Literary Criticism

J.H. Prynne and Cybernetics in “Nibble Song”

Prynne achieves enviable compression of language by a heightened use of linguistic and cultural references that are strategically employed to treat themes of modern life. As his is a poetry of resistance to the new world order, it challenges the hegemony of the hardened shells of political and social structures that attempt to dominate human sentience.

  The poetry of J.H. Prynne has a general reputation among mainstream readers for being deliberately opaque and impenetrable, confounding at best, and ultimately unworthy of the effort required to ascertain whether anything of substance lies beneath the obdurate mantle of his language. Nonetheless, as Robert Potts observed:

Yet, the fact remains that he does have a sizeable readership; when Poems (encompassing almost all his work between 1968 and 1997) was published by Fremantle/Bloodaxe in the late 1990s, he was among the best sellers of living literary poets, with Tom Paulin, Don Paterson, Les Murray, Wole Soyinka and Carol Ann Duffy. Thousands of copies were sold. Still stranger is Prynne’s international reputation. The collected poems were, incongruously, nominated for a New Yorker book prize. In China, a translation of “Pearls That Were” (only 500 copies of which were produced in England) has sold more than 50,000 copies.

Indeed, despite the difficulty of his poetry, considerable expert critical analysis has been devoted to Prynne’s work. My main goal in this essay is to illustrate how a dedicated reader can form a meaningful and sensitive response to Prynne’s poetry given the kind of effort it takes to become familiar with the work of any poet of substance.

  First, a caveat: the aesthetic foundations and dominant themes of Prynne’s work cannot be examined by way of a single poem (let alone a small one at that), as in, perhaps, the way a discussion of a principal work by Shelley or Wordsworth might expose the basic tenets of romanticism and the particular viewpoint of the author. One needs to thoroughly read a given work and become acquainted with the problem (e.g., whether based in philosophical, social-political or other contexts) which Prynne’s linguistic systems are meant to address. In a recent interview with The Paris Review (No. 218, Fall 2016) Prynne said that he finds no value in repeating himself and so adopts radically different approaches to his work from book to book. He has essentially disowned his first book, Force of Circumstance and Other Poems (1962), and each successive book since The White Stones (1969) represents a significant departure from its predecessor.

  The Poetry Foundation’s website provides a valuable introduction to Prynne’s work. Also useful are the following treatises: Nearly Too Much: The Poetry of J.H. Prynne by N.H. Reeve & Richard Kerridge and The Levity of Design: Man and Modernity in the Poetry of J.H. Prynne by Walter Pietrzak. There are many other books and articles on Prynne, as well as selected essays by Keston Sutherland, John Wilkinson, Simon Jarvis, Steve Clark and others that are available on the internet. In his 2005 review of Poems, Wilkinson stated that all critical writing on Prynne must now start with Kevin Nolan’s 27,000 word essay, “Capital Calves: Undertaking An Overview.”

  I have not read a critical essay that elucidates Prynne’s “Nibble Song” (Poems, 186), and therefore venture to comment as a means of introducing a method of analysis. Here is the poem in full:

NIBBLE SONG by J.H. Prynne

The glass sweats out and
falls by its weight and by
the mountain path, it
is pasture for the moment.
No gain by night in
the passage of rowling
sound: the crystal tube
ploughs up thoughtful
acid lines, is cold.
Up the sloping path to
the kiosk, icy newsprint.
White butterflies in
the sun, dip too close to the
table and the
glint snaps them, di-
morphic marble. We sit
round by the lower
fields, in the sun
light and look out slowly.

  A reader approaches this kind of poetry by unlearning prescriptive forms of analysis and allowing for the harmony and dissonance of the language simultaneously. As Potts notes:

How then might one read Prynne’s work? It appears so alien to our habits of reading, so unlike the lyric poetry we are more habituated to; it is only on quite prolonged exposure that its coherent arrangement – sonically, prosodically, thematically and metonymically – becomes evident: though this is, admittedly, a profound and giddying experience. Even then, one is at a loss as to how to naturalise this experience, to make of it something as familiar as “a meaning”. It feels more like a painting or a piece of music, or perhaps a sculpture; something to experience both intellectually and sensually.[1]

  Prynne achieves enviable compression of language by a heightened use of linguistic and cultural references that are strategically employed to treat themes of modern life. As his is a poetry of resistance to the new world order, it challenges the hegemony of the hardened shells of political and social structures that attempt to dominate human sentience. His poetry does this in an entirely unique way, as Drew Milne states:

