Prints in the New Snow: Notes on ‘Es Lebe der König’, J.H. Prynne’s Elegy to Paul Celan

By | 1 September 2013

In 1966 Prynne emphasised the necessity for poetry to ‘emphatically reclaim the power of knowledge for each and any of us in our common answerability as the creatures of language.’1 The ekphrastic, proprioceptive and dedicatory analysis that Prynne demanded of his readers through Kitchen Poems and The White Stone reaches a point of crescendo with Brass in 1971. Brass represents a break from the rhetorically and propositionally coherent2 lyrical pulse of Kitchen Poems and The White Stones, compacting lyric to the point of repositioning the poem as a conduit of language. Paralleling a level of difficulty that Prynne found in Douglas Oliver’s The Harmless Building, Prynne aimed to create a poem in which ‘the ethical vector is violent and discontinuous, developing schizophrenia of the body–precept and [forcing] the embedding of the will within larger spiritual bodies, but also revealing moments of absolute truth.’3 Brass’s contestation of the propositions of Kitchen Poems and The White Stones allows the poem to retain the scope and complexity of the poetic Prynne had established in the preceding works. Instead of finding a point of culmination in this direction and further enlarging the histories of representation in Brass, Prynne returns to the questions and discourses of his previous collections.

The Ferry Press edition, limited in number to two hundred and fifty, was printed in a large format in a deep auburn red, with the title ‘Brass’ impressed in golden block letters on the cover’s upper margin, adding a distinct liturgical weight to the book. From the first glance the book confronts the viewer with its bold, vociferous print. The cover does not contain any authorial attribution, so the reader is left to confront the emblazoned title, and to contemplate the polyvalence of the title’s semantic and semiotic operation. The operative function of the title’s ‘double music’ (169) is especially resonant here; it is annunciatory and demanding. The title and its imprint carry with it the brassy trumpeting of angels as well as the potential for music to give order to one’s life. Brass, as an alloy of copper and zinc, represents at once the life-giving and destructive power of the sun, ascribing a marriage of violent conflict. Given the metal’s resonance Brass first represents a voice, a voice which may recall a bell or cannon. The ‘double music’ of Brass is both a summons to a higher order as well as a testament to destruction. Implied within the title’s block print are the violent overtones of recent European history and the lingering resonance of the orchestral bands which played at Nazi internment camps. The cover of this collection announces both the sanctity and the threat of the music within.

The scope of endeavour presented in Brass ranges to topics as widely dispersed as politics, geochronology, financial market forces, unionism and mining strikes, transcontinental currents, social memory and the radical materialisation of modern communication. The poem is characterised by an emphatic and ferocious intellectualism, biting satire, and a self-demanding sense of interrogation. Lyric and its function within the poem has lost the lexically coherent dimension it retained through Kitchen Poems and The White Stones but, as Keston Sutherland points out, the prosody of the lines and the disruptive syntactic breaks in Brass do not inhibit reading comprehension. Sutherland continues his argument that Brass represents, ‘a way to model a lyric, to make language a fact without desire;’4 a model which Prynne will utilise and carry throughout his oeuvre.

As Prynne’s work in Brass suggests, this collection is the moment at which ‘the question / returned upon itself.’5 The world’s engagements and enactments in language in Brass function as a formal mechanism of self and social recognition within the historical terms of post-war European history. To approach Brass one must do so from a position of re-engagement with the contextual contiguities which follow from Kitchen Poems and The White Stones, one that recasts authorial presence as disproportionately exiled in relation to Prynne’s previous ontological position. In this manner the poem turns upon its own propositions and reinserts presence within the questioning framework of the poem. Sutherland notes that Brass, ‘recasts the Heinker of fortune as paralytic transit from destiny to modern politics and it does so by evacuating lamentation rather than by universalizing it.’6 The unifying praxis of colluding discourses in Brass is an engagement with an expanse of strings, which Prynne had previously described as ‘untying a knot,’ due to ‘violence reversed.’7 But violence reversed is not violence forgotten, as can be seen in numerous other instances in Prynne’s poetic where physiological wounding has manifold implications on the subjective identities within the poem.

