Review - High and Lonesome: Three Books: Crozier, Prynne, James

Andrew Duncan

High and Lonesome: Three Books: John James, Striking the Pavilion of Zero, J.H. Prynne, High Pink on Chrome; Andrew Crozier, High Zero (Shearsman, 2021; edited Ian Brinton) 

The reason why these three books from 1975-6 and 1978 are being republished together is straightforward. Crozier had named a work High Zero, and when I interviewed him in 2003 he conceded that it referred to High Pink and Striking the Pavilion of Zero, and that he had used lines from those two works as keys to develop the High Zero poems from. Publication together allows one to read across and recover a part of the composition process. High Zero was published in 1978, later than the two poems it is a response to.

The founding moment is The English Intelligencer, in which all three of these poets took part. This was an attempt to recapitulate the development of Charles Olson, up to about 1950; he was seen as both the continuator of Pound and as having thought profoundly about geography. The project was that people would write poems, they would be circulated by post to the other participants, and they would respond, critically and rapidly, to the poem, also sending out poems themselves. The gap between writing and being read, between thinking and writing, between speculation and verbal form, would disappear, or reduce to the time which the Royal Mail took for themselves. About 40 people took part. The TEI project began in 1966, and the stream of landscape poetry has hardly decreased since then. (The project is described in Certain Prose of The English Intelligencer, from Mountain Press, 2012.) This suggests a lack of crisis – people like to talk about crises, because it makes what they are saying sound more urgent, but I suspect that this vein of creativity has been continuous since 1966, and finding inhibitions or interruptions is probably more than the evidence will allow.

The original tempo of the project was accelerated. English poetry was to catch up the lag between its own empiricism and modernity, between tweedy English ramblers and American whizz-kids. Decades of progress were made in a few years. But later, the atmosphere of the finished poems was one of serenity and balance.

Crozier said that the fact that there were 24 lines in each poem and 26 poems made it obvious that the 25th poem was composed of lines from each of the other 24, reflecting a grid structure. He expressed surprise that I hadn't noticed this. I don’t approach books in that way, but this was a key moment for exposing a procedure beneath the work. We can envisage publishing a book of procedures to subtend modern poetry; in any case the practices of Ira Lightman and Matthew Welton, for example, belong with this method of procedure even if a direct link seems unlikely. It is easy to see the use of arbitrary rules, to generate poems of unpredictable nature and direction, as coming from the realm of conceptual art (so New York around 1960). This is neat, but music was also having a burst of procedures and stochastic creation in the 1950s, and you can even claim that the serial idea, dating back to 1920, was already imposing restraints on composers which pushed the arbitrary into the centre ground and excluded romantic self-expression as the shape which the work had to conform to. Cage or Schoenberg? Boulez or Hans Haacke?

However, Crozier’s brother was a conceptual artist and the link with the visual does seem to be fairly direct.

Andrew told me that he had composed 24 first lines followed by 24 second lines, and so on. And then the second to last poem is 1 line from each poem; and the last poem is a rewrite of a John James poem. The “poem of 24 borrowed lines” runs in part;

        yes that's very good
        more beautiful
        and or less true
        than ever before.
        Say it again.
        You cannot say it again.
        Burn its bright sign on everything
        it sheds a
        pallor on the afternoon
        as colour disappears under the highlights
        in these prints.

This parallelism removes the time element from the poem; we expect language to flow in one direction, like speech, but High Zero is apparently a spatial object, with significant relations being parallel rather than serial. Also, it reflects two external bodies, the source poems Pavilion and High Pink, and that is another parallelism. The details are fiddly, but essentially the first poem of High Zero rewrites a poem from High Pink (keeping a pattern while substituting all the words) and the last, seven-line, poem in High Zero reflects the last six lines of Striking the Pavilion of Zero. I have typed in the James source and the Crozier mutation side by side:

May Day Greetings 1971

eating a plate                       Begin life again
from day to day                    from day to day bonheur
sharper than ever                 snorting and sharply rigorous

blow your nose                    at the end of a line
in authentic rigorousness      let it begin again
                                          it is a dream before birth

advance to bonheur             The advance of happiness

It is hard to sum up the tone of High Zero, but it is a combination of tender domestic moments and a kind of satire where the voices are not Crozier’s but those of characters being allowed to discredit themselves. The former says

Expensive flowers beside

your eyes in a mirror

smooth wet and dry in one light

of present accommodation

looking “as if it were a lamp of earthly flame”.

