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This article is taken from PN Review 159, Volume 31 Number 1, September - October 2004.Diary
On 30 March this year, a party of English poets and poetry readers - mostly from Cambridge - were in Paris for a poetry reading. At 6.30 pm, `Quatre Poètes Contemporains' read their work in the Grande Salle, Reid Hall, a Columbia University building just off Boulevard du Montparnasse. Two of the poets - Christophe Fiat and Jean-Michel Espitallier - were French; two - J.H. Prynne and Keston Sutherland - were English. Sutherland, 27, is a regular and remarkable public reader of his own work in Cambridge and elsewhere. Prynne, older by forty years and Sutherland's former tutor, has given only one other public reading since the 1960s. In the meantime, publishing privately or through small presses, he has produced a body of work which conducts its lyrical enquiry with the forgotten seriousness of Eliot and Pound.
The last time he read, Prynne tells Robert Potts, co-editor of Poetry Review, as the English contingent stand outside in the courtyard beforehand, was in Bristol in 1998, at an event to honour the American poet Ed Dorn, who was dying. Prynne, a friend of Dorn, felt he could not refuse the invitation. He offers no explanation as to why he has decided to break again with what seemed to be a settled policy of silent publishing. To read in France rather than England, though, seems implicitly to acknowledge the critical hostility that his work still attracts here.
Poetry Review is notable for its recent efforts to change the outsider status of what is vaguely known as `Cambridge School' poetry - and is, in fact, what happened to Modernism in England after Larkin. But Larkin's critically limited horizons continue to be the preferred English view. Last year, Neil Astley, editor of Bloodaxe Books, wrote a piece attacking Poetry Review and its contributors which threw the words `intellectual' and `avant-gardist' around like pint glasses in a pub fight; a depressingly confused intervention from the British publisher of Prynne's last collected Poems (1999 - a new edition is forthcoming this year).
More recently, Prynne's inclusion in the new Oxford English Literary History for 1960-2000 was `debated' in the broadsheets and on the Today programme. The inability of the English media - and, worse, many English academics - to take poetry seriously was cheerfully affirmed, as Prynne was labelled a `baffling bard' who `at one stage, as if fearing a lapse into intelligibility... actually started writing in Chinese'.
This last allegation exaggerates - and misunderstands - for effect. The 440-page collected Poems contains one page in Chinese, a composition from 1992 entitled `Jie ban mi Shi Hu' (`Going Together to Seek Stone Lake'). Its inclusion, in the author's own Chinese calligraphy, stands as a gesture of friendship to a country with which Prynne has long fostered good relations. In China, a translation of Pearls That Were - Prynne's 1999 chapbook, published in an edition of 500 in England - has sold over 50,000 copies.
Prynne is serious about literary internationalism. In 1963, he wrote:
We have perhaps grown too used to the idea that... it was the Anglo-American revolutionary initiative that consolidated the European importance of `modernism'. In this view there is of course room for some credit to the French symbolistes... But there is less room for real comprehension of Mallarmé or Valery, and neither Paul Eluard nor René Char can be said to come into the picture at all.
In his introduction to the Grande Salle reading he paid tribute to the language of his hosts as `la langue de Racine; la langue de Baudelaire; la langue de Francis Ponge' - three centuries of poetic innovation.
The mutual admiration between Prynne and France is long-standing. Poems was dedicated `à la memoire Bernard Dubourg', who translated all of the early work into French at a time when it was hardly being read in English. And the Paris reading by `le plus importante' English poet - from a new, unpublished work in English - was prefaced for the local audience with excerpts from a translation of Pearls That Were by the young French poet Pierre Alferi (who lists among his other translation credits `John Donne' and `la Bible').
Before this, however, two of Alferi's contemporaries read from their work. The Grande Salle is a low-ceilinged, wood- panelled function room, with 60 or so chairs set out on the wooden floor. About 40 are occupied. At the far end of the room there is a piano in one corner, and, in the centre, a large round wooden table set before a capacious moulded fireplace topped by a small classical statue. Into this intimate, pre-industrial environment, Christophe Fiat and Jean-Michel Espitallier introduce microphones, a portable stereo, and a laptop.
`High-end' is a phrase used by audio-visual buffs for state-of-the-art equipment. The contemporary French avant-garde, on this showing, aspires to relocate the cutting- edge at the high-end. Fiat's use of a cassette player is admittedly pretty low-end for a man with such a slickly- designed website (www.christophefiat.com), but the roughness makes its own point. His performance consists of standing by the table with a cordless microphone giving a clinical account of a Bosnian war crime, then waiting in arrhythmic silence for the tape to repeat its indistinct, tri- lingual hotel-advert jingle. When this has happened several times, a fuzzy guitar begins thrumming and the details of the story are intoned, intensely, again. Espitallier uses a more sophisticated sound-loop. The last poem of his set begins with the words `Je ne comprends rien'. The phrase is picked up by a pre-programmed laptop and repeated with increasingly amusing distortions of pitch as the poet continues to read the text in front of him - a compilation of pseudo- simplistic explanation of scientific laws and theorems.