In Brass it is the reader’s charge to march determinedly through the ‘waged incompleteness’ (169) of the articulations of meaning and come to an understanding of Prynne’s engagement with and subsequent refutation of the primitive destining of the human.8 By presenting within Brass a position of active self-critique Prynne works to re-authenticate the poem’s ontological questions in relation to truth. The presentation of self-critique is a dialectic one that serves Prynne’s thesis of ‘poetic thought’. Prynne argues that: ‘poetic thought does indeed demand the unreserved commitment of the poet, deep-down within the choices and judgements of dialectical composition; but before the work is completed, the poet must self-remove from this location, sever the links not by a ruse but in order to test finally the integrity of the results.’9 Prynne’s call for authorial removal, entails a removal from the poetic, such that ontological truth remains sutured to the event and not to the poet or his expression.10 In making his claim about the removal of the poet Prynne foregrounds the ontological in a state of preservation and access.

Brass is, above all, a poem about the effect of language, functioning through the conceits of transference and translation, an active construct of radical, linguistic and political relations augured by the implications of violence experienced at a personal and social level. The poem sets out in the pursuit of knowledge, of the power of the individual and on the bearing to the path of knowledge through the experience of trauma and loss. The pursuit of knowledge through loss replicates a central point of Celan’s ‘Meridian Speech’, one which Prynne works into his poem, in a demonstrable example of the overlaying of contingent discourses. Brass replicates Celan’s idea that ‘the poem becomes the poem of a person who still perceives, still turns towards phenomena, addressing and questioning them. The poem becomes a conversation, [an] often desperate conversation,’ with one’s accuser.11

Prynne’s title, ‘Es Lebe Der König‘ translates as ‘The King Lives’ and gives rise to concepts proposed in Büchner’s phrase ‘Long live the King’, uttered by Lucile in Büchner’s play, Danton’s Death. This phrase is one of two taken from the play which Celan expands upon in ‘The Meridian Speech’, delivered at his receiving the Büchner prize. In his 1960 speech Celan establishes the naming of the void through Lucile’s utterance as leading to her arrest and subsequent death for speaking out against the state. Despite costing Lucile her life, the act is declared by Celan to be an act of freedom, for Lucile accepts the consequences for speaking out against social wrongs. Celan argues that this is, ‘homage to the majesty of the absurd which bespeaks the presence of human beings.’12 This line, in Celan’s explanation, is twinned with the statement about Lenz that, ‘it only sometimes bothered him that he could not walk on his head’13 and represents what Celan terms ‘his step’ towards confronting the world around him as an abyss. The realignment of the circumstance of life enacted in Büchner’s play by both Lenz and Lucile is a righting of the conditions of reality. By invoking the voice of the witness Celan secures the corresponding reality of ‘an altogether other […] on whose behalf poetry hopes to speak.’14 For Celan, the poem constitutes the path ‘towards the distant, perhaps vacant other, which it considers it can reach and set free, it turns towards it, towards the poem.’15 This is a conscious declaration of the reclamatory power of the poet to right the conditions of the world and a testament to the power of the lyric which Celan performs to ensure his own survival. Celan endured his own condition of exile, the terror and guilt of his family’s death, and the persecution of those who shared his faith, to create a poetic which ‘constantly calls and pulls itself back from the ‘already-no-more’ to a ‘still-here’.’16 Celan’s is a poetic of bearing witness. Celan lends his voice to the persecuted and attempts to sustain the possibilities of life and language which existed before he was struck with ‘that which happened.’17

The first stanza of ‘Es Lebe der König’ reads:

Fire and honey oozes from cracks in the earth;
the cloud eases up the Richter scale. Sky divides
as the flag once more becomes technical, the print
divides also: starlight becomes negative. If you
are born to peaks in the wire, purple layers in the 
glass format, re-enter the small house with
animals too delicate and cruel. Their throats fur
with human warmth, we too are numbered like 
prints in the new snow

The first sentence of the poem, ‘Fire and honey oozes from cracks in the earth; / the cloud eases up the Richter scale’ implies a pastoral setting, despite the surrealist imagery, and harkens back to the Idylls of Theocritus, and his rendering of the first pastoral elegy. This intonation not only unifies the poem’s opening with the edenic state presupposed as the wellspring of pastoral poetry, but also inaugurates the poem with issues of labour, ownership and complicities of spiritual and material providence.18 Rodríguez commits to the idea that ‘Es Lebe Der König‘, ‘is not properly speaking a lament at all. It is essentially a landscape in which the elegist can place diffuse, intangible feelings of grief and thereby win relief from his suffering.’19 However one must not ascertain that Prynne sought to extricate himself from this suffering, for the conditions of violence depicted subsume even this marginal possibility. If the poem does propose a feeling of sanctuary it can be found in the articulation of the beliefs which Celan held and those truths he sought through language. In ‘Es Lebe der Kӧnig’ nature, as it is evoked in the poem’s lurid first line, enacts a negation of natural relations and presents the decimation of the natural order and surrealist violence as obstacles to be overcome by the exilic subject who is caught in the anguish of his own non-relation.

