The Prynne Reflex

This essay is about a single poet, but also about a way of reading poetry. I’m focused here on the work of JH Prynne, but also on the ethical and historiographical presuppositions in which the work is embedded. I hope to describe, in this relatively short space, a way of appreciating the power of Prynne’s poetry while backing away from some of its enabling premises—which have to do with literary modernism, on the one hand, and the idea of modernity, on the other. I’d like to do this because I think the time has come for us to begin questioning the ethical value of literary modernist form and technique, as well as our understanding of “modernity” as a master category for understanding recent poetic history. I use the pretentious-sounding phrase “the time has come” with a little embarrassment, but since so much of the critical conversation about poetry these days is about its relation to crisis—ecological crisis, economic crisis, the crisis of the university—I really do think that we would be better readers of poetry today if we identified capitalism, not modernity, as the engine of those crises, and distinguished capitalism as a struggle over the production of value from modernity as an allegory of historical stages. And, as you’ll see, I think it matters which version of capitalism we emphasize in our conversations about poetry and crisis.

I think the dominant critical approach to poetry, at least in the English-language world, is centrally invested in a modernist narrative of the undoing of cultural damage, of getting back to lost origins. You might ask, how can such a desire for lost origins have survived the devastating post-modern critiques aimed at it in the 1970s and 1980s? That’s a very good question; let’s just say that the postmodern critique may have been more a lament for the failure of what modernism thought possible than a demurral from its goals. Already in the 1980s Andreas Huyssen had argued quite cogently that postmodern literary theory was in some sense primarily an excavation of the diminishing possibilities to be found in the innovations of literary modernism, not least innovations around the assembly of fragments into open-ended, non-holistic forms (After The Great Divide). As more French literary theory of the period was translated into English, the centrality of Mallarmé’s work to theorists as diverse as Julia Kristeva, Jacques Derrida, and Gilles Deleuze only drove home the point for American readers. As it turns out, Mallarmé remains crucial even for mutually antagonistic latter-day European theorists like Giorgio Agamben and Alain Badiou. So we could say that an attachment to the value of open-ended assemblage offered us by modernist poetry has outlived the popularity of the term “postmodern” itself.

Now, what’s the link between the value of open-ended forms, and the desire to use the notion of reversal as a model for undoing cultural damage? For a recent example of scholarship that makes this link, we might turn to Susan Stewart’s 2011 book, The Poet’s Freedom, which begins with an anecdote about Stewart seeing a young boy on a beach make a sand-castle, and then destroy it with great glee. At first, Stewart says, she was dismayed by how casually the boy tore down what he had so painstakingly created; but gradually, she writes, she came to feel otherwise. As she puts it: “Without the freedom of reversibility enacted in unmaking, or at least always present as the potential for unmaking, we cannot give value to our making.” This value, it seems, arises partly out of the fact that destruction is impossible to regulate: “there is no such thing as a precision bomb, or even the precision destruction of a sand castle” (Stewart, 1-2). At the end of the book, Stewart includes a poem of her own, a cento called “The Sand Castle,” made out of fragments from the book’s introduction, scrambled so that the original anecdote is both obscured and revivified. Open-ended form, here, is explicitly linked to the return to what Stewart calls “pure potential” (2). It is the poetic equivalent to a philosophical and political position Stewart sketches out at the end of the prose portion of the book, in which she draws on Hannah Arendt to suggest that authentic political action, like poetic destruction, involves a breaking-open, an undoing, of what has come before—a return to inaugurality, or, in Arendt’s word, natality.

One aim of this essay is to register my demurral from the premises of this constellation. While I appreciate the importation of the language of vulnerability and precariousness into contemporary academic and poetic discourse because it invites us not to take either the given or the made world for granted, I can’t make the leap from that invitation to the formal premise that our collective vulnerability to disaster, or the vulnerability of art to destruction, is the result of an irreversible historical movement from simplicity to complexity, or authenticity to hollowness, or religiosity to the secular. I also can’t accept the further formalization of vulnerability into a result of the movement of something like “time itself,” which is what Stewart pits against the reversibility of art. Already, then, the tenderness of the position on vulnerability shades over into a formalization that replaces a sense of history as the struggle over the value of time, “modern” or not, with a truism about time’s directionality.

My objections, though, are rather beside the point for now. Mostly I want us to begin to see some links between open-ended poetic form, and ways of reading poetry for its ethical value as a vulnerable tissue of fragments. But there’s another piece of the contemporary conversation that’s important here, also drawn from the modernist tradition, and it has to do with the ethics attached to difficulty in the modernism-modernity constellation. This piece will be especially important when we get to Prynne, not only because his poems are objectively quite difficult, but because he and his commentators have made “difficulty” a central term by which to judge his work. In a 2010 essay for the Cambridge Literary Review, Prynne describes poetic difficulty in terms that link ethics to philology: as in the work of William Empson, Prynne champions the ambiguity of words, not least the complexities they derive from long use, as “energy-promoting” for the reader, who is moved to do the hard work of interpretation by having to test out possible meanings from among the many a well-chosen word suggests (Prynne, “Difficulties,” 159).

