Commentary on “The Prynne Reflex” by Christopher NealonPosted: April 1, 2013
I’ve been enjoying Chris Nealon’s latest essay over at the The Claudius App. Nealon’s essay, like his recent book, The Matter of Capital, has sparked some variegated attentions in UK Poetry Land, and when I heard last year that he had been working on Prynne, I got excited because I sensed that it would be something of a critical appreciation–that it would not allow its admiration outwork its desire for critical moxy. Prynne’s reputation in the US mostly precedes him–I think he appears to many as a modernist stalwart, embodying a kind of old-boy reluctance to get on with the post-Language stacking of ironic pop scripts. Because the UK Poetry Land tends to be inimitably close-knit and often entangled within auto-feedback mechanisms no Nature could ever design, it is refreshing to read Nealon’s take on Prynne and what the latter’s poetry represents.
That said, I found myself in disagreement with nearly everything Nealon had to say. Even some of the few historical “facts” strewn throughout the essay seemed to cast an aura of suspicion around the text. For example, his inaccurate dating of Prynne’s botanical satire, “The Plant Time Manifold Transcripts”, which was written during the summer of 1972, and not 1968, as Nealon writes, ironically embodies the same reversal of time his argument presupposes. I’m not willing to blame any prolonged discomfort on dates alone, though, and I’d like to try to articulate why I found “The Prynne Reflex” both unconvincing and unpersuasive, in the ready-to-hand rhetorical senses those words signify, and also tendentious. I found it tendentious because it seemed to stage its argument more and more on a desire to discover its argument woven within the texture of Prynne’s poems. I found it unconvincing and unpersuasive because it does not seem to recognize the approbation of difficult textuality as itself a provocative and intransigent disengagement with the medium of argumentation. Perhaps, that’s only playing into the preponderance of “poetic difficulty”, but I think it’s the type of phenomenological indicator that can’t be theoretically sidelined.
Not that such a recognition would make for a more interesting read. Perhaps it would not. Sure, the odd bit of forward thrust occasionally bursts through in even the most recent work, Kazoo Dreamboats (Cambridge: Critical Documents, 2011), which is pocked and jostled with oblique political undercurrents in tune with the London riots of that summer. But, on the whole, attempting not only to summarize an apparent lifelong trajectory of one of the most complex bodies of work written in the last 50 years, but also to include within its scope Prynne’s prose and poetical writings, as well as his apparently obvious “critique of capital”, all in a relatively brief essay, would be audacious and bold, not least because there is so little consensus about the historical status of Prynne’s work, and how it will likely be part of an ongoing shift in poetics away from the limitations imposed by the conceptualization of Modernism.
Nealon’s own reluctance to grant default authority to “modernism and modernity” is clear from the get-go. He writes that his thinking about Prynne emerges from the same scholarly desire to replace modernism and modernity with a conceptual (re)cognition of poetry in the age of capitalism. This is, in effect, the central urgency behind Nealon’s (as well as Joshua Clover’s) recent critical work, and the theoretical angle would seem to match Prynne’s work of the last half-century, which, like others of his generation, seems increasingly aware of the economic vortices by which we consume, and the biochemical, cosmological, mathematical and metaphysical aspects of those activities and our awareness of them. Making sure that the poetic lines were unforgettably strange and twisted artifices of violent exchange packaging is so necessary to poetic thinking that it is as though we are on the inside looking outward at a translucent blueprint of radiant palimpsests, each jaggedly textured and inhabitable.
There are several points in Nealon’s preamble that more or less structure the rest.
- Prynne inherits the modernist narrative/desire to undo cultural damage.
- Prynne is an exemplar of post-Mallarmean “open-ended assemblage”.
- The glue that holds (1) and (2) together is the poetical desire to reverse time.
