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Reading J.H. Prynne’s ‘Acquisition of Love’ and anticipating ‘Blue Slides at Rest’1.

- John Hall

Because I think there are some in this room who are new to the poems of J.H. Prynne and I have only twenty minutes, I am going to spend the time with just one poem, and that an early one from the 1969 book, The White Stones. At the end I shall invite you to try out this poem and my discussion of it, on the recent sequence, Blue Slides at Rest. I think there may be thematic connections but significant formal differences.

The poem is ‘Acquisition of Love’ and I’m going to read it aloud. That will in itself be a kind of interpretation – a performance of sense-making, pattern-finding, heat-sensing. Through the decisions and intuitions of sounding a reading it is often possible to discern what Ian Patterson has called the ‘points of greatest intensity or force’ 2. But it will be my reading and it may get in the way of other readings, including others of my own. We’ll see. There is a kind of silent reading that allows alternatives to be in play all at the same time. Press ‘alt’.

But first, let’s look at it very briefly.

There is a column of text, occupying the full length of the page but only about half the width, left-justified, ragged right, with noticeable but not extreme variation in line length. There are no markers of sections or stanzas. Only the last full-stop comes at the end of a line. There is a title. What I see looks like a unified thing, long and thin and joined up.

Did that feel – or sound – singular, coherent, like a continuous movement? My own answer is yes, but with some noticeable switches in language, attention and tone – some unexpected juxtapositions of material. There is an observing, thinking, speaking voice that treats everything as belonging together and that uses the first person. I’ll refer to this voice as ‘I’.

As a meditation on an everyday incident involving children, the poem relates to a familiar genre. 3 And there is a long history too of mower poems, within a wider set that allegorises gardening or finds within it a source of incidents and practices from which to elicit a wisdom. It is probably worth noting that the garden of allegory is usually an enclosed space, as its etymology – and also that of paradise – requires. Here the scene is ‘the flat stone slab by the / front door’. The domestic task is conducted just outside. The slab could be a literal instance of that limen or threshold that has so interested anthropologists like Victor Turner.

The word ‘threshold’ is not in the poem. ‘Membrane’ and ‘ratchet’ – the first physiological, the second mechanical – are. I’m gathering terms. I’m watching them.

And to leave in the air a question that I shall not have time to pursue: how to cross the thresholds that separate domains and modalities of knowledge?

 oOo

Here’s a literal reading of the scene in the poem. Some children gather – or have gathered – to watch the ‘I’ of the poem mend a lawn-mower. ‘I’ narrates some of the process of fixing the mower and reflects on the children, not as individual social beings but as instances of genetics; as messages and as carriers of internal messages; as reliant on the pumping mechanisms of their hearts, as reliant on what they don’t know. No speech is cited.  By the end of the poem the mower works.

Actually when we are told that the mower is working there are still three-and-a-half lines to go. This is where you might expect the wisdom or moral. For example,  Philip Larkin’s ‘The Mower’, a poem about accidentally killing a hedgehog, ends: ‘we should be careful / Of each other, we should be kind / While there is still time.’ 4 Here is Prynne’s ending:       

                                                            the fear of
                collapse is pumped around by each linked
                system & the borrowed warmth of the heart.

‘Fear of collapse’ is working too, and is presented as systemic – after all, the ‘curious / ones have their courses set towards / fear and collapse’ –  just as the linkage of ratchets and crank is part of a system, not unlike a pump, known as a mower.

A poem that started with references to the burning heat of the sun 5 ends with ‘the borrowed warmth of the heart’. That last word, exposed at the end of the poem, requires only that the initial ‘h’ be shunted to the end to become ‘earth’. Why not have both words? The blood-system and the ‘neuro-chemical entail’ are geared to the heat of the sun; there is a precise margin within the ‘rise and fall’ of borrowed warmth that sustains blooded life. Prynne has plotted such fluctuations with extreme care in, for example, ‘The Glacial Question, Unsolved’. The implications for behaviour are not amenable to the kind of formula of ‘we should be kind’.

