Prosodic and cultural stress points in English-language poetry.
By JOHN WILKINSON.
IT MIGHT SEEM odd for a poet working in an accentual-syllabic language like English, to feel any need to recommend the virtues of stress, or for anyone to do so in Delhi.1 However, stress itself has been itself under stress for some time in poetic practice in the US and in the UK.
Lyric stress patterns have become suspect, either associated with a lyric tradition’s implied claims to universality or, on the contrary, deemed to claim, spuriously, the independence of the individual from the determinants and creativity of language itself. There is merit in both objections, and I’d add one further, that some poetry aims to seduce with comforting stress: we don’t experience the stresses of a sleeping partner’s breath as disturbing, unless they snore. Poetry evoking the familiar stresses of regular breathing, tends to serve a functionalist view of art as essentially reparative; like a lullabye it “knits up the ravell’d sleave of care”. So there’s a kind of stress that isn’t really stressful, offering aesthetic experience as a balm, which opens up the question of when stress becomes rhythm, when rhythm becomes stressful, and if rhythm needs to be stressful to provoke attention.
If we as readers set aside reparative rhythmic patterns, disdain lyric stress as individualistic, and condemn lyric stress organised around the first-person singular for claiming to transcend history, culture, gender, race and all other variables, we may not feel much invested in what’s left — even if we are adept at conceptual accounts of what a flat text is about. One reason is that suppressing stress breaks poetry’s link with orality, with the body, and with human sociality; this also goes for prose when it becomes jargon, uninflected language void of individual feeling and active thinking.
Objection to stress is not confined to poetry; it pervades Western culture, whether represented by injured White supremacists or progressive students. A telling example is the replacement of ‘argument’ or ‘debate’ with the word ‘conversation’. This isn’t to huff about so-called snowflakes: after all, while the term ‘micro-aggression’ has been taken to imply sensitivity to insignificant if not imagined slights, its most eloquent advocate, Claudia Rankine, situates it on the lower rungs of a stress escalator rising to the extremity of lynching and police murder, visited on Black Americans individually and collectively. Rather, I’m thinking of a wellness ideology and industry committed to reducing individuals’ exposure to stress, as well as to short-circuit their physical and psychological stress responses. True self-scrutiny is substituted by scrutiny of the dinner plate, managing food intolerances. Stress-aversion of this kind is not simply apolitical but fundamentally anti-political, exemplified in the right-wing individualism of some Silicon Valley tech magnates. A debased version of Buddhism espoused in such wellness ideology, disdains Buddhism’s central ethical charge of compassion for all creatures (which doesn’t mean feeding your pooch on caviar).
What then might be the virtues of stress? No question stress can be debilitating or deadly. Who would invite or welcome the stress experienced by the residents of Kiev or those enduring the London wartime blitz? Whatever the secondary gain: for we do have testimonies from both times and places of a fuller experience of social being – in Britain having its political after-effect in a post-war welfare state. But I think we could agree that a condition of continuous stress or an experience of violent, extreme stress are to be avoided. The question is how to convert stress into a force for life, rather than despondency, sickness or impotent rage, an enlivening that transports or that struggles, or that creates a refuge in solidarity, community or faith. Or that creates. Consider the notorious stress of life in a high pressure urban environment like New York or Delhi and the varying responses to it, not determined exclusively by levels of affluence. The adaption process relies on a dialectic at work between the stress of individual subjectivity in relation to social, economic and linguistic determinants; and the stress of social engagement and legibility in the face of legitimate individual needs and demands. That dialectic can motivate art with transhistorical and transcultural impact, universal if you like.
I want to offer an example from the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks. First, though, I want to say something about trained sensitivity to stress, because the poetry I’m engaged with as a writer and a reader, requires training in close reading so as to recognise and negotiate its stresses. A decline in such training, which I received at high school, is contemporary with the blunting or avoidance of stress, and in the American and British academies close reading has largely retreated to creative writing workshops, even if the workshop too is in danger of becoming a stress-averse environment. What interests me is a flattening or digitalising of experience, a de-stressing scarcely affected by nostalgia for vinyl or silver halide film.
