A Poet’s Right.

A good point, from Eduard Fraenkel, Aeschylus, Agamemnon, Vol. II, p. 90, n. 1 (on line 149 ἐχενῇδας):

In all periods poets have the right to restore to a word its ‘original’ meaning, which in daily usage it has entirely or almost entirely lost. Horace, Odes 1.36.20 lascivis hederis ambitiosior provides a good example. The peculiar use in Horace, Odes 4.4.65 of evenit, to which several critics have objected, belongs to the same category; Baiter ad loc. rightly says ‘Horatius saepius ad propriam vocabulorum vim redire ausus est’.

Tradition-minded poets still do this, and it’s a good thing to my mind, keeping the thread of the language unbroken — though of course poetry in the spoken language of its day is also a good thing. (Via Laudator Temporis Acti.)


  1. David Marjanović says

    Horace, Odes 1.36.20 lascivis hederis ambitiosior provides a good example.

    I don’t understand it, though. What does it mean?

    (I do understand “Horace rather often dared to return to the proper force of words”.)

  2. From here: “more tightly than the wandering ivy.”

    From here: “more luxuriant than the wanton ivy.”

    Note on ambitiosior: “etymologically, clinging and climbing. Cf. Catull. 61. 33, 106; Epode 15. 5. Cf. 4. 4. 65. n.”

  3. Amb-i-tiosus is literally “going around”, but it’s almost never used with the etymological meaning; most often ambitio refers to political canvasing, or more generally to currying favor or flattering.

    ἐχενῇδας is literally “ship-detaining” (referring in this case to the winds that kept the Greek from sailing at Aulis), but also meant remora — I don’t have Fraenkel’s commentary, but I’m guessing that’s his point?

  4. David Marjanović says
  5. Christopher Culver says

    An example of taking this to extremes is J.H. Prynne, whose work since the 1960s has exploited English words’ etymologies back to Proto-Germanic or Proto-Indo-European just as much as their plain meaning – or their plain meaning plus various now-specialist meanings. Prynne’s poetry would probably appeal to many readers here of a historical-linguistics bent. Surprised that he has never been mentioned on this blog, actually.

  6. I guess I haven’t run across him, but he certainly sounds interesting.

  7. Wow, this Poetry Foundation essay makes him sound right up my alley:

    To the literary establishment, Prynne’s poetry seemed willfully hermetic, bound by an aesthetic formalism derived from the obscure reveries of Charles Olson and the American projectivists. On the other hand, for those who were attempting to establish in England, for the first time since the modernists, a coherent and enduring practice of poetry, Prynne’s writing was and remains exemplary in its procedures and address. But the publication of Poems (1982) marked the beginning of a wider recognition of the texts. Essentially the collected works, Poems has gone through three editions, the latest in 2015. […]

    Prynne’s reputation during the 1960s and earlier part of the 1970s was high among independent poets in Britain, and the publication of his work from 1968 onward did nothing to diminish his standing. The accomplishment of its language, the beauty of its music, and the seemingly hermetic quality of its significances, all combined to give an almost mythic quality of luminous opacity to the writing. Prynne’s readership, though small, constituted most of the poets in England who were to produce, during this period (and after), experimental work of significance and interest. There can be no doubt that Prynne’s example liberated English poets into a genuinely new conception of poetry, the structure of his language itself giving courage to those who would break with the empiricist conventions of the mainstream, whether the pinched observations of Larkin or the violent music of Hughes. […]

    Prynne locates, as an experience of daily life, the truth, as he sees it, of what is perhaps the major stream of Anglo-American modernism, that which began with the imagist insistence on the primacy of the image as what participates in what it represents. This possibility of a poetry of the real, of the ground, reinforced as it was for Prynne by his reading of Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger, found exemplary manifestation in the poetry of William Carlos Williams and Olson (hitherto at best neglected, at worst scorned, in an England that took Auden’s poetry to be the measure of major status). Prynne’s poetic procedures enabled his work to turn back upon the economic, political, and social realities of English life in a way that was without precedent. Prynne elaborated one of the basic techniques of modernist poetry to create an effect of the real. […]

    Prynne’s poetry, by misrecognizing a semiotic effect for truth, repeats and endorses an ideology of return to a lost wholeness, an Edenic origin, which underlies a considerable part of the modernism associated with Pound, Williams, and Olson. In the Americans, this sense of wholeness issues forth in myths either of the local, as with Williams, or of the prelapsarian, as with Olson and Pound. Prynne, though more circumspect in this connection, also elaborates myths at the level of structure, at the same time as he attempts to locate this structure more precisely within the givenness of individual experience.