oOo

It’s time to go back to the title. The title of the poem – that supposed guide to thematic intent – is not ‘Fear of Collapse’ or ‘Borrowed Warmth of the Heart’; it is  ‘Acquisition of Love’. In what way is the poem ‘about’ love, let alone its acquisition? 6

Try substituting ‘Love’ in Prynne’s title with each of these other terms in turn: Hope, Will, Purpose, Competence, Fidelity, [Love], Care, Wisdom. I have not been to the original source, but that list is adapted from Erik Erikson’s model of human development, expounded in a book called Childhood and Society, published in 1950. 7 These are names for thresholds that need to be crossed in the course of human development. It is as though the thresholds themselves are genetically given but that crossing them can be either or both of an organised social ritual or a mobilisation of experience and therefore of learning. According to Erikson and his followers, the acquisition of love – and I am not sure if the original uses the term ‘acquisition’ – should take place in early adulthood, where the risk of failure is ‘isolation’. This is one of the great themes of western narrative in the last few centuries, is it not? Prynne was at most in his early thirties when he wrote this poem.

As for learning, this is what the poem has to say:     

                   it is not any image of learning
              but the gene pool itself defines these
              lively feelings

oOo

The poem’s first sentence runs on into the fifth line by virtue of daisy-chaining clauses with commas rather than treating them as separate sentences. This provides cumulative force, urgency  and, perhaps, an intimation of narrative. Try the commas out as full-stops and see what changes. This is poem as movement. If there is quotidian observation to come, well, this sentence will trouble it.

The very first word is ‘the’ and it’s one of twenty-five occurrences in the forty-line poem, whereas ‘a’ and ‘an’ between them appear only twice. ‘The’ always has potential for ambiguity as between, let’s say, three kinds of pointing. In this case, ‘the children’ could be a nameable group of children in a specific context, children in general, or ‘the children’ as figures in an implied system. Nothing in the poem wholly excludes any of these. Let’s say they are all in play, though the opening register could well be that of mythic narrative:

              The children rise and fall as they
              watch, they burn in the sun’s coronal
              display, each child is the fringe
              and he advances at just that blinding
              gradient.

This is not the literal setting I summarised earlier. I respond to this as cinematic, deliberately over-lit. ‘Rise and fall’ is one of those suggestive and evocative phrases, whose metaphoric use is now embedded. Here it suggests a wave motion, collective. ‘Rise and fall’ but there is much more falling than rising, to my ear, as the poem proceeds.

These children ‘rise and fall’, they ‘burn’, each one ‘is the fringe’, each one ‘advances’. And yet, for me, the verb of greatest intensity and reverberation through the poem is ‘watch’, a special kind of looking, related to ‘taking care’ – and etymologically speaking that is what ‘the curious ones’ do, they take care. Watching distances, is not full of love. Ask Sting. It is also used to distinguish looking from ‘doing’, as in ‘I’m just watching’. The ‘I’ here is looking very carefully at the mechanisms of the mower and is also very evidently watching ‘the children’, and in doing so seeing into them (‘guessing their capacity in pints’) and beyond them; he is seeing more than one ‘idea’ of them (‘our idea of the planet’). The ‘I’ knows not only what the children are watching but that ‘what they watch has nothing to do / with anything’.  That’s some knowledge. They are not learning by watching, it seems, because ‘what they do is an inherited print’ and  ‘the rules for / the replication of pattern guide their dreams / safely into our dreams’.

These children are alien: a ‘they’ in contrast to ‘our’ ‘we’. The exchanges that are open to view in the poem all take place through looking or watching. Other exchanges are open to specialist knowledge: replication of pattern, blood-flow, neuro-transmission, mechanics. Transmission is both of force and of code, and in no way do these nest neatly into each other. In fact, each child is the site of a systemic physiological conflict:

                                                only their blood
              seems to hold out against the complete
              neuro-chemical entail.