Language is understood as a condition of possibility rather than a site of communicative action. The decisive issue is whether the recognition of expressive contradictions can mediate its inclusion within determinate structures of communication and not remain trapped within the fundamental presuppositions of language which encode experience.[2]

  Prynne avoids the conditioned reflex of “fundamental presuppositions of language which encode experience” in order to overcome the necessarily incomplete summary of rational thought by which the mind ordinarily uses semiotics to synthesize human experience. While the nexus with the reader is always through language, usage is employed in a highly original manner. Prynne himself described his methodology in broad terms: “It has mostly been my own aspiration, for example, to establish relations not personally with the reader, but with the world and its layers of shifted but recognizable usage; and thereby with the reader’s own position within this world.”[3]

  Prynne freely ranges into other disciplines, like physics, chemistry and computer science, as he believes the poet has a duty to be conversant with the world in which we live. Not the world of the four humours in which poets from Shakespeare to Shelley dwelled, but the world of black holes, quasars, and microchips, the one Bill Gates reshaped in his own image and in which the Higgs-Boson’s “God particle” is being unearthed. [I realize these latter references post-date the composition of “Nibble Song,” but I have no doubt that the very living Prynne would approve.]  As Simon Jarvis states, “working with the poems will not be only a question of reading them against the competence which has been accumulated in advance; readers are asked to become researchers, to take purchase on the whole body of language and the history and polity sedimented within it. . . .” [3a]

  It is from these perspectives that one approaches “Nibble Song,” which appeared in the 1982 edition of Poems (under the subdivision, 10 Uncollected Poems), although its position in that volume indicates its date of composition may have been as much as 5 – 10 years earlier.  This would have put the poem’s composition squarely within the era of modern advancements in the development of the supercomputer, the mini- and personal computers, commercial interacive kiosks and standalone video games like “Pong,” as well as incorporated components like the RAM chip, the microprocessor, and floppy disks. The 1970’s also saw the proliferation of the UNIX operating system and the development of more specialized programming languages like LOGO, PASCAL, C, PROLOG and SQL, along with the creation of Ethernet which permitted a way of linking computers to each other. At the end of this decade came the introduction of the 16-bit Intel 8086 microprocessor, the foundational “instruction set architecture” for the next three decades of personal computing. If this were not breathtaking enough, the compact disc was also invented.

  The reason I venture into the history of modern computing is because of the specific language Prynne uses within the poem. First, there is the title, “Nibble Song.” As used in connection with computer and digital technology, “nibble” refers to an aggregation of bits on a 4-bit boundary. Nibble carries on the “edible data” metaphor (and pun) that the geeks used when coining “bit,” “byte” and “crumb” (computer jargon for two bits). There are also technological references in the word “kiosk,” which includes the computer and the screen (now often associated with the terminals one uses to obtain a boarding pass at the airport), and the word “gain,” a unit of measurement of input to output.[4]

 Following from what I discern as a technological theme, the “crystal tube,” suggests, in part, the semiconductor (derived from silicon crystals) that reinforces these technological references. It could also refer to a video screen, another kind of crystal ball, which would embrace a necromantic gesture. There are psychological and spiritual aspects also. In Jungian dream symbolism, “the nuclear center, the Self, also appears as a crystal. The mathematically precise arrangement of a cystral evokes in us the intuitive feeling that even in so-called ‘dead’ matter, there is a spiritual ordering principle at work. Thus, the crystal often symbolically stands for the union of extreme opposites — of matter and spirit.”[5] Prynne’s characterization of its overall effect as “cold” imputes a lack of empathy and emphasizes its virtuality or its inorganic nature, playing on the kryos and krystallos derivations, as does “icy newsprint,” a novel and sparkling image for visualizing the typeface on a computer screen. The “acid lines” being ploughed up, a pastoral metaphor, suggests the corrosive effect of the medium itself, not just specific content.

  Beyond this preliminary analysis of the language of “Nibble Song” lies the contextual landscape of the poem, wherein Prynne appears to be addressing the effect of technology and science on human discourse. The poem is constituted by a series of vignettes:

(1)  “The glass” (all nouns in the poem are definite and particularized by the article “the”),  which might be a window or computer screen, falls away “by its own weight,” and we are presented “for a moment” with a pastoral scene,  “the mountain path” and “the pasture.”  The cause of this change in vision is a “sweating out,” suggesting a condition like that which befalls metal when it is “fatigued” by pressure.

