Iain Cameron's Diary
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2005-02-08 - 9:23 p.m.

$Have a look at http://www.lescousins.co.uk/

There's some free Jackson C Frank downloads plus Wizz Jones playing Blues Run the Game.

You will see that next Friday (11 Feb) is the first of a selection of 'Les Cousins' concerts at the Bush in West London - aimed at celebrating the classic English folk rock tradition and featuring both legendary performers and new artists. Having moved from 49 Greek St due to technical requirements the club now has online ticket ordering and a state of the art sound and lighting rig. Future performers will include Roy Harper, John Renbourn, Bert Jansch, Wizz Jones, Davy Graham, Fairport Convention and a myriad others.

Mark Pavey who I met at the Tanworth event in August has told me about this venture. He organized some events under the Les Cousins banner at the end of last year in Greek St which got pretty positive press coverage in the nationals.
He tells me that the move to Bush Hall is about tables, lighting, and the pa there and that he would like to see at least a 100 people at the Bush - down the Uxbridge Road not far from Shepherd Bush Green.

His band, Behind the Sun are playing as well as Mike Chapman. Mark tells me that Behind the Sun is slightly in the tradition of Pentangle - which is rather how I heard Gilbert Isbin’s new band .

It would be great if the Les Cousins tag could be re-established as an event/venue which stands in a modern way for some of the things that flourished at the original venue - songwriting, acoustic guitar playing, an open-minded and attentive audience, the mixing of genres.

The booking URL is http://www.ticketweb.co.uk/user/?region=uk&query=detail&event=116892&interface=bushhallbr

Various strands floating about - will they coalesce? Yesterday I picked up a couple of half price copies of Poetry Review, one of which had an essay on Denise Riley. So this morning I dug out my copy of Mop Mop Georgette - which contains the poem, Disintegrate Me - and read it through. There is a line in it about interrogating oneself to excess - or a memory of the aspiration to interrogate oneself to excess so that the ego flies apart.

I have also been trying to get the hang of Haunting Sylvia Plath, by a contemporary of DR - Jacqueline Rose - in broad terms working within the same post-structuralist/feminist paradigm - one which is beginning to show its age. The drift seems to be partly that the haunting comes about partly because SP bought into Graves’ White Goddess theory of poetic creation which is psychically bad news for female poets, partly because the narrative of her life and death is such that the issue of guilt is unavoidably raised - and this haunts the reader and the reading. Having been haunted by some powerful but unhelpful archetypes and rocketed around a psychic space producing some great poetry, SP exits in a way which tends to drop everyone else into the same ghostly domain when they confront her work. (Quite possibly this is also interrogation to disintegration too.)

I fished in these waters in the Summer and wrote a piece about a kind of tradition. Morrison - Nico - Browne - Cale - Drake and tried to lay it off against some poetic concerns.

I had an idea that Tim Hardin might fit in somewhere. On the Radio 2 website you can listen again to the 60 min review of the life and work of TH. The songs and the voice are stupendous and life a complete mess. Heaven knows in all that disintegration he managed to get hold of such brilliant and innovative songs. (I suppose you might say the same of Nico and sometimes Cale?)

In the middle of all of this Andrew K rang with a few succinct enquiries. I was eating lunch by the canal in central Birmingham making a start on Extreme Bodies by FAM. It is in 3 sections - Chosen Body, Impact Body, Extraneous Body. Its about subjecting bodies to extremities in art. - the broader drift that Iggy Pop has hinted at. What made people go down that road? Well Nietzsche, Artaud, Foucault and Deleuze to name four.

Of these four, I am best able to understand F. His idea is that how we understand our bodies and those of others is configured by a set of cultural factors which include the power of speech when articulated from certain ‘expert’ positions. So the expert articulations condition our perceptions and feelings about (say) breath - that it may be the symbol of the divine or alternatively the carrier of disease. It’s a malign take on the idea of language games - that the language might be playing someone else’s game with our bodies and hence our minds.