Decline in the academic study of English Literature occasions much self-interested hand-wringing in departments of English. It has been ascribed to harsh competitive conditions for employment preferring vocational courses, the deplorable materialism of the younger generation, the admirable progressive activism of the younger generation, the distracting effects of social media, the rise of alternative creative media such as video games, the collapse of a literary canon reflecting white heterosexual male dominance, and malign politicians. The apogee of academic instruction in close reading and literary history, was attained at a brief moment in the 1950s and 1960s, remaining essential to a reaction in subsequent deconstructive theory. Reliance on such a literary culture and its associated skills has become anachronistic. In Britain most students find readable only poems reflecting their immediate interests, and I’ve heard a University of Chicago creative writing student say he doesn’t see why he should be interested in old poems, that is, that haven’t recently won major prizes, so showing him the way to that end. Not that all immediate interests are damaging; poetry serving a constituency can greatly exceed as well as fulfil its overt intent, as the corpus of seventeenth-century Christian English poetry demonstrates; so too does a magnificent corpus of Black US poetry directed at a Black politically-active constituency, from Gwendolyn Brooks and Amiri Baraka to the present.
Take George Herbert’s ‘The Elixir’ which as a child I was taught to sing as a hymn, my hymnal leaving out the second verse, presumably as too abstract:
Teach me, my God and King,
In all things Thee to see,
And what I do in anything
To do it as for Thee.
Not rudely, as a beast,
To run into an action;
But still to make Thee prepossest,
And give it his perfection.
A man that looks on glass,
On it may stay his eye;
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass,
And then the heav’n espy.
All may of Thee partake:
Nothing can be so mean,
Which with his tincture—”for Thy sake”—
Will not grow bright and clean.
A servant with this clause
Makes drudgery divine:
Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws,
Makes that and th’ action fine.
This is the famous stone
That turneth all to gold;
For that which God doth touch and own
Cannot for less be told.
On the face of it, this is a poem of simple faith, but the verse about ‘a man that looks on glass’ is telling in ways that exceed the proverbial and devout. Oscillation between surface and depth, between glass and prospect, might be taken to direct how to read the poem itself; that’s how we read if close readers; and what if the glass were a looking-glass, and heaven therefore lies in the eyes that seek God? What of the transformations of the last two verses? The verse lines sweep to and fro according to prosodic laws; and this movement is the touch of the alchemical stone – but it has already happened, even before the ‘tincture’ which is another word for the philosopher’s stone: what turns to gold is not what is seen through glass; the glass itself is transmuted by the tincture of Thee. Thee and Thy, the very act of address to another, has this telling effect; the switch was made from me to Thee in the first verse. No more me. We can all partake of this theeness, the theeness of communion. The poem features a cluster of ‘th’ sounds to facilitate this.
Mine is a tendentious reading, as though ‘I’ were the thee and were ‘prepossessed’, and this poem also feels as though it arises from the loam of the language; familiar before we even think about it. A tension exists though, between such easy recognition and the sophistication of the poem’s metaphors, producing a certain awkwardness in its rhythm. This awkwardness snags me, making Herbert’s poem or hymn persist in memory where a hundred hymns I sang quite as often, have no lasting presence. For instance, the lines ‘Which with his tincture—“for Thy sake”—’ and ‘Who sweeps a room as for Thy laws’ are sung according to regular meter in the hymn, but the poem’s gathering emphasis on ‘Thy’ introduces a counter-rhythm that brings the poem’s stresses into attention. Rhythm becomes stressful, in a way that demands a reader’s assent – ‘yes, I too am thine’ – or not, ‘isn’t it convenient that my servant’s drudgery can be made divine?’
Stress can be felt too between a series of statements, their metaphorical charge, and their prosody – that is, between doctrine, and an individual’s imaginative understanding and attachment to that doctrine. My hymnal’s excision of a verse betrayed how awkwardly this poem fit a use presuming an orthodox expression of faith, unaffected by the stress an individual might feel negotiating such faith. Added to that, my discussion relies on close reading, and for a secular modern, that introduces the stress of abdicating from the scriptural context. In the eyes of the faithful, to close-read this poem would itself constitute a form of resistance, like a secular art historian interpreting the imagery of a biblical scene by Caravaggio as queer. Loving Herbert’s poem, I can’t adore it as if it were an icon.
