AUGUST 23, 2019
IN 1963, AT THE age of 26, the young J. H. Prynne gave a radio talk on the BBC called “The Elegiac World in Victorian Poetry.” The previous year, Prynne had published his first book, Force of Circumstance, which was filled with metrical poems in rhyming stanzas, written in the style and context of the English modernism-skeptic poets who came to be known as The Movement. It is the one book that Prynne has excluded from his first collected poems. In the radio talk, Prynne argued that the “meditative” poets of mid-19th-century Britain “abandoned the ambition to present the reflecting mind as part of an experiential context and withdrew into a self-generating ambience of regret.” So much, so modernist. Prynne was beginning to distance himself from the modernist-skeptics who, on account of their suspicion of schematic or theoretical accounts of literary history, would never have dismissed a whole era of poetry.
For the Movement, there were simply good poems and bad poems. For many modernists, chiefly Ezra Pound and those who followed him, there were generations whose poets understood the point of poetry and who invigorated their culture. Then there were generations whose poets didn’t. “And for 180 years almost nothing,” Pound had written in The Pisan Cantos in the 1940s, condemning the British and American poetry of the 19th century — as well as most of the 18th. The young Prynne shortened the timeline so that he could include the Romantic poets in his canon.
But Prynne’s description of how poetry went bad does not follow the standard modernist line that poetry went stale. Instead, Prynne sees the post-Romantic withdrawal “into a self-generating ambience of regret” as one achieved by poets with “an amazing degree of control over incantatory techniques, designed to preserve the cocoon of dream-like involvement.” What exactly he means by this is a good question. Presumably, these incantatory techniques that the Victorian poets deployed to regrettable ends were meters and rhymes — though meter and rhyme in themselves do not seem to have been the problem (Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats all wrote in meter and often in rhyme). Instead, the Victorians seemed to share too much concern for rhyme and meter or to have overdeveloped rhyme and meter in their poems, effectively replacing thought, representation, and argument. Again, seemingly in standard modernist fashion, Prynne has largely avoided rhyme and meter in his own work since Force of Circumstance.
But just as the history of poetry is far more complicated than Pound and his adherents would have it — neither a straightforward evolution nor a series of wrong turns and right turns — Prynne’s relationship to rhyme and meter have been fraught and shifting. In his two most recent books, Prynne seems to be returning to rhyme as a “late style” in Edward Said’s sense of the strange, oddly new, and oddly belated styles that great artists produce as they reflect on their life’s work. “Late Prynne” has often enough been used to describe all of Prynne’s poems published since the mid-’90s. But now, in 2018 and 2019, Prynne is looking at the world around him, unequal and primed for political and environmental catastrophe. Perhaps there is a voice in his head, a second self, no matter how quiet or loud, that asks what his contribution to this world has been. For a reason known or unknown, that voice has called him toward rhyme.
Turning 83 this summer, Prynne has sustained a poetic practice through the economic period of embedded liberalism and into the neoliberal epoch in which we now live. In the past year, he has published two new collections, Or Scissel (2018) and Of Better Scrap (2019). These are not Prynne’s Brexit poems or Trump tirades, though there are traces of these political realities: the Tories seem to appear as the “leave behind litter party” in “Liquid Persistence,” and the line “to trumpery beaten out” can only sound like wish fulfilment in “Addle Bird” (both in Of Better Scrap). Poems of the long-lasting post-2008 austerity era would be a truer account of their spirit. A poem with the title “Draconian Held Tight” contains the lines “unequal / provision disclaimed if or when print acceptance.” They are poems written in keen awareness that the neoliberal order has proved intractable and governmental control of national populations has only intensified. A poem called “Entitlement” that does seem to be in some way about contemporary political leaders, or racist strongmen in the context of neoliberal austerity, sets appeals to “blood fusion,” or the rise of social groups organized around racial identity, alongside the call to “segregate” as a racist solution for the “primal shortage” of resources since the crash of 2008.
These are highly original books in Prynne’s oeuvre in terms of his relationship to rhyme. Or Scissel begins with a poem in rhyming stanzas called “All Such to Life.” The last two stanzas look like this:
By leaf turning, its colour
so clear to find
in itself its fond allure
to love assigned
Such voices set fiery
within, and through
the field of folk unwary
in shape as true
It is a captivating poem, slow and full of contradiction, navigating feelings of loving connection and utter disconnection. Since Force of Circumstance, Prynne has only written rhyming poems in two collections: Down Where Changed (1979) and Pearls that Were (1999). Both are somewhat elegiac works, and in neither does Prynne use rhyme simply: rhyme is always partially resisted or sped away from or ironized or only briefly allowed. In “All Such to Life,” it is stable: a way through, a sound shape of the truth. In a way, both Or Scissel and Of Better Scrap are Prynne’s response to the fact that he wrote “All Such to Life.” He both tries to understand why he wrote it and tries to understand whether he should return to a more familiar writing practice — or whether the poem demands a change.