(2)  There is “the passage of rowling sound,” but “no gain by night.” The scene appears to be in stasis.

(3)  Rather than a plough (UK spelling) readying the soil for planting, there is “the crystal tube” which ploughs up metaphysical “thoughtful acid lines.” The tube “is cold,” as well as may be the entire feeling at hand.

(4)  Venturing up “the sloping path to / the kiosk,” we encounter “icy newsprint.”

(5) There are “white butterflies in the sun,” but when they “dip too close to the / table, the glint snaps them” into (it seems) “di- / morphic marble.”

(6)  The poem concludes with a group scene: “We” (the first indication that one or more persons are also present) “sit round” by “lower fields,” in “sunlight” and “look out slowly.”

Before it fell away, the glass (which embraces its subsidiary agents, “the crystal tube” and “the kiosk”) represented the technological medium that shaped our perspective on the world. After the glass collapses, we are returned to a pastoral, even prelapsarian state of innocence, in which we experience dramatic changes in our sensibility and hence perception. It is, thus, the medium to which we must first attend, beginning with Marshall McLuhan’s 1964 iconic pronouncement, “the medium is the message.”

  McLuhan’s much quoted (and perhaps misunderstood) phrase, the text of which came from his seminal work, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, fittingly dovetails with the spirit of “Nibble Song”. McLuhan explained:

In a culture like ours, long accustomed to splitting and dividing all things as a means of control, it is sometimes a bit of a shock to be reminded that, in operational and practical fact, the medium is the message. This is merely to say that the personal and social consequences of any medium – that is, of any extension of ourselves – result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology. Thus, with automation, for example, the new patterns of human association tend to eliminate jobs it is true. That is the negative result. Positively, automation creates roles for people, which is to say depth of involvement in their work and human association that our preceding mechanical technology had destroyed. Many people would be disposed to say that it was not the machine, but what one did with the machine, that was its meaning or message. In terms of the ways in which the machine altered our relations to one another and to ourselves, it mattered not in the least whether it turned out cornflakes or Cadillacs. The restructuring of human work and association was shaped by the technique of fragmentation that is the essence of machine technology. The essence of automation technology is the opposite. It is integral and decentralist in depth, just as the machine was fragmentary, centralist, and superficial in its patterning of human relationships.[6]

  McLuhan’s general thesis about these developments appears optimistic, yet he is sensitive to the great changes being wrought:

. . . the “content” of any medium is always another medium. The content of writing is speech, just as the written word is the content of print, and print is the content of the telegraph. If it is asked, “What is the content of speech?,” it is necessary to say, “It is an actual process of thought, which is in itself nonverbal.” An abstract painting represents direct manifestation of creative thought processes as they might appear in computer designs. What we are considering here, however, are the psychic and social consequences of the designs or patterns as they amplify or accelerate existing processes. For the “message” of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs. The railway did not introduce movement or transportation or wheel or road into human society, but it accelerated and enlarged the scale of previous human functions, creating totally new kinds of cities and new kinds of work and leisure. This happened whether the railway functioned in a tropical or a northern environment, and is quite independent of the freight or content of the railway medium. The airplane, on the other hand, by accelerating the rate of transportation, tends to dissolve the railway form of city, politics, and association, quite independently of what the airplane is used for.[7]

In one sense, at least, “Nibble Song” addresses these “psychic and social consequences” as unheeded transformations of the world and human life by virtue of the kind of mediums we use to interact with it and each other.

  McLuhan’s pronouncement did not arise in a vacuum, but expanded on the scientific theories of Norbert Wiener, the father of “cybernetics.” In The Human Use of Human Beings (1950), Wiener stated:

 It is the thesis of this book that society can only be understood through a study of the messages and the communication facilities which belong to it; and that in the future development of these messages and communication facilities, messages between man and machines, between machines and man, and between machine and machine, are destined to play an ever-increasing part.[8]

Wiener was the first scientist to explore the dynamic interplay between humans and technology at the machine level of language and, particularly, the threat represented by the machines (or “automatons”) which, if not properly supervised, might escape human control. This is not just science fiction. Modern day corporatization is a product of the machine’s influence on all facets of our lives. Wiener foresaw a risk to non-utilitarian intellectual human values whose purpose could only function and be apprehended abstractly.