So you can see how artists might want to take this whole thing on. One might start with Bruce Nauman’s fountain - which is a photo of him being a fountain but at the same time refers make to Dada and Duchamp. Gilbert and George being the scuplture is close to this - all relatively benign but if you include Artaud and the Theatre of Cruelty then it might not be. Indeed various people took it to extremes, esp in the 1970s which was that kind of decade. It s easy enough to see some echoes of all of that in punk. I glanced at a history of Throbing Gristle which stretches through from the end of flower power to the start of Techno. In the UK in sonic terms they seem to represent the reflection of this cultural drift.
There’s a 90s feminist extension of all of this in the idea that everything about our bodies socially constructed and that we can if we wish assume any identity we want irrelevantly of what we mistakenly think are physical constraints.

Anyway I am sure this strikes readers as very unenglish. So here’s something about someone who taught English to the cousins-reviver, M Pavey. - from the Literary Encyclopoedia:

‘In February 2004, a minor controversy followed after Randall Stevenson, writing in The Last of England? 1960-2000 (OUP), claimed that the achievements of experimental poets, such as Andrew Crozier, Douglas Oliver and, most of all, J.H. Prynne, were of longer lasting significance than that of Philip Larkin and his contemporaries. John Carey, reviewing Stevenson’s book for The Sunday Times, rejected this judgement and, in particular, the apparent preference for Prynne. During the following week, the worth of Prynne’s poetry was debated both in newspapers and on radio, while his picture was secretly taken by a Times photographer.

What this unusual debate revealed was less to do with a serious engagement with Prynne’s writing and more to do with the characterisation of Prynne as wilfully obscure and, implicitly, elitist. Yet, this stereotypical response seemed to recall Prynne’s ironic fictionalisation as the enigmatic and vaguely sinister academic, Simon Undark, in Iain Sinclair’s Radon Daughters (1994). While some branches of the mass media appeared intent upon treating Prynne as emblematic of the alleged insularity of Cambridge University, the truth was more complex than that. The charge of obscurity (routinely levelled at Prynne) had to be set in context with the general decline in the public appreciation of poetry, especially poetry designed to be read instead of performed. Prynne’s writing has always been dialectically engaged with poetry’s slow withdrawal from the cultural centre. Yet arguably, through his teaching at Cambridge and his large international readership, Prynne has as high a public profile as any of his near-contemporaries or, indeed, as any living poet can reasonably expect in the context of general neglect. As one of Prynne’s former students, the novelist and biographer Peter Ackroyd, has written, Prynne is “without doubt the most formidable and accomplished poet in England today”.

Jeremy Halvard Prynne was born in 1936 and raised in North Kent. His mother was the headmistress of a private school and his father was an engineer. Prynne went to school in London and then studied English Literature at Cambridge University. Here, he met the poet and critic, Donald Davie. Davie was associated with the “Movement”, writers such as Larkin, Kingsley Amis and, slightly later, Ted Hughes. While Davie, like other members of the Movement, distrusted the more radical claims of modernism, he also questioned the lack of intellectual ambition shown by his contemporaries. Following his undergraduate degree, Prynne underwent his National Service and then spent a year at Harvard University. Through Davie’s influence, Prynne gained a Fellowship at Gonville and Caius College where he continued to teach until 2003. (Prynne remains in his role as librarian.) Davie’s study, Thomas Hardy and Modern Poetry (1973), offers one of the earliest accounts of Prynne’s work.

Prynne soon became part of a group of young poets based in and around the University, who were not only influenced by the legacy of modernism (especially Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams), but also by recent philosophy (for example, Merleau-Ponty and Wittgenstein), and by developments in American and European literature (for instance, novelists such as William Burroughs and poets such as John Ashbery and Paul Celan).

Prynne and his associates, amongst them John Riley and Tim Longville, published their work in a privately produced mimeograph entitled The English Intelligencer. (A selection of these poets was later published in the anthology, A Various Art, 1987.) Prynne also brought into this circle the local-based poet, Douglas Oliver, the first of a number of writers from different educational and regional backgrounds to be helped by Prynne.