He does not write another one like it. By the end of Or Scissel, his poems look very different, and the collection ends with a poem called “The Way, Forward”:
If beyond doubt, hand-fast
care for rising profile again temper not
to excuse eye fortune or its near double,
chance occasion benign for steep native
pertinency rapid into transit endowed
subsistence. The way, forward step-fast,
hand by clue in hand.
It is a poem that combines an ethical condemnation of individualism with a question about the relationship between subjectivity and language. We are “not to excuse” what is written as “eye fortune” but in which can be heard “I-fortune,” the “near double.” All of this is linked up with cultures of fame (“rising profile”), racism (“native”), and inherited wealth or poverty (“endowed subsistence”). But the play on the homonyms “eye” and “I,” called “near double,” raises the question of how accounts of the self are constructed from overhearings, from suggestions, from rhymes between a said word and an unsaid word. “Dost Dialogue with thy shadow?” from Timon of Athens is the epigraph for the book. Prynne only claims to have a “clue” about how this question is considered in poetry — and it is the same mere “clue” he has for understanding why he wrote “All Such to Life.”
Of Better Scrap is a greater work than Or Scissel: a larger book, more poems, and more daring. The explorations that “All Such to Life” demanded now lead Prynne to make lexical repetition and play into principles of composition, repeating word forms or phonemes that may or may not have etymological connections. In the poem “Finding Where Joined,” the title of which seems to describe this style, Prynne writes:
Forbear twins along a plane,
foil direction will meet compacted folio, folded
in waiting, block.
We watch and hear the word “foil” shift to “folio” and then “folded” as the words meet, are compacted and folded. The poem ends with the line, “as this why, forward, reason to raisin, magnify.” The “reason” to “raisin” link is obvious and pretends that there is a real sense connection between the words, as though “raisin” developed historically from “reason.” But Prynne also seems to play on a connection between “as this why” and “magnify,” not only because of a kind-of rhyme between the “why” and “-fy,” but also because each set of letters offers a series of the vowels “a,” “i,” and “y” with different consonants between them. Prynne has had a long-standing interest in this kind of writing practice, but it has generally been a minor chord in his poems, rather than the theme itself. Other chords, such as scientific discourses and capacious literary allusions, had already faded in Or Scissel. Yet in Of Better Scrap, Prynne gives himself over to rhyme in another guise — and sometimes in its own guise with poems such as “Evermost True” and “Land Flown So Few.” This is Prynne accepting that he is a master of incantatory technique.
Like Or Scissel, though, Of Better Scrap is also marked by a singular poem, “To Them.” It is dated March 18, 2019, presumably one of the collection’s last poems to be written, and it is printed on a free piece of paper, tucked into the book, so that it can be moved throughout the poems or placed next to any, to be read alongside. It does not initiate the struggling path of the poems that follow, as “All Such to Life” does. Instead, it is a straining effort to hold the book to an interpretation, a tender argument that the book does have a discernible and particular meaning. The poem opens with a rhyming quatrain:
It is however for to love and other care
in the day of flight, each one of when
turn to look and long given, under fair
prodigy out hand by level share placement
there first before, certain advocate sign
lapwing ever flutter.
Prynne strains, calmly and desperately, to say something about his poems: they are about people loving each other, whether they know each other or not. They are “for” a purpose, which is “to love.” The language is almost childish, tripping over itself to say something it is afraid is either too complicated to say or too naïve to be worth saying. At points it sounds like Prynne has simply removed some words, as “each one of when turn to look” seems to be missing the pronouns “us” and “we.” Each one of us, when we turn to look, should act with love and care toward whomever we see. The words have been removed because our way of understanding “we” and “us” is part of what gets in the way of our ability “to love.” But the words that remain mark the compulsion to deliver a message nonetheless.
No doubt there will be many other things said about this book by other readers of Prynne, but I find this poem to be the most vulnerable in his oeuvre. After writing a strange book that has very little to do with conventional sense, that is indeed primarily concerned with lexical play, Prynne writes a poem that seems to be a summary reflection, claiming that the primary meaning of these poems is love and equality for all (“fair” and “level share” are notable in these opening lines). These poems are a work “To Them,” a nameless, faceless set whose anonymity must be endured if the commitment to love and support is not self-interested. The poem ends, “lift to them and them as for now most.” What is most vulnerable of all is that Prynne seems unsure that this is a fitting interpretation of Of Better Scrap — or of any of his poems. But he writes in hope as he envisions himself continually taking flight to the realm of human imagination: “lapwing ever flutter.” I think he succeeds.