As I’ll detail below, this ethics of poetic difficulty is linked to a critique of both commercialization of language, and of the American language poets, against whose early emphasis on the “free play” of signifiers he insists that there is no “free lunch”: that the play of signification, like everything else today, comes at a cost (Jarvis, ”Soteriology and Reciprocity”). In a review of Prynne’s 1999 Poems, Leo Mellor quotes Prynne’s poetic fellow-traveller Ian Sinclair putting the case even more bluntly: “Why should [poems] be easy? . . . If it comes too sweetly then someone is trying to sell you something” (”The Amazing Mr. Prynne”).

This notion that aesthetic experience is compromised by commercial exchange forms the background for the persistent damage-language around Prynnian aesthetics. Here at The Claudius App, for instance, the poet and critic Keston Sutherland has recently described the stanza form of his 2009 volume Stress Position in language that accurately renders one of the effects of a typical Prynne stanza, too—as a “metrical block whose reiteration as narrative would damagingly proscribe anything I could identify as my own fluency in poetic language.” And in an early essay on Prynne, Simon Jarvis argues that the poet’s work reminds us that poetry can only overcome a capitalistically-imposed division between truth and beauty by not overcoming it, but rather by writhing inside it: “Only a poetry recalcitrant to exile from cognition, and a thought which admits its own artifice of articulation, can remain awake to the damage done and the capacities set loose by these formally free divisions of labour” (“Soteriology,” 37). This dialectical position nonetheless preserves the link between freedom and difficulty; I think it forecloses the possibility, not that the route to freedom is difficulty’s opposite, but that freedom might not be an ethical category.

In the American conversation about poetry, we have our own touchstones for this particular ethics of damage and difficulty: the most obvious would be how key Language poets, who like Prynne came of age in the 1970s, built a critique of capital around a critique of the simplifications of thought engendered by the culture of commodification and by the rise of spectacular media—a critique whose central point was that capitalism made relationships thing-like, and reduced the complexities of political struggle and lived suffering to mere spectacle. Prynne has stated publicly that the Saussurian commitments of the language poets, their pursuit of generative arbitrariness and aleatory surprise, leave him cold; because he has a theory of the history of language that is built around the pressing of cumulatively deep meanings into the shapes and sounds of words, he prefers to tackle the problem of the commodification of language using older, Empsonian techniques that emphasize the historical treasures of ambiguity (”Stars, Tigers, and the Shapes of Words”). But both the Language poets in the moment of their most clarion poetics and Prynne in his recent essays make a link between an ethics of difficulty and a theory of damaged language. The idiosyncratic anti-capitalism they share has been eclipsed by formalist modernity-language: the US poets have been construed as “post-modern” and Prynne as “late-modern”—the Americans the poets of the sharp break, and Prynne the poet of attenuated continuation.

Actually, as Anthony Mellors has pointed out, the continuity of Prynne’s work with the modernists may be less a technique per se than a topos or matter central to English-language literary modernism—the topos of the underworld, and of the cyclical return to life. Mellors points out that for the earliest modernists, this topos centered on the figures of Prosperpine or Kora; for later writers, not least Americans like Charles Olson, this vertical figure of katabasis, or going under and coming back up, was rotated 90 degrees, as it were, and given a new classical pedigree—the “horizontal” arc of journeying and homecoming exemplified in the wanderings of Odysseus (Late Modernist Poetics, 52-89). In the early 1970s Prynne delivered a beautiful, adoring lecture on this thematic of Olson’s, which Prynne also experienced as a deep structure, a kind of boomerang arc, so that the short lyric sections of Olson’s Maximus added up to something like epic, and then collapsed back into being lyric again, more beautiful for having been incorporated for a while into a larger structure (”Lectures on Maximus”).

Olson was a sometime friend and a great influence on the young Prynne; Prynne’s reworking of the Olsonian topos of exile and return, which has shaped his whole career, involves re-inscribing that arc of homecoming in movements of many different scales—not only the wide compass of the great Homeric voyage, but the turning of one’s head from left to right and back again, or the movement of molecules back and forth across a membrane, so as to write a kind of dream of the return to authenticity into even micrological space. As early as 1979, in an essay that remains among the very best on Prynne, Douglas Oliver noticed that “Prynne’s work would reach, if it could, beyond the language condition where sub-microscopic events are mere metaphor for mental process to a condition where they more closely become a description of the same, essential process”; he calls it a “sublime-literal.” (“Of Movement Towards a Natural Place,” 95-96). 

Like Oliver, I think Prynne’s ambition is toward a poetry that would stage cognition’s ability to reverse time and, in doing so, reach past mere metaphor. I think this mostly because of how a belief in this ability organizes Prynne’s essays well as his poems. So let me give you three quick examples of how, in his critical writing, Prynne has imagined pitting reversal or undoing against what he takes to be the historical damage of modernity: one that addresses biology, one that turns to economic history, and a third that thinks through poetry and philology. 

