J H Prynne: To Pollen / Field Notes: ‘The Solitary Reaper’ and Others

This review essay appeared, lightly redacted, in Oxford Poetry 2008, ed. Benjamin Mullen and J.C.H. Potts. The following year I was fortunate enough to hear Prynne read 21/22 of ‘To Pollen’ in Paris, a video of which reading is available here (I was unaware that the audience was also being filmed!). I’m not sure that Prynne’s affable and candid introduction offered me any novel insights into the sequence, but the precision of his articulation served to accentuate both syntactic jaggedness and cohesion. Bebrowed offers some further commentary upon the reading. I still can’t escape the feeling that the aesthetic strategies of ‘To Pollen’, and various other later Prynne poems, are too costly. Close-reading Prynne can sometimes ressemble unpacking a charades-style cryptic clue (indeed, there’s an essay to be written on the syntax of crosswords and that of avant garde poetry). Yet, my reservations about this particular sequence don’t mean that I do not like Prynne, or share many of his views about poetry’s social conscience. I do.

Both ‘To Pollen’ and ‘Field Notes’ are available from Barque Press.

Does difficulty narrow the rift between creative writing and criticism? In The White Stones (1968) Prynne invited his readers to pursue geological and anthropological journals cited in the footnotes to two poems. The half-irony of Eliot’s Waste Land notes (written as padding for its pamphlet) lies congealed beneath Prynne’s “references”: an austere bibliography gestures towards illumination, its knowing nod at the same time acknowledging the scholarly attendance invited by allusion. In Eliot’s case the notes flag his poem’s relation to tradition, hinting that a harmonious sphere, where literary sources are met with readerly competence, may be desirable. In Prynne’s, the technical discourses that cluster, even in this relatively early work, challenge any notion of poetic self-sufficiency. Literary tradition is not enough. Yet, if a poem knows that it cannot be read completely, it may well await its completion in secondary reading.

Prynne’s two most recent books prompt many questions about the nature of poetic difficulty, and how we deal with it. To Pollen (2006), a sequence of twenty-two untitled poems, and Field Notes (2007), an extended commentary on Wordsworth’s ‘The Solitary Reaper’, represent Prynne as both poet and critic, writing at the farthest ends of that spectrum. Field Notes replicates the format and typesetting of Prynne’s earlier “specimen of a commentary” on Shakespeare’s ninety-fourth sonnet; the poem-note relationship is in both cases inverted, with the poem “given on a final foldout page, positioned thus for convenient ease of consultation.” This tone, prevalent throughout, provokes a certain delight in the author’s punctilious care. Such extended close reading is itself a thesis on interpretative methods. Conversely, To Pollen calls out for theses. The poems, cut into blocks of thirteen lines, each of which hovers at around thirteen syllables and six stresses, appear as products of an alien artifice. The first sentence offers a foretaste:

So were intern attach herded for sound particle
did affix scan to ultramont, for not matter broke
could level cell tropic.

Initially baffling as To Pollen is, there are nevertheless enough lines to trace across its smoothly-chiselled surface to render closer analysis promising. Indeed, the experience of reading the sequence sparked, at least in me, an awareness of instinctive pattern-tracing, of dots here and there being connected. Even trying to read this poetry with such self-consciousness at a minimum, it is impossible to hide from the difficulty of its poetic. Since an interpretation must initially address this poetic, engineer a key to the poems’ encryption, before turning to the matter itself, there is a temptation to write on Prynne’s procedures rather than his poetry, to explain why we must read him like this. Such criticism, like Field Notes, would imply a thesis on what it is to read – but would it constitute a reading?

‘The Solitary Reaper’ is transparent in all areas that To Pollen is opaque: its syntax is easily followed, arises from single consciousness and details a clear progression of thought. Its speaker – presumably an urbane, intellectual poet, holidaying in Scotland – encounters a “Highland Lass” at work in the fields. She sings in a language he cannot understand, so he reflects on the possible subject of her song then goes his way, guarding the memory: “The music in my heart I bore, / Long after it was heard no more.” Prynne is quick to point out that the poem is not narrative, but reflective, a fact he identifies with its prosodic design:

the paired quatrain form embeds the ballad-narrative idea within the larger frame of the strophic lyric containment. […] With no ending and no beginning in action, this poem has taken up the potential narrative of its occurrence and re-folded it into a near-circular tale of the teller’s feelings and thoughts, with the timeline turned from linear sequence to deeper and deeper resonance in response and memory.

