Furtherance by J. H. Prynne. The Figures, $14.
Reviewed by David Shepard
To proclaim J.H. Prynne the “most important poet of the 20th century” may not have been Randall Stevenson’s intent, but the subsequent furor over the misunderstanding of his words demonstrated Prynne’s significance. Given the century’s variety of poetic activity, it is unreasonable to select one poet as its best, but the scope of Prynne’s latest book, Furtherance, suggests he might at least claim to exemplify the period. In this intriguing collection of his last four published poems--“Red D Gypsum,” “Pearls that Were,” “Triodes,” and “Unanswering Rational Shore”--he employs postmodern techniques and ideas in a Modernist poetic project to depict the twentieth century in the structure and sense of his poems.
One of Prynne’s main projects has been to collect and represent bodies of knowledge into a comprehensive whole, as illustrated in “Red D Gypsum” and echoed in “Unanswering Rational Shore.” With its complex vocabulary, the former joins human, animal, and earth in a single system by illustrating their mutual effects upon one another. We “trek inter-plate reversion to earth buy out” to find a pure state under a “flawless glucose shimmering sky” formed from a basic sugar and illustrating untapped potential. Prynne uses the motif of analogous circulatory systems within organisms, rivers, and ecosystems to illustrate the way they function through exchange. Humans impose value judgments upon the earth through the act of speech and economics, both methods of inscribing meaning, but the environment acts reciprocally. At the end, “set lichen” becomes a “set ikon,” while “vivid strips of tree bark circle the room,” silencing a speaker, and the sky is “broken.” The whole is reached through the collection of human, animal, and geological into a system.
It is for this project that he includes elements of postmodernism. The use of science and social science moves outside lyric voice subjectivity into apparent objectivity. Never satisfied to speak from one point-of-view, he embraces multiple perspectives, as in “Triodes” with its two archetypal narrators, Pandora and Irene. When a first-person speaker does emerge, he is limited by his sexism: he calls the women “chicks” and assesses a “giant classical nipple” as “not ... to die for.” No single subjectivity is prized in an effort to represent them all. This multiplicity leads to postmodern irresolution via an acceptance of multiple points-of-view. As Jeremy Noel-Tod says, “Prynne’s work is inclusively honest about the confusion of trying to see life whole”; the apparent collages of “Red D Gypsum” and “Unanswering Rational Shore” represent the information overload that confronts residents of the developed world. Likewise, Prynne does not simplify or exclude to propose a solution; as in “Pearls that Were,” there is “no pica among these withered leaves to bind up the sunken floor.” With “leaves” being the book’s paper, the line asserts that the function of this poetry is not to solve problems, reiterating the impossibility of reaching a conclusion without exclusion.
Furthermore, like many postmodern artists, Prynne repudiates modernist elitism, using eclectic vocabulary from countless different sciences and humanities for its precision, with the secondary purpose of educating the audience. On one level, the poems become vocabulary lessons with utilitarian educational value; as he says in “Unanswering Rational Shore,” they “may contain nutrients.” One representative line, “Lutine falsetto belies the gravamen of a loose quadratic, before this court ... of currency fonts” invokes medicine, music, mathematics, economics, and print. Unlike other modernists such as Eliot, Prynne uses few mythological allusions. Pandora and Irene from “Triodes” are made archaic, rather than universal, through their juxtaposition with modern conflicts. At the end, Pandora is consigned to a portrait. Such allusions otherwise tend to be a vehicle for demonstrating the poet’s knowledge of mythology, with the requirement that the reader be similarly intelligent. Prynne makes no such assumption but seeks to educate.
We can therefore read Prynne’s use of complex vocabulary as an attempt to recoup F.R. Leavis’s organic community and recombine a language fragmented into technical jargons. He reclaims this language for poetry and causes readers to incorporate these words into their vocabulary. This moves language closer to the organic whole Leavis believed permanently lost: by incorporating terms from each discourse, Prynne returns this knowledge to the public sphere from its sequestration in the ivory tower. At the same time, it also gives his poems the flavor of a modernist nostalgia for lost wholes rather than a postmodern acceptance of fragmentation.
For this reason, Prynne’s poetry is modernist in spirit. Unlike a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet (to whose poems his bear a superficial resemblance), he does not fragment the self into its influences by representing its speech as unrelated phrases. Instead, Prynne steps outside the self into multiple points of view and apparently objective realities of science. These poems also have a strong sense of originality and even emotion. “Red D Gypsum” leaves us with “vocal folds glowing deep unwinding did they forage out reparted sound shift, closing did the canted ferox inter-vocalic tissue,” conveying desperation in the effort of speaking, while the “closing” suggests the finality of its impossibility. The placement of these words is quite novel in its complexity, and we are drawn into ideas rather than forced to confront words as non-representational objects, pieces of an illusory whole. Prynne is not a pure postmodernist, then, but takes a more classical view of the function of language.
However, there is no denying that he has learned from his predecessors and found lessons in the past sixty years of poetry. This is why Furtherance is so compelling. By fulfilling his modernist project of totalization with postmodern irresolution and avoidance of a single subjectivity, Prynne collects from two periods at odds with each other. He can be called representative of the twentieth century because this book encompasses both of its major movements, its general feeling, and a good portion of its knowledge.