In a 1968 prose piece called “The Plant-Time Manifold Transcripts,” Prynne imitates the proceedings of a scientific conference whose participants are entertaining the possibility that at the level of cell membranes, plants could be said to move both forward and backward in time. Indeed, given different conditions of rot, compost, and generation, the scientists are interested in how plants might be describable as being alive and dead at the same time: as one speaker puts it, “plant death is clearly a more complex event than in other life systems” (Poems, 240). What’s interesting about the piece is that it is not a lampoon of science but a kind of fantasia on it: Prynne is dead serious. And his readers have followed him: the brilliant young poet and critic Justin Katko, matching this seriousness, calls the piece “relativistic phytosophy.”

In another piece from the late 1960s, this one called “A Note on Metal,” Prynne offers a sketch of economic history that tells a story of how stamped coinage emerged as the result of complex processes of social abstraction that began, at the dawn of recorded history, with simpler, more concrete measures of value, like weight. Interestingly, for Prynne, the rise of coinage is both a practical matter, involving the need for a medium of value transferable across ever greater distances, and a metaphysical one, since he imagines that stamped coins, unlike ingots or worked metal, are de-magicalized: their stamps over-write any trace of the resonance of the substance itself. It doesn’t matter, Prynne believes, that a gold coin is gold so much as that it is gold whose value is backed by political authority, and for Prynne what’s damning about the imposition of that authority is that it’s an abstraction—an abstraction and a displacement from something magical, something alchemical, that was once evident to us when we first encountered gold. That poetry might help us remember this magic, and that such remembering is a leftist project, Prynne makes clear at the end of the essay: “at this [late] stage,” he writes, “there is the possible contrast of an exilic (left-wing) history of substance” (Poems, 130). The triumph of the left, in this vision, would be measured less by justice or by liberation, whatever they might mean, than by a return to “reality” or authentic life.

Finally, in a recent Chicago Review essay, Prynne imagines the lineation of the poem on the page, in its difference from prose in paragraphs, as a kind of machine for making time tremble and reverse: “line-breaks or step ordering that override the unfeatured page space of normal printed language perform the overt function of continuity by versus and retroflex” (”Mental Ears,” 140). That is, our eyes darting from the end of one line to the beginning of another create a kind of instability in linear time. Elsewhere he suggests that not only left-justified writing, but the etymology of English words, can be motivated or activated into reversing time, and to heightening painful, buried contradictions in the human history of violence, as when Wordsworth uses the word “blessing” with beatitude but also, Prynne thinks, with an implicit awareness of the word’s link to words like the French blessure, to wounding, to blood sacrifice (136; 139-141).

All of these examples, I think, can make us better readers of Prynne’s poetry. But they also make me feel my critical problem most acutely, and so I think I need to name for you the contradiction I experience between my keen interest in what Prynne’s poems are capable of, on the one hand, and my rejection of the historical and ethical premises that generate them, on the other. It’s not clear to me, for instance, that “the unfeatured page space of normal printed language” exists in any continuous way such that we could say poetry stands out against it because of how it’s printed—historically, the formats of prose have been as marked by conventions and surprises as poetry has, perhaps more so. And the stagist history of the rise of capitalist money, in which the problem with capital is that it’s abstract and not concrete, has long since been disabled by a variety of scholarship in anthropology and economic history: I’d point to David Graeber’s recent volume Debt: The First Five Thousand Years as the great synthesis and clarification of this scholarship. Finally, the intellectual strain behind the playfulness of the Plant Time Manifold is all-too evident. It is deflating indeed when a perceptive reader like Katko, glossing Prynne’s piece for more than fifty pages, can only assert in the end that Prynne’s insistence on our reading plants as moving in more than one temporal direction is evidence of “the poet’s faith that his description bears absolute fidelity to the total logic of his own experience” (”Phytosophy,” 286). Katko’s use of the contemporary keywords “fidelity” and “logic” calls to mind the work of Alain Badiou, the arbitrariness of whose use of set-theoretical math to found a new ontology of “infinitude” shares with “relativistic phytosophy” an all-too willful hermetic “fidelity” to its improbable cause.1

So what about the poems? As I’ve said, I agree with Oliver that Prynne is after a kind of “sublime-literal” in which a poem can demonstrate that the activity of the mind is like the activity of nature, that the movement of molecules is like the movement of the stars, that at some level erosion and continental drift and neuronal impulses and the etymology of words are all expressions of the same non-linear dynamism. At mid-twentieth century, the emergent discipline that gave this belief a contemporary cast was cybernetics—a field of inquiry that presumed to find the structural commonality across psychological and natural disciplines by way of assuming an innate dynamism to all phenomena, which was to be understood via informatic keywords like “signals” and “feedback.”2 Prynne likely picked up on such ideas from Olson, the opening assertion of whose canonical poem “The Kingfishers”—“What does not change / is the will to change”—finds its support in the cybernetic language that surfaces a few lines later: “not accumulation but change, the feed-back proves, the feed-back is / the law.” While Prynne does not hew long or closely to this particular idiom—the first piece in his 1997 Poems, from 1968, begins with the language of signals, and it subsides shortly after—he retains his insistence on the non-metaphoric commonality of phenomena across scale. This seems important for understanding Prynne’s career, since his belief in this trans-scalar commonality is what drives the wide reach of his reference, not least his famous juxtapositions of economic, scientific, and poetic language. This wide reach, as one reads across Prynne’s volumes, is at least in part an expression of the sheer will to align seemingly incommensurate phenomena into a single cosmically coherent picture. Many of his champions see in this reach the measure of Prynne’s genius; however true that may be, it is also an expression of his will to restore what C.S. Lewis mournfully called “the discarded image”—i.e., a vision of the spheres.