Whilst the poem is accessible, Prynne warns us against the complacence that might call it ‘easy’. The kind of formal analysis cited above, though surprisingly old-fashioned, demonstrates how much we can unpack from localized features. Field Notes contains much expertly-executed, ‘classic’ Practical Criticism of this kind. It ranges, however, far more widely than this. Prynne shows how much we can (should?) bring to a poem, besides extract from it.

An epigraph from James Clifford announces this approach. “Fieldnotes”, as a category of ethnographic writing, serve “to constitute and protect a bounded ‘object’ of study, a collection of textualized cultural facts that will serve as a fairly stable base for interpretation and theorizing even long after the field research has been accomplished.” Prynne’s book is in one sense a valuable depository of information, facts needed for a stable interpretation, gathered from fields around the poem. Its structure is reflected in the epigraphs. The first of these, from Nathaniel Paine Blaker’s Sussex in Bygone Days, recalls another encounter with a local-language folksong, though more southerly and later than Wordsworth’s (Blaker was born in 1835). Prynne, first of all, offers a “Narrative Preamble” and “Context Framing”, detailing Wordsworth’s 1803 visit to Scotland, the poem’s structure, composition and publication, as well as material on contemporary attitudes towards musical experience. Harvest work is treated more fully throughout the main “Commentary”, which I take as corresponding to Clifford, and which proceeds line-by-line, reflecting progressively on the nexus of relations implied by Wordsworth’s encounter. It is by far the longest section, and the closest to annotation Prynne comes. The final, more elusive epigraph is drawn from Beckett’s Company, on the virtue of repetitiousness: “To murmur, Yes I remember. What an addition to company that would be! A voice in the first person singular. Murmuring now and then, Yes I remember.” The second and third parts of Field Notes, which only occupy the last thiry pages, provide such an “addition” in an assortment of texts for comparison, from Dorothy Wordsworth to Rilke, and historical scholarship on the agricultural revolution. This third part is not so distinct from the second as the “Commentary” is from its preamble: it provides further examples of rustic reminiscence from the later nineteenth century. Considered alongside the epigraphs, though, ‘Part Three’ re-folds Field Notes in the direction of Blaker, whilst prompting a resonant response, Yes I remember.

Listening for resonance is a fundamental element of Prynne’s procedure. Field Notes may appear on first glance to be a diachronic analysis stuck in a bag of trouvailles. In fact, its argumentative and conceptual texture is distinctly close-knit. Plays on “fieldnote” further unite the project. Prynne continually extrapolates questions from the provenance of Wordsworth’s poem and places it in the context of “fieldnotes” taken by travellers in diaries. The subject is “full of paradox related to chronology”, since Wordsworth claimed in a note to the poem (published in 1807) to have been inspired by a passage in Thomas Wilkinson’s Tours to the British Mountains; ‘The Solitary Reaper’ itself is given in Dorothy Wordsworth’s diary from their 1803 highland visit, again pointing to Wilkinson as inspiration. “It is not uncommon in the more lonely parts of the Highlands to see a single person so [in reaping] employed,” she remarks. But did Wordsworth see the reaper? Was he primed by Wilkinson to see her? Even to read her in a certain way? As Prynne assesses both the social and phenomenal separation of Wordsworth’s speaker from the reaper, the ethical issue of subject’s attitude towards object is doubly charged by her possible fabrication.

Prynne traces the clustering of such problems in ‘The Solitary Reaper’. Discussing at such length a poem about an encounter, he emphasizes the nature of poems as meeting places, between the impersonal forces of history, society and tradition, and the cognitive immediacy of perception. The latter is particularly relevant here in the form of music. Much is said of the perception of melody with and without comprehension of semantic content, and the role of listener as opposed to a worker who regulates task-rhythms with those of song. The poem thus is ground for a discussion of the particularities of experience, its mediation, and communication.