Now, while (3) is not exactly surprising to those familiar with vitalist Bergsonian gestures, its simultaneous denial of time’s definite impact on events and esteem of time’s substantial impact as something worth reversing, seems puzzling. It’s not clear how reversing time works: do events unfold in reverse (walking backwards, etc.)? or do they unfold in such a way as never to have occurred? or does the origin become the destination, and if so, what happens to the events between them? Moreover, does framing the desire for time’s reversal not pin the poet to be an anachronistic, “good old days”, malapropism amongst the ever non-recurrent events that continuously unfold? In other words, does this not cast the writing of poems in a decidedly and perhaps irreversible atavistic light? And if it does (and I think it does), does this not presume the very conclusion it has to argue for, namely, that the concept of reversing time shares a partial investment in the idea that such reversal is possible? If it is impossible–and we already know by the argument that it is impossible–then the mind and spleen of the poet are disconsolate and hopeless; poets are incurably backward-facing as they yearn to reverse the passage of time that has caused “this” or “that” to occur. This would be the lamentation of a primordial utopia rather than utopia itself. But the idea that there is a connection between “open-ended assemblage” and cultural damage is one that has been canonized by the theorists of modernism and modernity, not necessarily or at all points actually by the poetic work itself.
[Sorry, there is a fourth: (4) the link between "open-ended poetic form, and ways of reading poetry for its ethical value as a vulnerable tissue of fragments", which Nealon coordinates directly to the ethics of difficulty. I'll come back to this, maybe in a different post.]
Nealon’s casually implied linkage between time and syntax at one point in the essay seems remarkably casual. After all, we read in English from left to right and more or less linearly, but we also read in time, which means that we are not caught in a deterministic cube with toothpicks between our cheeks and eyebrows ingesting data. I look out of the window, I look up a word, I get a sandwich, I sit back down. Just because we read temporally does not distract from the accompanying notion that we also read in time, in shared but also unique psychosomatic frames. That Nealon’s essay seems to rest easy that an apparently obvious homology exists between temporal progression and reading English is all the more disconcerting. I suppose the basic point is that open-ended assemblage plays with and fundamentally alters SVO syntax. But, despite printed syntactical trains, we also read by cohesion and relevance, by establishing temporary and lasting ranges of contextual presumptions and interpretive schemes by which we articulate the various ambiguous logics and segmentations of a text. The echoing logic that captures and releases the text as we push through and around it does not seem to me to suggest temporal linearity as a necessary condition, although our syntax relies on word order.
Nealon’s further point about Prynne’s apparent argument against the arbitrariness of the sign, which is a necessity of Saussurian semiology, is another commonly-echoed misreading of Prynne’s 1993 lecture, “Stars, Tigers, and the Shape of Words”. I don’t have time to go into it just this hot minute, but it’s clear from Prynne’s reading of Saussure, John Locke and Alexander Pope that the arbitrariness of the sign is in some sense necessary for the motivating work of the poem to take place at all. I mean if the sign were not in some normative and perhaps despicably neutral sense arbitrary, then the efforts of poets and of child-like word play–including the range of sonic and morphological puns–would be rather fruitless. But this is perhaps a side issue. As with most brief mentions of American Language Poetry, Nealon does not choose to dip into the miasma for a bit of torque, but lets the cliché about L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E persist in its inarguable ether.
With the skeleton of Nealon’s essay somewhat in outline, let’s look closely at his “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”. Nealon essentially frames his examples as themselves a species of imploration stemming from the need for undoing the cultural damage wrought by modernity. He frames it as such: The first is from the aforementioned PTM Transcripts, the second from Prynne’s 1968 essay, “A Note on Metal”, and the third from a much more recent (a nearly 40-year spread) essay, published in The Chicago Review in 2010, “Mental Ears and Poetic Work”. Not only does this entail quite a static range of continuous thinking, as though the stage was set in the late 1960s for Prynne’s lifelong lamentation of cultural damage wrought by capital, but it also seems to presume an ethical comportment to this historical coagulation. While at the beginning of the essay, Nealon seeks to “register” his “demurral” from the twins Modernism and Modernity, he nevertheless has no qualms in using the theoretical architecture about cultural damage to frame Prynne’s work. Whether Nealon is arguing about Prynne’s work or about high modernism becomes a source of increasing confusion throughout the essay. I’m perplexed by this because it seems to suggest that the familiar modernist cliché is more or less not only conceptually invalid, but also accurate and appropriate, at least in Prynne’s case. It would seem that Prynne’s work offers a challenge to the bracketing of the modern, and that the monikers of postmodernism and late modernism should not be taken as some kind of intractable gospel that must accompany his work wherever it goes.
