J.H. Prynne and the Late-Modern Epic

1 December 2009

II: So Beautifully Shallow in the Past: from Olson to Prynne's late-modernist epics

The incursion of patterns of travel, trekking, and nomadological pathways invariably register with the reader in reference to Odysseus, Dante, and Gilgamesh, but there are also numerous instances in which this work should be read against modern mythological and epical works. Prynne's nomadic poetry and the sense of exile it imbues in the reader establishes the poems as resting points or contingent moments of thought and reflection. These poems act as a gathering place for a personal assessment of concepts of distance, loss, and the desire to return home.

This desire to return to ‘sacred origins' is implicitly unified with the Heideggerian concept of poetic dwelling, as has been highlighted by most modern critics. The late-modernist aspects of Prynne's work often read his work exclusively through modern epics such as Pound's Cantos, Olson's The Maximus Poems, Dorn's Gunslinger, and Zukofsky's “A”. Equally important to the structure and meaning of Prynne's poetic is its placement against the writings of Wordsworth. The patterns presented in Tintern Abbey represent a preliminarily established form of a personal, philosophical and imaginative epic of which Wordsworth never completed, and of which The Prelude, Recluse and The Excursion represent portions.

The pastoral themes of Prynne's work aligns itself with a dedicated Wordsworthian analysis. Alongside of this, the reader should also be aware of the pattern of metonymic and metaphoric landscape functions that carry on classical and modern poetic traditions, with a particular affinity to those patterns established in the epics of Olson and Dorn and the manner in which Sauer's On The Morphology of Landscape has impacted these three writers.

Building upon the foundation of Pound's arcane knowledge and historicism, a late contemporary of Pound's, Charles Olson, advocated the movement of Objectism. Olson's theory is a of poetics of nature which sought to deny the lyrical position of the individual as ego and reduce the authorial position further, establishing the author as no more than another object in the miasma of the universe.11 Olson's poetic movement represented a decisive move away from the politics of Pound. Anthony Mellors, writes:

‘Olson's best known poem, ‘The Kingfishers', is in part a riposte to Canto LXXIV, which elegises Mussolini by associating his execution at the hands of the Partisans with the flaying of Manes, another martyr to orthodoxy. Whereas Pound laments the death of Italian Fascism, sinking into historical pessimism, Olson sees the birth of a new redemptive era in the form of a Maoist revolution.'12

Olson defines revolutionary leadership as a natural praxis of thought and action, a possibility open to all men, and hence the universal sense of oneness that accompanies ‘The Kingfishers'. Mellors claims this ‘reclamation of the primordial sense of oneness with nature means that it cannot make an ethical distinction between productive and destructive kinds of revolutionary action.'13

The naturalism which Olson embraced throughout The Maximus Poems caused him to relapse into acts of comparison, which detail the natural and human realms but leave the actions of men as impotent to enact change. Olson began to stress that ‘at root (or stump) what is, is no longer THINGS but what happens BETWEEN things, these are the terms of the reality contemporary to us – and the terms of what we are.'14

Anthony Mellors states that Maximus, the Herculean figure of Olson's The Maximus Poems, ‘represents a shift from the isolated lyric ego to a universal poetic self which embraces both the specific facts of history and the archetypes that supposedly underlie and give spiritual meaning to those facts [and objects].'15 Olson fought for a syncretistic unifying system as a means to ‘stay in the human universe and not to be led to partition reality at any point in any way.'16

Prynne also makes an appearance in Olson's Maximus Poems, appealing to Olson to accept the responsibility of his poetry to make a political statement. Olson's acknowledgement of Prynne's request and relapse into the naturalist system of writing disengages him from the political implications and concretises his position as a naturalist, purposefully removed from the situation. The following is ‘(Literary Results)' from Volume Three of Olson's The Maximus Poems:

That a cormorant fishes
now out my window–that Jeremy Prynne wishes
my own poetry–or us, two, as men, should–
as Larry Eigner the one day yet, so many years ago I
read in Gloucester–to half a dozen people still–
						asked me
why, meaning my poetry doesn't
help anyone. The black cormorant,
				not the gull
my eye-view.
			/_ Oct 18 VII/17

The implication of the poem demonstrates Olson's reticence in accepting the political demands of a socially aware poetics. In this poem Olson also ties his view with an open, projective verse, moving away from the lofty omnipotent view of ‘the gull' and reaffirms for the reader that his viewpoint has been built upon the ground, amongst men and beast.

Poet, former student of Prynne, and author of the unpublished thesis ‘J.H. Prynne and Philology', Keston Sutherland, exemplifies the demands placed upon the poet who is giving voice to suffering by using Adorno's condition of truth as informing Prynne's work: ‘Das Bedürfnis, Leiden beredt warden zu lassen, ist Bedingung aller Wahrheit.'18 Sutherland continues to draw divisions between Olson and Prynne based on Prynne's demand that the poet begin to take up a politicised, immutable voice against tyranny, against Pound's Fascism, and against war. Sutherland explains Prynne's utilisation of Adorno in the implicit break between the two poets:

The condition of all truth is unavoidably rigged up so as to be met in advance by a proleptic assent posing as ‘instinct,' because our belief in this truth is not a radical act, it is our definition of health. We cannot live without believing that some voice we know (and own) has been given to the suffering of others, and that this voice is truthful; and so what Adorno calls a ‘need' and a ‘condition' are worn through by us to a bare necessity.' 19

In a review of The Maximus Poems IV, V, VI, which appeared in The Park, Prynne relates that only a wo/man, given exulted status through suffering, will be able to make the universal human. Prynne writes that Olson is left at the edge of the abyss where he has created: ‘a lingual and temporal syncretism, poised to make a new order.'20 It was this new order, which Prynne began to demand of Olson, that caused their ultimate associative break and led Prynne into his later, political work.