The unfading everlasting

and the lustre of your irises

hardly resemble one another

do they?

“Accommodation” is ambiguous; obviously the adjustment of the eye to ambient light levels (so that perception is not passive but the product of complex adaptations), also perhaps a reference to home, the basis of the poem (and also a kind of adaptation that shields the senses from overload).

Procedures may be a way of avoiding emotional patterns. Deprogramming, so to speak – emptying the empty page so that it does not fill with comforting habits of response. Is creativity a way of reproducing the ego, like an oak shedding thousands of self-similar acorns, or is it a way of acting in the genuinely unknown, so that you and language are not simply destroyed by it?

In High Zero, gases are a repeated theme (for example, the fluorescent bulbs, BAL, and air bubbles on the stalks of irises in a vase). I do not quite see why this is. To be sure, anything visible is part of the investigation. There may be a reference to the chemical senses (based on osmosis), which other animals rely on so much more than us. The effect of the air on the skin changes how we feel. Its heat and moisture are continuous with the heat and moisture inside us. It is where we are. This is an alternative to geology. The shapeless nature of fluids and liquids bears a special relationship to the definition of shapes and relative sizes by light, which the poem also seems to offer us; perhaps the transition from the unbounded to the bounded is the subject matter, with the implication that it is never completed.

All three of these poets were deeply involved in the TEI project. Did they write any Olsonian epics about myth and landscape? Not to my knowledge. The idea that the past has given rise to a social structure implies that the social order is the same from year to year – as if flattened underneath those thousands of years of sedentary life, as farmers. This did not answer the question of how can we change. Poems in The White Stones describe the frozen tundra – in “Aristeas”; the point is that a few thousand years ago Britain was also tundra. Our social order is therefore the product of thermal packing, the shift where the air and soil became warm enough for water to take liquid form and permit humus and agriculture. Our sedentary way of life follows from that – from geology, from the rate of heat flux. Our states of mind are sequels to this. Geology is social structure – sediment is sentiment. This is, it follows, poetry about the landscape.

What kind of object would have a high pink on chrome paint job? I am thinking of cars, pinball machines, Italian scooters, a juke box, a milk bar, a milkshake in its beaker, electric guitars. A Cadillac would surely be pink with chrome fittings, not with a chrome ground. The tonality is surely anti-poetic – you would expect poetry to be more like matt beige with some freehand nubbing. The whole sounds like something painted in enamel paint on aluminium. I don't think the colour gives us a theme for the book, because what I see is a divergent principle: even the stanzas are not unified and self-confirming, so the idea of the whole book having a single theme is out of place. The idea that everything which is anti-poetic can fit into your poem may be part of the charter. I am averse to reviewing ‘High Pink’. It is just too complex. The suggestion of producing an overall conclusion is too alarming. And after all people probably know what they are in for, by now. I can say that Brass is probably where it gets difficult and High Pink is part of the same era. Example:

In the lane the overdrive is shot sideways

and parched there, the theme of duty not

succulent as ever was. And midnight ploughing

on the high field, what grandeur

will save us now. Sinter these glancing

blows: the half pressure is pretty much

absolute. Up on the grass ley the impossible

is never required and again, more and more,

the calcium defect plays like a spring.

Sinter is a drip, usually bearing minerals: a continual drip drip drip of glancing blows would have a cumulative effect. A “grass ley” is a way of resting the soil and restoring nitrogen, so the ley has been ploughland and will be again. I looked up calcium deficiency and found that it is unusual in Britain and associated with acid soils, which are rarely cropped (and may have other deficiencies). A hose “plays” and we can suppose that other flows of water do too. The arable crop removes nitrogen from the soil and the grass, clover, or lucerne ley replenishes it. Soil chemistry is variable from year to year, the plant affects the soil around it and humans modify the soil too. So geology is not fixed.

This discussion would only be helpful if the whole 400 lines of the book repeated the same verbal or emotional patterns. As if. Further, the three poets have almost nothing in common artistically. One could say that “Prynne writes what is new and so virtually improvisation”, “Crozier writes using procedures and so produces the unforeseen, rejecting the legacy of past poetry”, “James writes about the passing moment and about behavioral improvisation as well as artistic”. This is just too ingenious. The poems on show here are just radically different. The fact that the poets were all Godfathers to Cambridge students around 1976 doesn't mean that they had any stylistic similarities. A review is not going to wrap up similarities that aren’t there.