Historically, literary close reading did not emerge out of nowhere, and all religious traditions have promoted exegesis of scriptures and major commentaries, with forensic attentiveness to textual detail. There would have been scrupulous, trained exegetes among George Herbert’s contemporaries, but the important distinction is that of motivation. The religious exegete is, at whatever remove, working to clarify the demands made on the faithful for right living and right dying. And of course conspiracy theories like QAnon demand paranoid close reading in order to massage all texts into alignment with their systems of belief.
Literary close reading begins, in its purest form, by bracketing out such motivation; the question to be asked of ‘The Elixir’ is not what it says about right living, although that is the poem’s evident focus, but how it performs. This can lead to the impression, with a text as clear in its overt message as Herbert’s, that close reading invents difficulties where none exist, and that poems provide opportunities for critics to show off their ingenuity. In practice, close reading came to privilege irony, ambiguity, and notably the so-called parsimonious text, where every element and aspect can be brought to serve a reading that leaves nothing unaccounted for. Faced with the surrealist or baroque poem it founders haplessly.
Training in close reading helped shape twentieth-century Anglo-American poetry as well as how poems are read; it promoted close writing, to coin a phrase, poems rewarding special readerly skills, including the capacity to track and take pleasure in stress as well as to be affected by its subtle disruptions; and it encouraged poets to write intricately – although the combined ingenuity, passion, complex stresses and strenuous thought in the poetry of John Donne, its astonishing shuttle between the tightly-wound and the intimately conversational, has never been equalled in English. Close reading assumptions underpin not only conservative, formalist poetry, but also confessional poetry, New York School poetry, Black Mountain poetry, apocalyptic poetry, even some Language poetry.
For example, the poetry of Susan Howe, a graduate school favourite, absolutely requires close reading. At the same time, during the heyday of close reading not only poems of greetings-card sentimentality were despised as beneath notice, but also those of a writer as powerful as Allen Ginsberg or as popular as Charles Bukowski. They’ve had their revenge: vernacular poetry influenced by Beats and by a long history of Black spoken word poetry is now the mainstream, through hiphop culture as well as in slam. There can seem to be distinct universes of seminar poetry and street poetry, acutely so in the university on the South Side of Chicago where I teach. As the most theoretically sophisticated poetry has shied away from stress, in rap the exploitation of traditional stress-patterns complicated by off-beats, is central and obvious; where core messages are not in question, what’s most valued are skills in managing stresses, linguistic inventiveness and performance. Working with and off culturally embedded rhythmic patterns is a feature of more literary Black poetry too, as in the amazing resurgence of sonnet writing, along with clashing high and low registers, like street vernaculars and underworld cant in Elizabethan and Renaissance drama. In poetic modes strongly connected to an identifiable community, individuality can be asserted through exchange riding on shared rhythms, very directly in the bragging responses of hiphop, rather than through introspection, – but the isolated lyric poet was always a caricature, absurd given the intense friendships and enmities between the Romantic poets of Germany and England.
Exchange has been vital to close-writing poetry too, with, as a shining example, the social lyric of Frank O’Hara emerging from New York gay artistic culture during the pre-Stonewall era when gays were persecuted; but the point about exchange can be made more generally around close acquaintance with poetic tradition. Politically this cuts both ways; attachment to tradition can be reactionary, but a language use doubling down on non-semantic properties of language as exploited by generations of poets, can resist linguistic utility and challenge ideology encoded in normative usage. This has been a working assumption of radical writers in English from Shelley onwards. However the reception assumption of such writing has relied on readers with a trained literary attention, in Shelley’s time trained in Greek and Latin poetics. This readership may always have been small, but during the period of maximal prestige of close reading, coinciding with a huge expansion of university education in Britain and the United States, it did constitute a receptive constituency for close writing poets. Even so, in a time of political crisis, Shelley turned to the popular ballad form with ‘The Mask of Anarchy’, planning an entire collection of ballads. We are now seeing something similar in the return of popular forms, and it was striking how some prominent Language poets, explicitly averse to first-person syntax and rhythmic urgency, resorted to direct, personally committed language in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq. Conditions of stress, felt in the body, insist on stressed expression – or wholesale avoidance of stress if available, by mindful or pharmacological means.
