01 February 2011

J H Prynne

Well, at least there's an excuse for reading this slowly.
Anyone who turns is more than
the same, being in desire the pivot
of what he would most want: or
in point of fact, they say,
driving through the
early morning, to go to it.

Those are the opening lines of "How It's Done", one of the earliest poems in this huge doorstep of a book. What the hell's going on? I don't know and if I were to type out the rest of the poem (21 more lines) it wouldn't help you or me.

But I'm not in despair. And the best entrance into this poetry is (inevitably) the language. That tone of voice, I can already tell, is characteristic of Prynne: the rhythm suggests a kind of scientific discourse, but detached from any obvious referent. Actually, there is one obvious referent, which is language itself. Scraps of the text seem to challenge their own construction: in the above, for example, the second three lines might be enjoying the fact that the words normally are so easy to understand, and questioning what sort of understanding that is.

Maybe - but I won't know until I've uncomprehendingly read a lot more. And it may be comforting to think of this view by Alain Robbe-Grillet:
... today, like yesterday, new works have no reason to exist unless they in their turn bring to the world new significations, still unknown to the authors themselves, significations which will only exist later, thanks to these works, and upon which society will establish new values, which in turn will be useless, or even harmful, when they are used to judge the literature then being made. (Robbe-Grillet 1961 p123)

I've left significations untranslated. I don't think it just means "meanings" - it's also the process of meaning, the way words mean something. I love the thought that new literature always has to be strange and modern: the writer always has to produce something that he or she can't explain. By the time we can explain it, it's superseded, in one sense.

But actually, is it comforting? To know we'll always lag behind the wave ... That's the pain of doing criticism, Robbe-Grillet says, while a "simple" reader only needs to know if the book is moving and involving.

Looking back a few entries to the discussion of Katherine Howard, though, you can see that a modern book gives the reviewer some of the difficulties Robbe-Grillet talks about, and that a non-modern book doesn't. Once the world is pretty much agreed on how a 19th century realist novel, or a 20th century historical novel, works, reviewing one is largely a matter of measuring the book against the template. Modern works don't have a template. That's their definition perhaps.

And this is why I don't accept the notion of post-modernism. Any modernism is doomed to be overtaken by the next one.

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