KAZOO DREAMBOATS or, On What There Is by J.H. Prynne
(Critical Documents, Cambridge, United Kingdom, 2011)
OK. So I get The Lyre via my RSS feed. And on 30 Nov (9 days ago as I write), this is what I see:
*JESUS H. CHRIST*
You need to read this
'He described the process of writing this poem
as one of self-imposed isolation, with its
myriad poetic allusions coming through memory'
What's that humming sound? The so-called outside.
You have to understand that the “this” in “You need to read this” and the “described” in “He described the process …” are links. So I click on the first and find myself at Justin Katko’s wonderful Critical Documents site, where I find the same cover illustration as above and
£10 / €12 / $15
32 pp; A4; 600 copies
Published November 2011
Rule One: people with top pay are rubbish,
everyone knows this, it’s a law of nature.
So I click, and I click, and I buy. And then I wait. But in the meantime I click on “described”, and am taken to this piece at Varsity, which is clearly a “Cambridge thang”. I excerpt:
Talk: Selma James and Jeremy Prynne at the Occupation
by Lawrence Dunn
Tuesday 29th November 2011, 16:39 GMT
… This sobering discussion [by Selma James led] on to a very unusual (and the perhaps very last) reading by poet Jeremy Prynne, which was a treat. How ironic that in his first public reading in a very long time (reportedly since the 1980s) he would be plagued by a fit of coughs. Prynne, known for advocating practical criticism, is opposed for aesthetic reasons to public reading. He is, nevertheless, a wonderful orator, though it is arguable that his texts are not designed for oration.
He was reading a section from the recent Kazoo Dreamboats: or, On What There Is, which is more a piece of metaphysics than politics. My experience was one of fluctuating engagement—as delicious non-sequiturs and tightly wound constructions flowed past, the feeling of listening to Prynne is somewhat akin to wading. Perhaps this isn’t quite accurate, it really was more like canoeing in autumn—one watches one patch of leaf-strewn water run past, but is aware of the multiplicity of experience all around.
Prynne is, in any case, something of a maximalist. He described the process of writing this poem as one of self-imposed isolation, with its myriad poetic allusions coming through memory. Even in this writer’s exile, a feature of much of his career, a vast amount of influence—particularly noticeable to me was the influence of theoretical physics and ancient Greek atomism—seeps through.
It was really impossible to get to grips with Prynne’s work without having a good look at the text, and though I found it stunning, I think many in the audience found it somewhat alienating. (Will this occupation be one alienation after another, one wonders?) Conversations afterward about recent poetry also showed up my profound ignorance on this topic, one that I share with others no doubt.
But in all, Sunday evening was a great and engaging one, and one that I enjoyed. This occupation is just as vibrant as the last.
So another day or two go by. I return to the Lyre piece and find a comment, dated Dec 3:
Our Kevin Davies correspondent writes:
'Did you know the quotation you quote is itself a quotation?'
[Head vertically to 'Lateral Argument']
I always listen to Kevin Davies. So I click. And I find:
from “Lateral Argument” [by Kevin Davies]
as practical ways of speaking about
They awoke in a bookless world studded with lean-
to performance artists interacting with electricity.
This must be the place. Evicted from elsewhere, here
at last not rest but an apprenticeship in container
technology. A kind of music that, though apparently stopping,
starting, stopping, more specifically never ends, thus
displaying as virtue its greatest flaw. Successfully,
irritatingly. Who here has access to liquor? The youth
of this centreless void gave voice to the sensual trepidations of
the nearby chopping block. This transparency at once
a local pride and a fulcrum of alertness. Yes. They
then proceeded lengthwise down the postracial boulevard,
exhausted but coy, travel plans successfully forgotten.
Perhaps they would stay awhile. But
no . . . What’s that humming
sound . . .
. . . Hello . . .
The so-called outside
[&c &c &c – I wish I could quote the whole thing …]
Which strikes me as a wonderful tho accidental “portrait” of an Occupy encampment. Among other things. About which … wait … wait …
OK. So yesterday the package from Justin arrives. I (carefully) tear it open. And I start to read.
“What the hell?” I hear a reader say. “You’re going to review a book you got **yesterday***?” Well, Prynne himself wrote a 134 page book on Wordsworth’s “The Solitary Reaper”, a 32 line poem. So how long should I wait? Til I have a million notes and a folio’s worth of things to say. In any case, what I really want to do is share my excitement. Remember, there are only 600 copies. Besides, to quote a blogger who wrote a brief piece on Prynne’s Wordsworth book, “Given Prynne’s fondness for showing us that things may be perceived in different ways and at different levels it comes as no surprise [that JBR would take advantage of this “permission” to speak].”