Unlike Olson, of course, Prynne has never sought to restore us to the spheres by writing in the epic mode; indeed one suspects he actively rejects the attempt. In the place of epic, we find an ongoing engagement with a notion of lyric, expressed in the early work by the belief that attention to minutiae, given expression in shorter forms, can open space for human tenderness in a time of universally reified relations. This tenderness sits uneasily with the testiness that the cybernetic ambition breeds, so that, in the early poems, we are being spoken to by a poet whose is both eager to show us the value of quiet attentiveness to what’s small, and exasperated that we don’t understand its significance (the first of the relatively few questions that dot his collected 1999 Poems is, “How could this be clearer?”). Here is the penultimate stanza of “Die A Millionaire,” from the 1968 volume Kitchen Poems:

        And the back mutation is knowledge and
        has always been so in the richest tradition 
        of the trust it is possible to have, to repose
        in the mysteries. The perversions which
        thrust it forward, as a new feed into the
        same vicious grid of expanding prospects
        (profits) are let through by the weakness, now,
        of names. (16)

There are three things in this passage that are resonant throughout Prynne’s career: the reference to knowledge as a “back mutation”; the sense of forward movement as a “perversion” (rendered here in cybernetic language, as a “new feed”); and the sense that capitalism, in accentuating forward movement at the expense of our ability to remain aware of the role of “back mutation” in shaping authentic perceptions, has done damage to language (”the weakness, now, / of names”). The poem concludes with a mix of tender piety and teacherly curtness:

                                                        This is
        a prayer. I have it now between my 
        teeth and my eyes, on my forehead. Know
        the names. It is as simple as the purity
        of sentiment: it is as simple
        as that. (16)

Later in Kitchen Poems, in a poem called “A Gold Ring Called Reluctance,” Prynne invents another version of this elusive idea of literal continuity across scale: that underneath seemingly irreversible phenomena is an endlessness, both modestly un-metaphysical and quietly cosmic, bigger than linearity. He discovers it while walking—walking slowly, in particular:

        As you drag your feet or simply being
        tired, the ground is suddenly interesting;
        not as metaphysic but the grave, maybe,
        that area which claims its place like
        a shoe. This idea of the end is a neat
        but mostly dull falsity, since the
        biologic collapse is violence reversed,
        like untying a knot. (21)

The poet’s interpretation of death (”biologic collapse”) as “violence reversed,” and the body as a “knot” awaiting its untying, makes a lovely bid for entropy as deserving our fondness. It also speaks to the career-long will to reversal with which I began. In a moment I want to sketch the way in which this matrix of concerns endures across Prynne’s career, but before I do so, I want to turn to its one remaining element, which is the critique of capital in which that matrix finds its specificity. For Prynne, in the late writing as well as in the early poems, the critique of capital is to be conducted by pitting an actuality won of stillness against a frenzy of commerce that frays language. It is to be found in minutiae, and in something like un-velocity. Here are the last two stanzas of “Gold Ring”:

        And as the age or condition of this
        fact we call place grows daily more remote,
        the literalness thrives unchecked. The 
        imbalance is frightening: the splintered
        naming of wares creates targets for want
        like a glandular riot, and thus want
        is the most urgent condition (e.g. not
        enough credit).
                                I am interested instead in
        discretion: what I love and also the spread 
        of indifferent qualities. Dust, objects of use
        broken by wear, by simply slowing too much
        to be retrieved as agents. Scrap; the old ones,
        the dead who sit daily at the feast. Each
        time I hesitate I think of them, loving what
        I know. The ground on which we pass,
        moving our feet, less excited by travel. (23)

The critique of capital emerges here in the way two sets of words sift into opposition: on one side, the “frightening imbalance” between “fact” and the “splintered naming of wares” (that is, something like advertising) produce a “glandular riot” that overexcites something like a faculty of “want.” To these are opposed “discretion,” the “indifferent qualities” of minor, well-worn objects, and the “slowness” that prevents them from capture in the circuits of commerce. All of this, along with a respectful nod in the direction of “the dead,” produces a lessened “excitation” in which we are invited to rove and saunter, forsaking a presumably hyped-up, touristic “travel.”

These oppositions are typical of Prynne’s critique of capital, and they do not disappear in the later work. The pitting of one speed against another, but also the ethical commitment to personal refusal, and the sense that there is something “glandular” in susceptibility to the solicitations of commercial life—that a central problem with capitalism is that it excites people’s concupiscence—all these remain constant, as we will see. Indeed I believe they provide a template for the later work, despite the supposedly un-thematizable density of the more recent poems. The way to read the endurance of these concerns from the early to the later poems, I think, is to see them transposed from first-person statements of theme and belief, as we’ve seen above, to figures of reversible flow, and then to reversal-games at the level of the part-word. Rather than abandoning an early thematics of reversible damage, that is, Prynne in his later work saturates each poem with it. If reversibility stops being a “theme” of the poems, that is, it isn’t because it stops being a concern of the poems—indeed it becomes their formal principle.