  The writings of Wiener and McLuhan provide an instructive backdrop and, as discussed below, these blend with the views of other philosophers who have spoken on the theme of modernism and its effects. The elaboration of this theme is necessary, perhaps, because Prynne constructs his poems from highly suggestive language without relying on the explicit glossing of sources that T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound made one of the hallmarks of modern poetry. Hence, Prynne’s thematic content is not limited to specific viewpoints expressed by given sources. This is reflected in the process of reading Prynne’s work, as Peter Middleton described it in Distant Reading: Performance, Readership, and Consumption in Contemporary Poetry:

The interpretation of a poem of Prynne is a set of readings that are also complex actions, likely to include skimming, re-reading closely, reading just a few lines and remembering images and moods as well as lines or phrases, consequent discussion with others, ideas and expectations influenced by those readings as well as by mis-readings, partial attention, projection and the distortion of intense emotion.[9]

While semiotic choices inject multiple ambiguities into the discourse, the broadly referential aspect of the poetry, by embracing a wide background of intellectual thought, actually gives his poems substance and discernible focus.

  We see this in the poem’s opening sentence that introduces the rupture of the glass, the lens and primary sensory organ through which we usually view the world: what appeared to be a path by a mountain is “for the moment” a pasture, or a return to the presumed innocence of nature in the raw. Once the lens is removed we acquire a pre-industrialized pastoral perspective. [As McLuhan tells us, “the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium.”] The final sentence envisions us (n.b., Pyrnne’s use of “we”) in a passive sense, gazing around “slowly,” in contrast to the speed of technology, and more or less in awe of the changes around us. Prynne imbues “we” with the question of psychic-social “place” qua “where we are” and “who we are”.

  On one level the dislocation harkens to the neo-romantic sentiment characterized by György Lukács as “estrangement from nature,” or “the historical philosophical objectivation of man’s alienation from his own constructs,” which Nolan says Prynne took issue with in his British Academy lecture of 1988, “English Poetry and Emphatical Language,” but which “he too has come to accept and even seek to deepen the extent of this “estrangement” to a degree which even Lukács would have rejected.”[10] On another level this dislocation refers to an exchange of “older” human values with something less natural. This might be the Hegelian concept of Aufhebung, used here to illustrate the synthetic evolution of the human psyche through technology, but it is the kind of evolution that we generally tend to view positively as progress, irrespective of ethical consequences. Again, McLuhan is instructive: “Indeed, it is only too typical that the ‘content’ of any medium blinds us to the character of the medium.”[11] The medium becomes invisible to us in the light of its content, yet the reliability of the latter depends entirely on the architectonic structure of the former. Our awestruck posture at the end of the poem is a feature of both this “estrangement” and the world that has been wrought by the virtually “invisible.”

  In this way a pronounced dualism inhabits the poem: there is the world with and without the glass, which itself has a duality of denoting the opaque-reflective type (a closed loop system that negatively reinforces ones Narcissistic image) and the glass that programs and hence dictates a certain view of reality. The forbidding eminence of the mountain opposes the passive (if bovine) relief of the “pasture” and “lower fields”. The corrosive “acid lines” are “ploughed up” from the mind (thus “thoughtful”), but it is an organic process converted by inorganic means, with lines from which nothing natural can grow, which mutate instead. Accordingly, the butterfly and the table is combined in a vision of di-mophic (purposely hyphenated into an enjambment) marble, itself a duality. The “glint” of the sun (like a spark) has a transformative effect of new vision that night [where there is no “gain” (a pun that speaks to the economic side of this equation)] does not. That the poem, bereft of rhyme and a discernible rhythm, is characterized as a “song”, the traditional province of the pastoral and lyrical ballad, is a pointed comment on our now hybridized sensibilities.

  And what about the use of “white butterflies”? In ancient Greek, the word for butterfly was “psyche” or soul, and also the name for Eros’ human lover. There are many associations that inform the poem’s use of the white butterfly image.[12] Among those familiar with the computer parlance in which the poem traffics, the ”butterfly effect” was first described by Edward Lorenz at the December 1972 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C., illustrating the essential idea of chaos theory. In a 1963 paper for the New York Academy of Sciences, Lorenz quoted an unnamed meteorologist’s assertion that, if chaos theory were true, a single flap of a single seagull’s wings would be enough to change the course of all future weather systems on the earth.[13] To the extent that Prynne is referring to this “butterfly effect”, he may be indicating the inherent instability and chaos of any system or methodology that undermines nature in its interactions with the world.