Appearing between these two multi-media artists, Keston Sutherland seems, for the first time, touchingly old- fashioned. He stands in front of the table, mikeless, reading from a book. The poetry, though, is not to be mistaken for parlour verse. First, at speed, `A Pow Ode' (`For a second leave it out purposeless / have I a new run verging heart / pounding the floor flat out take / me with you'); then, more slowly, the opening lines of `Ode: What You Do':
What is death? It is the summation
statement of generations of prejudicial vote.
Dirt polishes up pretty good.
Sutherland has a startling reading style, jerking back and forth with each switch of register. It would be hard to shoot him in full flow. This display of agitation finds a physical correlative for the tenor of the poetry: the protests of a sincerely-enquiring individual confused to breaking point between incompatible types of language / types of life. (As in the above stanza: a simple, unanswerable question receives an unwieldy analytical answer; the poem channel- hops to a phrase that is both funny and hard to place - insanely stoic poverty? infantile tactile distraction?)
On the page Sutherland's poetry is messy but martialled; excessive sentences are torqued into regular stanzas or indented verse-paragraphs. His readings humanise the visual assault with a passion which is at first embarrassing for an Englishman; then refreshing for its refusal to allow the poetry audience its politely chuckling reserve; and finally, moving for its vulnerability.
How, though, would J.H. Prynne read? The image of the `voice' - speaking, singing, crying out - is important in Prynne's poetry. But not vocalising the text was arguably a joined-up policy, especially with regard to the later work. Line by line, the poems present the reader with such sustained questions of interpretation that a performance involving decisions of rhythm, emphasis and tone, even by the author, could only ever be a partial mediation of their effect on the page. Take for example the last lines of Pearls That Were:
And word upon word, step
by next step regaining,
they'll walk and talk, wisely
flicker some hope remaining.
The stanza is a ballad quatrain, an oral form that sways an audience along between two rhymes. The reader is held up here, however, by Prynne's more precise effects, which are thinking word by word, step by (metric) step.
In the penultimate line, `wisely' pauses the tripping rhythm and internal rhyme of `walk and talk', and gives way to four final words that are hard to read out loud satisfactorily. `Flicker' and `some' make up a pointedly parted adjective that would otherwise lend this line a valedictory dactylic ripple: `flickersome hope remaining'. Instead, the spacing suggests that the reader take `flicker' at first as a verb whose object is `they'. But then `some' is a problem. However you slice it, some connective is missing to complete what was otherwise promising to be a complete sentence. The possibility arises that `flicker' should be heard in isolation, outside of the sentence, as a noun describing its own interruptive effect: a flicker, a hesitation in sense between two uncertainly connected statements: `They'll walk and talk wisely [with?] some hope remaining'. The absence of the preposition, however, gives rise to a further destabilising possibility: that `some hope' is also to be heard outside of the sentence, as a colloquial, self-interrupting heckle against any claim to wisdom.
William Empson, in Seven Types of Ambiguity, found similar effects in well-known poems by reading across the given punctuation - a reasonable tactic with a text like Shakespare's Sonnets, where punctuation is doubtfully authorial. Prynne deliberately creates Empsonian ambiguities of emphasis by withdrawing punctuation from his final line. A stanza which evoked familiar oral forms, and employed three clause-distinguishing commas, suddenly falls silent into four equally unemphasised words, three blanks and a dot. The effect is powerfully un-paraphrasable: the reading mind, experiencing the text as a spatial arrangement of words as well as a linear sentence, can hold the ambiguities in tension, but the speaking voice would inevitably collapse them for a listener.
As Prynne steps up to read, in dark suit and orange tie, his approach is heralded by the synthesised choiring of Espitallier's laptop closing down. This is the last part the high-end will play in the evening. Prynne sits at a table microphone and carefully folds open in front of him two small pocket books, from which he will read quotations in French. The evening is growing dark, so a lamp by the fireplace is switched on. Looking out at his audience over half-moon spectacles, the recently-retired university lecturer introduces himself in crisp, careful French.
Among his opening remarks, Prynne makes a statement about reading poetry plain enough for even the Anglophones in the audience to catch. `Je crois qu'il y a deux voix de la poésie. La première voix, c'est la voix du poème.' (This he associates with `la vie intégrale, intérieure' of the poem.) `La seconde voix, c'est la voix du poète.' And this Prynne relegates to `un accident biographique'.
He concludes his remarks by giving the title of the new poem which he is about to read in English: Blue Slides at Rest. This part of the evening is less easily set down from memory. Word follows word in such unexpected conjunction that to attempt anything other than piecemeal (and, without the text, provisional) quotation would be unwise. Nevertheless, phrases and themes stand out and cohere from the flow.
Prynne's poems, however much they resist reduction to a single narrative subject, are far from other-worldly. Biting the Air, published in December last year, is threaded through with vocabulary pertinent to the resistance of American pharmaceutical companies to a deal allowing the importation of cheap generic HIV drugs in poorer countries. Physical twists on the language of the global market generate sinister, glimpsed images: `...Own brand / marked on the flank, hot iron specific to quench / a fever racing across unbarred prime locations.'