The influence of spatial context could be observed through travel – James’ poem “Berlin Return” being an obvious example, as it describes a journey to Berlin and back. Elliptically. Much of the poetry in A Various Art, the 1987 anthology which sums up the English Intelligencer project and perhaps closes it, is about evanescent and personal scenes, the immediate present as the moment when we can be conscious. Late Prynne may continue this idea by using radical improvisation – the whole structure of the work comes out of the immediate present as if that were the only moment where authenticity was possible. As he described in that Paris Review interview, each new work is a radical departure from the previous one – he treats his own, personal, past as the source of corruption. Loyalty to Prynne has this built-in limitation – he is discarding, continually, his own work. Perhaps knowledge is unavailing because situations do not recur – we merely want them to recur. Stored knowledge freezes and accumulates what may only really be fugitive and unstable. If you go back to the end of the Ice Age, you are presupposing that there is a thing stable enough to have continued its effects, its metabolism, for all that time. You are assuming that there is a continuity between Beowulf and The White Stones because the geology has not shifted in that time. This is really a problem for a group which wants to criticise and change the social set-up. It would imply, not only that reforming English poetry is going to fail, but also that attempts to move on from capitalism (all three poets had Marxist associations) were going to fail. Where we are is the “climax vegetation” for a given state of ground temperature and sea levels. A riposte to this would be to focus on the immediate present, where self-consciousness apparently bestows freedom on us. And, on tiny details, the ones small enough for our hands and conscious minds to alter. We can suggest that Prynne’s preoccupation with improvisation and innovation starts here. The zone of unused technique is the location of virtue. It is necessary to use techniques which are quite different from your previous book (and unknown in their effect). It doesn’t matter what happened 8000 years ago.

The poets associated with the English Intelligencer moved away from the area of “myth landscape deep past”. This is visible at almost every point in A Various Art, the anthology. The question of the influence of space had come to rest on the skin. That is where you would expect to find it. The question was of being happy, of evanescent moods. Poems were written about days, in the hope that a series of such poems would reveal how things shifted from day to day –and why we felt good or bad. The advance of bonheur, in fact. Prynne’s TEI question, about how the last 8000 years had led us to our sociology, had become translated, to ask: if I record a hundred days, what change can I observe over that span, and how can I see us moving ahead to a better state of society? Thinking about landscape gave way to another question about phenomenology – the situation of the body as the platform on which the senses are carried. (When we say that, are we thinking primarily of Merleau-Ponty or of Heidegger? It makes a big difference. But this source is not especially easy to analyse.) The group moved away from an (unwritten) olsonian epic to an interest in the world of the senses and in the work of Adrian Stokes. R.F. Langley was one of the recipients of those TEI envelopes, and, decades later, he became one of the most significant poets in the country. In interview, he described his interest in a branch of psychology called Object Relations, produced by followers of Melanie Klein. He cited in particular a book, On Being Unable to Paint, by Marion Milner. Stokes was the non-psycho-analyst who adapted kleinian theory into the realm of art criticism. He published a book called Inside and Out, and this line assumed that projection of inner states was part of the process of perception, and that perception, including perception of landscape, could not be separated from the inner state of the perceiver. This was a more sophisticated interpretation of relations between humans and geography.

I am doubtful that John James benefited from this current of ideas. If you look at very early poems, published in Resuscitator, in Bristol, in 1965, they already have the qualities of his mature work. He had the idea of writing about the immediate present and did not need to learn this idea from an exchange of letters. He had one of the most successful poetic styles of the later 20th century and I don't feel any regret that he didn’t try to sound like someone else.

Always, it seems the burbling trumpets

wave you goodbye you wave me

goodbye slow dawns before the film

dispatches the rolling wheels of cars

encouraged by the harpsichords

Gently the rise is breasted

            you found the river the

John Burns in dry dock for repairs

an island with trees

no traffic wardens where you were “...Only

24 hrs... & the spider brushed against

your lovely adam's apple

as it descends over your sleeping

through Willis Conover & again

in 1968 I’m left alone in sneezes

(from ‘Talking in Bed’)

Conover was a jazz DJ on Voice of America (broadcast in Europe to undermine communism). If you watch the renovated “Jazz on a Summer’s day”, you see Willis Conover as the MC. Or so I am led to believe. James enjoyed his life and his geniality sustains everything.

James moved to Cambridge to be closer to the other people involved in the scene, and (as described to me by participants) at one time they were seeing each other every day and spending more or less their whole spare time together. So when he describes the immediate present, the room he was in, that actually involves Prynne and Crozier. Right away you can see that this face to face scene was quite different from TEI: the postal group of 40 people was connected to that gang of people in Cambridge (who were tight like a rock band, you could say) but was not the same list.