- The PTM was, as already mentioned, not written in 1968, but composed during the summer of 1972 and published under the author’s own name separately in the Grosseteste Review and Wound Response in 1974. Nealon writes that “the scientists” of this imaginary, but inspired, conference on botany (aka PTM Symposium) “are interested in how plants might be describable as being alive and dead at the same time.” Apparently, despite warnings from such namesakes as “Dr. Lichen”, the ‘scholar’ only known as “Black Cosmos (C. diversifolius atrosanguineus)”, and “Grass, the pasturage team”. Prynne is nevertheless “dead serious”, according to Nealon. Well, that’s of course true, at least depending on what you mean not by “dead” but by “serious”. Doubtless, Prynne read a lot of “serious” scientific research for his conference proceedings (try and contain yourself during Jukes’ 1966 Molecules and Evolution), and he quotes and plagiarizes liberally from them (and not only in this script); indeed, there is an auratic earnestness to the labors of his ulterior research, which may be an inextricable feature of Prynne’s poetry to date. But to imply that the theory of plant time–which is not so much original as a post-Einsteinian update of Empedocles–could somehow be understood apart from its satirical and deliberately comic textual attire is to miss the point entirely. And yet, Nealon includes it as an example of Prynne’s “critical writing”, which seems frankly wrong considering it was written for the avant-garde newspaper, Bean News, under the editorship of another poet then interested in forgery, although perhaps of a more abruptly metaphysical variety, Edward Dorn. The ‘maybeen’ and ‘willbeen’ inspiration for this satire is, as Simon Perril points out, an article by Rupert Sheldrake on the hormone ‘auxin’ which occurs as a result of plant cell death, but which also is required for cell growth. Prynne parenthetically calls the ‘release of auxins (time-lapse transamination)’, and essentially mutates Sheldrake’s botany with a dose of relativistic temporality. By boiling it down to life/death, Nealon rather misses the point of the prolixity.
- “A Note on Metal”, a brief and dense prose tract written for The English Intelligencer in response to the British poet Peter Riley’s “Working Notes on British Prehistory”, is the only prose in Prynne’s Poems. Parenthetically, I’d like to know whether this indicates a kind of mandate about the range of the scholarly prose-poem, or whether Prynne merely wanted to include a prose piece important to this poetic thinking. It doesn’t much matter, but in any event I’m not entirely certain that it indicates anything proximal to “critical writing”, at least in the sense that Nealon gives it. In any case, Nealon emphasizes the essay as “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.” This is a good summary of the basic vector of “A Note on Metal”, but where I think Nealon goes awry is the rather tendentious comment that “for Prynne what’s damning about the imposition of that authority [that given to gold coins by virtue of political power] 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”. There are two major problems I have with this statement: A) It’s difficult for a reader to find any evidence for a feeling of “damning”. Nowhere in the essay does Prynne seem aggravated that such continuous abstraction takes place, and there is not the familiar cliché of hand-wringing when it comes to discussing origins. The entire prose piece is hardly scintillating with disapproval–it is cool and calculated, if a bit sarcastic at times. B) Prynne’s brief foray as a V.G. Childe-inspired economic anthropologist is reluctant to say that “displacement” from the magical properties of stone is something for “us” to suffer under. Prynne is quite clear about this in the conclusion to his essay: “The literal is not magic, for the most part, and it’s how the power of displacement side-slipped into some entirely other interest which is difficult, not a simple decision that any one movement is towards ruin. Stone is already the abstraction of standing, of balance; and dying is still the end of a man’s self-enrichment, the ‘reason’ why he does it” (Poems, 131). That is to say, Prynne’s sense of “abstraction” is multi-faceted and not redolent of the doomsday simplicity that Nealon seems to foster here. Moreover, it is worth noting that this conclusion comes just after Prynne’s comment about an “exilic (left-wing) history of substance”, which comment Nealon seems to hold as solid ground that Prynne finds “The triumph of the left” to be measured “by a return to ‘reality’ or authentic life.” I think Nealon’s imposition of a linear eschatology at the beginning of his essay has begun to skew his reading of Prynne beyond the interpretive and into a kind of advantageous paraphrase.