    In Day Light Songs (1968) Prynne worked through formal problems of syntax and subject position that his poetic procedures rendered inescapable, problems fundamentally of self and other and their articulation in a spatial field. The poems are small, dismembered in their line units, and, in their concern with breath, with song, may be related to the Elizabethans, such as Thomas Campion, and to Louis Zukofsky, who had taken up Pound’s concern with the romance tradition of song and related it to an ontology of language. Prynne aligned himself with this work and carried further than his predecessors a recognition of language as the dwelling place of being.

    The only one of my favorite English-language poets of the last century who goes unmentioned is Bunting! I’ll have to get one of his books.

  8. An enticing Graun piece by David Wheatley:

    JH Prynne is the ultimate poet of anti-pathos. Everything about him spells distance and difficulty. He does not give poetry readings; he does not appear in anthologies and is never nominated for prizes; his books have Captain Beefheart-like titles such as Her Weasels Wild Returning and Streak~~~Willing~~~Entourage~~~Artesian; he attracts acolytes and execrators, rather than run-of-the-mill readers, and, most important, no one knows what any of it means. Such are the familiar assumptions where this poet is concerned. Passions run deep: when The Oxford English Literary History had the temerity to suggest that Prynne was more deserving of notice than Larkin, the brouhaha ended up on the Today programme. […]

    The truth, however, is that early Prynne is quarried from all too real and resistant material: frequent preoccupations include capitalism and commodification, scientific method and research, cultural archaeology, glaciation and the problem of waste (a recent pamphlet is titled Refuse Collection). The syntax of a Prynne poem will tend to be slippery, but one coping strategy is to imagine the humble comma-splice promoted to organising principle, yoking the poem’s heterogeneous material together. “Frost and Snow, Falling” begins: “That is, a quality of man and his becoming, / beautiful, or the decoration of some light and /fixed decision, no less fluent than the river / which guards its name”. It begins in medias res, like an overheard conversation, and uses parataxis to shuttle between the human and the natural worlds. This poem, too, ends with a geological vision, of “the whole pleistocene exchange” melting like snow, “driven into the ground”.

    Prynne has published poetry in classical Chinese, one of which features here, but even in English he is never less than mandarin. Later collections such as Red D Gypsum and Blue Slides at Rest are about as forbidding as modern poetry gets. This work is reminiscent of the Beckett of “Lessness” or “Imagination Dead Imagine”, and readers might be more tolerant of it were there a Prynne equivalent of Waiting for Godot to soften the effect. As with Beckett, our responses to these poems lay bare the unfinished legacy of modernism. With cinema or painting, audiences have long grown accustomed to its revolutionary techniques, while Prynne’s reception stays mired in discussions of accessibility and elitism rather an engagement with the actual work. […]

    There is something impersonal, inhuman even, about Prynne, but the challenge for the reader is to move beyond the obligatory prefixing of the poet’s name with the word “rebarbative” and find a space for pleasure. It can be done: no other poet gives us “the acrid wavering of language, so full / of convenient turns of extinction” with the same steely beauty and memorability.

    Recent scholarship on Prynne by Ryan Dobran and Piers Pennington and a forthcoming volume of his letters to Charles Olson all promise to continue the task of response and interpretation this poet so badly requires. Poems is a vast slab of a thing, but its luminous and unsettling poems richly repay the attention they demand.

    “Prynne has published poetry in classical Chinese”!

  9. J.H. Prynne, “Rich in Vitamin C,” followed by a commentary by John Kinsella.

  10. David Marjanović says

    “Prynne has published poetry in classical Chinese”!

    Poeta doctus.

