To be truthful, I've never quite known what a Prynne poem means; that is, if meaning is even a useful term to deploy. At best, I can only half-guess what he builds his poems around. Though I suppose any deep research and reading might reveal a great deal more. Consequently, for me, any meaning remains, for the most part, hidden within those perfectly formed structures and syntax. Not that my semi-incomprehension has ever stopped me from enjoying and taking an interest in his work, at least since first picking up Kitchen Poems, published by Cape Goliard, in a San Francisco bookstore in the late 1960s. As for Raworth, I remember reading Relation Ship on my initial visit to London in 1967 (sorry, but books for me have always been place-specific). I wish I still owned that book, beautifully produced by Goliard Press, though, for some reason, I associate it with Asa Benveniste's Trigram Press. If I'm not mistaken it was also Raworth's first book. Since then he has produced work ranging from the easily comprehensible to the outrageously obscure. But, then, as far as I'm concerned, understanding Raworth's or, for that matter, Prynne's work, is almost beside the point. For me, it's like any other form of music, in that it's mostly about sound and rhythm, with the words moving in and out of earshot. Though with the difference that I associate Prynne with the printed page and Raworth, whose work can be funny, political, thoughtful and every bit as obscure as Prynne, with a voice rampaging through a text at heartbreak speed.
Sanford is another matter. His poetry, like Raworth's, pours forth. And, in his few short years, he certainly wrote a lot of it. If I wanted to be unkind, I'd make a comparison with David Foster Wallace. But he isn't that. What Stanford was after wasn't meaning as such; rather a certain kind pseudo biography as detailed as it is romantic, always informed by place and temperament.What did Lorenzo Thomas call him a "swamp-rat Rimbaud"? Though Rimbaud was nowhere nearly so prolific; and instead of killing himself as Stanford did in 1978, not quite thirty years-old, having shot himself three times in the chest with a .22 calibre target pistol, simply slipped away to live out a slow death gun-running in a foreign land.
Here's three fragments, one from each of the above poets, picked at random, however much any given fragment could run the risk of being atypical:
"what happens in any
sovereign body is created
on the evidence of the last
head on its last lap
those of us watching
then, during the programme,
see the die, seem to be cast
to draw the teeth
of our first question
affecting essential interests
they and only they had"
"Trim forward but as it never was or bite fittingly so
defused album transit for another, into proof type
pronoun intercepted. Our sung script frayed to gather
in one for shifty plenum, tie up, her lung cavity
dilated before. Riot babble scented, sleepless with anxiety unknowing."
"with a feather I ordered them
"with a feather I ordered them
to salute the adventures
of their skin
the blue one like a constellation
of women prepared to undress
the yellow one who yodeled
the twig’s tornado
the orange one to be done with another poet
the final one hanginglike the noose of midnight "
What separates Prynne and Raworth, besides formalistic concerns, might be gleaned in that final line of Raworth's-
"we do die seem to be cast/to draw the teeth
of our first question/affecting essential interests"
is hardly something Prynne would likely write, but not that far removed from a unit that Stanford could employ. On the other hand, Stanford might also have written Prynne's Riot babble scented, sleepless with anxiety unknowing." Of course, anyone is capable of writing anything, so I'm referring more to tendencies and probabilities than possibilities. Meanwhile, the third quote, from Stanford, remains, "in the noose of midnight," the odd one out, but perhaps only because he's more interested in the poem as a vehicle to transport himself and the reader from one place to another, if only from a specific geographical place to the page itself.
Incomprehension, of course, has its own meaning, and can reside within any given statement, word, line, declaration, or poem. For me Prynne and Raworth have carved out a poetry specific to the British isles. Geographic even in its non-specificity. While Stanford is rooted in the hardcore actuality of the southern US. Stanford has been eulogised by many, not least C.D. Wright and singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams in her song Pineola, while the best overview of his life and work might well be Ben Ehrenreich's The Long Goodbye. For me, Stanford was a kind of one-off, certainly no one's protege, least of all macho pro-Vietnam war James Dickey, with whom he is, for some reason, often compared, but from whom Stanford took some pains to distance himself. I think of Stanford more as a poetic equivalent of various southern wrirters, more gothic, even noir, than literary, more early Cormac McCarthy, Barry Hannah, William Gay, late Daniel Woodrell, and maybe even Jim Thompson, than Dickey, Peter Taylor or Eudora Welty. In other words, Stanford is a regional writer whose work comes out of the Mississippi Delta, by way of his native Arkansas, his childhood having been spent in river camps along the levee, which helped turn his work into cries coming straight from the region's mud, muck and everyday life, to inhabit heaven, hell and places in-between. A landscaper by trade, his are poems of isolation and marginality, like songs that have yet to be sung- think of Jimmie Rodgers crooning a country blues with birds flying from his skull- but which, nevertheless, reverberate in body and soul long past hearing them. Like the beginning from the poem Death and the Arkansas River:
"Walking from the killing place,
Walking in mud,
The bootsoles leave little hexes in the kitchen.
One summer there was a place
Where everyone chewed dirt in their supper
It was a place like an attic
With a chest of orchids pressed in books.
Men cleaned their fingernails
In the moonlight."
Stanford's poems are rough and ragged and a million miles from Prynne's beautiful crystalline constructions or Raworth's wonderful non-sequitor rapaciousness. Hardly confessional writing, but rather a poetry of place and disposition with a weightiness as light as a feather, and written as if the poet's life depended on it. Does it bother me that I can appreciate, on the one hand, Stanford, and, on the other, Prynne and Raworth. Not one bit.
I can't recommend these three volumes highly enough. Even if you have previous volumes of Prynne's Poems (published by Bloodaxe)- mine, for instance, is the first printing, published fifteen years ago, which lacks some two hundred pages of subsequent poetry- any Prynneista will want to get this one. While Raworth's As When (published by Carcanet) contains poems not included in his Collected Poems of 2003, nor in his Windmills in Flames of 2010. As for Stanford, finally we get most of his poems collected in one volume, with a good selection of his first book, the mammoth 900-plus page The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You ("a very unusual book," said Ferlenghetti) interspersed throughout the book, all of it beautifully presented by Copper Canyon Press.
Note: corrections have been made to the original entry thanks largely to John Kearns, who pointed out that I had attributed authorship to the Prynne poem (from Blue Slides at Rest) to Raworth, and the Raworth poem (from The Vein) to Prynne. This, in turn, necessitated a slight change in the paragraph that follows on from the quotes.