  As provocative is the linguistic play that we get from apprehending the words “chrysalis” and “crystal” (albeit with independent derivations) as two sides of the same psychic coin. The evolutionary medium of the butterfly is a metaphor for the technological medium through which the human soul evolves. This parallels the introductory image that records the collapse of the glass under its “own weight”, which like the glint of the sun that “snaps” the butterfly’s wings, trades on the pun (another literary device that Prynne enjoys using) that includes both the “seizing” or “capturing” meaning (as in a photograph), as well as the more ominous “breaking” sense of the word. In the sun’s glint we see through to the essential nature of things, as we do when the glass ruptures. Thus, the “di-/morphic marble”, a gorgeous image that describes the butterfly’s wings visually blended with the table, also serves as a microcosm of the spiritual joined with the inanimate. This is Prynne’s most arresting image in the poem, a foreboding and preamble to our Borg-like evolution, the psyche in the machine (the chrysalis-crystal tube). In the final sentence we sit around, exposed to the same sun light, in a mixed state of wonder, puzzlement and shock.

  The overall effect produces a dialectic in which “Nibble Song” speaks to modernism from a digital perspective that extends from views expressed earlier by Henri Bergson, Theodor Adorno and Max Weber, to those of Wiener and McLuhan. In Modernism [part of Blackwell’s Guides to Criticism (2007 Blackwell Publishing)], Michael H. Whitworth cites Joseph Conrad’s work which “subjects the reader to a process of ‘delayed decoding’ in which sense impressions are reported before the described object is given its conventional name. The reader is made to feel the different competencies (and inadequacies) of each form of knowledge.”[14] Prynne’s poetry has a similar effect on the reader, an intentional otherness that is both within and outside the normative experienced of reading. As Whitworth observes, in Georg Simmel’s 1903 essay, “The Metropolis and the Mental Life,” perception and cognition are at play in the modern world, where the self is overwhelmed by sense data and hence has no opportunity to reflect, or if it attempts to reflect must then filter out sense data and detach itself from the empirical world.[15] Simmel’s own words describe the situation clearly:

If, for instance, we view the immense culture which for the last hundred years has been embodied in things and in knowledge, in institutions and in comforts, and if we compare all this with the cultural progress of the individual during the same period-at least in high status groups – a frightful disproportion in growth between the two becomes evident. Indeed, at some points we notice a retrogression in the culture of the individual with reference to spirituality, delicacy, and idealism. This discrepancy results essentially from the growing division of labor. For the division of labor demands from the individual an ever more one-sided accomplishment, and the greatest advance in a one-sided pursuit only too frequently means death to the personality of the individual. In any case, he can cope less and less with the overgrowth of objective culture. The individual is reduced to a negligible quantity, perhaps less in his consciousness than in his practice and in the totality of his obscure emotional states that are derived from this practice. The individual has become a mere cog in an enormous organization of things and powers which tear from his hands all progress, spirituality, and value in order to transform them from their subjective form into the form of a purely objective life. It needs merely to be pointed out that the metropolis is the genuine arena of this culture which outgrows all personal life. Here in buildings and educational institutions, in the wonders and comforts of space-conquering technology, in the formations of community life, and in the visible institutions of the state, is offered such an overwhelming fullness of crystallized and impersonalized spirit that the personality, so to speak, cannot maintain itself under its impact. On the one hand, life is made infinitely easy for the personality in that stimulations, interests, uses of time and consciousness are offered to it from all sides. They carry the person as if in a stream, and one needs hardly to swim for oneself. On the other hand, however, life is composed more and more of these impersonal contents and offerings which tend to displace the genuine personal colorations and incomparabilities. This results in the individual’s summoning the utmost in uniqueness and particularization, in order to preserve his most personal core. He has to exaggerate this personal element in order to remain audible even to himself. The atrophy of individual culture through the hypertrophy of objective culture is one reason for the bitter hatred which the preachers of the most extreme individualism, above all Nietzsche, harbor against the metropolis. But it is, indeed, also a reason why these preachers are so passionately loved in the metropolis and why they appear to the metropolitan man as the prophets and saviors of his most unsatisfied yearnings.[16]

