Academic journal article Intertexts

Writing, Politics, and the Limit: Reading J. H. Prynne's "The Ideal Star-Fighter"

Academic journal article Intertexts

Writing, Politics, and the Limit: Reading J. H. Prynne's "The Ideal Star-Fighter"

Article excerpt

The poetry of J. H. Prynne continues to divide critical opinion over thirty years since it first began to appear in a series of small-press publications. The urgency of this metaphor of division perhaps overstates the case when we consider that one half of the debate about Prynne's work is characterized by a deliberate refusal to acknowledge that a corpus so committed to rethinking the relationship between experience and the languages available to describe it has any place within a contemporary British cultural sphere still defined by romantic and anti-romantic attitudes to poetry. Such critical resistance is all the more perplexing given Peter Ackroyd's celebrated claim that Prynne is "without doubt the most formidable and accomplished poet in England today, a writer who has single-handedly changed the vocabulary of expression" (Ackroyd 27). It might be expected that the force of this assertion would have propelled Prynne's name to greater prominence, but his work remains almost completely unknown inside an d outside Britain, with the exception of a handful of small and obscure journals edited by Prynne's former students at Cambridge University. The irony that now confronts us is that a body of work which seeks relentlessly to expand the boundaries of "poetic" expression and to map the possible relationships between poetry and the other discourses that constitute the cultural space of late capitalism has been either marginalized or reabsorbed by those institutional sites that enforce the divisions between different types of writing Prynne attempts to overcome.

The purpose of this essay is to try to account for the extraordinary divergence between the strength of the claims made on behalf of Prynne's work and the size of the audience it has managed to attract. It begins from the belief that Prynne's poetry is marginalized because it is difficult, and that this "difficulty" is the consequence of his commitment to reproduce within the texture of his work the complex interrelationship between the vast array of discourses that produce and regulate "knowledge" in contemporary Western society. No one reading Prynne's poetry for the first time can escape the initial feeling of bewilderment at encountering a type of writing that ranges freely between the vocabularies of chemistry and information theory, or economics and molecular science, without enunciating a discursive position from which the reader can reconstitute these discrete forms of specialized knowledge into a common rhetorical or cultural practice. Such disorientation, and the loss of epistemological privilege that attends it, is unavoidable because this work insists that what we think of in holistic terms as a "cultural" or "political" space is always already divided within itself, as it is produced by a network of discursive conjunctures whose effects exceed any singular or unitary determination. The challenge Prynne poses to us is that there is no position "outside" these conjunctures from which we can overcome the divisions and inequities they produce within our experience of modern culture, and yet the interest of political agency appears to demand that we conceive of an Archimedean point of judgment beyond the limits of these discourses from which they can be described and evaluated. His response to this dilemma is to occupy an ideological middle ground between the illusion of autonomy that allows us to present ourselves as independent and self-determining political and cultural subjects and the threat of a total system whereby the contents of our dreams of personal and collective emancipation are always deter mined in advance by the sectional interests of institutionalized relations of power. The point of this strategy is not to envisage a false reconciliation of autonomy and mediation, as if poetry offered a utopian compensation for the fragmentation of the cultural sphere more generally, but to create a provisional textual space in which we can focus upon the conceptual divisions that produce the "autonomy" of disciplinary and cultural formations like "politics," "poetry" and "science" in the first place. …

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