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This review is taken from PN Review 116, Volume 23 Number 6, July - August 1997.

THE GREAT TRADITION N.H. REEVE AND RICHARD KERRIDGE, Nearly Too Much: The Poetry of J.H. Prynne (Liverpool University Press) £11.95
S.H. CLARK, Sordid Images: The Poetry of Masculine Desire (Routledge)

Nearly Too Much is the first book on Prynne. Sordid Images is a study of misogyny in English poetry, consisting of chapters on Shakespeare, Rochester, Pope, Blake, Eliot and Larkin. Larkin appears in Nearly Too Much only as representative of the 'anti-Modernist tradition' rejected by Prynne, who makes no appearance in Sordid Images. Yet the more I read them, the more the two books strike me as complementary. Reeve, Kerridge and Clark are academics who combine the qualities of the first-hand reviewer with those of the scholar in his field. One of the pleasures of both books is the way in which other voices are allowed to be exciting and convincing in their own right, yet the authors are often at their most original in response. They belong to the first generation to take theory for granted, as the previous generation took Modernism; yet it's as practical critics - in a word, as readers - that they excel.

Nearly Too Much is explicit about its aim to 'mediate' between the radicalism of Prynne's poetry and 'more familiar ways of organizing discourse', though also, lest this approach should tame the poetry, 'to recommend it in its more radical state'. The marxist term for this enterprise is 'bourgeois recuperation'; but one of the authors' main achievements is to draw attention to much that is, precisely and non-perjoratively, bourgeois in Prynne's poetry. The mise-en-scène of many of his poems is that of a middle-class household, and, for every encounter with an ice-age Scythian shaman or a seventh-century Irish monk you will meet the poet as paterfamilias several times. Prynne has been, after all, 'throughout his professional life… a lecturer… at Cambridge University'; with, I imagine, even in these less clement times, tenure, together with all that that implies. Yet their 'larger, wilder interior' is manifest to anyone who has spared his poems a passing glance.

Reeve and Kerridge are firm with those who extol 'virtual unreadability as the only way of resisting commodification', whereby a poem bemomes merely another packaged product: 'if the reader remains intimidated and marginalized, and this is the only point, then the poet in turn will merely occupy the heroic position of isolated visionary' and his intransigence will become 'no more than a device for maintaining this position'. Complete defiance of the conventions of bourgeois meaning-making ('heroic' or otherwise) would condemn the reader 'to learn the same harsh lesson over and over again.' Rather, 'Prynne's poetry is so difficult because it is committed to a notion of the public sphere which is extraordinarily rigorous - and potentially democratic'. What they mean by this is that Prynne rejects the 'limited cultural space' of 'Movement or Movement-influenced poetry', in which 'the speaker can only appear as a marginalized, rueful commentator upon the way the culture is moving'.

Rejects it in favour of what, then? The authors admit to being tempted by the postmodernist notion of a 'decentred destabilized self, moving along a series of subject-positions constructed by discourses, rather than occupying a single, external viewpoint'; they also draw an analogy with 'the environment of modern views communication', in which 'there are more demands for sympathy than the mind can effectively cope with'. Their treatment of 'the abrupt switch between extremes of scale' that is characteristic of Prynne's poetry is thorough and fascinating, and it remains an open question whether the technique tends to present 'totality as unattainable' or to imply 'a large totality of which all subjects and discourses are interpenetrative parts'. Parallels are drawn with famous examples from Hardy and George Eliot, in whose work 'the effect is swiftly contained and framed by the realist narrative'; Prynne's poem, by contrast, 'tantalize with the possibility that one more step might make everything cohere; they seem impossibly full of meaning and activity, offering too many directions to follow in too short a time'. Hence the title of the book, from Down where changed: 'Nearly too much/is, well, nowhere near enough'.