In Blue Slides at Rest - as in 1997's Her Weasels Wild Returning - there is recurrent concern for a lone female figure, of uncertain relation to the speaker. Intermittently, an unidentified male protagonist also features. Together, they may imply a fragile family unit. There is a striking prevalance of the language of child care and the social services: `referred case by case', `adopted, take more, take more care', `sent away in care from her'. There is also a general impression of darkness threatening - `unsafe at night', the image of a feather falling into the earth. This is enhanced by the crepuscular atmosphere in which Prynne reads, bent steadily towards the microphone, through ten printed pages, with a short pause as each is laid aside.
Prynne reads in a refined voice both impersonal and intense, like a BBC announcer at the end of the world. Each word is pronounced with percussive care, in rocking, staccatto rhythms reminiscent of Beckett's later monologues: `She knows he'll go'. At the start of a new page, the sentences tend to be rattled out with an overflowing urgency reminiscent of Sutherland. What characterises Prynne's manner, though, is the croaking slowness to which he will drop at moments, taking single words almost apart: `snap...d'. A flickersome LED lights up on the portable sound desk with each phoneme. On the last page, an image surfaces reminiscent of darkest Beckett (buried over the road in Cimetière du Montparnasse): `to end... without companion... hooded'. A few words later, Prynne pauses - then, suddenly showing a sense of the dramatic possibilities of an amplified reading, whispers slowly into the microphone: `Go... with... me.' A few lines more, accelerating to a sharply-enunciated final phrase - `trace and lock' - and the reading is over, to warm, genuinely moved applause. Prynne should read more often - unlike any number of modern poets, he is extremely good at it. The whole occasion is celebrated with a two-nations dinner in a nearby café.
Two weeks later, many of the English party meet again in another café, at the Whitechapel Gallery, London, for a reading organised by Poetry Review. J.H. Prynne and Keston Sutherland are this time in the audience, Robert Potts on stage, introducing a poet who once described himself, with a disarming lack of writerly vanity, as a `wayward Prynnite': Michael Haslam.
Now geographically wayward of Cambridge - he lives in Yorkshire - Haslam studied at Peterhouse College in the 1960s, but has since avoided academia for a life of manual labour. Dressed in a bright red shirt and black trousers, he begins by offering anyone interested the spare return portion of a train ticket to Hebden Bridge the next day. He then explains that he was given Easter Monday off from his factory job, and took the chance to continue a new long poem, the sequel to his lovely Music Laid Her Songs in Language (2002). Called `Alune' (or, possibly, `A Loon'), it is an astonishing pastoral spate - `the hawthorn creams, the hawthorn bloods' - full of unashamed `-oon' rhymes for its title. It lasts for several pages. `That was Easter Monday morning,' Haslam says, picking up an even longer piece written in the afternoon. Later, he takes out his false teeth, because they are interfering with his `consonants'. They lie for the rest of the reading on the flap of a pink folder of typescript poems.
Haslam writes and reads with a Victorian sonority unlike Prynne's clipped, classical precision (David Herd, the other editor of Poetry Review, observes wonderingly to me at one point, `It's like Tennyson'). He races through the rhymes, at one point apologising to a man in the front row for air-borne splutter. The poems delight in devising Hopkinsian tongue- twisters that unsurprisingly get false teeth into trouble. As with Hopkins, once Haslam's babbling patterns have sunk in, they yield carefully-observed objects: for example, when a
... Barn owl's pastel
pale postmortal coital call
Rings as a tennis-ball a bell.
This vivid riddling is very different to Prynne's graver etymologies (the verbal indeterminacies are often comic - `it's all over bar the sheep', baaa), yet Haslam remains a Prynnite in the sense of a poet whose lines are consciously over-layered, and whose poems solicit lexical reflection and even research. They are in a tradition of modern poetry which takes the extra dimension of the printed page to be the natural ground of attention to detail.
The public reading presents a poem as a work of forward momentum. But the private reading of poetry is really a circling activity: forward, back, over syntax and sound. Any attempt, as in France, to technologise poetry in like-for-like protest against the banalities of the audio-visual age risks ceding this productively-resistant dimension of print to a poetic in which the medium really is most of the message. Verse is itself already a high-end technology, too refined ever to be automatised as a feature of Microsoft Word (`It looks like you're writing a poem!'), and, importantly, more subtle than any actual human voice.
The reading of lyric poetry has an uncertain status in a literate culture. There may be a vague feeling nowadays that it should be something like a performance by a singer-song- writer. But this analogy wrongly implies completion in performance. Detached from music, modern lyric poetry's music is worked and locked within it, an always-potential song. A poetry reading may enhance, but will never exhaust, a reader's sense of the speeds and tones of a poem. (Although it can usefully establish a primary accent: `past' and `hatch' is an assonance for the Northern Haslam, but not for the Kent-born Prynne.) The analogy for such occasions should perhaps not be musical performance so much as explanation of the least theoretical kind.
This article is taken from PN Review 159, Volume 31 Number 1, September - October 2004.