What connection does attrition of close reading have with stress aversion? Considerable, despite the overt politics of much paratactical and flattened poetry. Close writing poetry came to squeamishly repudiate the first-person lyric because a subject position is a social construction with no legitimate authority, as though the subject position always implicitly made universal claims; but poetry evacuated of the first person singular tends paradoxically towards an even stronger claim to authority. Meanwhile comforting poetry remains vastly popular, as in the writing of Rupi Kaur:
love will come
and when love comes
love will hold you
love will call your name
and you will melt
love will hurt you but
love will never mean to
love will play no games
cause love knows life
has been hard enough already
It would be crazy to try to close-read this. It knows its readers, and in its stress-free way offers a stress reduction technique which must be effective for them.
A more rigorous and far from comforting aversion to stress characterises the recent poetry of J.H. Prynne, routinely described as Britain’s major late-Modernist poet, where eliminating cadence and stress results in a kind of circuit-board writing whose coherence relies on a philological underwebbing invisible to most, and on knowledge of the prior corpus of Prynne’s poetry. This imposes severe demands on the close reader; in fact, demands it would be impossible to meet, which might be part of the point. Agency has been offshored into the linguistic archive, as a basis for textual production deemed autonomous, with Maoist dialectic its motor. When reciting his work, Prynne has asked his audience to shut their eyes, enter the darkness and watch for twinkles of light, like certain practices of meditation.2 To abdicate from the stress of authorship and critical reception, lies at a far remove from combative engagement with pre-existing texts, whether by middle-period Prynne in poems such as The Oval Window or Not-You, or M. NourbeSe Phillip’s Zong! or Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas – or my colleague Srikanth Reddy’s Voyager. A painful and productive relationship with mother tongue and/or patriarchal authority encoded in historical record, contract or treaty, asks for close reading by both writer and reader (it doesn’t necessarily receive it – a common pedagogical approach directs students to the poem’s methodology and excerpts from source texts, before samples of poems are read, so individual and collective violence and pain can be discussed abstractly, stress-free). Reading late Prynne can be a stressful experience – attempts at close-reading commit a category mistake. The truly stress-full can be close kin to stress-free; both approach absolute conditions, neither can admit doubt or nuance.
Faced with a text like Aquatic Hocquets (and there is an inevitable arbitrariness in choosing from Prynne’s recent output) my training means I can’t resist diving into close reading; hocquets is French for hockey stick, maybe pointing to sportiveness in the life aquatic; but a hocquet is also a shepherd’s crook and might point to a pastoral.3 An epigraph from John Dowland’s Second Book of Songs or Ayres announces ‘Though all my wares bee trash the hart is true’, further hinting that what follows might not be quite serious, while the first poem’s title ‘Welcome Handcart’ might tell us to go to hell (‘going to hell in a handcart’ being a proverbial phrase), or suggest the following poem is a vehicle piled with miscellaneous goods. Here’s the first stanza:
Foolish chalice upset target circumspect react
vapid insipid if wet marshes cahoots will brazen
dimmest business, freight. Awning cruise soonest
bruised up stirrup fat trial. Lost or daft,
boil crevice, divisible graphical, get full on
track placate them all now; point the stick
allocate stitchwort sicken for bracken, broken
off. Find denied ovoid liquid each steeped at
brunt clipper, dapper dib-dabs matter, chat grated
ice trappist; burnish grab likely unfrankly be
infrequent, not tropic distinct elaborate splint.
‘Sicken for bracken, broken | off’ and ‘dapper dib-dabs matter’ sound like automatic writing, if under constraints, although the prosody is non-accentual and not syllabic – the linear constraints are cookie-cutter. ‘Ice trappist’ sounds like a silly and arbitrary pun on ‘trapped in ice’. There is a quality of fiat here, of ex-cathedra statement; the read-out does not permit psychological inquiry or nuance because there is no speaking position, and no cadence because cadence requires voice-effect. In each of the book’s sixteen two-stanza poems, the most assertive punctuation mark is the semicolon, true for a preponderance of Prynne’s recent writing. An online grammatical tutorial instructs: ‘Use a semicolon to join two related independent clauses in place of a comma and a coordinating conjunction (and, but, or, nor, for, so, yet). Make sure when you use the semicolon that the connection between the two independent clauses is clear without the coordinating conjunction.’4 That indicates the semicolon’s utility in Prynne’s poems, flaunting the mark of juxtaposition without specified connection. Words are no longer parts of speech, and organisation is syntactical in a machine language sense, rather than utterance-shaped. No word has priority, no word governs. Here is just how things are, when heaped in a handcart.
