'Bands Around the Throat,' J. H. Prynne, racial capitalism
Author note: What follows is a modified version of a section of my master’s thesis, “Resetting Bands Around the Throat” (University of Sussex, 2020). While some of what is implied below is treated somewhat more fully in the thesis, it itself is still essentially an introduction to a larger set of questions.
On June 1, 1987, J. H. Prynne “put into production” Bands Around the Throat, a pamphlet of fourteen titled poems collected between wrappers of turquoise card, on which a sparse design of horizontal, regularly spaced dotted lines enclose title and author name. These poems continue the sustained and scathing critique of capitalism in effect since Prynne’s earliest poems. In Bands Around the Throat, as in so many of his poems, this can be sensed, if not read outright, in the thick imbrications of financial terminology and scenes of deprivation visible throughout. However, the shape and character of the collection’s critique have not yet been fully outlined. In an effort to contribute to its further delineation, I suggest a limit in the form of its engagement with the complexities of racial capitalism. The interaction of Prynne’s poems with the racialization and racism of capitalism is significantly understudied, and so through the marking of such a limit in Bands Around the Throat it is a further ambition of this essay to open up this aspect of Prynne’s poetics to a more vigorous consideration.
The criticism of capitalism contained in Prynne’s poetry takes multiple forms and is expressed in a variety of ways. Of 1971’s Brass, John Wilkinson writes that the collection “opened the way to a remarkably various political poetry”; he marks both its excoriation of the Conservative Party’s social and economic policies as well as its “continuing critique of the capitalist simulacrum of the natural world and its revenge on the social world.” This linked critical position is pursued into the 1980s, and informs the composition of Bands Around the Throat. A shifting criticism of capitalism persists in the many collections published thereafter, and continues to be noted. Consider also anecdotal support for Prynne’s position toward capitalism in his sketch of himself in 2016 as “probably” a “peculiar and extraneous Marxist, in some sense of that word.” As well as Keston Sutherland’s less equivocal description: “Prynne is an extremely fierce, principled and adamant critic of capital and of western capitalist societies.”
The arguments against capitalism of the poems in Bands Around the Throat are situated with reference to their immediate social and political situation, in at least two key ways. The first is that the poems were written and published both in response to the 1987 United Kingdom general election and in anticipation of what seemed to Prynne to be its inevitable result: further victory for the Conservative Party. That this is so is possibly signaled by the exact date printed in the book’s skeletal colophon, but is detectable also in Prynne’s correspondence of the time. The accounts which discuss the collection substantially do not take this event into consideration, in spite of their attempts to historically contextualize the poems. Those few that do mention the election do not have the collection as their central focus. The second is that many of the poems contain silent quotations from the Times, which has also not received attention in any of the critical accounts that I have read. These quotations, taken together with the occasion prompting the pamphlet, suggest for the poems a quite different, or at the very least additional, range of concerns than is currently noted. While my essay does not address these aspects directly, it is in the discursive space opened by them that I wish to raise my argument: that a limit to Bands Around the Throat’s critique of capitalism exists in the form of its engagement with the racially differentiated aspects of capitalism. In my use of “limit,” I mean to foreground its mathematical sense in which a limit is increasingly approached, but never reached. The metaphor thus provided begins to characterize my sense of the operations of race in the collection particularly, and possibly in Prynne’s poems more generally. These operations present complex, difficult questions, and accordingly my approach to them will be cautious. The essay proceeds through an elaboration of its terms, to a discussion of the critical work addressing race in Prynne, before coming to the collection itself.
Part of my motivation and support for advancing such an argument is a cluster of largely online, but geographically focused in North America, discussions, provocations, articles, and forums that coalesced in 2015. While various in their ways and means, among the central gestures of this moment were the diagnosis, articulation, and condemnation of the operations of race and imbalances in power and opportunity resulting from them in what is called avant-garde poetry. Put more directly, this energy was directed at exposing the whiteness and structural racism therein. In 2016, a research group, Race and Poetry and Poetics in the UK, was established in order to enact a parallel scrutiny of the workings of race in UK poetry. At the end of her preface to Thinking its Presence, Dorothy Wang makes eloquent something of the spirit of this scrutiny, in part by questioning the paucity in mainstream discussions and thinking about race in poetry, and by questioning the operations of power behind these discussions. How are the terms for the engagement with race set by critics and by the poetry itself? This remains a pertinent and unsettled inquiry. What emerges for me from these questions, indeed from this moment in general, is an imperative to subject the work of white poets to such scrutiny.