Yet Reeve and Kerridge are alive to the prophetic qualities of Prynne's poetry. Davie mistook his often sardonic obliquities for that 'frivolity' which postmodernism 'exonerates and indeed promotes' (PNR 78), but it would be nearer the mark to describe Prynne as a Shelleyan puritan, an often hysterical extremist for whom everything from molecular biology to parliamentary politics has the urgency and intensity of inspiration:

What more can be done. We walk
    in beauty down the street, we tread
the dust of our wasted fields. The
    photochemical dispatch is im-
minent, order-paper prepared. We
    cannot support that total of dis-
placed fear, we have already induced
    moral mutation in the species. The
permeated spectra of hatred dominate
    all the wavebands, algal to
Do not take this as metaphor; thinking
    finish off the last half-pint of milk,
look at the plants, the entire dark dream

Hysteria strikes me as one perfectly humane and sensible response to the political condition of England In the eighteen-teens. One's response to Prynne's poetry will hinge on whether one feels that the same can be said of our own period. I find the vision electrifying, even though I don't believe for a minute that we've 'induced/moral mutation in the species' or that 'the permeated/spectra of hatred dominate all the wavebands'.

However, Prynne has urbanity as well as hysteria in common with Shelley. Reeve and Kerridge tend to favour the poems in which he finds a balance between public and private spheres, while still receiving, and transmitting, on 'all the wavebands'. To summarise a subtle, book-length, inconclusive argument, what is required of the reader in the 'public sphere' implied by Prynne's poetry is a kind of moral triage, a concept created in The Oval Window, to which a whole chapter is devoted. A version of this material was the basis of Reeve's Cambridge Conference talk, in which he demonstrated how the physiological characteristics of the inner ear underpin a stringent morality of the 'middle ground'. The significance of the otolith crystals, 'the organ through which gravity speaks', lies in the fact that 'the capacity of the organism to stabilise itself… is maintained by the varying and fragile interaction qf unstable particles, rather than by a fixed, monolithic structure'. Prynne demands a discriminating intensity of vigilance and commitment in the face of information in such quantities and of such complexity, and often of such distressing import, as would otherwise overwhelm us.

After all, though, the best answer to those who exalt the unreadability of the poems is to persist in reading them, and the readings offered by Reeve and Kerridge are consistently brilliant, if that's the word for so matter-of-fact an approach. The poems grow ever more luminous and suggestive as their analyses, often pages long, progress. And develop: I first came across their work in 1985, when an early response to The Oval Window appeared in The Many Review, and I note that it refers neither to the otolith crystals nor to the lines that they have come to see as the decentring 'centre' of the poem: 'This is the place//where, deaf to meaning, the life stands/out in extra blue'. 'Landing Area' (from Wound Response), with its ventriloquial, 'sneeringly' racist 'wound response to the oil embargo' ('Actually, the arabs might/do well to soak up revenue on a straight purchase/of, say, Belgium'), 'The Wound, Day and Night' and 'Cool as a Mountain Stream' are among the poems I thought I knew before I'd read this book.

It has its disappointments, though. Chief among these, for me, is a failure to recognise Prynne himself as a 'Movement-influenced' poet. Reeve and Kerridge cooperate in the unwriting of Force of Circumstance (Routledge, 1962). It is true that it 'predated his decisive turn towards avant-garde, open poetic forms' and that 'he subsequently excluded it from Poems'. Nevertheless, I would argue that on the strength of this early collection alone Prynne deserves to be recognised as the finest Movement poet bar Larkin and Davie.

For all its distinction, Force of Circumstance is recognisably derivative from Davie, while Prynne's subsequent collections, Kitchen Poems and The White Stones engage, as did Davie, with the Black Mountain poetics of Charles Olson. The extent, and limits, of the relationship with Olson are carefully mapped by Reeve and Kerridge, who conclude that, despite their 'surface radicalism', the poems in these earlier collections 'are actually proposing themselves as models of… the essentially conservative - if never static - natural and civic relations they wish to promote'. I would accept this, but suggest that it implies a development, rather than 'a decisive turn' away, from Force of Circumstance. All these collections proved intelligible to the exasperated Movement sensibility of Davie, though he drew the line at Brass. (While on the subject of disowned first collections, I might as well make a pre-emptive strike against Clark, according to whom 'one could be forgiven for doubting the presence of talent', let alone genius, in The North Ship, though his judgement is redeemed by five scintillating pages on the poems.)

