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Friday, October 16, 2015

Robert Sheppard: Far Language: Reading Prynne and Others



Veronica Forrest-Thomson: Poetic Artifice, Manchester University Press.

JH Prynne: Down where changed, Ferry Press.

Peter Ackroyd: Notes for a New Culture, Vision Press.


Poetic Artifice explores the various techniques and devices that make poetry a special form of discourse and, above all for Veronica Forrest-Thomson, an autonomous form of language, separate from ‘everyday language’ and prose.  Her study’s seriousness and complexity is the antithesis of the engag√© naivety exemplified by books like Raban’s The Society of the Poem, which reduces art to a function of sociology: the sort of thing that is fashionable within contemporary poetry courses in our universities.  Forrest-Thomson’s “Preface” is vital reading for anybody truly concerned with the health of poetry now, and I hope to show that, although she tangles the umbilicus of Art and Life, she by no means severs it; she is overstating her case to achieve a clarity of polemic, to make her readers stop before they presume to state what a poem means, to realise (with Wittgenstein) that ‘a poem, even though it is composed in the language of information is not used in the language-game of giving information’.  The enemy is what she terms Naturalisation, ‘an attempt to reduce the strangeness of poetic language and poetic organisation by making it intelligible, by translating it into a statement about the non-verbal external world, by making the Artifice appear natural’.  We need to dwell on the internal dynamic of the poem, to avoid both ‘external expansion’, pushing our derived ‘meanings’ into the world, and the ‘external limitation’ of only examining poetic artifice (formal patterning etc.) in the light of our thematic interpretations or our too hasty paraphrasing.  ‘Expansion must take place within the limits imposed by the poem’s style.’  Thus expressed, it appears obvious enough, but a brief meditation will reveal how often in critical interpretations these limits are brutally transgressed, to the detriment of a full reading of a poem.

The book, through a study of the various forms of poetic logic and artifice in the works of Shakespeare, Pound, Empson, amongst others, is seeking to demonstrate ‘how to read a poem’.  She endeavours to show that ‘Good naturalisation dwells on the non-meaningful levels of poetic language, such as phonetic and prosodic patterns and spatial organisation, and tries to state their relation to other levels of organisation rather than set them aside in an attempt to produce a statement about the world’.  (Her full list contains the Conventional, Phonological/Visual, Syntactic, and Semantic levels.)  These coalesce to produce what she calls the Image-Complex where the relevant devices from the hierarchical levels of poetic organisation on her list are brought together to point towards a thematic synthesis that hasn’t dodged the question of the role of Artifice, that doesn’t rely upon extended meaning or imposed ‘interpretations’.

(Radicals will be seething by now.  But, briefly Forrest-Thomson points out, ‘It is only through artifice that poetry can challenge our ordinary linguistic orderings of the world, make us question the way in which we make sense of things, and induce us to consider its alternative linguistic orders as a new way of viewing the world’, but this is untied to dogma, and the poem comes first.  In Marcusean terms perhaps, this is not too far from saying that the Aesthetic Principle undermines the Reality Principle).

As a phenomenology of correct reading along it is useful, but Veronica Forrest-Thomson is suggesting something more.  The book is half a theoretic for a poetry just beginning to be written, and exemplified for her in the work of JH Prynne.

There is no escaping the ‘tendentious obsecurity’ of Prynne’s poetry.  Down where changed, his latest book of short, untitled lyrics, is prefaced by the epigraph, ‘Anyone who takes up this book will … have a half formed belief that there is something in it.’    The question that any reader has to ask himself is, what is there, then, in it?

Take one ‘lyric’:


You have to work it out

the passion-scribble

of origin swallowed up


the inserted batch of fission

lacks its label, grips its fever

you strike your fill of that.


A continuous sentence, one comma.  To naturalise: ‘You …’ is perhaps an address to the reader on the difficulties of interpretation.  The ‘passion-scribble’, the original lyrical impulse and/or act, is absorbed (lines 2 and 3 set in invisible parenthesis) by something.  The passion-scribble = the inserted batch = the poems.  They are inserted in a batch (‘Down where changed’ itself) and fission is their outcome: they split, fall away into meaninglessness or an infinitude of interpretations and guesses.  The batch ‘lacks its label’ (the ‘lyrics’ are untitled and their origins in experience, the ‘lyrical occasion’, are ‘swallowed up’ by its style.  They also lack the identity of lyrics at the Conventional level.)  The alliteration suggests harmony.  The caesura of the solitary comma couples the phrases either side of it at a syntactic (and rhythmic), though not semantic, level.  It is a loose strand in the poem’s tapestry of meaning (as so far I have inepted traced my naturalisation); if we pull too hard the whole will disintegrate.  (What does, or could, ‘Grips its fever’ mean?  What is the relationship of ‘fission-fever-fill’; of ‘scribble-strike’, as actions of the pen?  Other poems disturb our syntactic assumptions constantly.  Thus’ introduces non-sequiturs; we sense patterning as part of the image-complex, without (beyond?) meaning.)  The assonance of ‘lack’ and ‘that’, the repeated address to the invisible ‘you’, slam the poem shut.  The reader (if indeed it is addressed to him) has had his fill.