Why striking the pavilion of zero? I think it refers to the transience of the present moment. Striking – you can strike a stage set or tent by pulling on ropes. A verb connected to “stretch” – to strike is to cause something to fall down and lie on the ground. To strike a factory is to pull down its scenery. Reveal its illusions. You can also strike the colours, an act of surrender. Pavilion suggests summer, leisure, flimsy and brightly coloured fabric. To me it suggests the sky, also coloured and flimsy. The pavilion of zero is the visible scene of an afternoon, or even an hour. It is zero because it is absolutely transient, and this is also why we feel so unburdened, so free to improvise.

High zero is a resistant phrase. It looks like a pairing of opposites – a zero cannot be high, and one zero is like another. But maybe it could be a phrase – a high number of zeros makes a big number on a cheque. I thought of a plane looping the loop, drawing high zeros. Or a bit of sarcasm, “his poll ratings were in the high zeros”. Actually I am sure it is just a “trace of making”, a record of the two source texts which Crozier was referring to.

This volume records a group of English poets writing in a classical era, which the poets who followed might understand but were quite unable to equal or follow up. TEI was a development project, a large-scale effort which paid off in the long term. It assumed that you didn't know what you needed to know. The formula seems to have been a group of friends who were first the primary readers for each other and then, quite rapidly, the primary writers for each other. The gap between conversation and the written language collapsed, and this brought about modernisation at a great rate –in weeks, almost.

The English Intelligencer work involved sharing and making public. Poems went out when they were still drafts. Defences were dropped. But in retrospect, and from the outside, it came to be seen as a closed shop. The longer the distance which the project covered, in research and development, the more it left everyone else behind. It built a new world – of which the three books now reprinted are a sample. It is unfortunate that the TEI was never printed and so not on sale. It was a news-sheet and the idea was that every issue would be made obsolete, almost instantly, by the group itself evolving. In effect it was unpublished research.

It is reasonable to look at the reception of the book. Peter Riley, part of the TEI crew around 1967, reviewed it (in the Fortnightly Review) saying “With this, perhaps in fear of impending defeat and delegation to a “special interest” status rather than a central position in the British poetry world, went an increasing hardness, especially in offering difficulty or complexity as a “manly” challenge to the reader. The punch in the nose was offered repeatedly, to fellow-poets and to readers who got too close. The careers of all three poets after the 1970s were tangled up in ambiguous or hostile attitudes towards the reader, a self-obscuring fog through which is discernible some of the finest British poetry to be written through a long period of establishment consolidation.” He doesn't say which people anybody wanted to punch in the nose, beyond Riley P. Or whether other people did, or do, want to punch Riley in the nose. Surely the story here is that Riley has a set of verbal strategies, a trick of staging of the self, a sort of fume or aura, that entice people into seeing red. He just brings it out in people. This is my intuitive feeling. But this leaves the question: is Prynne hostile to the reader? That would explain why he went off in a direction of radical originality, why he was not accepted by the mainstream magazines, and why we have difficulty explaining what his message is. So it delivers us a whole explanatory package – but is it convincing? Peter is like someone saying “this is out of tune” when it’s not. I hear something musical but not Pop. “Sinter these glancing/ blows: the half pressure is pretty much/ absolute.” Defining that basic sound is more difficult than he thinks. With Prynne, I propose that we discard the phrase about “hostility to the reader” and work on something like “this poet did not want to be a soothing but rather mindless voice coming out of the radio” or “the sound of an anti-capitalist world-view is going to be uncomfortable to people whose experience so far was within a safe capitalist imaginative environment” or “real acuity requires you to be scornful of wrong ideas and imprecise ideas, on the way to new landscapes of knowledge”. Or even “in order to get out of Fifties culture you had to be hostile to the shared commonplaces of that culture”. In poetry, the 1950s were still happening in the 1980s – as Peter points out, actually. I am not offering a certainty, but I think this area deserves more thought.

I don’t think James or Crozier are difficult, or scornful, so the generalisation falls down prima facie for those two poets.

It may seem perverse to review work from 1975 in a magazine in 2022. The poems may seem like “the deep past” themselves. But, there is an unpaid debt nobody produced an intelligent review of these books as they came out. And, it seems that we are still in the Age of Prynne.


 Copyright © Andrew Duncan, 2022