Why shape this output into stanzas, and why associate it, through Dowland, with song? The book’s final poem ends with a clue:
Enhance his trance lexis, into want
affront parade admit parakeet, flit up
and subsequent waited hour-long, new
song it will belong; in verity, be true.
Following an injunction to ‘bake up your pies’ this smacks of having your cake and eating it: a ‘trance lexis’, in other words, automatic writing — an ‘affront parade’ (parade is a good description of these words in order), are enjoined to ‘admit parakeet’ so as to elicit a ‘new song’. Since the call of a parakeet is much like a blade on a whetstone, this may be as serious as the final tautology, ‘in verity, be true’, or, perhaps, a put-on. There is no song in this book and no basis for an ascription of truth – true to what? Yet, strangely, song is of central importance to Prynne’s poetics, inasmuch as folk song is conceived to arise prior to authorship or any individual performance. And ‘it should perhaps be pointed out that the title song is no indication of vocal performance. This in Elizabethan times seems to be a non-committal word used similarly to lesson.’5 Song, then is independent of singing, although a parakeet might argue the point.
We might rejoin that a parakeet’s song is heard as unstressed, even if a bird’s song can be modified by a change of environment, we certainly hear crows quarrel, or a parakeet expert might recognise stress in the sounds of a caged parakeet. But as readers of this poem, we fall back on pattern recognition, as we would in identifying a birdsong. These are language twitters, as various as a nightingale’s repertoire, if much less melodious. You can’t argue with a nightingale. You can’t enter mentally into an exchange with a nightingale. You’d be hard pressed to sing along with a nightingale. Even the most learned ornithologist would have difficulty in interpreting what this particular nightingale means by a particular song-passage. Any response is thwarted, because a reader is deprived of guidance as to where priority lies in the word-array; remarkably these are verses in which line breaks introduce no suspense or emphasis. Yet an ornithologist of poetry would identify these poems instantly as Prynne’s. If you really wanted to eliminate all traces of a speaking voice, business school extrudes plenty of suitable language, whereas the extreme idiosyncrasy of Prynne’s poetry encourages its reception as tablets brought down from the mountain.
But to the contrary, consider now my earlier suggestion that the truly stress-full can be close kin to stress-free. Could the Prynne poems be read as though not only every word, but every space between words, its interstellar spaces, were acutely stressed?6 The argument for this would be focused on the verticality of the words, each appearing distinctly out of its layered etymology, as it were a star surfacing in present time. The instruction Prynne gave his audience in Guangzhou might be so glossed; and while each twinkle suppresses in its turn, their afterimages form constellations; as readers, we are required in the most literal sense to re-member. A temporality is introduced therefore, not only through the present traces of the etymological record whose dead meanings shine still, but through the reader’s or audience’s hovering, feline attention – or the slowing, skidding temporality of boredom and alienation. The apparent in this way is nothing if not active, an appearing in time, for those expert readers who must will themselves to not close-read, but to exercise a readerly negative capability, like a psychoanalyst resisting the urge to interpret. Whether felt or recognised or not, and these poems no more need readers than the stars need human observers, the surface text represents a linguistic outcrop, as does our present day and how things are, at least for language fetishists such as poets. It could be, however, that Prynne’s instructions mandate a creative forgetting after every twinkle, and a scepticism about presence; could this be the Derridean trace, the constellation always active but occluded – for constellations are not only traces of light but have always already been traced as presences?7
Even so, granting that an apt reading practice might lead to pleasure, that is, a general elevation of sensitivity without the variation characterising stress, Prynne’s verbal configurations cannot engender the kind of stress one paragraph of Zola can induce, or the other kind of stress that ‘To a Skylark’ rides on. For either kind of stress to be felt, an implied resting state is necessary. Although one born into a condition of unremitting and invariant stress might not register that condition as other than normal, even if debilitated by it, nowhere could they avoid advertisements for luxury goods with their fantasies of perfect ease, exacerbating and making stress acute in the contrast. While in most poems, line spacing affords resting places (as well as stressful apprehension and other tension effects), Prynne’s late poems deny this relief. Theoretically, the poems could be deemed as stressed against the entire archive of English poetry, but it is unlikely that a reader would feel this except in a moment’s impatience at a refused accord – for instance, in a perceived denial of prosodic variation causing a moment’s stress.