Prynne’s mid-career work bears this out. The 1983 volume The Oval Window is a good example: as Reeve and Kerridge note, the book assembles its matter from an array of seemingly incommensurable material, from the tropes of sixth-century Chinese “Palace Style” poetry, to the ordering of cause and effect in computer programming, to the sloshing and cascading movement of the crystals in the inner ear that give us our sense of balance, and on to the Heisenbergian sensitivity to observation of data on financial markets (”Deaf To Meaning”). Once again, the poet brings that material into alignment (perhaps with the residual permission of those mid-century cybernetic ambitions), and frames the alignment with a proposition about the reversibility of time—here, in the volume’s unattributed epigraph, which describes how computer languages operationalize the ideas of “before” and “after,” and concludes that “This condition says essentially that, / given the present, / the past and future / are independent / of each other.” But where in the volumes from the late 60s and 70s Prynne would have offered a first-person statement of program or theme, pitting griddedness or spectacle (understood as perverse forms of relentless forward motion) against one or another micrological reversal of time, in The Oval Window we will come across it in small rhetorical turns and word-choices: the theme is in place, if miniaturized. Take the opening of this untitled poem:

        So: from now on too, or soon lost,
        the voice you hear is your own
        revoked, on a relative cyclical downturn
        imaged in latent narrow-angle glaucoma.
        Yet the snow picks up and infolds,
        a mist of gold leaf lightly shimmers
        as floating clouds go back to the mountains (333)

Here the thematics of un-damage are played out in the mini-structure, revoke-vs-infold: even as the “voice” is made dumb and un-lyric in the “revoking” movement of capital (the “cyclical downturn”), the infolding “snow,” like the snowflake-seeming crystals in the inner ear, tumbles in upon itself and facilitates return to something less damaged: the clouds “go back to the mountains.”

By the 1990s, Prynne has carried this theme of reversal down to the level of the morpheme and the grapheme. Take this poem from the 1997 volume For The Monogram:

        Tuck up tawdry attraction for the follow broken air
            to separate yield and distort along the floor,
        moving flood in a pure scheme they have but them
            selves alone flutter drain orphans in ultra wrong
        unit time set. Either dies young or lives (almost)
            for ever trailing blab across some bad sequence
        of strides, seeking trim animal redress. For lifted
            maternal protection slurping canny on a bundle at
        just one table in the entire universe, for him now
            governed lazy just one it counts viewless torn lip
        chained. All possible out rankings flunk my presents
            in ever hopeless profusion scattered grandly on
        sea-bed panegyric stipple. Brother set in both limbs
            dismissed as a tort factor of age craning forward to
        counter stream cycle proof, invests its hatch cover
            by orphan fragments reverting to current seed. (425)

As usual, the word-hoard is organized as a blending of domains: here we get industrial agriculture (the “flutter drain orphans”) with a light dusting of computer-language (”stream cycle” and “current seed”) framed by a caution against finding something about the scene arousing (the “tuck up” in “tuck up tawdry attraction,” being a way of hiding an erection by restraining one’s penis with the elastic band of one’s underwear). The “orphans” in line 4, dying young or barely alive, are drooling as they move in a “bad sequence of strides,” on weak limbs with a “brother set” in the bones, twisted into parallel from remaining mostly seated, their mothers replaced with “a bundle” from which they suck, their lips punctured by the holes made for a chain, their worlds contracting to “just one table in the entire universe,” in stalls that are otherwise “viewless.” As these poor creatures “[crane] forward” for sustenance, the poet notices the messy backwash of their suckling, or possibly their gag reflex, and imagines it violating the one-way motion of the flutter-valved tubes they are obliged to mouth at, producing a wet white counter-spray to the force-fed flood of milk that’s all they have to gulp. 

I’ve noted that from early in his career Prynne makes it possible to see, even in the flux of backwash, a metaphor for something like the great Homeric arc of exile and return (the backwash-sperm “reverting to current seed” at the poem’s close). What makes this poem typical of his later style is the way he also expresses theme at the level of the vowel and the dipthong—the poem is an extended play on “u”-sounds in English, with 11 of 16 lines containing the letter either alone or as part of a dipthong, and a smattering of words like “one,” “cover” and “brother” that make a short u-sound even without the letter. I call this “thematic” because the difference between the “ou” in “young” (line 5) and in “count” (line 10) likely represent movements back and forth across a great vowel shift, a kind of perpetual miniature “versus and retroflex” between what began as French and what ended up as “English” pronunciations of the vowel combination—from coup de foudre to “pound” and “ounce,” as it were. This play with dipthongs also raises background questions about the convergence and divergence of word-pronunciation across time, like how the “er” in “revert” came to sound like the “ur” in “current.” Whatever the actual histories of such convergences and divergences, it is more than likely that for Prynne they are meant to represent the time of the English language moving forward and backwards at once. This vowel and dipthong-play is one of the central elements of Prynne’s late style, and once more I find support for my sense that it’s thematic in critical writing by Prynne, not least his 1992 essay “Stars, Tigers, and the Shapes of Words,” which is a brief against Saussure and what Prynne calls the thesis of arbitrariness in structuralist linguistics. Against that thesis, Prynne suggests that there are deep cultural reasons why some, if not all, words are shaped the way they are—his main example, whimsically enough, being the “twinkle” in “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”—a word whose terminal “-le,” he argues, bespeaks diminutiveness on the model of the terminal “-le” in “little,” and brightness, on the model of the terminal “-le” in “sparkle” (9).