This is the meat of the matter in “Nibble Song.” It may be mere coincidence that Simmel’s metaphors – that spiritual values have diminished in the face of the “crystallized and impersonalized spirit” of sociopolitical institutions, that man must exaggerate his individuality “to remain audible even to himself” — correspond with Prynne’s use of “crystal” and “no gain” in the poem, but if so, we still recognize their significance immediately. The “crystal tube” is not only an emblem of the medium, but also the industrialized human spirit. “No gain by night in/the passage of rowling/sound,” with its idealized Miltonic spelling, takes on greater purpose as a signifier of the analog to digital progression, of the quest to be heard amidst all the noise of the public sphere. As literary artifact, it harkens to Paradise Lost and the lost traction of religious myth in this brave new world.

  Although Simmel himself was neutral on the dualism and mixed-bag that modernity offers (“it is not our task either to accuse or to pardon, but only to understand”), Prynne’s attitude toward his subject is characteristically discerned by tonality and the manner of presentation. Powerless to stop the inexorable forces of technology, Prynne gives us pause at the entrance to the contemporary digital era where the new metropolis of human existence is even now being virtually constructed. Many of these issues are currently being played out on the world stage where, for example, the benefits of advanced computer technology and robotics have caused a reduction in the employment of individuals who formerly occupied assembly line jobs that required many human hands. The subsequent disruption wrought by technology in the public sphere is equivalent to the onset of the industrial revolution, which led to a mass exodus from the pastures and farms to the cities. It seems that the computer age is now leading to a transition that effectively puts those ill-equipped to adapt out to pasture (a similar movement in Prynne’s poem); the machines replace the man at the level of motor skills. And yet we have the unities of social networks and new employment models that technology has formed, leading us toward more complete integrations and an appreciation of the value of intellectual labor, as McLuhan predicted, albeit each stage destined for obsolescence as the next wave passes.

  Here J.D. Bernal briefly enters the discussion for two reasons: First, Bernal was a world-class scientist and inventor who pioneered work in X-ray crystallography in molecular biology and elucidated crystal structure for future generations; and second, his 1939 futuristic work, The World, the Flesh and the Devil, looks forward to the biological transformation of the human body by a group of fanatical scientists bent on taking over the world by extracting useless parts of the anatomy and replacing them with a short cylinder containing a human brain outfitted with telescopes and microscopes. Bernal imagined this transformation taking place by way of a process comparable to a human “chrysalis” stage, and so Prynne’s computer crystal and butterfly seem to coalesce in Bernal. At the end of The World, the Flesh and the Devil, Bernal presents the problem in this way:

We want the future to be mysterious and full of supernatural power; and yet these very aspirations, so totally removed from the physical world, have built this material civilization and will go on building it into the future so long as there remains any relation between aspiration and action. But can we count on this? Or, rather, have we not here the criterion which will decide the direction of human development? We are on the point of being able to see the effects of our actions and their probable consequences in the future; we hold the future still timidly, but perceive it for the first time, as a function of our own action. Having seen it, are we to turn away from something that offends the very nature of our earliest desires, or is the recognition of our new powers sufficient to change those desires into the service of the future which they will have to bring about?[17]

  Thus, Prynne’s poem poses the more penetrating and purposeful question that Wiener explored earlier: Who holds the keys to our future, the machine or the man? Alternatively, Jean-François Lyotard frames the issue in terms of how our knowledge is a matter of government (qua power) whose legitimacy must continually be questioned:

When we examine the current status of scientific knowledge at a time when science seems more completely subordinated to the prevailing powers than ever before and, along with the new technologies, is in danger of becoming a major stake in their conflicts – the question of double legitimation, far from receding into the background, necessarily comes to the fore. For it appears in its most complete form, that of reversion, revealing that knowledge and power are simply two sides of the same question: who decides what knowledge is, and who knows what needs to be decided? In the computer age, the question of knowledge is now more than ever a question of government.[18]

This question ultimately devolves to ethical considerations which Prynne elicits, as Sutherland has stated, from a perspective of the “syncretistic cosmogony” of world order.