Force of Circumstance and Other Poems, Prynne’s first collection, was published in 1962 by Routledge and Kegan Paul. Though the text features themes that recur in Prynne’s later work, in particular, its emphasis upon the poet’s relation to the external world and its concomitant refusal to sustain an objective point of view, the style remains largely traditional and indebted to Davie. Prynne subsequently recalled all the unsold copies and had them destroyed. His next offering, Kitchen Poems, was published by Cape Goliard in 1968. Thereafter, Prynne has published his work regularly, mainly through small poetry presses such as Ferry Press and Equipage, but also in private printings, such as his 1983 sequence, The Oval Window. While the publishing history of Prynne’s work suggests a gradual retreat from the mainstream, his use of private or independent methods to distribute his poetry describes the making of an artistic subculture within the dominant modes of literary production. Allied to his correspondence with poets such as Allen Fisher, Barry MacSweeney and Chris Torrance, Prynne’s literary career is representative of what Eric Mottram, the former editor of Poetry Review, once described as “the British Poetry Revival of the 1960s and 1970s”.

While Prynne resembles a poet’s poet, through his dedication to the form, look and ownership of his work, Prynne’s role is not that of a reclusive artistic master. The popular significance of Prynne’s poetry was shown when his collected poems were published by Bloodaxe in 1999 (revised and enlarged in 2004), and sold in its thousands.

Prynne’s lectures, Stars, Tigers and the Shape of Words, delivered at Birkbeck College, London in 1992, offer a useful insight into his thought. Prynne takes issue with Ferdinand de Saussure’s emphasis upon the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign, arguing that “the distinctively literary nature of the literary text marks it for reading with a heightened sense of the accumulated layers and aspects of association which form the significatory resonance of previous usage”. For Prynne, even if linguistic meaning is (in a theoretical sense) arbitrary, the attribution of certain meanings to certain words is not random. How words acquire, or slowly adjust, their meanings always takes place in historical contexts, and these successive usages are never lost. Prynne evokes an image of language as shadowed by its acquired attributions. The literariness of poetic writing illuminates this shadow by making the reader aware of its accumulated presence. This distinction is important for Prynne. While he contests the apparent relativism of structuralist theories of language, he insists upon the reader’s constitution within a shifting network of codes, vocabularies and linguistic usages.

Prynne’s increasingly oblique project is to jolt the reader into this self-recognition.
In an afterword to a collection of contemporary Chinese writing, reprinted in Iain Sinclair’s Conductors of Chaos (1996), Prynne compares language to a “great aquarium” where “the light refracts variously” and moves “by inclinations not previously observed”. This passage is an apt description for Prynne’s own poetry. By turns, dense, lyrical and fragmentary, the writing encloses the reader, who is forced to follow the abrupt movements in Prynne’s syntax and language use. Literary allusions and philosophical speculations jostle with vocabularies drawn from the physical sciences, economic theory and political analysis. The writing can shift from tender descriptions of domestic spaces to an abstract, analytical standpoint. Prynne’s poetry sometimes resembles leaps in imagination and thought: the unedited flow and content of mental processes. Yet, in his afterword, Prynne also writes of the importance of “gaps and outbursts of intense writerly variance”. The dissonance of Prynne’s poetry highlights the refractions of meaning commonly ignored or neglected within language.

Equally important, however, is the look of the text. Again, in his afterword, Prynne celebrates the Chinese character “painted on to the paper”, the swiftness and economy of the stroke affecting the way the reader visually experiences not only the text but also the page on which it is printed. If Prynne’s poetry seeks to recapture the thought before it is verbally expressed, then the look of his writing – its placing on the page as well as its stylistic variety – hopes to retain the full scope of the page ahead of its more conventional usage.

Prynne’s close attention to how meaning operates within literary language, and to its visual representation, suggests a number of parallels with poets such as Pound, Ashbery, George Oppen and the “open field” poetics of Charles Olson. The increasing intricacy of Prynne’s poetic sequences since the early 1970s, especially their resistance to historical or social contextualisation, also suggests comparisons with the intense formalism of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, writers such as Bruce Andrews and Charles Bernstein.

