herd’s approach proves ultimately reductive.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
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- Poetry Salzburg Review
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- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
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- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
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