- Finally, an actual morsel of declared “critical writing”. Nealon’s final example fast-forwards about 40 years to a 2010 issue of the Chicago Review, in which Prynne published a seminar paper called “Mental Ears and Poetic Work.” This example, unlike the previous two, seeks to argue not a thematic but a direct correlation between open poetic form and reversing time within the poetic medium itself. At least according to “The Prynne Reflex.” Here is the passage from Prynne’s essay: “line-breaks or step ordering that override the unfeatured page space of normal printed language perform the over function of continuity by versus and retroflex” (p. 140). I understand how these rhetorical functions seek “to create a kind of instability in linear time” for Nealon, but if I also read in time, which time is being destabilized? Is it the imaginal and generative dynamic of cognitive connections and coherence across the span of my body following each line until it dips down below into the other, or do we understand by this that the poetic design of the page itself destabilizes the fluid, but nevertheless linear, time scale of “living”? This is a major gap in explanation, not to mention, if we go beyond the putative dynamics of the reading situation, the problem of whether destabilization of temporal habits is the same as reversing time.
I think that this slightly ridiculous close reading of Nealon’s essay has perhaps persisted long enough, but in near-closing I’d like to take issue with a bit of the stuff Nealon makes with Prynne’s early poetry. First, the buffet; then the digestif:
“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. ([Poems] 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”).”
So this is just one example, and yet how inadequate it appears. Not only the hyperbole about “throughout Prynne’s career” but also what I take to be a somewhat confident misreading. The sense of forward movement isn’t itself a “perversion”; but rather it is the perversions that thrust the whole historical dialectic forward. It is the source of forwardness, not its definition. Moreover, it is precisely poems like “Die a Millionaire” (from Kitchen Poems) that directly contradict Nealon’s thesis about undoing cultural damage: “we are the social strand | which is already past the twist-point” (p. 15). While it has been tempting for Prynne’s readers to read into the first two lines of this poem (“The first essential is to take knowledge | back to the springs” (p. 13)), they shouldn’t forget about lines 112-114: “The fact is that right | from the springs this water is no longer fit | for the stones it washes” (p. 15). Unlike Olson, Prynne’s apparent atavistic tendency in the 1960s is paired with an intransigence for non-dialectical approaches to the problem. The shifting aporetic continues through the poem as a process of speculative attention–for it to declare its hand in a single statement (like the prosaic critic must) would be to give far too much delight and satisfaction to the “gas-and-water talk” it mocks.
The issue of names in Prynne’s work of the 1960s is not quite the simplistic critique against the commercialization of language. It’s far more confusing than that. For example, in “Sketch for the Financial Theory of the Self”, names are self-chosen tricks, not lost beacons of authentic selfhood:
but the names,
do you not
see, are just
the tricks we
we choose. (p. 20)
Thus, it becomes far more difficult to erect Prynne’s theory of names as a homogeneous position, much less as a critique of the commercialization of language. Indeed, it would seem that to instill a critical position within the texture of the writing–itself complicit in the pre-eminence of commercial communication–then one is stuck between the mobility of an artificial dismantling of language convention, and the fixed by dynamic position of propositional argumentation, frequently conceived in terms of ironic forecasting and dramaturgical staging.
Despite the apparent glimpses of piety, Prynne’s work in the late 1960s is suspicious of any “career-long will to reversal”, as Nealon describes Prynne’s work as a whole. While there are some Heideggerian overtones about the misuse of language during the 1960s, this is not quite the case with the arrival of Brass, Prynne’s 1971 collection. There is one poem in particular in this book that would seem to satirize the ability of the self (poetic or otherwise) to make some kind of reversal, or rather to express playfully that the ability to move forward or backward is a matter of verbal artifice. See “Thinking of You”:
Not going forward let alone re-
turning upon itself, the old fat in the can.