Yet if Prynne is, like Davie, a Movement poet, he is also, like Larkin, an Apocalyptic:

As he makes such sheer departures from the pastoral space of ordinary, integrated perception, his attention focuses on the surfaces and frontiers of physical human identity, on windows, orifices, points of inlet and outlet. Mouths, pores, wounds, throats: these are the narrowed apertures into which our exchange with the world is channelled and concentrated. Ritual devices which outline or constrict these channels recur in the poems: rings, crowns, necklaces. Thresholds similarly abound: doors, edges, gates, rims, folds…

According to Reeve and Kerridge, 'Prynne's poetry approaches closer to these edges and frontiers than perhaps any other'; but isn't the suggestion of Dylan Thomas irresistible? 'The force that through the green fuse drives the flower': only the most obvious of the 'narrowed apertures' with which the poetry is riddled. The collocation of Larkin, Prynne and Thomas is a defining one for the true English Modernist tradition.

Clark's opening gambit is a risky one: 'I have always liked poems that abused women'. Yet the attack that follows is difficult to refute: 'if one considers the other authors who might have merited inclusion in this book - Langland, Wyatt, Spenser, Milton, Swift, Prior, Coleridge, Byron, Keats, Rossetti, Browning, Hardy, Meredith, Lawrence, Yeats, Dylan Thomas, Hill and Hughes are only the most obvious - it becomes increasingly plausible to identify the idiom of misogyny with the tradition of English poetry itself. For the male reader, these texts represent… 'The thousand sordid images/Of which your soul was constituted' (T.S. Eliot, 'Preludes'). According to this argument, Fidelis Morgan might have saved herself the trouble of compiling A Misogynist's Source-Book, ruefully described by Clark as 'the continuous outpouring of a single transhistorical male malevolence', by making her misogynist a present of The Oxford Book of English Verse.

It's a measure of the impact of Sordid Images that I don't know whether to begin by defending the English poetic tradition or myself. Have I, too, always enjoyed 'poems that abused women'? No, but… or rather… some of my favourite poems do abuse women, there's no denying it. Jerusalem would be a fair example of extreme beauty marred by extreme misogyny (the premise of Clark's encyclopedic analysis of Blake). In other words, I find myself face to face with his calm indictment: 'One must, I believe, accept that these texts have been read not in spite of but for their misogyny'. Admitting complicity, Clark manoeuvres his reader into the indignity of righteous indignation. So what of 'the great tradition' (as he insists on calling it in the defiant final sentence of his book)? Searching among the thousand beautiful images of which my soul is constituted, I came upon Adam's speech to Raphael about Eve:

       … when I approach
Her loveliness, so absolute she seems
And in herself complete, so well to
Her own, that what she wills to do or
Seems wisest, virtuousest, discreetest,
All higher knowledge in her presence
Degraded, wisdom in discourse with
Loses discountenanced, and like folly
Authority and reason on her wait,
As one intended first, not after made
Occasionally; and to consummate all,
Greatness of mind and nobleness their
Build in her loveliest, and create an awe
About her, as a guard angelic placed.

No one is likely to object to the inclusion of Milton among the 'most obvious' misogynists. Even Empsom admits that 'all the nagging against women… is much the best reason why so many people dislike him'; in fact, in a later speech of Adam's, he finds 'the most extravagant hatred of women in all Milton's work'. Yet Milton's God is a splendid incitement to reconstruct the poem from its moral sublimities, 'restoring the dignity of the Mother of Mankind'. I've carried this speech around with me for twenty years without, I suppose, ever subjecting it to critical inspection. Now that I do, I find it no less wonderful, but dismayingly open to deconstruction, precisely in Clark's terms.

'The dramatic irony is strong', according to the Longman editor: 'Adam is betraying a tendency to mistake the appointed hierarchy of relationships that we know will prove fatal'. This seems less than fair to Adam, who is surely expressing as tactfully as possible his sense of contradiction between what he has been taught - 'For well I understand in the prime end/Of nature her the inferior' - and what he feels, giving the salient language of deceptive appearances a more conscious, less ironic inflection. However, Adam's speech is vulnerable to the charge that it implies a misogynistic distinction between male 'reason' and female 'will', and between male and female knowledge. Adam has access to 'higher knowledge', whereas it is given to Eve only 'to know/Her own', however 'well'. The phrase has no obvious antecedent (possibly 'dominion') and requires none (cf. 'to hold her own'), but the clear suggestion is of a restricted, personal sphere as compared with that of 'wisdom', 'discourse' and 'reason', the public modes of masculine 'Authority'. To 'approach' Eve is to forsake these 'higher' things. Worse, the idealisation is dialectically related to the subsequent denigration ('all was but a show/Rather than solid virtue, all but a rib/Crooked by nature'), a clear example of 'the interdependence of idealisation and hostility' established and well documented by Clark. Not only unconscious of such implications, but so comfortable with them as to cite the speech as a shining example of male respect, I have to grant the power of his thesis.