Prompted by this poem, I learn of the ‘blood-brain barrier’ from Wikipedia:

              The blood-brain barrier [ … ] is a membrane that controls the passage of substances
              from the blood  into the central nervous system. It is a physical barrier between the local
              blood vessels and most parts of the central nervous system itself, and stops many
              substances from travelling across it. 8

oOo

In my discussion I have moved from the opening of the poem down through one set of textual linkages. I shall now set out briefly from the second sentence. This starts in the register of the everyday, in a literal engagement with the mower’s crank-case, an abrupt mood change from ‘blinding gradient’ just before it. But this sentence has started with a qualifying subordinate clause,  ‘As I try’, itself echoing ‘as they watch’ in the previous sentence. And the main clause is held off for even longer with a parenthesis – ‘its ratchet jammed somewhere / inside the crank-case’. That has been enough to set the register for ‘I feel / the blood all rush’ as the cliché of reportage on sensation. But then see what happens. This rush of blood which is ‘felt’ is also known as spiral movement, and it seems, applies equally to the ‘young heartlands beyond’. Everybody here is linked in parallel blood systems. But what of these ‘young heartlands’? Not ‘hearts’, the word with which the poem will end, but a term that belongs to the politics and psychology of territory: the interior. We will be told forcefully that no fortunes are to be born in these heart/lands. The bodies of these children are biological, genetic presences, with any specifying social, sociable or sociological perspective brushed away:

                              you would think fortunes
              could be born here and you would
              be wrong.

This is a node of negative intensity, of resistance within the poem, and I very much include the word ‘you’ in that, hearing it as an of avoidance of ‘I’. This is one of at least four such acts where what is stated is all the more on display for being denied: ‘it is not any image of learning’;  ‘you would be wrong’, ‘what they watch has nothing to do / with anything’.

The final disavowal is that one at the end. Notice that a line-ending is used to delay the qualification of ‘nothing’:

                                      related to nothing
              but the hand and purpose,

Peter Middleton has pointed out that ‘hand and purpose’ invokes Heidegger’s category of the ‘ready-to-hand’, of which equipment, such as a lawn-mower, is an example. 9 The brokenness (temporary collapse) of the mower removes it from the ready-to-hand. Other tools and knowledge – ‘crank-case’, ‘ratchet’, ‘file’, ‘slots’ – are applied to the mower. The mechanics of the mower, the process of repair, belong in the same continuous discourse that treats of other, apparently very different, linkages. Parallelism is at work, for sure, though held at bay with the insistence of ‘related to nothing’. Are the children watching simply because they are fascinated in the instrumentality of an act of repair, one from which they could learn?

There is much more going on in the construction of the poem than the assertions of the ‘I’. A poem that includes different knowledges and modalities of knowing allows each to challenge the others, despite any of the expressed disavowals within.

CODA 10


And now, as a coda, and with the discussion of Acquisition of Love very much in mind, a few lines from ‘Blue Slides at Rest’, on the intuition, as I suggested at the beginning of this talk, that there is a thematic connection. In this case the reading decisions are actively exclusive in that they reduce dual or multiple possibilities to a single choice:

              Alt for allowed part, etch only into a folding
              deeper there to follow if evenly graft aside
              for low rent parented, palmar grasp. At a blame
              so stepped forward, foot alert balance for them
              at infant bending now prone already now so thee
              soon wanted so deep bent there. Alter both minds
              [ … ]

Here there is no ‘I’ to lay out a scene, to organise a meditation. There are replicated patterns of twelve-lines. There are words that invoke a ‘child-self’, an infant whose hands have not yet learnt to oppose thumb to fingers, that knows only the reflex of palmar grasp, that may be trying a step too early, who is ‘low-rent parented’. There is an exchange implied in which ‘both minds’ might be ‘altered’. Is that a question of learning again?  Or of neuro-transmitters?

But where ‘Acquisition of Love’ as a poem relied on a familiar narrative-lyric structure, on lineation, on minimal internal repetition of sounds, on relatively explicit thematic patterning, here what is made is an aggregate, in the sense given to this word in geology and the building trade. The continuities of syntax and recognisable genres of discourse are not there. The ambiguity of words is multiplied by the withholding of syntactical and discursive context. What to do with this? It will not come to rest.