This may explain why, in the poem above, Prynne pairs his dipthong-play with a sustained attention to the shape and sound of the letter combination “-or” and its variants: notice “for” (4 times), “floor,” “distort,” “pure,” “orphan,” and “orphans,” “torn,” “tort,” “factor,” and “forward.” Meanwhile “protection,” “profusion,” “brother” and “proof” reverse the “-or” to make a series of “ro-” sounds and shapes, making a kind of counter-current to the connotations of the “or-” words. I don’t know what Prynne thinks is the historical significance of this or-ro lability, except that after hearing the two sounds together they seem to call out to one another (and perhaps that, in things like the movement from the “Orlando” in Orlando Furioso to the “Roland” in the Chanson de Roland, which is modeled on the earlier Italian poem, we can see the transposition in literary history, too). But the point is, and this is a little astounding, that it’s all done according to a thesis about modernity.


In a 2006 seminar visit to a class taught by Keston Sutherland at the University of Sussex, Prynne referred to a conversation he had with one of his German translators in which, against the notion that they should work toward a German version that would transmit some English meaning, Prynne proposed that they simply translate “the words.” A few moments later, he said that the infrequency of his live reading, at least in the UK, was due to a “policy” he keeps to. With the audience chuckling, he joked that

        My policy . . . is to read only to audiences that don’t understand 
        English. That sounds contrarian, but actually it works pretty well. 
        It means I can read at liberty in China, I can read quite freely in 
        Australia, I can actually read more or less in parts of the USA, and 
        I can read quite widely in Canada, but not usually in Britain . . . 

The serious part of the joke seemed to be that, in contexts where audiences aren’t familiar with the meaning of the words or the phrases they congeal into, they can simply enjoy the play of sounds, instead of fussing about looking for meaning, or—worse—a “moral”: it’s a joke, then, at literary Britain’s expense. But this seems only partly serious. And the mere joke, the in-house British joke at the expense of the former commonwealth, seems only partly a joke. 

I mention these remarks because together they bring to a sharp point the questions I began with about the modernity thesis, and the ethics of difficulty, in Prynne’s work. To read word by word, having given up the possibility of framing one’s reading with prior assumptions, sounds to some ears like the very description of the way to read under conditions of what Adorno called “wrong life”—eschewing interpretive presumption, avoiding the moral offense of being caught going tra-la-la next door to Auschwitz or in view of Fallujah, letting meaning, when it comes, thrust up from a two- or three-word sequence, dutifully reminding ourselves that all we have left now of a once-rich lyric tradition is a kind of infra-lyric beauty that is certainly ana- and possibly anti-hermeneutical. In this Adornian framework, the poet adopts (and presumably the attentive reader mimics) a position of “damage” in which, as Simon Perril puts it, “Utterance is more often maimed and wounded by a self-conscious sense of inappropriateness and inadequacy” (”Hanging on Your Every Word”).

But there are problems with this framework. For one thing, it depends on a pun between semantic meaning and “meaning” in the sense of “the meaning of life”—the latter of which, indeed, Adorno critiqued mercilessly as a kind of country-club philosophical pursuit after the mass murder of European Jews. To read for a phrase or a sentence and attempt to gain from it local meaning is not to insist, like a mole-eyed bourgeois, that art be pretty and give us deep thoughts. To argue that those two things are the same is to reduce the critique of capital to a critique of concupiscence (which is, as we’ve seen, an old target of Prynne’s). 

The problem is broader, though, than a skirmish around how to read individual lines or phrases in poetry like Prynne’s. It has to do with how to interpret his tone. To use the critique of damaged life as a background support for the unremitting gravitas of Prynne’s work is to read Adorno undialectically—not, I don’t mean to say, to mis-read the Adornian dialectic, since Prynne’s best expositors are brilliant readers of Adorno, but to read his version of the dialectic as thought it were simply correct. Certainly Adorno had a lancing critique of too-easy beauty, and of the homogenizing force of mass culture, but he developed it in sentences that showed off his unmatched ear for that popular form, the aphorism. At the same time, he was never less persuasive than when critiquing the popular. This problem in Adorno, which is also a problem for Prynne and the Adornian reading of Prynne, stems from Adorno’s own background reliance on an idea that, in its Heideggerian variant at least, he opposed—the notion of reification. But he relied on it nevertheless, leading us decades later once again to the problem of a reductive critique of capital—here, the reduction of the critique of capital to the critique of abstraction and objectification. Adorno’s defense of the qualitative and the non-identical as redoubts against the tendency to abstraction and objectification in systematic philosophy is far more persuasive than his critique of quantitative, homogenizing mass culture, and that’s because the qualitative and the non-identical live in the subject as much as in the object: unfortunately for the critique of reification, there turn out to be plenty of idiosyncratic and reflexive ways to love “Oops I Did It Again.” My point is simply that, just as it is a pun to equate the desire for local meaning-making with the brute insistence that Life is Meaningful, so too is it a pun to construe the lyric as morally “complicit” with capital because it has a price tag: the critique of capital is not the critique of price, but of value.

