side blog — Acrylic Tips

JH Prynne

I understand most of the words in “Acrylic Tips”, I just don’t understand their meaning. JH Prynne has a long history of producing excellent work. I hope my incomprehension is a deliberate effect; I fear it might be my own linguistic weakness.

If I’m right, rather than plain stupid, Prynne has achieved something quite incredible. He’s assembled everyday familiar English words, and turned them into a foreign language. I understand these words, but not their order; I do not comprehend this poem.

Peter Riley, an established poet who runs a very good poetry bookshop, gave me my first clue. He said, or at least I understood him to say, “Prynne wants to chose exactly the right word; he ignores the context; he’s trying to create a ‘supercontext’.”

This explains why I did not understand the context. There is no context. There may be meaning in the superorder; I’ve not got it.

But while I was pushing this poem into my head, something rather special happened. This might be a familiar experience to polyglots, but it certainly isn’t to monoglot me. Some poetry friends were arguing politics. I knew, *knew*, their entire argument had form from the language they were using for speak. Spin doctors, marketeers, their clever little baubles, shape your thoughts like your first words shaped your mind. At that moment I realised language controls thought, not the other way round; language is the technology of thought. Develop the language, get new thinking. No doubt Chomsky has covered this. Poetry should move language to enable new thought.

This head–shatter only lasted a moment; but it was a stunning experience. I have Prynne to thank for it. No poem, no poet, has ever done that to me before.

“Acrylic Tips” recites extremely well. I can pick the book up, and perform it at sight, hardly tripping, despite my incomprehension. It is clearly carefully composed. And that is the key to the next stage of my understanding: “Acrylic Tips” is composed. Prynne has created a music. By using words that cancel words, he’s found a way to explore the meaning of word sequences in English without being swamped by the overwhelming impact of context, just as Schoenberg developed serial music to explore form without the overwhelming impact of key. This is new to me.

I’ve found the music, but what about comprehension?

I’ve never contact Prynne, so what I’m about to say will probably be complete nonsense. I understand that he’s exploring language and meaning excluding context, to find a super–context, as it were. This brings to my mind the introduction to the book, Chinese Poetry (Duke University Press, ISBN 0-8223-1951-9), in which the editor and translator, Wai–Lim Yip, says:

“Underlying the classical Chinese aesthetic is the primary dea of noninterference with Nature’s flow. As reflected in poetic language, this idea has engendered freedom the the syntactical rigidities often found in English and most, if not all, of the Indo–European languages. In English, a sentence is almost always structured according to rigid syntactical rules, whereas classical Chinese, as it is used in poetry, is syntactically flexible. For example, although the Chinese language has articles and personal pronouns, they are often dispensed with in poetry. This opens up an intermediate space for readers to enter and reenter for multiple perceptions rather than locking them into some definitive perspectival position or guiding them in a certain direction. Then there is the sparseness, if not absence, of connective elements (prepositions or conjunctions), and this lack, aided by the indeterminacy of parts of speech and no tense declensions in verbs, affords the readers a unique freedom to consort with the objects and events of the real–life world.”

Personally, I find English is not syntactically rigid by rules, merely by convention. Meaning can be retained when syntax is chucked. Different regional accents have different syntax; poor speakers of English can communicate despite using their own language’s syntax. This all suggests to me the techniques of classical Chinese poetry might be applicable to English. Seen in this context, it becomes much easier for me to see what might be going on inside Acrylic Tips.

So, OK, forget the context. Read the poem one word at the time. Take the first word, one word, read it, appreciate it. Take the next word, one word, read it, appreciate it. Mix the meanings. Digest. Iterate. Mmmm, this works!

The one thing that trips me up is that Prynne is occasionally happy to use all those horrible English language connecting words and phrases. This is my problem; in my own poetry I’ve being trying to strip out the damn things because I find them pointless and self–important, like hierarchy. Meaning is rarely lost when they’re dropped; if it is it can usually be restored by adjusting word order, and if that fails then I’ve probably used the wrong words in the first place. But that’s my perspective; it’s my problem I trip up when I have to identify the phrase to chew. Bah!

I suspect I’ve only understood about one percent of the poem.

Wow. Rich food wow.

This review is very much unfinished. There is a lot more for me to say yet.

Acrylic Tips
JH Prynne
Barque Press
ISBN 1 903488 17 6

ancient front