The old fat rises to a reason and
seems because of its can, not going
forward but in its rank securely,
so as to be ready. Divinity rises
to no higher reason since going up alone
is returning itself to the can. You choose
if you like whether we stay in the rank
or go forward as alone we can, divinely
secured about the midriff. Older than
forward is the way we might go and
grow because we do, fat. In the can it
is the rancid power of the continuum. (p. 171)
The “fat in the can” is the experience of having to wade through one’s desire for potential action–the pun on “can” as a modal verb and as a container creates a harsh sardony between the pragmatic go-get-’em attitude and the feeling of containment despite that attitude’s best efforts. Eating too much fat and thereby steadying ourselves in non-interference is also suggested, but “Older than | forward is the way we might go and | grow because we do, fat.” The language-points at which geometry and time intersect are here toys to be combined into new structures. This type of experimentation with temporal relativity is common in Prynne, from “Chromatin” of Wound Response to the obdurate dynamism of work from Not-You (1993) onward.
My beef with this truck is that it often steers sideways. While Nealon quite brilliantly argues that the principle of “reversibility stops being a ‘theme’ of the poems” in the late work because “it becomes their formal principle”, we have already switched from reversal to reversibility, which distinction should be crucial. The desire to reverse time and the desire for reversibility are not quite the same thing–the former being more concerned with the reanimation of a past event; the latter with the relative mobility within time despite it being a “rancid continuum”. This delicate slice aside, Nealon’s reading of The Oval Window seems to exacerbate the problem now become fully sturdy position: “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.” While I can see about the capitalistic forward motion, where is the “micrological reversal of time”? Nealon’s reading of the epigraph to The Oval Window seems to suggest that the separation of the past from the future by the present is a proposition about the reversibility of time, which seems far less convincing than the idea that it suggests the irreversibility of time. The present locks out the data of the past as it accepts the data of the future. Moreover, that “the thematics of un-damage are played out in the mini-structure, revoke-vs-infold”, seems not quite right. The relationship between revocation and infolding is not progression vs. reversal, or damaging vs. undamaging, but going back vs. turning inward, a typically oblique movement for Prynne, for whom the fat in the can would rather get older by going forward. Unfortunately, while the presentation of the argumentation is somewhat engagingly infused within the poetical examples, a closer reading of the readings evinces a feeling that the foundational premise of the essay is somewhat opportunistically using the work to make a point about modernism.
I feel less compelled to offer any thoughts on the foray into somewhat sketchy readings of Prynne’s late work, which heavily rely on a kind of meta-phonological historicism of historical vowel shifts to the neglect of attempting to actually read the lines, although I can sympathize with the rebarbativeness and density of the surface. If the words in the late work should primarily stand as phonological shells, why use words with distinct references or tone at all? Less semantic residue for clean-up, at least. In other words, that there are more sounds than another in a given line may indeed be noteworthy, but at what cost to what is there?
I found Nealon’s shift into a discussion about the apparent supremacy of Adornian readings of Prynne very interesting. I assume he means the work of Simon Jarvis and Keston Sutherland, though he doesn’t mention any names. Jarvis’ recent essay on Adorno’s aesthetic theory and Prynne, “Irreversibility” would seem to be in agreement with Nealon’s dissatisfaction with the triumph of the “modern”, which has become anodyne and perhaps a kind of myopic historicization.
We arrive at Nealon’s ending to find that Prynne’s work “has staked its claim to legibility…on an ethical practice of self-ruining negativity”. Although formed as a question, we have moved from the ethics of difficulty prompted by open-ended assemblage attached somehow to the reversal of time thesis, all of which has something to do with modernity. I don’t have much more to add beyond registering my own “demurral”, but Nealon’s argument leaves much to be desired, pocked as it is with shadowy references to the work of Prynne’s interpreters rather than compelling readings of the poems themselves.