The scene of the poem opens as ‘Fire and honey oozes up from cracks in the earth; / the cloud eases up the Richter scale’ and seems a thorough indictment of the natural conditions as they have been depicted. What Prynne stresses throughout Brass, in various post-romantic symbolist incarnations, is that there is a strong division between the socio-historic condition and the natural. For Prynne the condition of nature itself is what one must be faithful to in an encounter with the void, a pattern which becomes increasingly coherent as the metonymic system which represents nature is further elucidated. It is the condition of the human experience of nature which represents sanctity and perseverance in the face of the atrocities of human history. This proposition shows a division in Prynne’s understanding of the structure of nature as a unifying, ontological model. ‘The landscape rendered in ‘Es Lebe der Kӧnig‘ is the landscape of our recklessly stupid and morally enormous world,’ one which reflects, ‘the poisoning of both the pastoral and the elegiac, and in the process tells of another kind of “condition” that of an entire world in the declension of historical time.’20 The reader is then not taken aback when ‘starlight becomes negative,’ for the condition of nature is severely disrupted and the sky is an abyss. Even starlight, which has provided a notion of sanctuary to humankind for eons, has lost all sense of pacification.

  1. Keston Sutherland, “Hilarious Absolute Daybreak,” Glossator: Theory and Practice of the Commentary, 2 (2010): 115-148, 117.
  2. Ibid, 120.
  3. J.H. Prynne, “A Letter to Douglas Oliver (9th January 1972),’ Grosseteste Review Vol1. No. 7: 152-154.
  4. Sutherland, “Hilarious Absolute Daybreak,” 120.
  5. J.H. Prynne, Poems, (North Fremantle, Western Australia: Fremantle Arts Centre Press; Newcastle-on-Tyne: Bloodaxe, 2005)117. All other quotations from Brass will be noted with pagination in parenthesis, as from The Fremantle Press/ Bloodaxe Second Edition. In the analysis all quotations from ‘Es Lebe der König’ will be given without pagination, as the poem is reproduced in stanzaic form throughout.
  6. Sutherland, “Hilarious Absolute Daybreak,” 120.
  7. Prynne, “A Gold Ring Called Reluctance,” Poems, 21.
  8. Anthony Mellors, Late Modernist Poetics: From Pound to Prynne (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005) 186.
  9. Prynne, “Poetic Thought,” Textual Practice, Vol. 24 No. 4 (August 2010): 595-606, 598.
  10. This section of analysis utilises the philosophy of Alain Badiou in establishing the relation between the poem and the event. It was felt that for an essay with definitive constraints, such as this, the inclusion of and explanation of Badiou’s theory may have obfuscated the analysis of the poem ‘Es Lebe der König’. Its inclusion and explanation are fundamental to my understanding of violence in Prynne’s poetic and will form a major portion of the work as the project is compiled into book form.
  11. Paul Celan, Collected Prose, trans. Rosmarie Waldorp (NY: Routeledge, 2003) 50.
  12. Celan, Collected Prose, 40.
  13. Celan, Collected Prose, 40.
  14. Celan, Collected Prose, 48.
  15. Celan, Collected Prose, 48.
  16. Celan, Collected Prose, 94.
  17. John Felstiner, Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001) 52,108.
  18. There are ample examples paralleling this rupture with biblical scenes “I have come to cast fire upon the earth; and how I wish it were already kindled! But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is accomplished!” (Luke: 12:49-50). Perhaps people think that I have come to cast peace upon the world. They do not know that I have come to cast conflicts upon the earth: fire, sword, war. (Thomas 16, non-cannonical).
  19. Rodríguez, “‘Enlarging History: The Poetry of J.H. Prynne,” Sagetrieb, 10 (1991): 94-5.
  20. Rodríguez, “Enlarging History: The Poetry of J.H. Prynne,” 95.
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