There is much to admire in the chapters on Shakespeare, Rochester, Pope and Blake, but the best by a long chalk are those on Eliot and Larkin. Clark is surely right to assert that Eliot's 'persistent concern with sex, the problem of our generation' (Richards) tends either to be 'granted a representative and even heroically diagnostic status' or 'recuperated as demonstrating a broader social degeneration'. Offering a hair-raising analysis of 'Sweeney Erect', he argues that 'the characteristically explicit sexual reference' of Eliot's poetry should be taken literally, in order to confront 'the virulence of its misogyny, and its capacity not only to shock and repel, but also to implicate'.

Eliot's power to implicate could hardly be better exemplified than by 'Tradition and the Individual Talent', a seminal text for critics from Leavis to Bloom, whose visionary trope of 'apophrades', the uncanny usurpation by which the later poet influences his precursor, appears itself to have influenced Eliot: 'what happens when a new work of art is created is something which happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it'. Though not the first to suggest that the famous analogy be taken with a pinch of sodium chloride, Clark's connection between the resulting 'sulphurous acid' and the correspondingly, vitriolic passage from Tourneur places the whole argument in a new light. Insisting on 'the complete absence of any such equilibrium' as that claimed by Eliot, for whom Vindice's lines exemplify the 'balance' and 'impersonality' of 'a new art emotion', Clark cites Eliot's fuller treatment of the same speech in his essay on the playwright ('its motive… is the loathing and horror of life itself) and, on Eliot's advice, restores the passage to its context in The Revenger's Tragedy, in which Vindice is addressing not 'her beauty', either as fondly remembered or in the abstract, but her skull. The ironic subtext of the essay is that sexual disgust is a sentiment to which every bosom returns an echo.

If this is a foundation text for twentieth-century criticism, is it, to adapt Leavis, imprudent to commit oneself to living in the edifice? Is there, in fact, a direct or even causal relationship between the sexual disgust of Sonnet 129 ('Th' expense of spirit in a waste of shame…'), a superb analysis of which concludes Clark's chapter on Shakespeare, and the obsession with immortality, common to the Sonnets, in which a patriarchal commendation of immortality through reproduction gives way to hubristic defiance of 'Time' and 'Death' by means of 'eternal lines', and to Bloom's conception of the oedipal poet as rebel 'against the consciousness of death's necessity'? Are intimations of immortality intrinsically misogynist in origin?

The chapter on 'Larkin's Sexual Politics' is equally revelatory (despite the fact that his misogyny is scarcely news). It is indeed remarkable that 'the major English poet of the post-war period', a status only confirmed by 'iconoclastic polemic', should be 'an uncompromising advocate of male celibacy'. Clarks' analysis of 'Dockery and Son' offers insights at every point, from the 'dynastic epiphany' of he 'ranged/Joining and parting lines' presided over by a 'strong/Unhindered moon' to the 'wholly masculine environment' not only of the 'single-sex Oxford college' but of the hinterlands of 'military service' and 'heavy industry': 'One notices how patrilineal the poem is: the issue of reproduction is discussed in terms of father and son, with the role of wife and mother entirely elided'. Clark shows how Larkin's 'principled and unillusioned abstention', from marriage if not from sex, informs his most intimate poetry: 'the disquieting effect of the famous phrase from "Talking in Bed", the "unique distance from isolation", comes from the utter lack of enthusiasm with which this intimacy is regarded'. 'Lines on a Young Lady's Photograph Album' may appear to indulge in conventional nostalgia, but what is cunningly disguised is the 'utter lack of enthusiasm' with which the poet regards 'a real girl in a real place'. In Clark's reading, the poet's 'exclusion' is a 'privilege', and the 'consequence' of which there is not 'a chance' is paternity, as in the 'appalling evocation' of 'Self s the Man'. Pointing to the innuendo in such phrases as 'furred yourself, Clark makes the connection with pornography, to which Larkin never explicitly alludes in his poetry, despite his frankness in reply to the obvious question ('To wank with, or to, or at'):