The main armature of my argument begins from what I understand to be among the fundamental insights of the Black radical tradition: Cedric J. Robinson’s assertion in 1983’s Black Marxism that the “development, organization, and expansion of capitalist society pursued essentially racial directions,” and that therefore, racialism and racism are deeply and stubbornly entrenched in the forms of life that emerge from capitalist society. One of the most fundamental examples of this is the transatlantic trade of enslaved people. This trade, particularly through the expropriation of labor it occasioned, was a crucial foundation for early capitalism. Although legally abolished in the nineteenth century, its attendant patterns of expropriation continued in a variety of forms and colonial locales, and indeed persist into the present day. As Robinson explains,
Leopold’s Congo, Harry Johnston’s Central Africa, Cecil Rhodes’s Southern Africa, Lugard’s West Africa, Portuguese Africa, and French Africa as well as the New World’s slave descendants all contributed to the further development of the capitalist world system. As peasants, as tenant farmers, as migrant laborers, as day laborers, as domestic servants, and as wage labor, their expropriation extended into the present century.
Regarding Black Marxism from 2015, Jodi Melamed updates this to include the contemporary phenomenon of the mass incarceration of Black people in the United States. In these historical and contemporary examples, racism displaces the “uneven life chances that are inescapably part of capitalist social relations onto fictions of differing human capacities, historically race” and in so doing “enshrines the inequalities that capitalism requires.” More expansively, Christina Sharpe writes that “living in the wake means living the history and present of terror, from slavery to the present, as the ground of our everyday Black existence.”
From this insight into the inseparability of racism and capitalism flow worlds of knowledge, practice, and more. I wish to highlight the corollary that a critique of racism is proper to a critique of capitalism. Continuing to account for the harrowing and corrosive effects of racism and racialism understood as constitutive elements of the capitalist world in which we live, which deforms us inside and out, is an urgent task. It is clear, at this point, that the scope of such a project is vast and threatens to overwhelm the discussion of a single collection of poems. Paul Gilroy’s There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, published in the same year as Bands Around the Throat, is helpful in refining the terms and scale of this argument. However, I must acknowledge again that, as with Black Marxism, the full project of Gilroy’s book, an account of the cultures of British racism, is in excess of the argument at hand. With that in mind, what There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack does offer this essay is the recognition, from the same time and place as the collection, of the interrelationship between race and capital. Robinson’s racial capitalism is one of Gilroy’s starting points, and while he modulates its terms and points to the contemporary debates over it, he affirms that some kind of tendency toward racialization has “been a remarkable feature of continuity across the various economic expressions of the capitalist world system and their ideological conditions of existence.” What is crucial to his project is to signal the constructed and dynamic character of race as a category, and how such an understanding can contribute to more sophisticated analyses of complex political struggle and, by extension, systems of oppression.
Explorations of the operations of race in Prynne’s poems are sparse among the accounts I am familiar with. As a first-pass example, the word “race” does not appear at all in the listings of major or minor critical discussions of Prynne’s work at the online bibliography tracking this work. Admittedly, this is a mechanistic approach but, all the same, I do think it goes some way to indicating that race is not a widely discussed aspect of his poems. As a further but slightly more substantial example of this kind, across the various essays of A Manner of Utterance: The Poetry of J. H. Prynne, there are only two references to race. The first reference, in fact, appears in Simon Perril’s reading of Bands Around the Throat. Therein, he suggests that the image of the necklace present in the collection, particularly in “Punishment Routines,” reflects the practice of necklacing, or necklace killing. He is referring to a deeply ambiguous and politicized act of violence, in which a tire is doused with petrol, placed around the neck of an individual, and set alight; a practice which largely occurred in South Africa during the 1980s at a point of particularly intense resistance to the apartheid government. Perril uncritically reproduces the news media’s foregrounding of race when he writes, “[t]his form of lynching was a method used by Blacks to execute informers. (see The Times, 22 April, 1986, 7/7 and The Daily Telegraph 28 May, 1987 10/4 as quoted in O.E.D)” Even so, in what will become clear as a pattern, the implications of this reflection are not pursued by Perril. No real attempt is made to locate the practice in the poems themselves, or to dwell on what it means for Prynne, from the UK, to invoke a practice that the news of the time described in such starkly racialized terms. Indeed, to me, the legibility of necklacing therein is not yet persuasively argued. The second mention of race occurs in an essay by Erik Ulman in the explanation of a likely allusion to Steve Reich’s 1966 tape-piece, Come Out, in the seventh and ninth stanzas of Prynne’s For the Monogram of 1997. Reich’s composition is based on a sentence from the oral testimony of Daniel Hamm, one of the Harlem Six. They were a group of Black teenagers who, in 1964, were unfairly arrested in connection with an attack on two white shop owners, one of whom later died in hospital. Ulman’s discussion of this reference is brief, and mostly focused on its implications for the poem’s form.
