Birkbeck, University of London PORES - A Journal of Poetics Research

No Way Out

- Catherine Martin


Thinking back to the Poetry and Public Language Conference, one or two ideas remain especially in the mind.  The first is the memorable end to Lyn Hejinian’s talk, ‘The Sad Note in a Poetics of Consciousness’. Here she tells us:

Poetry today has as one of its tasks that of clearing public life of images and giving us art instead. ‘Could we have those trees cleared out of the way?’ 1

The second is the provocative conclusion to Peter Middleton’s lecture.  Peter identified two strategies in contemporary poetry for dealing with scepticism about public language.  The first, exemplified by poets such as John Ashbery, Allen Fisher and Susan Howe, involves ‘exposing its corruptions by alienating the language’ in the very act of ‘placing it in a poem’; the second, ‘purging such discourses altogether from the zone of the poem’. 2 His lecture left us with two difficult questions attendant on the first technique: one, ‘Is irony through exposure to juxtaposed contradicting language still an effective aesthetic when measured as critique?’, and secondly, ‘What sort of struggle for authority occurs in the space of the poem when different discourses meet?’ 3

I want briefly to approach these troubling questions with reference to a recent poem by J.H. Prynne where ideas of blocked visuality – the poem refuting its easy consumption as imagery – and of different discourses meeting are particularly charged.

The poem, ‘Refuse collection’, with its equivocal, unpronounceable title, is perhaps untypical for a writer whose poetry is famed for its esoteric obscurity.  For, as Prynne has himself said, the poem is tied to the pathos of a particular historical incident by the date that concludes it – ‘08.05.2004’ – the day when the Abu Ghraib prison scandal came to light.  If you wanted to give the poem a thematic gloss, one is readily available in its concern with both ‘our’ shared culpability for these abuses and the event’s status as media spectacle to be consumed through the language of ‘sex romp’ tabloid sensationalism and the ‘webbing taint’ of new media violations; the unregulated, rapid transfer of images via the internet and mobile phones.  Even as Prynne’s poetic strategies work to deflect resolution or exegesis, that date, once decoded, exercises a magnetic pull over the disparate materials that compose the poem.

However, if different discourses and types of public language do meet here in minute shifts and slippages from the lexis of advertising to commerce, domestic life, literature and torture, is it irony that drives the compressed movements in single lines from ‘gag reflex’ to ‘fabric whitener’, or ‘execution’ to ‘endorsement policy’?  The poem plays frequently on our ear’s expectation of a familiar phrase, evoking and then swerving away from the snippets of public language which we have through repeated exposure internalized.  These phrases that infiltrate collective memory without our conscious consent are ironically confounded here. For instance, when we light with recognition on the policy maxim ‘oil-for-food’, the poem leads us into darker variations of this exploitative exchange, ‘food for sex’, ‘cash for sex for punishment’.  If this is a poem about shared culpability, repeating with savage insistence its refrains, ‘they is we do it’ and ‘you do know this’, then it also foregrounds the way ‘we’ are interpellated into collective constituencies by public language.

There is a palpable irony too in the juxtaposition of a recognisably real patriotic phrase like ‘land of the free’ with the satirical rhetoric of the made-up military campaign, ‘operation Sharp Knife’.  Yet at a larger level irony seems to work not against public language in favour of the privileged space of poetry but instead to suggest the absolute saturation of public language, its co-option of everything around it.  Is this to say that there is no language left for poetry?  Certainly, critique in the poem seems unable to find articulation in anything other than the distorting terminology of commerce and consumption: ‘own-brand words rise up / in some necks to stifle belief, bite them down’, the poem instructs, as if dissent or originality cannot be conceived of as anything other than a cheap version of what is ideologically patented and partisan.

Poetry seems to offer no way out.  Even in the final lines, when the full conviction of syntactical clarity briefly asserts itself to overwrite the atomized and arid language of ‘risk profile’ and ‘display promotion’ that precedes it, Prynne will not permit poetry to hold itself up as an uncompromised moral authority.  The power of his accusation:

They do our will, to deny what they do is ours,
The wanton ambit of self possession

is tempered by the last line’s echo of Robert Frost’s poem, ‘The Gift Outright’ – ‘Our land ours, / raw and forever’ – and the history of violence bound up in its apparent endorsement of manifest destiny.

Is this where we are now, then, in a claustrophobic impasse with public language? Maybe, like Peter Middleton’s essay, the poem suggests that public language is where poetry should be.  The affect of Prynne’s poem resides not in any claim to a language outside what is public but rather in its movement through it.  Traditional poetic devices play a significant role in contaminating the discrete discourses that the poem draws upon and wants to show as interdependent, with rhyme acting as an agent of corruption in the pairings, ‘capital genital’, ‘molest modest’ and ‘incarnadine incarcerate’.  The unwilled connections that poetry permits at the level of sound here enforce the shared responsibility that ‘we’ as readers cannot escape.

More than this, the poem’s relentless momentum from one incongruous thing, tone, register or lexis to another, blocks off both what it calls ‘feel good recoil’ and ‘full-house horror story’.  The fragile bodies caught up in military processes are glimpsed with pathos, ‘a heap on the ground’, ‘huddled up naked’, but never made available for prurient consumption or righteous horror.  The moral agency and energy of the poem lies then not in its clearing public life of images, but in keeping them scarcely visible but always in view, and in its refusal to let the struggle for authority in the poem be resolved by irony alone.



1 Lyn Hejinian, ‘The Sad Note in a Poetics of Consciousness’, Poetry and Public Language ed. Tony Lopez and Anthony Caleshu (Exeter: Shearsman Books, 2007), p.120.

2 Peter Middleton, ‘Cluster Poems’, Poetry and Public Language ed. Lopez and Caleshu, p.176.

3 Middleton, ‘Cluster Poems’, p.177.


Catherine Martin

Printed from:
Date printed: 01/03/2021