Sometimes one gets the impression no-one should cause stress to anyone or hear about others’ stress because that would be too stressful, even in a creative writing workshop. Such sensitivity is hardly confined to left progressives; reactionaries are endlessly indignant at slights and disrespects. Really? as people starve, as they die on rafts and crossing arid borders, as missiles reduce homes to rubble? We’re now told that’s disaster porn, but it’s porn for you if everything around you has levelled out, and your capacity for responsive stress has been drained by distraction.
In a perfect world, spared even micro-aggressions, human beings might combine in limitless configurations and communities, encounter no resistance. In that world, would we be numb at the nerve-endings and armoured in our skins, or borderless and fused in one continuous orgasm? Confined to steady state, in either instance. A pretty air by Dowland can make me tearful, and a poem by George Herbert take my breath away; they both are organised around stresses, and exercise stress that troubles my composure, the composure of a fallow subjectivity. Art offers no answer to horror, but if daily torment, including tedium, would fix us in stress positions, art gives us some limited space, some wiggle-room, to react with the active, shifting stresses of our artwork and of our close reading, our restless interpretation of what has evoked in us an aesthetic experience – because we should want to know by what means this came about, even, especially when, from a religious or political matrix we might despise and need to resist. We might need to resist our love, even. The subjectivity of aesthetic experience exists under pressure, awakes under pressure, and is projected back into the collective from which it arises. The aesthetic sense of immersion in a totality is not a claim to ownership, but owns being owned. How does this work? I think of the lines concluding the great Black Chicago poet Gwendolyn Brooks’s ‘Boy Breaking Glass’ (Brooks, incidentally, was ahead of her time in asserting herself as Black rather than African-American):
A sloppy amalgamation
A hymn, a snare, and an exceeding sun.
I can take this as a manifesto. This poet had earlier had been prosodically mannerly, even if sharp-tongued in calling out American racism and hypocrisy; whereas these lines were written mid-career, in 1968, at a point of personal and poetic crisis – who were her readers? whose approval did her poetry seek? The poem ending with such options, risks remaining ‘A sloppy amalgamation’ or just ‘a mistake’; it is raw, it celebrates vandalism as right and creative, yet cannot eschew elegance in its own conduct. It starts with a brazen declaration in iambic pentameter and then stumbles into a parenthesis, working with and off a deeply embedded rhythm. It starts with a voice of authority but fragments into multiple voices it takes some effort and doubt to assign (it infuriates me that online glosses refer to ‘the speaker’ of this poem – if there’s a speaker at all, there are at least five). ‘Boy Breaking Glass’ is a lyric poem, but doesn’t submit to the discipline of a lyric voice as ringmaster. Here’s the poem:
Boy Breaking Glass
To Marc Crawford
from whom the commission
Whose broken window is a cry of art
(success, that winks aware
as elegance, as a treasonable faith)
is raw: is sonic: is old-eyed première.
Our beautiful flaw and terrible ornament.
Our barbarous and metal little man.
“I shall create! If not a note, a hole.
If not an overture, a desecration.”
Full of pepper and light
and Salt and night and cargoes.
“Don’t go down the plank
if you see there’s no extension.
Each to his grief, each to
his loneliness and fidgety revenge.
Nobody knew where I was and now I am no longer there.”
The only sanity is a cup of tea.
The music is in minors.
Each one other
is having different weather.
“It was you, it was you who threw away my name!
And this is everything I have for me.”
Who has not Congress, lobster, love, luau,
the Regency Room, the Statue of Liberty,
runs. A sloppy amalgamation.