‘The Solitary Reaper’ is reflective, and Field Notes provides reflective commentary. By contrast, Prynne’s Shakespeare book, whilst offering Wyatt’s ‘They Flee from Me’ as a point of comparison, was wrapped up in a rather Empsonian analysis of verbal texture. The sonnet in question had already attracted Empson on account of its ambiguity (he claimed 4,096 possible readings in Some Versions of Pastoral). It could only be termed ‘easy’ by the insane. Perhaps owing to its transparency, ‘The Solitary Reaper’ has suffered from what Prynne scorns as “naïve, face-value commentary”. The final paragraph of Field Notes exemplifies this with a quotation from Stephen Gill, which concludes that “what particularly moves [the speaker] is the image of someone with few material comforts, toiling arduously, but joyously self-sufficient in her own power of song.” Prynne’s preceding 130 pages disrobe us of any self-sufficient illusions. Whilst in no way cynically dismissing the “power of song”, Field Notes aims, realistically, to interrogate the origin of such utterances: “to represent without compromise the power of the imagination, to discover and communicate its central human truth, requires a determined abstention from setting up or even admitting the links of explanation and causal origin.” Prynne is blind neither to that power, nor those links.

Prynne’s notes are, of course, quite different from notes pointing out allusion. ‘The Solitary Reaper’ can be read quite ‘completely’ by itself, comprehension being unimpeded by ignorance of its resonances. Yet, if it were read completely before Prynne’s book, it is certainly read more deeply in the light of it. We could perhaps conceive of poetic comprehension in three-dimensions, with an initially ‘complete’ reading constituting one face of an object, later extruded by a set of “fieldnotes”. Explanations of allusions are really only working two-dimensionally, helping to constitute an initially complete understanding. It is thus possible to see the difficulties posed by allusion as sewing together the fabrics of a text and its criticism.

To Pollen is an allusive text, though this is not its primary difficulty. A few points of repair give us a dim sense of location (Iraq) but do not bring us close to clarification. The two epigraphs, one from the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh, another from Syrian poet Ali Ahmad Sa’id’s The Pages of Day and Night, form a kind of signpost. Hints of Hamlet and Lear, placed in parallel at the end of the first two poems, foreground the question of bringing an action into being:

[…] Along the seam
cresting to burn out black my interim destruction.

[…] Or while at loading
to stare plan off by ripeness event be done bluntly.

On the same theme, there is an (academically) hilarious swipe, via Kant, at the possibility of universally-justified action: “under / starry skies commit acts of stupendous cocky turpitude.” A reasonable interpretation of To Pollen could probably play off the various kinds of action involved in the poem, whose difficulty performs the disenfranchised reader’s sense of futility in active political resistance. The final lines have an action collapse in on itself: “Diminish the haft affix loosely proponent span / blood group indexical self-cut. Try doing it now.” We do not know what “it” is, other than an indexical (deictic, dependent on context) self-cut, the command’s mutilation of itself by lack of unambiguous reference. Besides taking part in a persistent botanical metaphor, the second epigraph also shows To Pollen as commenting on its own difficulty: “Sometimes the field sprouts nails, / so much does the field long for water.”

Pollen is clearly a fascinating subject for Prynne, representing life both systematically, as a bearer of genetic information, and poetically, as a metonym for nature. Perhaps here it also suggests the transplantation of troops. Biological scholarship, whilst only one of the various scientific discourses deployed by Prynne, nevertheless has the particular value of tightly tying conscious, bodily experience, to an abstract view of life that admits no personal agency. It is hence also animated by Prynne’s more recent turn towards systems and information-processing theories, prominent first in The Oval Window (1983) and used effectively to construct an entire poem (“Select an object with no predecessors. Clip off its / roots, reset to zero and remove its arrows […]”) in For the Monogram (1997). The poetic of To Pollen has in turn developed from this interest.

To Pollen roughly continues a development of style found in Prynne’s ‘90s collections, and more precisely the style of the post-1998 work not included in the second edition of his Poems. John Wilkinson, in his essay ‘Tenter Ground’ (anthologized in The Lyric Touch), suggests that

[w]ith the exception of Pearls That Were and of Triodes, these new texts share certain characteristics with memory boards: that is, they consist of flat modules in non-hierarchical arrays, each intricately etched, polycentric and with switchable polarity. […] For each text the stanzaic module is set and uniform, so in Red D Gypsum for instance, nine-beat lines compose eight-line stanzas.