What I mean by this phrase is first of all that there is a kind, or at least a dimension, of ethical thinking proper exclusively to syncretistic cosmogony of the kind expounded in De Hominis Dignitate (and expounded also in Charles Olson’s The Maximus Poems, which Prynne described as “a lingual and temporal syncretism, poised to make a new order”). In other words, there is a kind or dimension of ethical thinking whose necessary inaugural idea is that man is at the centre of the created world, which might equally well be the Gloucester coastline in Massachusetts, or “Ierusalem,” or any place at all where we might “walk, even quite jauntily, over the grass”; and furthermore that he is at the centre of the world by reason of a supreme prerogative (or by reason of what twentieth century phenomenology would more simplistically call radical immanence). Prynne believed in the late 1960s that this central position of man in the created world cannot ever be abrogated by psychic or spiritual injury, by dissent, or by any form whatsoever of rational or irrational discountenance. . . .

For so long as Prynne understood ethics in the light of cosmogenic human centrality, the burden of his poetry was to describe and argue for a way of knowing “where / we are.” That is, of knowing not simply that we are at the centre of the world, and therefore mundi copulam in the humanist, Wordsworthian or Hegelian sense, but of knowing also the quality of the posui, the prerogative expressed in our being placed there. We can know this quality of place, of being placed, through the commensuration of it activated in the qualities of physical and intellectual perception as they are re-inaugurated by poetic language.[19]

Yet, Sutherland observes that Prynne’s view changed as he came to see the relative nature of man’s place, as in “Landing Area,” where the final valuation upon a man’s demise is that he is “central to a scheme of virtue” (emphasis supplied), not central to the universe absolute.

  At the machine language level of poetry, rather than employing a personal and indecipherable “code” as so many other poets in the modern and post-modern era, Prynne actually uses natural aspects of expression in ways that invoke their historical, customary, contemporary and technological meanings, as well as the sociological and philosophical thought underlying them. As in most poetry, meaning skates on slippery and even broken ice. “Prynne’s poems often invoke the inbetweenness of multiple sense-constitution and confuse simulative invention and discursive reference.”[20]  With a singular poetic language, Prynne marshals these ambiguities and contradictions with great wit and elegance in the exposition of the poem’s thematic content.

1. Robert Potts, “Through the oval window.” The Guardian April 9, 2004.
2. Cited by Peter Middleton, Distant Reading: Performance, Readership, and Consumption in Contemporary Poetry, Modern and Contemporary Poetics (University of Alabama Press 2005).
3.  J.H. Prynne, private letter to Peter Riley, Sept. 15, 1985. See also Riley’s pamphlet, Reader (London 1992).
3a. Simon Jarvis, “Quality and the non-identical in J.H. Prynne’s ‘Aristeas, in seven years’, Jacket 20 – December 2002,
4. “Gain” is generally defined as the ratio of a signal output of a system to the signal input of the system, and is generally applied to amplifiers. “Gain” was originally applied to analog systems, and later to digital systems which emulated the attributes of the former. But the word doubtlessly has other implications, such as economic gain.
5. Garl G. Jung, M.-L. von Franz, Jospeh L. Henderson, Jolande Jacobi, Aniela Jaffe, Man and his Symbols (Dell Pub. 1968), p. 221.
6. Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, p. 1 (1964) (emphasis supplied).
7. Ibid.
8. Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings (1950), p. 16.
9. Middleton, Distant Reading, p. 187.
10. Capital Calves.
11. Understanding Media at p. 2.
12. See, e.g., Baylor University’s “Butterfly Lore” page at
13. Computing Fundamentals,
14. Michael H. Whitworth, Modernism, Blackwell’s Guides to Criticism (2007 Blackwell Publishing), p. 7.
15. Ibid.
16. Georg Simmel, “The Metropolis and Mental Life” (1903)
17. J.D. Bernal, The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1929, 1970)
18. Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition (1979) publ. Manchester University Press, 1984.
19. Keston Sutherland, “Ethica Nullius”, Avant-Post: The Avant-Garde under “Post-” Conditions, ed. Louis Armand (Litteraria Pragensia 2006).
20. Ryan Dobran, “Introduction,” Glossator 2 – Practice and Theory of the Commentary: On the Poems of J.H. Prynne, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (April 1, 2010), p.3.

This article has been expanded and revised since its original posting.

1 comment on “J.H. Prynne and Cybernetics in “Nibble Song”

  1. Pingback: Introduction to Modern and Contemporary Poetry – AGAINST INTERPRETATION

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