The first thing that hits me is right at the beginning. This thing fills the whole page, though the right margin is ragged. Is this lineated or not? I have no idea. So I read through the possible line breaks, which I will ignore in my transcriptions, since I don’t even know if they exist:
Along the corridor of near frequency I saw willing and discrete the season not yet for sorrow advanced, nearby not yet even so inference to claim. On the plate in soft season to rise semi-apt for supplement will to set to affirm this wit at will for passion reflex acutely, I saw it amount in plenteous access burning by folly markers right to the crest.
How medieval, I think, to begin in “the season not yet for sorrow”. Piers Plowman is the first “source” that comes to mind. This is the opening, from the B-text
In a somer seson, whan softe was the sonne,
I shoop me into shroudes as I a sheep were,
In habite as an heremite unholy of werkes,
Wente wide in this world wondres to here.
Ac on a May morwenynge on Malverne hilles
Me bifel a ferly, of Fairye me thoghte.
I was wery forwandred and wente me to reste
Under a brood bank by a bourne syde;
And as I lay and lenede and loked on the watres,
I slombred into a slepyng, it sweyed so murye.
Thanne gan I meten a merveillous swevene--
How apt, I think, since not only does Prynne begin with the seasonal reference, his semantics are rather dreamlike. Then I remember the subtitle, “On What There Is”, and recall Lucretius, which also begins with a seasonal reference, and which is certainly designed to elucidate the same subject matter Prynne claims. It turns out that Lucretius is not listed in the Reference Cues which follow Prynne’s text, but Langland is. And then I get why Prynne “described the process of writing this poem as one of self-imposed isolation, with its myriad poetic allusions coming through memory.” Which explains why Kevin Davies found his own words quoted. And why so much of this poem is familiar, yet strange.
I mentioned the poem’s somewhat “dreamlike” semantics. I should note that there’s nothing dreamlike about his cadences, or his stately periods, as the Augustan Age would have called them. Prynne makes beautiful music. Which is why, when Dunn write, “it is arguable that his texts are not designed for oration”, I would find myself arguing that whatever they are designed for, they are very suitable for public performance. The poem just rolls off the tongue like crazy.
Dunn also writes that “Kazoo Dreamboats: or, On What There Is … is more a piece of metaphysics than politics. “ In my reading, it seem that the two cannot easily be separated . The poem is peppered with sentences like
Always desired by zero option wide-eyed node employ cloud droplets en masse phantasmal, near in to scar friable distinct cash-back nexus, on the plate.
Barter be barter bitten, either the other’s mine not not by violence, water-rooted but in being what and despite reason in self-nature, within continuous transient boundary layers no char no riot the horses in lather of instruction by the turning fire of the wheels.
(I hear echoes of Parmenides here, in the “horses in lather of instruction, by the turning fire of the wheels”, by the way).
Dunn is absolutely spot-on when he writes, “… particularly noticeable to me was the influence of theoretical physics and ancient Greek atomism ...” This is indeed a poem “On What Is There”, in the full sense. Not only in the scientific sense, but also in the sense of affective life. In some ways, I think this pome might be taken, at least in part, as a nod to Prynne’s own sense of mortality. He was born in 1936, which makes him 75:
The corridor is and to be the avenue, from particulate vapour to consign into bedrock, transit of durance it is a formative exit in naturalised permission, solemn grade-one rigmarole, better Wiglaf’s rebuke and insurance payout. To be this with sweet song and dance in the exit dream, sweet joy befall thee is by rotation been and gone into some world of light exchange, toiling and spinning and probably grateful, in this song.
[You can find all you need to know about Wiglaf’s rebuke in Wikipedia]
Lovely, lovely, lovely. To quote Hugh MacDiarmid, this is “the kind of poetry I want.” I will spend many [many] more hours with KAZOO DREAMS or, On What There Is. It’s a lifetime read. Or so it seems to me, after one whole day.
John Bloomberg-Rissman is somewhere towards the middle of a project called Zeitgeist Spam. The first two volumes have been published: No Sounds of My Own Making, and Flux, Clot & Froth. The third section, In the House of the Hangman, is underway. In addition to his Zeitgeist Spam project, he has edited or co-edited two anthologies, 1000 Views of 'Girl Singing' and The Chained Hay(na)ku Project, and is at work on a third, a collaboration with Jerome Rothenberg. He blogs at Zeitgeist Spam.