  11. his books have Captain Beefheart-like titles such as Her Weasels Wild Returning

    Minor scholastic point, but I would say that is more Zappaesque than Beefheartian

  12. Point taken, but I can see the Captain using it if his fancy so moved him.

  13. Might have made a nice Zapheart collaboration, actually.

  14. J.W. Brewer says

    The internet now has sites that allow you to search for songs with lyrics include “weasel(s),” although I didn’t find at a quick glance any by the Cap’n. Weird Al Yankovic and Tom Waits and lots of rap dudes, plus Zappa. A decade after the “Ripped My Flesh” era, he rhymed “weasels n lies” with “Roumanian thighs,” in a song some thought in poor taste, if you can imagine such a thing.

    Robyn Hitchcock (who has been alleged to be Beefheartian at times) apparently once wrote a song titled “Weasel Turned His Back (on New York City).” Never officially recorded/released and I can’t immediately find either the lyrics or a bootleg recording out there on the internet, although that doesn’t mean they aren’t Out There somewhere.

  15. I wrote on some pages on Prynne among other etymologically minded contemporary poets, in /The Life of Words: Etymology and Modern Poetry/ (https://global.oup.com/academic/product/the-life-of-words-9780198812470). Prynne has an unusually sophisticated sense of etymology among his peers (which doesn’t always translate well into the poetry and lit. crit., or sez me anyway, though there are some super interesting experiments there).

  16. In the letters to Olson that Prynne mentions the just-published Pokorny sitting “on my shelf like a bomb, ready to explode at a touch with the most intricately powerful forces caged up inside, a storehouse of vectors.”

    oh and here’s a longish lecture of his on “Mental Ears and Poetic Work”, to make of what you will: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rjM8SruqTdo

  17. Joyce, in Stephen Hero, has Stephen “read Skeat’s Etymological Dictionary by the hour”, and that’s generally taken to be true of Joyce himself: there’s lots written about how Stephen’s meditations on words such as “ivory” in Portrait or “cancer” in Ulysses are indebted to Skeat.

  18. an almost mythic quality of luminous opacity to the writing

    Sounds like Dylan Thomas, not that I have read a word of Prynne or very much Thomas either. But, y’know, I have an imagination, and it imagines me something like this:

    now it comes back to me
    what it can possibly be
    where it can possibly come from
    all is silent here and the walls thick
    I manage, without feeling an ear on me
    or a head, or a body, or a soul
    how I manage to do what, how I manage
    it’s not clear, dear dear, you say it’s not clear
    something is wanting to make it clear
    I’ll seek what is wanting to make everything clear
    I’m always seeking something
    it’s tiring in the end and it’s only the beginning
    how I manage under such conditions
    to do what I’m doing, what am I doing
    I must find out what I’m doing
    tell me what you’re doing
    I’ll ask you how it’s possible
    I hear, you say I hear, and that I seek
    it’s a lie, I seek nothing, nothing any more

    Or perhaps this:

    You notice it in that rereway
    because the male entail
    partially eclipses the feme covert.
    You heard the story about Helius Croesus
    that white and gold elephant
    in our zoo park? You astonish me by it.
    Is it not that we are commanding
    from fullback, woman permitting,
    a profusely fine birds-eye view
    from behind this park? His park has been much
    the admiration of all the stranger ones,
    greekish and romanos, who arrive here.
    The straight road down the centre bisects the park
    the largest of its kind in the world.

    But, alas! Modernism is dead, killed by Philip “Sparowe” Larkin.

  19. I was given Prynne’s The White Stones for Christmas and I’m loving it — many thanks to Christopher Culver for the heads-up!

  20. Christopher Culver says

    Glad you’re liking The White Stones. Don’t draw too firm conclusions on Prynne’s poetry from it, though. With each new collection of his career from that point on, he reinvented himself (while always remaining modernist and intractable). I personally feel that his work hit its stride just after The White Stones, when he shook off the imitation of Charles Olson and the lecturing tone that occasional pops up in those poems. If you don’t want to get the complete 2015 Poems, which is a daunting doorstop of a book, the recent Bloodaxe Books annotated edition (ISBN 9781780371269) of his 1983 poem The Oval Window is a convenient place to go next.

  21. Thanks!

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