The analogy is quite apt. These later books throw out syntactical strings that frequently cannot be parsed (or if so, ambiguously, and with much wrenching). Prynne’s earlier work, whilst still resistant, could nevertheless be read continuously as corresponding to regular syntactic structures. The late style marks a dramatic departure in terms of verse movement, allied to a concept of mechanical data-processing (which is not necessarily interpretation). A random passage from To Pollen can illustrate this movement:

                                           Wear orange a star in
plain azimuth formula chant from memory scrip as no
book all texts sacerdotal hunger murmur this.

Sense-groups seem to be released in small units, divided by prepositions and conjunctions (“Wear orange a star / in / plain azimuth formula chant / from / memory scrip / as /), or made to stand apart by internal grammatical apposition (“no book / all texts / sacerdotal hunger /). The flexibility is such that we could also have, say, “plain azimuth / formula chant” (taking the pairs as adjective-noun), or equally an entire “sacerdotal hunger murmur”, a famine hushed-up amongst the clergy, ‘substantivized’ as it hits the headlines (Simon Jarvis, writing on For the Monogram in Jacket, was the first to point out how close Prynne’s late syntax comes to the quasi-grammatical formulas of news headlines). What we are given here, essentially, is a series of ‘bits’, often comprehensible as fragments out of context, but which we are fed in an unceasing stream that we cannot decode. It is like watching data manipulated automatically without knowing how, or into what it is arranged. Indeed, “memory scrip” suggests “memory script”, presumably some procedure for information storage, as well as the “script”, “ascript” and “rescript” that crop-up elsewhere in the sequence. This “scrip” might also prompt the memory of Prynne’s earlier poem ‘Royal Fern’. Each of the ‘bits’ that we see getting handled could be used as a node from which we could construct a similar lattice.

This does not mean that To Pollen is an ‘open’ text. It achieves no paradoxical sense of closure by summoning an awareness of its possibilities; its sense does not partly arise from a celebration of ‘openness’. In fact, each line hums with a tone of authority, and the regular line and stanza divisions form a kind of enclosure in which the reader is passively shunted from one lexical field to another. Apart from the final line of each poem, only ten are end-stopped (I wonder at a pun: “no / Doha no prayer just try to formal link estopped.”). This constantly enjambed movement, combined with such fragmented syntax, strengthens the impression of mechanical shunting.

The difficulty of parsing To Pollen’s syntax in part arises from a lack of pronouns. These provide both grammatical orientation and a sense of agency. The few that there are in To Pollen seem patterned in such a way as to establish an antagonism between “they” and “you”, which occur the most frequently (fifteen and seventeen times, respectively, counting also oblique forms). There are no third-person singular pronouns. The three appearances of the first-person singular (one as a object), and the seven of the plural, are problematic, and difficult to ally to either camp. The first “I” seems complicit in some inimical they-activity (“They do / smooth out their terror photo snaps to the airport / ramps on deal too rugged I do a cut-out for them both.”), whilst the second appears as a victim. Many of these pronouns suggest reported speech: a pacifist resistant, for instance, says, “we will / crush no trail will show war by means of war denied”; an unconvincing guru demands, “Love your way.” To Pollen is not peopled, but there is shady humanity here. The central they-you axis (where “you”, as singular or plural, is even less determinate than “they”) prevails in a vague intuition of opposed communities that lack boundaries. Whilst human agency is not completely evacuated, it is highly compromised.

The above observations range generally across To Pollen and perhaps misrepresent it as uniform. Opposed to the predominant mechanistic verse-movement are occasional memories of natural speech:

[…] it hurt exactly even paces for read for second
face on look hold on to follow is great burning is
all forever all travellers used in the way further
along with many be quick.

This kind of repetition figure (elsewhere, for example, we have “no vigil, no truce”, or “to margin, to cancel”) is both the ghost of rhetoric, and quotation from the voice of a crippled speaker. To Pollen even approaches pathos in the startling penultimate poem, where the syntactical disruptions have the effect of a speech impediment. The third line, refusing to say “mouth” yet providing three metonyms, even suggests ‘similarity disorder’ aphasia:

All are disfigured. I saw a hole in my chest, feel
ashamed to plead for your own life it is utter crass
from a hole in the face word vomit lost for them, hurt
stain so much disowned.