However, it is worth tarrying with this reference and some of its readings and implications for a moment longer. Louis Goddard also notes the presence of Come Out in his essay, “‘An Object with No Predecessors’? A Computational Reading of J. H. Prynne’s For the Monogram.” As the title ever so slightly suggests, this essay is both a reading of the poems and a commentary on a particular practice of reading. As such, his discussion of the reference is largely concerned with an account of how it was found. When he does refer to the implications of Come Out’s content, he suggests it adds a consideration of “state violence to vulnerable young bodies,” thus eliding the specifically racialized quality of both the “young bodies” and the “state violence” in question. The reading advanced by Peter Middleton in “Dirigibles,” on the other hand, does stay slightly closer to the racist character of this violence but is once again somewhat cursory. It is not, for instance, entirely accurate to characterize Daniel Hamm as a civil rights campaigner as Middleton does. More notably, Middleton treats Come Out superficially, which leads to a thinning out of its presence in the poem into a rhetorical question on the aestheticization of violence rather than dwelling on the difficult complexities of the moment and work referred to. That is to say that while important questions and possibilities about this reference’s effects in and on the poem are surfaced by Middleton’s essay, they are not thoroughly investigated. In all three essays, the brevity of reckoning with this reference may be explained away by its not being the central, or even a considerable, structural focus. I take this as further support for my observation that the operations of race in Prynne’s poems are understudied.
A final example of this phenomenon concerns the opening lines of 1971’s “The Ideal Star-Fighter,”
Now a slight meniscus floats on the moral
pigment of these times, producing
displacement of the body image, the politic
albino. The faded bird droops in his
These lines, particularly “the politic / albino,” have on several occasions been read with their racial implications in mind. Lisa Jeschke sees the collocation as a satirical comment on racialization and illustrates this by parenthetically and speculatively rendering “the politic / albino” as “a white Albion?” Josh Stanley understands it more boldly, if somewhat less persuasively, as evincing “a fuller recognition of the racist character of Anglo-American capitalism.” In both instances, these readings are offered as asides, and so are not fully substantiated. In these readings, “albino” is apparently understood as a synonym for the racial category of whiteness. While there may be etymological cause for such an understanding, albinism understood more precisely as a congenital condition is quite distinct from the category of whiteness. Additionally, the equivalence somewhat flattens the racialized complexities associated with albinism. In fact, “albino” does register the complications of racialization, and the impact of this on “The Ideal Star-Fighter” is not yet fully explored. Wit Píetrzak’s reading of the lines is more abstract still. He understands “albino,” in conjunction with “displacement of the body image,” to produce a subject who exhibits “moral hesitancy and incertitude,” and ultimately, to comment on the failure of Western politicians to act decisively for fear of alienating potential constituencies. Race is technically invoked through an understanding of “pigment” as melanin, but is not further commented on.
And so it becomes clear that the approach is not straightforward. At the risk of contradiction, I could not claim, and would not want to, that Prynne’s poems, past or present, wholly ignore race. As evidenced in the preceding discussions, there exist persistent and ambiguous references to race and racialized identities across much of his poetry. Yet, in the same breath, I assert that these moments do not coagulate into a focused attempt to think through the difficult role of race in capitalism and that this forms a limit to the criticisms of capitalism elaborated in these poems. Additionally, I take the sparsity and uncertainty of discussion in the work addressing Prynne’s poems, outlined above, to further indicate the elusiveness of racial thinking therein.
This is, however, to discuss the matter in general terms. And so, I turn now to discuss Bands Around the Throat in its contextual particularity. In beginning to substantiate my claim for a limit to the collection’s critical scope, I will start with the archival materials undergirding it, as well as those quotations and allusions that move through its poems. In a letter to Edward Dorn dated November 3, 1984, discussing the then-ongoing UK miners’ strike, Prynne writes, “even here in this other Eden, island of a true common-sense racism, we have our own Golden Temple: it’s called the National Union of Mineworkers.” The sentence, and much of the letter, is written in the argot of private jokes that characterizes the correspondence between the two poets. Thus, although I may be mistaken as to its exact meaning, the epithet seems quite clearly to acknowledge, at the very least, the presence of racism in the UK, as well as making a comment about its character. Aside from this acknowledgement, I have not found any evidence of attempts to interrogate the causes, effects, or character of this racism in the archival material presently available to me. At the risk of an overly long list, what is present among the items contemporary to the composition of Bands Around the Throat are articles about the function of REM sleep, the Miners’ Strike of 1984–85, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, divisions within the Labor Party, a visit to the United Kingdom by the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, and a drought in South Dakota. Similarly, many of the poems quote a variety of news stories from the Times. Within those articles I have been able to identify, there is a concern with the financial implications of the 1987 general election in “Fool’s Bracelet” and “Punishment Routines”; the political and social implications of changing attitudes toward blood donation in “In The Pink”; and the effects of the nuclear accident at Chernobyl on sheep farming in “Rates of Return.” While I do not mean to suggest that an archive so outlined acts as total determinant on the possible range of meaning for these poems, I do think it is an important check against being led astray by what N. Gregson Davis calls “free-associational tangents that abandon the poem’s cognitive trajectory.” There is a balance to be sought.