A hymn, a snare, and an exceeding sun.
Marc Crawford was a journalist who worked as foreign correspondent for the important Black Chicago magazine Jet. He covered the 1965 Watts riots in a Los Angeles black ghetto for Life; he implored Brooks, a prominent and respected poet, to write about the Black ghetto experience – 1965 not coincidentally marking the beginning of the Black Arts Movement in New York, although Chicago’s black culture had a wary relationship with New York’s; as a contemporary of Brooks instructed me, Chicago is a Southern city in its Black culture, and resists metropolitan claims to primacy. The Watts riot background is significant; Brooks’s poem is a compelling and stressful encounter between an impulse to celebrate an uprising, a sardonic reflection on cultural mannerliness, fear of where destruction might lead, and fear of damaging her own name (just think of how the liberal press reacted to any attempt to justify the violence after George Floyd’s death, almost sixty years later – and Brooks seems to celebrate rioting – no-one could have missed that at the time). The poem ends in deciding to go wherever it might run, just as it approves the boy who has ‘run into an action’, to use Herbert’s phrase, who has been barbarous, as a beast, and thereby made ‘a terrible ornament’; yes, down the plank, whether over a cliff, into a snare, or somewhere that exceeds the source of light – all of these. I could perform a close reading, and there’s much I love in detail, but what gives the poem its awkward power is its disjunctions, far removed from the paratactical drift of much present-day American poetry; these are jolts, the poem risks falling apart, and such jolts should force us awake. The poem is not only awkward, it is untoward in its movement, yet it arrives at a great assertion, a great yes that does not self-consciously wink aware as elegance, but arises from a sonic smash of voices – the sententious, the confessional, the mimsy, the instructive, the ecstatic, these and more in twenty-seven lines. This makes for poetry at the giddy limit.
Awkwardness is what this poem shares with George Herbert’s – and with Chicago’s jazz, its rhythmic clashes and angularity. Where Herbert’s awkwardness comes from the power of individual poetic expression struggling out of doctrinal formula, Brooks’s comes from the other direction, a sophisticated and subjectively-attuned lyric poet whose Pulitzer Prize-gilded name had been made as a reputable observer of Black life, now struggling to enter into a constituency of radical Black resistance. Both Herbert and Brooks are writing at the stressed hinge of their subjectivity’s relationship with a collective commitment, apparent in the stresses of their poems. It is owing to stress that both Herbert and Brooks are major poets rather than representative ones; stress motivates these poems. They are not motivated to win prizes; they are not comfortable; they are not squeamish about the lyric first person but place it under stress. They do not claim universality but they vouchsafe the present twenty-first century privileged white male secular speaker, an aesthetic experience which has given him to think and to feel more alive.
JOHN WILKINSON’s most recent books of poetry are My Reef My Manifest Array (Carcanet 2019) and Wood Circle (The Last Books 2021). His critical book Lyric in Its Times (Bloomsbury) was published in 2019, and a book of essays, The Following, by The Last Books in 2020.
- This essay is adapted from a talk given at the CANTO Poetry Festival, University of Chicago Center in New Delhi, March 15th, 2023. My thanks to the organisers, Avik Chanda and Lina Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas.
- Prynne was introducing his reading of Blue Slides at Rest (2004) in Guangzhou, a sequence of poems far less rebarbative than Aquatic Hocquets discussed below. (A very useful archive of Prynne readings is here.—Ed.)
- J. H. Prynne, Aquatic Hocquets. Cambridge: Face Press, December 2020.
- Northern Illinois University Effective Writing Practices Tutorial, ‘Semicolon’.
- Warwick A. Edwards, ‘The Performance of Ensemble Music in Elizabethan England’. Proceedings of the Royal Musical Association Vol. 97 (1970-1971), p. 117.
- I am grateful to Srikanth Reddy for pointing out that every word in Prynne’s poems might be stressed, when I delivered this subsequently-revised paper.
- This paragraph summarises in part an argument developed at more length in my article ‘Is This the Way to Amarillo? Reading Denise Riley with Derek Attridge’, English: Journal of the English Association, Volume 71, Issue 274, Autumn 2022, pp. 204–221.