 

Notes:

1 This paper, without its coda,  was given as a talk at Birkbeck College, University of London, as part of  the Graduate Lecture Series, on 14th December 2006. It was one of two talks on reading J.H. Prynne given on the same evening, the other being by Keston Sutherland. It was prepared in the expectation that the audience would include a number of postgraduate students who were not yet familiar with the poems of J.H. Prynne and that it would also include, as indeed it did, many who were very familiar with them.The paper was given again on 1st May 2007as part of the Writing research seminar series  at Dartington College of Arts,. On this occasion it paired a talk by Jerome Fletcher on his digital text project, Reusement.

2 Patterson, Ian  (2006) ‘Fool’s Bracelet’ in For J.H. Prynne: In Celebration, 24th June 2006 (Quid 17, ed. Keston Sutherland), Falmer, Brighton: Barque Press, 50-52.

3 ‘Among School Children’ by W.B. Yeats is one of the better known; Yeats, W.B. (1992) Collected Poems London: Vintage, 222-224

4 ‘The Mower’ in Larkin, Philip (1988) Collected Poems, London: Marvell/Faber and Faber, 214

5 ‘Oh what unusual Heats are here, / Which thus our Sun-burn'd Meadows sear!’. Andrew Marvell, from ‘Damon the Mower’ in Marvell, Andrew (1984) The Complete Poems, George de F. Lord, Ed. , London: J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., 41

6 Andrew Marvell had a poem called ‘The Definition of Love’ (ibid, 36). Defining is always a form of conceptual acquisition, though in Marvell’s poem the love is, by definition, not acquirable:           

                My Love is of a birth as rare
                As 'tis for object strange and high:
                It was begotten by despair
                Upon Impossibility.

Peter Manson starts a poem called ‘A Funeral in Sense’ with the line, ‘At the point of acquisition of loss’. 

7 Polnyj, Carrie ‘Comparison of Erikson’s and Havinghurst’s Developmental Levels’,  http://www.bergen.edu/faculty/cpolnyj/eriksonhavighurst.htm, accessed 8.12.06

8 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blood-cerebrospinal_fluid_barrier accessed on 8.12.06; see also Damasio 2000, 151.

9 Middleton, Peter ‘Not Nearly Too Much Prynne’ in Cambridge Quarterly.1997; XXVI: 344-353

10 For lack of time, this Coda was not included in the version of the talk given at Birkbeck.

 

Cited texts, including silent footnotes:

Damasio, Antonio The Feeling Of What Happens: Body. emotion and the making of consciousness,  London: Vintage, 2000

Larkin, Philip (1988) ‘The Mower’ in Collected Poems, London: Marvell/Faber and Faber, 214

Manson, Peter (2006)  ‘A Funeral for Sense’, For the Good of Liars, London: Barque, 61

Marvell, Andrew (1984) ‘Damon the Mower’ and ‘Definition of Love’ in The Complete Poems, George de F. Lord, Ed. , London: J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd.

Middleton, Peter ‘Not Nearly Too Much Prynne’ in Cambridge Quarterly.1997; XXVI: 344-353

Patterson, Ian  (2006) ‘Fool’s Bracelet’ in For J.H. Prynne: In Celebration, 24th June 2006  (Quid 17, ed. Keston Sutherland), Falmer, Brighton: Barque Press, 50-52.

Polnyj, Carrie ‘Comparison of Erikson’s and Havinghurst’s Developmental Levels’,  http://www.bergen.edu/faculty/cpolnyj/eriksonhavighurst.htm, accessed 8.12.06

Prynne, J.H. ( 2005) Poems, Fremantle, WA: Fremantle Arts Centre Press and Tarset, Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books,  111 and 566

–                 (1969) The White Stones, Lincoln: Grosseteste Press, 81

Wikipedia  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blood-cerebrospinal_fluid_barrier accessed 8.12.06

Yeats, W.B. (1992) ‘Among School Children’ in Collected Poems London: Vintage, 222-224

 

John Hall

December 2006

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