Concepts and Conception in Poetry by J. H. Prynne (review)
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Reviewed by
Concepts and Conception in Poetry.
By J. H. Prynne. Cambridge: Critical Documents, 2014.

The English poet J. H. Prynne is one of the great practitioners of an outmoded critical genre: the commentary. Since 2001, he has published four: They That Haue Powre to Hurt; A Specimen of a Commentary on Shake-speares Sonnets, 94 (2001), Field Notes: “The Solitary Reaper” and Others (2007), George Herbert, “Love [III]”: A Discursive Commentary (2011), and, most recently, Concepts and Conception in Poetry (2014), a commentary on poems by William Wordsworth and Wallace Stevens. All four commentaries are intensely philological. They detail the linguistic contexts of their source texts and exemplify a rigorous practice of close reading. They are also all intensely playful. They advance extravagant and speculative readings, and even include “page-foldouts” that allow their source texts to be read side by side with their commentaries. Prynne, in this way, invites readers to test his claims as they construct their own.

Concepts and Conception in Poetry is short and dense: forty-five pages divided into five highly charged sections. Section one presents a series of quotations about “concepts” in a format that recalls the “Extracts” section of Moby Dick. A passage from Chaucer’s translation of The Consolation of Philosophy leads to three stanzas from Robert Duncan’s “The Meaning of Each Particular,” which leads to quotes from John Locke and Ray Jackendoff, among others. Section two provides “an elementary brief review of the concept of concept, somewhat ignoring the many complex differences of account found in professional discussion of these issues” (13; emphasis in orig.). Sections three and four gloss excerpts from Wordsworth’s “The Pedlar” (1803–04) and The Prelude (1805–06), and section five, the longest in the book, examines Stevens’ “Prologues to What Is Possible.” Despite the book’s compactness, it is difficult to summarize. In this review, I focus on sections two and five, and their relevance to Stevens scholarship and work on poetry and the philosophy of mind.

Section two proposes an account of the structure of thought in poetry. In Prynne’s view, poetry is not a medium of communication. It is not a way for a writer to relay his or her intentions to a community of readers. Instead, it is a linguistic process that transforms “free-floating states of invented consciousness” into concepts that can be understood (and shared) by writers and readers alike (14). Poetry, in other words, makes the unintelligible intelligible, conceptualizing otherwise nonconceptual aspects of human experience. Accessing these concepts requires work. Poets must cultivate their receptivity (among many other things) and readers must assimilate radically foreign vocabularies. This process of assimilation can be challenging, Prynne admits, “but [it] may be exhilarating enough to carry the reader forward with strenuous delight: ‘it must give pleasure’ (both Wordsworth and Stevens are agreed upon this)” (15).

Section five presents two phenomenological readings of “Prologues to What Is Possible.” The first recreates Stevens’ experience of the poem during the act of composition. The second follows our own experience of the poem—or, more accurately, Prynne’s. In the process, he identifies the poem’s core philosophical questions—questions about conditions of possibility, knowledge, [End Page 128] literary efficacy, sympathy and intellectual identification, abstraction, and figuration. He does not address these questions directly or connect them to a larger philosophical tradition. Instead, he considers how they are woven into the fabric of the poem, and how they inspire and torment Stevens and captivate us, Stevens’ readers.

For Prynne, Stevens is a profoundly ambivalent poet. “Prologues” is at once deeply felt and impersonal. Stevens seems aware of the poem’s stakes, but cannot predict its outcome or relevance—or even fully control its development. Prynne’s reading of the poem begins as follows:

This poem is managed with very deliberative and cool strokes of sentence-structure, piloted through abstraction boldly and in unfrantic encounter with dangerously fundamental questions about knowledge and the experience of its precarious determining conditions of uncertainty. It is a poem performing an array of thought-questions which are also a narrative of suppos[i]titious experience and experiment, a kind of existentialist allegory distantly related to traditional...