Sunday, 2 March 2008

2007, some books (6)

J.H. Prynne, Field Notes: 'The Solitary Reaper' and Others. (Cambridge, available from Barque.) This book (of which due to other pressures my reading is currently suspended half-way through) looks like a scholarly periodical issue or (e.g.) an on-demand dissertation: plain dark blue paper wrappers with nothing printed except the title on the spine (albeit that in silver); the text inside photographically reduced directly from authorial copy. It lacks the common articulations of most either standard or academic books: contents page, chapters, even footnotes (let alone an index). Its 134 pages contain in fact 54 numbered sections (of very variable lengths) in 3 Parts, of which the first is the point by point 'Commentary' on Wordsworth's poem, preceded by contextual notes; the second is a series of commented quotations from a range of sources including historic documentary and modern criticism that can be brought to bear on the poem; and the third expands by way of analogue a rural encounter in W.H. Hudson. It is surprisingly difficult to establish these contents: this is not a book one can get any sense out of by just flicking through. Fruit of a massive immersion in all the associations and implications focussed by its subject, the study resists consumption by any less diligent appetite. It brings to bear a huge amount of reference on agricultural life and practices, folksong, acoustics, and much else. The critical reading of the poem is imbricated in all of this, rather than merely supported by it: there's no 'Conclusion'. Thematically it speaks slightly to the Oceanographer of oral-aural / literal-visual boundaries of language and intelligibility, but the thoughts on work, and on the potentialities of listening to music returned me to thoughts of my poem for Roger Smith's & Adam Bohman's CD last year; while the question of obscurity and receptive meaningfulness ("will no-one tells me what she sings?" etc) have been related (e.g. in Seamus Perry's review, TLS, 25 Jan.) to issues of poetics around Prynne's own poetry. For the scanning eye however there are two illustrations, of reaping scenes in wood-engraved vignettes (enlarged). In that on the title page, the reaper is indeed 'solitary', close-up amid wheat stalks nearly as tall as he, but the tail-piece shows two -- again male -- working together, and a view of their village beyond the field. The other plain thing is the fold-out text of 'The Solitary Reaper', which can thus be kept in view simultaneously with any other page.

For those of us who have not had the privilege of being taught by Prynne, this absorbing book might suggest why his influence seems so strong on those who have. It makes reading a poem an investigation of real life.