This matters, both for the critique of capital and for our understanding of the moral life of poetry (if it has one). Too much contemporary anti-capitalist theory depends on a linear understanding of both capital’s operations, and its movement in history, as though the problem we face in the 21st century is that there is more capitalism now than there used to be, that it extends farther and deeper than ever before: this is the notion expressed in theories of “affective” and “immaterial labor,” for instance. And certainly it’s true that the forced politeness of a flight attendant, and the strokes of a keyboard at a console, are new capillary termini for capital. But this newness no more explains the history of capitalism than a critique of Autotune explains the history of blackface. 

Capital works as a circuit, first of all, not a simple vector: in order to self-expand, it must move through phases, and it is beset with logistical, political, and financial obstacles at every moment of its metamorphoses from money into capital and back again. Marx didn’t begin his critique of capital unidirectionally, or with a humanness that became commodified, a kind of H à C, so to speak. He begins with the movement of commodities in and out of the money form, over and over: M-C-M’. The relentless technological innovation capital compels is easy to interpret linearly, of course—we didn’t have gas chambers in 1926, or iPods in 1987. But the linear interpretation fails to grasp the contradictory relationship between technology and the value produced by labor, which is that every innovation that frees capitalists from having to pay wages simultaneously moves them away from the source of the value—exploited labor—that in turn makes their profits possible. It also fails to grasp that not all money is capital, and that not all goods are commodities, at every moment, but only inasmuch as they are not lying around unused, or up for sale, and so on. This not to mention all the problems capitalists face in forming and maintaining stock, staving off wastage, gaining access to credit, enforcing labor discipline, securing a stable market, and surviving competition. That capitalists as a class have been so successful at solving (or deferring) these problems neither means that capital has simply triumphed over everything, as in the thesis of damaged life, nor that its perpetual vulnerabilities instantly suggest a route to its overthrow. It does mean that, if we are serious about understanding capitalism, or even just capitalism’s relation to the impulses that lead to poetry, we can do much better than to bemoan “reification.”

Without a sense of capital’s beset metamorphoses, that is, we in the academy and in the poetry-world that’s hitched to it end up telling ourselves modernity-stories about the Commodification of Everything instead of producing analyses of how capital is working today. And without a sense that it is participation in the capital-labor relation, not the existence of a market, that makes money and labor and commodities into bearers of capitalist value, our ars poetica tend to waffle between a thin hope that poetry, undercapitalized as it is, is somehow “outside” capital, and a self-flagellating despair that nothing is. The “dialectic” that tries to capture the movement between these two positions by producing negative art is less a dialectic than a practice of self-mortification with an older pedigree by far than capital. That’s not to say that dark art cannot be anti-capitalist, or that there is a “better,” celebratory route to resisting capitalism via poetry. It’s to suggest that the relationship between art and capital, whatever it will turn out to be, is not best understood—or practiced—as an ethics.

So how do we read poetry like Prynne’s, which has staked its claim to legibility on precisely that, on an ethical practice of self-ruining negativity? I think the answer is, by trying to historicize how he came to the positions he holds, and to the comportments those positions produce. This returns us, in closing, to the question of tone, and also to the arc of his career. 

For all the praise given Prynne because he reads widely in the sciences, his poems feel less experimental than ascriptive, so that each new bit of scientific (or financial, or engineering, or programming) language comes to seem merely the latest support for Prynne’s claim about the un-linear instabilities inside of seemingly linear time, and its capacity to model (if not actually enact) the undoing of the damage caused by linearity, grids, forward-thrustingness, and instrumentalization. More consistent even than the absence of any lightness in the poems is the absence of the scientific emotions of perplexity and wonder. Early in the career, variations on the words “hope” and “hopelessness” come closest to that, and they carry the sweet residual erotic charge of the sonneteering lover’s hopelessness; the poems of the 70s are full of them.3 But along with question marks, exclamation points, and the first-person plural, they disappear in the early 80s, never to return. 

This is perhaps to say that Prynne’s late style is a victory for Margaret Thatcher. Looking back from the vantage of the later work, it is hard not to read lines like these from a 1971 poem, “The Five Hindrances,” and feel that a whole daylight world has been lost:

                                The two friends
        Walk down the sandy track and we hold back
        The ends of the crescent. The future history of the 
        Air is glowing, with amity beyond the path itself;
        Touched gently and brought to this stubborn wreck. (163)

To be sure, the work that comes after is far more rigorous, more refusing, more minutely controlled: I can only imagine the compositional joy that must arise from the sensitivity to the relays among “or’s” and “ow’s” and “ou’s” that makes a poet able to shape a line like, “undertow no more down, weak born to make allow fervent or you” (Sub Songs, 13). But that doesn’t make the work better; it just makes it more stern. 