We are made complicit in the mutilation of this victim. Prynne seems to state explicitly here what is implied elsewhere: that we cannot extricate ourselves from the lattices containing us and are hence “disfigured” in that any of our actions (even our existence) has necessary moral fallout. There are no mains that are not also sales.

Just as this penultimate poem nearly breaks into a less-challenging medium, others seem to provide some keys to their interpretation. The eleventh, lacking all pronouns, suggests a manual for military equipment (“Do not / remove until converged fully lit to both forward / mounts.”); the twelfth poem refers repeatedly to farming and milk (“The patch dairy fluid”). The nineteenth poem, almost a condensed reprise of Prynne’s earlier ‘Cool as a Mountain Stream’ (which, incidentally, refers to pollen), seems to correlate finance with dissatisfying sex:

                                                               As they advance
to the screen adjusting brightness ahead and primed up
for secure payment, see germination perplex all along
its imminent disclosure. The inward turn-off select
the hard shoulder like a child in hot ecstatic tedium.

These moments are chinks in To Pollen’s general cloudiness. It is easier to make something of them, in themselves, than the surrounding passages. Attention to local detail must, it seems, be replaced with global pattern-searching; that is, we can find sense in To Pollen by observing different fields of meaning: references to action, or “finish”, or violence – repression, seams, authority and mechanisms. This is all further illuminated by the politics implicit in its poetic. And yet, convincing as such a reading might be, it would seem to be discussing a version of To Pollen that has been disassembled, and could be reassembled in an arbitrary fashion without altering the interpretation. The reader or critic must work self-consciously, unpacking the poem ‘bit by bit’, whilst not necessarily attending to what is immediately there.

What Prynne says in Field Notes of Wordsworth’s self-consciousness applies here:

‘[T]o listen to music too hard – to hear it in terms of its component sounds, and to co-ordinate these with some production-orientated scheme of representation – is to risk not hearing music at all’ (Nicholas Cook, Music, Imagination, and Culture [Oxford, 1990], p.161). Truly to listen as Wordsworth desires must as a minimum require suspension of musical-analytic memory and inference, because precisely such functions will interrupt the completeness of listening. 

To Pollen is by no means infertile critical ground, but to criticize it seems to involve reconstituting it, whilst distancing us from the sequence itself. Yet, despite my wishing to be faithful to a “completeness of listening”, it is paradoxical that reading To Pollen leaves me feeling distinctly incomplete, in a way that criticizing it does not. Neither Field Notes nor Prynne’s Shakespeare book imply that extensive close reading is an endlessly iterative process, or that these poems are inexhaustible; rather, they make a pragmatic point that we can reliably chart the depths of poetry, which lie further below the surface than we might imagine. Prynne as critic looks down carefully; he does not gaze wide-eyed at a galaxy of signifiers in which the reader may freely romp. If explaining allusion fills out an initial understanding, criticism, after Prynne’s example, exists organically alongside its object-texts – literally so, when it is remembered. The difficulty of To Pollen, however, seems to risk tearing this seam completely. Its elucidatory criticism threatens to obscure it.

This entry was posted in criticism, difficulty, J.H. Prynne, poetry. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to J H Prynne: To Pollen / Field Notes: ‘The Solitary Reaper’ and Others

  1. bebrowed says:

    I’d like to thank you for posting this, it’s the only thing on ‘late’ Prynne that has made me re-consider my reading strategies. Later today I’ll be writing a more detailed response on Bebrowed but I’d like to ask if you would change anything in the light of the Mental Ears, Poetic Thought and Translation essays?
    Thanks again,

    • lexipenia says:

      Thanks for your comment, and I look forward to reading your piece. I’ll have to refresh my memory of ‘Mental Ears’; I read it in the Chicago Review a couple of years ago, but don’t recall much — I’ve not been thinking a lot about poetry in the last couple of years, truth be told. I’ll ferret it out this afternoon and get back to you!


  2. Pingback: Successful reading and writing about poetry | Bebrowed’s Blog

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