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Larkin & Prynne

'An interview with Peter Larkin', in Intercapillary Space

'I derived the idea of ‘scarcity’ directly from ecology as a way of moving aside from the endless debates about absence, but it’s important for me that what is scarce should relate to plenitude on the one hand and to rarity on the other. It seemed to open up a lot of new moves in terms of what is given (on more than one level) while remaining attentive to the conditions (not to say resistances) under which what is given is granted. I also wanted to move away from an absence-enacting text as object to readmit ‘horizons’ of the text more broadly (and here the difference between formal textuality and poetic textures is important): I am interested in how a written text elaborates itself precisely so it can move towards making some sort of ontological offer or promise of relationality. It can’t demonstrate this, it can only gesture towards a broader supplementarity than the Derridean one whereby differing/deferring becomes (in English) a deferring to, a letting something appear/occur through something else. The later Derrida picks up promise again from Heidegger as a sort of primordial yes-saying (but presumably under conditions of its own impossibility!). I might (perversely) describe myself as a ‘mild’ or ‘conservative’ innovative poet, i.e. concerned to reconnect rather than sever links to the non-human and more than human universe - but conceding the radically different conditions. A text works under the terms of ‘scarcity’ because it can’t adequately embed such things but neither is it a formal tool of subversion that unworks itself as a rendition of absence. But I don’t think the scarce is individuated or rarified so much as holding to the tensionality of availing relations across the board – and as such connects delicate (vulnerable) plenitude of the actual to the finite rarity of making it possible (any idea of absence might do the reverse). And of course, where actuality gets ahead like that there can be horizons of hope and transformation. . . .

For me the very idea of a ‘reserve’ has something to do with gift, with both pre- and pro-venience, with, not so much anteriority as such, as the feeling that what begins ‘here’ draws on a reservoir of accompaniment, a sustaining though not symmetrical difference that goes alongside as well as cutting across (perhaps the feeling for horizon which would seem to interrupt, confine or beckon really derives from this).'

'An introduction to the poetry of J. H. Prynne', Rod Mengham and John Kinsella (1999)

'Prynne's is a poetry that has always been concerned with much more than the way the individual self understands its relation to the social and natural environments; right at the centre of the reading experience it offers is an encounter with the languages and findings of various disciplines that coincide in demonstrating how the self is formed by processes that often lie beyond the grasp of individual perception and cognition. These might locate humankind in relation to geological time scales or to the infinitesimal events of neurochemistry, to the migration patterns of other species or to the systems logic of information technology. Such an array of different kinds of knowledge and discourse could never be reduced to the scope of the familiar, speaking voice without submitting to an illusion of control and conscious orientation.

Prynne's poetry rather prompts a critical awareness of how the impulse to translate the strange into familiar terms can be seen as a form of denial, as a refusal to face up to the moral and political impasse of contemporary selfhood. In the social reality of our own era, translations like this can often be ethically disastrous, when they co-opt the terms of one special language and set of relations into another; one clear example, which is extremely prominent in Prynne's writing, involves the contamination of social politics by the criteria of economic transactions. Syntactically and semantically, the language of the poems reaches beyond the grasp of conventional modes and measures, in order to register the lateral pressures and sometimes buckling impact of incongruous vocabularies, competing idioms and conflicting programmes. There is no point of view being transcribed here, rather the constant inscribing of conditions which both generate and limit the individual point of view.

. . . Prynne's experimentalism has reached the point where even the most seemingly innocuous parts of speech (e.g. prepositions) are prevented from carrying out their usual functions. In this, he is a writer who has carefully denied himself the comfort of an avant-garde house-style, despite the readiness of critics to identify him with the techniques of the so-called 'Cambridge School'. The ghettoizing of Prynne's reputation has resulted from his decision to publish only with small presses and to engage in public debate almost entirely through the pages of little magazines. Prynne's rather singular involvement with small avant-garde groupings is also an historical choice of artistic traditions, an antithetical gesture of defiance in a culture whose endorsements of the anti-modernist establishment have alienated many of the most serious practitioners of innovative writing.'