It is striking how many of his poems start with representations of women in posters, magazines, photographs, and how his own memories take on a similarly estranged quality, a succession of frames rather than a fluid continuum… His verse displays a sophisticated semiotic conception of passion as constituted by images that have already been consumed and sullied…

Clark endorses Larkin's 'acknowledgement' of 'the socially constructed nature of desire', but I would dispute his argument that 'what may initially seem a morbid singularity comes to assume a culturally representative status'. The fallacy is that of the excluded middle, conspicuously in 'Sunny Prestatyn', which progresses directly from 'glossy commodity' to 'violation' (even here, Clark is 'prepared to acknowledge… the possibility that all desire might be subject to this falsity to some extent'). What is excluded is any conception of desire for a real woman in a real place:

You are in the unlit area of the world
the mind doesn't see where the roots of
grip and twine in privacy, and the stars
with clear uninterrupted light…
       The windows resist the radiance
of the electric light with equal resource.
   I could not
approach you any closer were I to climb
   the stairs
and lie beside you without waking you.

'The Source' (Andrew Crozier, A Various Art) is an expression of 'equal', reciprocated love as far from 'lack of enthusiasm' as from sentimentality. In 'Pleats', which narrates a series of domestic incidents in a low-key, lower-case, deliberately unevoca-tive style, Crozier makes a virtue of the uxoriousness that frightens and exasperates Larkin. His collected volume, All Where Each Is, even contains, alongside the hyper-Prynnean obliquities of 'Printed Circuit' and 'Loopy Dupes', an acrostic on the names 'ANDREWANDJEAN'!

Another corrective to Larkin's 'morbid singularity' is supplied by Prynne in 'Aquisition of Love', a 'suburban pastoral' in which 'the speaker mends the lawn-mower, while the children gather round to watch':

The Marvellian associations of 'the mower', as an allegory of death, register with gentle bathos… The eternal cycle of growth, degeneration, death and life seems to pause because of a jammed ratchet. The continuity between the sheltered moment and the apocalyptic long-term is not monstrous or disruptive… the 'human' scale of bourgeois realism is allowed to nestle between these daunting perspectives…

'We are not suited to the long perspectives/Open at each instant of our lives'. In the comparison, it is Larkin's sexual politics which appear more likely to disturb the reader's 'alpha rhythm' ('L'Extase de M. Poher'), glossed by Reeve and Kerridge as 'an effect which occurs when the brain is idling… (c)haracteristic, perhaps, of the stroller in gardens… and of the reader until he or she is jolted by the unfamiliar term'. As it happens, I find 'a relaxed, inattentive state… when the cerebellum is idling' peculiarly conducive to reading Prynne. It's 1997, after all. Poetry that opts in and out of meaning ought no longer to upset our alpha rhythms unduly.. Value-judgements on stylistic or thematic grounds alone are inadmissible, including Prynne's own: 'No/poetic gabble will survive which fails/to collide head on with the unwitty circus… any other rubbish is mere political rhapsody, the/gallant lyricism of the select'. Prynne is one of the ironists of the age. He may choose in ecstatic mood to preach head-on collision with the 'unwitty circus' of late capitalism, yet in the same breath he imports into his critique of poetic value the classic bourgeois humanist consolation, of which the famous conclusion of 'An Arundel Tomb' is itself a half-hearted displacement, that poetry will 'survive'; that what will survive of us is poetry: 'weitrifle with rhyme and again is the/sound of immortality' ('Thoughts on the Esterhazy Court Uniform').

And might not the following have been lifted straight out of a shilling life of Larkin?

'The pain to come' is the only aspect of the imagined future which the speaker can single out with any clarity. Moments of waking, decision, sexual climax, conception, all imply commitment to future pain… If the human father dreams of the void, situated in time while envisioning a state without it, it would be a fearful consciousness of mortality, of the pain to come as his life proceeds towards its end.

Intimations of misogyny, perhaps?


This review is taken from PN Review 116, Volume 23 Number 6, July - August 1997.

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