Prynne differs, though, from his American predecessors and near-contemporaries in a number of ways. First, though he has experimented with both free verse and typographical layouts, Prynne has resisted the more deconstructive strategies of poets such as Susan Howe. Instead, he retains a strong lyrical element in his writing (evidenced, again, in the recent collection, Triodes). Even while Prynne denies himself the romantic compensation of the natural world, often by alluding to the fragility of eco-systems or the industrialisation of agriculture, Prynne nonetheless draws upon the romantic, lyrical tradition that extends from Wordsworth to Larkin. While some critics have read Prynne’s poetry in terms of postmodern thought, in particular, his paradoxical fusion of seemingly discontinuous elements, Prynne’s respect for lyricism suggests a modernist admiration for tradition.

Second, despite the resistance of Prynne’s poetry towards being read in terms of an external context, he is nonetheless a political writer. Prynne is not committed in the sense of a determinedly public figure, such as Tony Harrison, but through the very form and practice of his aesthetic. Collections, such as The White Stones (1969) and Brass (1971), feature Prynne’s clearest political writing, and they remain an important insight into his critical thought. Later works, especially the collections produced since the late 1980s, have been far less direct, often to the frustration of Prynne’s critics and admirers. Nevertheless, Prynne’s oeuvre can be read politically at the level of both form and content.

Formally, Prynne’s intermingling of diverse discourses and registers, frequently at the expense of his own authorial voice, offers the possibility of a dialogue between the reader and vocabularies that they might not otherwise encounter. This use of his poetry as a form of civic space relates also to Prynne’s emphasis upon retracing the successive usages of words that, nonetheless, inform our experience of the external world. At the same time, however, this civic conception for poetry arises from Prynne’s awareness of his own, comparative, marginality. As he writes, in ‘L’Extase de M. Poher’ (from Brass):

poetic gabble will survive which fails
to collide head-on with the unwitty circus

Within an increasingly homogeneous consumer society, Prynne’s relative distance from the commercial mainstream allows him to intersect otherwise disparate discourses and create pockets of civic activity.

Yet, this creative collision can also be read in terms of earlier avant-garde movements, for instance dada and surrealism, and their assault upon the institutionalisation of art in order to reconnect it with life. Prynne himself has referred to the “terminal obduracy” of sequences such as Down Where Changed (1979), in which the accumulation of meaning acts as both an invitation towards sense and a denial of comprehension, as well as a struggle within the self-imposed form: “Nearly too much/is, well, nowhere near enough”. However, this over-expansion of significance differs from the earlier pursuit of the avant-garde for non-sense. Instead, Prynne’s formal indeterminacy shares affinities with the contemporary art movement, Fluxus, and its own emphasis upon the excess of waste. Or, as Prynne phrases it (again from Brass):

Rubbish is
pertinent; essential; the
most intricate presence in
our entire culture

If, in one sense, Prynne’s poetry is the residue of contemporary culture, disavowed but unmoveable, then, in another sense, “Rubbish is/pertinent” to the thematic of his work. The body is a recurring motif in Prynne’s writing, whether in the form of sexuality or violence, the act of fear or joy, or in the operation of impersonal systems, whether economic, environmental or linguistic. The presiding emphasis is upon the circuit of consumption and production, in particular, the extent to which the human subject is simultaneously consumed and reproduced. For example, from early collections such as The White Stones to later, denser sequences such as For the Monogram (1997), a repeated device is Prynne’s description of emotional changes in terms of chemical analysis, exchange systems, mass media or computer software. Instead of being indivisible and autonomous, what it means to be human is shown as dependent upon a series of internal and external processes. Yet, if Prynne commemorates the poetic imagination as extraneous to these impersonal functions, he also celebrates the fact of love and friendship, for example, in the everyday household descriptions in the otherwise complex sequence, Her Weasels Wild Returning (1994). As Prynne writes towards the start of The White Stones:

Love is, as always, the
flight back
to where
we are.

For successive poets, such as John Wilkinson, Drew Milne and Keston Sutherland, Prynne has been a key inspiration. Even without his recent notoriety, Prynne is more than likely to inspire others in the future. ‘

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