Academic journal article Text Matters

The Shortest Way to Modernity Is Via the Margins: J.H. Prynne's Later Poetry

Academic journal article Text Matters

The Shortest Way to Modernity Is Via the Margins: J.H. Prynne's Later Poetry

Article excerpt

The path literary modernism seems to have traversed since the beginning of the twentieth century until the present moment may be described as a journey from the centre (aesthetic, cultural, metaphysical) to the margins. However it is defined, the modernist mode has by now become a spectral presence, hovering over the outermost ridges of writing practice. To some extent this fate lay in the very notion as promoted by the High Modernist writers of the Anglo-Irish tradition, with their emphasis on the artist's separation from the tarnished popular culture. Of course, here a distinction between two modernities must be stressed; on the one hand, modernism is "a product of scientific and technological progress, of the industrial revolution, of the sweeping economic and social changes brought about by capitalism"; on the other, it is "an aesthetic concept" that percolated down to the histories of literature (Calinescu 41). The latter may then be characterized by its immersion in "the structural and philosophical presuppositions of myth and depth psychology" (Holquist 135). Elitism of the Eliot/Pound strain of modernist letters is countered by the American climate, which as early as in 1922 was voiced by Matthew Josephson, who observed that "the true innovation of American modernism lay precisely in its fusion of experimentalism and popular culture" (Kalaidjian 4). This inner plurality of stances towards modernism notwithstanding, the characteristic features of modernist art1 no longer define the core of contemporary writing.

Yet modernist poetics, especially the early experimental and playful kind, survives until the present, even to the extent that, and here Marjorie Perloffmust be credited with the clearest enunciation of that fact, American poets such as Susan Howe, Charles Bernstein, Lyn Hejinian and Steve McCaffery are at times referred to as "the second wave of modernism" (Perloff, 21st-Century Modernism 5). Perloffmentions in passing that the second wave of modernist poets is not limited to the US but embraces all nations that participated in the creation of what Hugh Kenner, after Bradbury and McFaralane, convincingly termed "international modernism"; still, the fact remains that the popularity of modernism in its avantgarde form has fused with a plethora of other aesthetic formations. What retains the scent of novelty and potentiality for the current writing is the irrepressible experimentalism that comes from the indomitable men of letters of the early twentieth century. In the present essay the focus is placed on the many-aspect notion of marginality in the work of J.H. Prynne, who has willingly chosen an ephemeral and furtive presence among the contemporary poets.

Critics, who chant his inexplicability as insistently as their counterparts did the weirdness of, for example, Pound's Cantos, tend to concur with the view that Prynne is a late-modernist poet (Corcoran 174; Hampson and Montgomery 82; Mellors 19; Reeve and Kerridge 1). Hampson and Montgomery pertinently note that Prynne's poetics "has its basis in classical modernist techniques such as multiplicity of discourses and the absence of a consistent speaking subject" and add that his recent work "frequently uses multiple vocabularies to monitor the ethical impasses that confront the individual enmeshed in the signifying systems of late capitalism" (83). Corcoran ends his short evaluation of Prynne's work of the 1968-1980s period by expressing some reservations about the progressing ambiguity with which this poetry is rife. However, since the modernist principles which Prynne employs deliberately draw from the experimental art of Pound and Charles Olson (Corcoran 82), it is no wonder he veers towards the outermost fringes of linguistic productivity, juggling various idioms and deploying multifarious references to past literatures (not only English and American but also, notably, Chinese).

Prynne's later work shares with early modernism a pleasure in constantly pressing language beyond the limits of meaning so that it begins to yield a quality that shuns typical elucidatory procedures centred on the coherent signifying utterances. …

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