Emily Witt, 'That Room in Cambridge', n+1, 11 (2011)

'In 2007, the Chicago Review devoted a special issue to British Poetry, featuring the work of the younger generation of the so-called Cambridge School. I say “so-called” because unlike the Objectivists, or the New York School, or the Language poets, the Cambridge School had no manifestos, no unifying style, no publication singularly associated with them, and no specific generational limit. Instead, as I figured out as I went along, the label mostly refers to a self-selecting group of people who are friends with or have studied under Prynne at Cambridge. If there is something like stylistic unity to be found, it’s that the poetry is frequently nonmetrical and incorporates the language of industry, business, and science.

That was the thing that seemed to stick about Prynne—that he incorporated languages that were hitherto alien to poetry: the languages of biochemistry, geology, stock markets, business jargon, advertising, and computer programming. His wide-ranging use of seemingly unrelated words was differentiated from Language poetry in that one could be sure that each word of Prynne the poet had been exhaustively researched by Prynne the philologist. If Prynne's poetry was also totally incomprehensible, it was a function of the complexity of the world he sought to describe. For Prynne, resisting comprehension alerts us to the world’s defiance of our desire to neatly encapsulate it. In other fields, committing to complexity was a mark of prestige: no one picked up a journal of applied physics and complained that it was hard to read, but the literary world was still stuck on the idea of easily transferable meaning. In the case of its youngest generation, the Cambridge poets purported to urgently concern themselves with the task of resisting the forces of evil in the world and revealing what the Review described as “the truth that our identities, as we crouch over a laptop or eat a clementine on the subway, are dependent for their making and sustenance on the catastrophic exploitation of the unfortunate inhabitants of other places.”

For most people, even the poets themselves, it was confusing to understand how these overtly political goals could be reconciled with the isolation of experimental poetry as a medium. If one was writing poems that obliquely referenced manufacturing in China, migrant labor, white phosphorus, or Abu Ghraib—as some of the Cambridge poets have—it seemed far-fetched to say that they revealed the catastrophic exploitation that allowed one to eat a clementine on the sub- way. It was rather that they produced a literary experience of such global disparities, an experience that then merely joined all of our other rather comfortable experiences of this exploitation—when we watched it on television, say, or as tourists, or in the stories of friends who were tourists, or when a homeless crazy person got on the subway while we were eating our clementine. But if it was instead that the poets felt that the very act of defying the language we spoke to one another and read in a newspaper had the power to reveal (as W.S. Graham once put it) what the language is using us for—if it was language that was catastrophically exploiting us—then, well . . . the question remained: What was the point if nobody understood what you were writing, however broad a definition you want to give to the word “understood”?

The editors of the Review didn’t answer this question. They acknowledged furthermore that American readers had probably never heard of any of these poets. They added that most would probably find the work inaccessible, but went so far as to express a sort of envy at the delightful prospect of being flummoxed for the first time: “We want to avoid offering the kind of reassuring exposition that would seriously blunt the impact of poetry that is designed to confront and unsettle," they wrote.'

Prynne, ‘Difficulties in the translation of “difficult” poems’, Cambridge Literary Review (2008)

‘In a more technical way we can acknowledge that unfamiliarity plays an important part in pattern-recognition, and we can ask how this feature gains its effect. If two words are placed together that are not normally associated as from the same field of reference or meaning, a kind of semantic spark or jump may be created that is intensely localised within the continuity of the text process: it may be a kind of “hot spot” that burns very bright but which the reader can quite quickly assimilate within the larger patterns of composition. Sometimes these sparks can follow in quick succession, many of them, producing disturbance patterns of their own, extended trains of unfamiliar words and phrase which break the rules of local sense. Even so, a reader can feel carried along by the energy of surprise and unresolved ambiguity, and the translator can recognise the challenge to translating skills even if good solutions are hard to find.’

Prynne, The White Stones (1969)

The title comes from Revelation: ‘Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it.’ – Revelation, 2.17