J.H. Prynne and the Late-Modern Epic

1 December 2009

III: Truck out Black: pathways towards the epical

The interaction between the elemental factions of a Prynne poem are those which define the manner in which the poem need be read, contain those layers of intelligibility and referentiality from which the reader may grasp her own position within the poem. It is the reader's work to establish her own relation between the poem and the world. Prynne's extraordinary use of scientific data, technical language, lyricism and eckphrastic references forces the reader into continual transformative accounts of meaning and to constantly reposition themselves in relation to new poetic objects.28

Prynne's unification of lyricism and informational exegesis create paratactic lines which belie presence and singularly definitive objects. One of the manners in which we can begin to come to an understanding of the historicity and modernity that Prynne is referencing within the poem is to closely examine the syncretism with which he fuses the temporal and the epical references to create meaning. This, according to Jung, is the manner in which archetypal images are given expression through art.29 For Jung, it is the dyadism made manifest in art which supersedes the subject of the artist — in this case, the lyrical ego, or the ‘I' typical of modernist works.

In creating his poems Prynne works to unify the archetypal substrates of epic with lyrical expression, as a means to exemplify historical information and give rise to formative contiguities which illuminate meaning. Kevin Nolan writes in 'Capital Calves':

His constant redeployment of allusion and mythic reference are thereby not the forms of lamentation for an unattainable pastness but …the instruments of a meta-critical prospect seeking to valorise the prize of understanding even as it authorises the process.30

In taking from Olson, Prynne engages the epic tradition to function as both the instrument of referentiality and functional object of the archaeological discovery, just as each reference may work as the instrument and function of definition. For Nolan, Prynne's articulation of the epic themes in his work is the greatest signal that one of Prynne's central poetical positions is to exemplify the idea raised by Homer: that Language raises questions which Language itself cannot answer.31

Prynne's poems most closely linked with epic include ‘Aristeas, in Seven Years' from The White Stones, and Red D Gypsum, although the same analysis could be executed for other Prynne poems, such as To Pollen and Streak~Willing~Entourage~Artesian:

And his songs were invocations in no frenzy
of spirit, but clear and spirituous tones
(Aristeas, in Seven Years, 91)

‘Aristeas, in Seven Years' represents in itself a minor epic, situated within The White Stones, a collection which represents one of Prynne's striking attempts to question the determinacies and indeterminacies of the world. In ‘Aristeas' the shamanic journey and ritual act as unifying elements conditional to a mystical life, exemplifying the condition of the mythic Prynne notes: ‘The literal is not magic, for the most part' (‘A Note on Metal', 131). The search for mythical origins is one of the main incitement points for Aristeas's continual journey through Central Asia, Siberian and Greek history.

As has been pointed out by many critics, this journey back through time is an epical search for the Orphic origins of narrative. The increasingly complex nomadological world of Aristeas demands for a careful examination of layers of referentiality, to sources that include philology, geography, geology, mythology, archaeology, and classical texts; a bibliography has been carefully selected and somewhat sardonically supplied by Prynne. The legend of Aristeas, as read through the Maximus, may help to refresh the history books for those of us less mythically inclined:

The soul of Aristeas left his body , as it lay still breathing, just enough to maintain life, and wandered above in the upper air like a bird looking down over everything from above… it then entered his body again and roused it to its feet, using it like an instrument, and recited all that it had seen and heard. 32

From the first lines of Prynne's poem we have an almost replicated version of the story:

Gathering the heat to himself, in one thermic
hazard, he took himself out: to catch up with
the tree, the river, the forms of alien vantage
(‘Aristeas, in Seven Years', 90)

From his bodiless vantage, Aristeas rises to become the mythic eyes for the clan, which remains without its centre (92). The shamanic and cosmogenic position of Aristeas neatly replicates the social condition of the artist (or, as can be argued, the romantic poet) in a society in which, ‘they sit or pass, in | the form of divine song, | they are free in the apt form of | displacement, they change | their shape, being of the essence as | a figure of the extent. Which | for the power in rhyme | is gold in this northern clime' (94).

The Scythians, it should be noted, considered gold a sacred metal, and so it is unsurprising that the acts described entail atrocities carried out in the name of acquisition. Carrying on a typical Prynnean trope is the examination and juxtaposition of individual objects in both economic terms and terms of human value. ‘The conquests were for the motive of |sway, involving massive slaughter as the | obverse politics of claim', and so ‘the gold reposed as the divine brillance, | petrology of the sea air, so far from the shore' (95).

Outside of ‘Aristeas' an Odyssean journey of a mythic return to origins is maintained throughout The White Stones. In particular, this pattern can be seen as established with ‘Lashed to the Mast', a poem which comes to encompass Nolan's invective to unify language to the call of the Sirens.33 Another particularly Heideggerian instance of poetic dwelling which reflects the Odyssean mode comes from the poem ‘Thoughts on the Esterhazy Court Uniform', in which Prynne states, ‘the world converges on the idea | of return … Again is the sacred | Word, the profane sequence suddenly graced, by coming back' (100).

The process of the epic journey, as witnessed in these poems is as much about the return ‘home' as it is the return to the personal, to a state of fluid consciousness. The division between internal and external and the reliance on the importance of the threshold that divides the two states and orientates the subject is also deeply characteristic of Prynne's work. These two concepts underlie many of the features of critical discourse surrounding Aristeas, as well as The White Stones.

For Nolan, The White Stones is indicative of the, ‘encounter with the Sirens, [which] marks out Odysseus (and not say, Prometheus, or Philoctetes) as the archetype of lyrical subjectivity, a survivor whose predicament consists precisely in not knowing how exactly to relate or dispose the experience and knowledge that he manifests and bears.'34

As with most of Prynne's texts, ‘Aristeas, in Seven Years' and The White Stones do not follow a narrative tradition. The poem carries on its narrative substructure in a recursive pattern, constantly leaving fragmentary clauses, broken lines, as well as references and subjects that are constantly elided and overwritten in polyvalence. Quotations and scholarly text hang within the poem without reference or qualification.

For Prynne, this pattern of writing and of forcing the reader into the position of the archaeologist uncovering fragment after fragment and layer upon layer of detailed information, is an annunciation of the interaction he hopes to create between the text and the reader, and therefore with the reader's position within the world. The mythological references and historicity developed within the poems allow for the comparison and placement of artefacts against relevant and semantically determinate archetypes which can help the reader to situate meaning and to begin to embrace a widening manifold of contiguous contextual relations.

Poetic language, as exemplified in The White Stones, acts as a process of communication, building, exchanging and receiving meaning exemplified as language, rather than a key to understanding the hermeneutical complexities of his work.34 Prynne's examination and utilisation of indigenous tribal knowledge within the poem, and his general interest in the lineage and tradition of the songs of the world's indigenous groups, adds much weight to the concept of language as a contiguous element which unifies generations through expressive human behaviour.35

For these groups the transmission of epic narrative was just one example of the use of song in customary life, though there were also songs of ritual, sacrifice and war. In the manner of moving beyond ones' self through the reading and coming to understand a poem, Prynne offers us 'What goes on in a | language is the corporate & prolonged action | of worked self-transcendence' (‘Questions for the Time Being', 112). Poetic language, for Prynne, and henceforth for his reader, is unified with the manner in which the mind constructs and dissects meaning and by which we work to situate ourselves within ever-expanding contextual matrices of imagery, scientific data, history, epical narrative and poetry.

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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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