Moving from the mythopoeia of Olson's universal poetic self with Kitchen Poems, Prynne makes one of the most dramatic and affronting changes in his style. Cambridge-critic Andrew Duncan writes that the division between the first two books of Prynne represents ‘a personal revolution, even if the means of production was not transferred.'21 There was a dramatic politicisation of Prynne's work between the publication of Forces of Circumstance in 1962 and the appearance of Kitchen Poems in 1968, poems which had originally appeared in the English Intelligencer as news articles.

This politicisation may have been due, in part, to his experiences in America in the 1960's lecturing, reading and working closely with Olson and Dorn, and assisting with Olson's Maximus Poems. With Kitchen Poems Prynne seems to be overcoming ‘his residual allegiance to the Olsonian ethic,' for which, ‘politics … is for one man,' and stating that ‘the true literal has very few names.' but remains stuck oscillating between spleen and ideal.22

With Brass, Prynne broke from the idea of an overarching human immensity containing all human history, myth and ideology, as a means of explanation. Our examination of Prynne's poetic progression will detail the linear fragmentation, circumambient and recursive narrative devices with which Prynne began to experiment; ideas that stem from Olson, but which had not managed to put into practice in his work:

That quality of any particular thing or event which comes in any one of our consciousnesses; how it comes in on us as a force peculiar to itself and to ourselves in any of those instants which do hit us and of which our lives are made up. 23

Sutherland formulates his argument on the disassociation of Prynne from Olson because of the fact that:

The figure of Maximus grew for Prynne into a more and more diminutive answer to the question of size, more and more grisly with bathos. The figure of our ‘own maximum' is locked most openly with in Wound Response and The Oval Window, back into what Emerson called the custody of the primitive body and the jail yard of individual [political] relations from which Olson had liberated him. He becomes a joke a Gargantua of the homily and lectern, disowned by Prynne repetitively and with extreme semiotic, rhetorical, grammatical and satiric violence.24

The break with Olson comes directly upon the outset of the 1970's, a time which was dominated by political, philosophical thought and explorations of consciousness. It is on this basis of modernist poetry that Prynne creates the unifying establishment of relationships with the world and the reader's position and associations within the world.

Both Pound and Olson represents the basis for the late-modernist poetics in which Prynne writes; he refrains from the total dissolution of the poetic self, and creates a voice amongst the vicissitudes of information which accrue fragments of data and intermittently reflect upon these. Mellors writes:

Prynne embraces Pound's and Olson's historical eclecticism and mythic ontology (e.g. ‘the spirit demanded the orphic metaphor/ as fact'), but he does not sustain what he calls their ‘fantasy of control' over the past. For Prynne, the mythic method reconstitutes history as an eternal present by refusing to mourn the past as a lost object. [ … ] Prynne, however, sees the recognition of self-loss as a necessary condition for any ‘divine sense' of being in the world, and he treats the history of mythic determinations as a dialectic in which the desire to return to a timeless, organic sense of self-identity cannot be separated from the experience of temporal distance. 25

Prynne's poetic works to functionally, ‘lure the reader's investigation yet suspending the desire for unifying interpretation; [to the point where] the critical project must turn to reflection on its own presuppositions and validity rather than describing its poetic ‘object'.'26 Prynne has repudiated the cosmologic and cosmogenic subject of Olson and moved towards replicating an experience of consciousness.

It was this break from the modernist tradition of Olson that established the onset of Prynne's mature work and the creation of images highly philological and laden with eckphrastic references. Prynne's work and correspondence also had a major influence on Edward Dorn, a student of Olson's, at this time. Dorn quotes Prynne verbatim when he writes, ‘We are bleached in Sound, as it burns by what we desire' in the ‘Prolegamenon' at the beginning of the fourth book of Dorn's seminal epic, Gunslinger; a book which is dedicated to Prynne.27

In fact, there are many instances throughout Dorn and Prynne's work where lines pass from one poem and from one poet seamlessly to the other. The interaction between the poems of Dorn and Prynne give rise to the idea that the two should be read in unison, and with a dedicated set of sources. It is hoped that this brief introduction to the modernist tradition of epic poetry has provided a prefatory starting point for the analysis of the works of J.H. Prynne and his own precarious use of epic.

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About Matthew Hall

Matthew Hall is working on a dissertation on J.H. Prynne and Violence at the University of Western Australia and a series of poetic essays that pertain to the radical pastoral. His poetry, occasional prose and criticism have been featured in journals around the world. Hall is Editor of Cordite Scholarly.

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