I have tried to suggest that perhaps the strongest argument for the value of the enduring thematics of reversal and anti-linearity in Prynne’s work is an Adornian argument that, in the modern era, we live a damaged life. In the Prynnian version of that argument, the reversibility (or at least non-linearity) of patterns of everything from migratory drift, membrane salinity, and word-shapes can be pitted against the relentless instrumentalization of time and persons demanded by capital, without actually being “pitted against it” per se. But this argument for the ethical merit of pitting reflex time against linear time, as the title “The Five Hindrances” suggests, may be a better Buddhist than a Marxist one, since capital is a social relation and not a bad physics.

My argument, then, is not that Prynne’s negative-dialectical poetry is too “difficult,” or too negative. It’s that, by construing the dialectic in terms of physics and of ethics, his poetry is not nearly dialectical enough. The conditions of its legibility are not simply that we read word-to-word, staving off easy interpretation; they are also that we subscribe to a modernity-narrative that stakes everything on a notion of “damage” that, in turn, depends on a very slender critique of capital as “commodification.” I should be clear that I’m not wishing Prynne’s poetry were built on a stronger critique of capital. Little of my favorite poetry is a product of “correct” analysis, and I don’t expect it to be. But since Prynne and his interpreters have made a claim for the force of his poetry on the basis of how its difficulty-ethics performs a compelling critique of life under capital, it becomes important to notice how and when that critique is not compelling. As an ethical comportment, this one is not. And the idea that Poetry and Marxism Are Serious Business, given warrant by the damage-thesis, is a damaging idea.


Adorno, Theodor. “Lyric Poetry and Society.” Notes to Literature, Vol. 1. 
    Trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen. Ed. Rolf Tiedemann. New York:  
    Columbia UP, 1991: 37-54.

Graeber, David. Debt: The First Five Thousand Years. Brooklyn,
    NY: Melville House, 2012.

Huyssen, Andreas. After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, 
    Postmodernism. Bloomington: Indian UP, 1986.

Jarvis, Simon. “Soteriology and reciprocity.” Parataxis: Modernism and 
    Modern Writing 5 (1993): 30-39.

Katko, Justin. “Relativistic Phytosophy: Towards a Commentary on The 
    Plant Time Manifold Transcripts.” Glossator 2 (2010): 245-293.

Mellor, Leo. “The Amazing Mr. Prynne” (review of Poems). Buzzwords. 

Mellors, Anthony. Late Modernist Poetics: From Pound to Prynne. 
    Manchester: Manchester UP, 2005.

Perril, Simon. “Hanging on Your Every Word: J.H. Prynne’s Bands 
    Around The Throat and a Dialectics of Planned Impurity.”

Prynne, J.H. Poems. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1999.

——————. Sub Songs. London: Barque Press, 2010.

——————. “Lectures on Maximus IV, V and VI.” Simon Fraser 
    University, July 27, 1971. Transcribed by Tom McGauley and 
    published in Iron (October 1971). Reprinted in Minutes of the Charles 
    Olson Society 28 (1999).

——————. “Stars, Tigers, and the Shapes of Words.” The William 
    Matthew Lectures 1992. London: Birckbeck College, 1993.

——————. “Difficulties in the Translation of ‘Difficult’ Poems.” 
    Cambridge Literary Review, I/3 (2010): 151-166.

——————. “Mental Ears and Poetic Work.” Chicago Review 55.1 
    (2010): 126-157.

Reeve, N.H., and Richard Kerridge. Nearly Too Much: The Poetry of J.H.     
    Prynne. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 1996.

--------------. “Deaf to Meaning: On J.H. Prynne’s The Oval Window.” 
    Jacket 20 (2002).

Sutherland, Keston. 1:11. The Claudius App 1 (2011).

Stewart, Susan. The Poet’s Freedom. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2011.

1 For a devastating critique of Badiou’s use of math, to which Badiou was only able to respond by huffing and puffing and bullying, see Ricardo Nirenberg and David Nirenberg’s “Badiou’s Number: A Critique of Mathematics as Ontology” in Critical Inquiry 37 (Summer 2011): 583-614, and Badiou’s reply in Critical Inquiry 38 (2012): 362-387.

2 A good survey of the trans-disciplinary ambitions of cybernetics, and of its reluctance to engage disciplines on anything like their own terms, is Jean-Pierre Dupuy, On The Origins of Cognitive Science: The Mechanization of the Mind (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2009).

3 See, for instance, “. . . when so hopelessly / we want so much more” from “Numbers in Time of Trouble” (Poems, 17); “The qualities then area name, corporately, / for the hope they will return to us” from “Sketch for a Financial Theory of The Self” (20); “. . . perhaps only the smell of resin // holds him to a single / hopefulness” from “A Figure of Mercy, of Speech” (39), and so on. In some sense the early language of “hope” is what the retroflex-trope grafts itself onto and then replaces, by way of the mediating term “rise,” variants of which (”rising,” etc.) are used to describe moral, geographic, and meterological “gradients” that are a kind of last pit-stop before the reversibility idea fully takes hold.