This is the only poem I wish to examine.  I could repeat the exercise on others, but only to demonstrate my inability before Prynne’s poetry.  Others I find resound with a tranquil, if somewhat sterile, beauty.


The sick man polishes his shoes

wide-awake in the half light

what else should he do


as scent from the almond tree

‘abjures the spirit’ with its air

of mortification.  What is known


is the almanack set out

on a trellis, a pious gloss

over waste so clean and natural


that clothes out on a line

dwindle and then

new colours are there again.


Perhaps Forrest-Thomson would agree with Eliot that enchantment (I think it was) is the beginning of understanding.  ‘The minute attention to technical detail,’ she says of Prynne, ‘together with tendentious thematic obscurity, gives the poet a way of recapturing the levels of Artifice, of restoring language to its primary beauty as a craft by refusing to allow its social comprehension.’

The cultural ideas that have made both Forrest-Thomson’s criticism and Prynne’s poetry possible are examined in Peter Ackroyd’s Notes for a New Culture.  Although it is a polemical, theoretical book, it is also a critical history which traces, amongst other things, the development of the notion of the autonomy of language from Nietzsche and Mallarm¾, through Heidegger, where it is seen coupled with the death of the image of Man as represented by humanism, to Prynne himself.  For Ackroyd, he is the first poet ‘to exercise the full potential of the written language’, to subjugate the lyrical voice (and thus the subjective humanistic Self) to the anonymity of an ‘objective’ Language.  (Literature too is represented as an entity to have emerged from the relatively modern concept of Language.)  (For a full review of the book see Peter Riley’s fair assessment of its value and drawbacks in Poetry Information 17,  and chiefly the criticism that Ackroyd’s cultural history pays too little attention to the productive tension between the lyrical voice and Language, and the value of a writing that resides in that tension, between ‘human significance’ and tradition/convention, although Ackroyd acknowledges this to be one of the qualities of John Ashbery.)

‘The contemporary abstractions here, and the syntactical force which holds them within the same discursive context, exert an unfamiliar pressure upon the language,’ Ackroyd writes of Prynne’s Kitchen Poems (1968).  Down where changed contains the same mixture of tones and languages.  ‘Just a twitch of doubt we sail with’, he writes, with a public lyric voice that more properly belongs to his first collection, Force of Circumstance (1962).  ‘The consumption of any product is the destruction of its value’, begins another, resembling the Kitchen Poems themselves.  There are images of clairvoyance (the epigraph is from Practical Crystal-Gazing; see also the lyric quoted above), as well as demotic expressions (‘Shut yer face’).

Ackroyd goes to the limit - and beyond.  Prynne’s poetry is for him ‘completely written surface’; voice has been erased and so, he assumes, has meaning, a concept that Forrest-Thomson complicates in her schema, but does not exclude.  It has an autonomy denoted by its obscurity, it ‘contains varieties of contemporary language … within a written paradigm which changes its function’, but can Prynne’s lines:


We give the name of

ourselves to our needs.

We are what we want


 which Ackroyd quotes, have ‘no reference to anything except the presence of their written form’?  Surely we are better guided by Ackroyd’s later comment that Prynne’s poetry ‘exists somewhere between use and contemplation’.

Ackroyd tends to joy in Prynne’s meaninglessness rather than in the skill Prynne demonstrates in his handling of non-meaningful devices, although he acknowledges that ‘it is the ability of literature to explore the problems and ambiguities of a formal absoluteness which we will never experience.  For these forms seem to proclaim the death of Man’.  We’ve to ask ourselves I think as Gerald Graff does in ‘The Myth of the Postmodernist Breakthrough’ whether we’ve thrown out the baby with the bath-water in our formalist anti-humanism.  We know from Barthes that the Death of the Author (the lyric voice replaced by text) is the Birth of the Reader.  Despite these two ambitious beginnings there may be other ways of reading Prynne.



August 1979                                                                            Reality Studios 2:2, 1979

(Note 2015: Poetic Artifice is nearly back in print (at last!) HERE.) 

Link to new 'Introduction' and links to all contents of Far Language here.