What this archive, and particularly the quotations that end up in the poems, continue to indicate is that the collection faces the domestic social situation of the United Kingdom in 1987, and is engaged in some kind of thinking through of it. This is nearly acknowledged as such in a letter to Douglas Oliver, written after the collection’s publication, in which Prynne writes that the “rigid stanza-formats” of its poems chafed against those “readers who felt entitled to some more open and convincing alternative to current social closure.” Implicitly then, at the very least, the formal design of the poems is connected to their social situation. It is worth noting that, as with the letters between Dorn and Prynne, the more temperate correspondence between Prynne and Oliver leading up to the collection, contains no discussion of race in the UK, despite much discussion otherwise of the social situation of the country. Gilroy’s insights are instructive here. His parallel discussion of the political situation of 1980s UK is attentive to the operations of race. He is thus able to trace the ways in which the reorientation of the Conservative Party under Thatcher conflated race, specifically whiteness, with national belonging, as well as the contribution this made to the party’s popularity. Further, he suggests that the absence of a thorough understanding of these changing complexities of race and its relation to nationalism was a stumbling block for the British left. These insights evidence an approach that I have been unable to locate in the archival material and correspondence related to Bands Around the Throat.
And so with these contextual coordinates in place, it is time to return to the poems. In an attempt to close read for absences, I shall adopt the following method. Two moments which seem at first glance to offer some commentary attuned to the racial complications of the day will be probed on the basis of that counterfactual. Subsequently, a more contextually aware approach will be offered, in order to make clear the limitations of that initial reading. The first of these moments can be found in the thirteenth stanza of “No Song No Supper,”
Where white roots dissemble and crack,
faces set against payouts. What
you get you fear to want as the round
slips down below and so and so and so
To understand these lines as containing a racial content may involve the identification of “white roots” with the structural power and privilege afforded to white people in the UK at the time. That this power might be changing or faltering is then either a real fear presented in the line, or a parodic statement of such a fear. What punctures such a reading and makes it difficult to sustain for any length of time is both the lack of contextual support, as well as the pressure exerted on it by the associations and logic of the rest of the poem, and by the collection’s other poems. In their immediate context, “roots” exist alongside “fowls creep[ing] to their sedge,” “a founder’s garden,” “frozen grass,” and “leaves,” all of which suggest a concerted botanical thread. This is especially so in light of the wider considerations of Prynne’s poetry of this period. In addition, “roots” make their initial appearance in the collection’s first poem, “Fool’s Bracelet,” in the phrases, “in a spate of root fillings,” and “it is a root and branch arrangement.” This latter phrase acts, I think, as a strong source of influence over subsequent usages of “roots,” serving as a kind of historical core sample. At one level, it makes visible contemporary debates over the reintroduction of capital punishment in the UK. A lower stratum exposes much earlier public discontent with the governance of the Church of England, and by extension with the Kingdom of England, through what has become known as the Root and Branch petition of 1640. This discontent forms part of the context in which the presence of John Milton may be felt across the poems of Bands Around the Throat. Although these associations do not completely obviate the potential that “white roots” constitutes a racialized utterance, the associations and the logics they bring certainly do crowd and obscure that potential. Ultimately then, an understanding of “white roots,” as a racially marked utterance, if it is to be admitted at all, may be glimpsed only momentarily.
The second moment occurs in the third stanza of “Ein Heldenleben,”
Nor for a quick one, dig deeper, no hopes
for them as laughs it off with a riot
of colour at the border; you tell me
what’s for the best and left out, again
Here “riot,” read somewhat uncomfortably through the enjambment “of colour,” tempts a possible consideration of the riots in Handsworth or Brixton of 1985. The discomfort arises both from etymological hesitancies and a potential flippancy in application. The use of the phrase “of colour” as a racialized description originates and largely predominates in the United States. As with the previous example, such an association is possible, but it is difficult to hold for too long, in part due to the absence of any references to those riots in the archival material, and in part due to the influence of the surrounding text. For example, “riot,” taken in combination with the injunction to “dig deeper,” as well as with line 14’s “towards the lime-pits,” prompts consideration of the violent conflicts associated with the miner’s strike, like the Battle of Orgreave, as a somewhat more stable referent.
At the same time, botanical references extend into “Ein Heldenleben,” although not with the same frequency as in “No Song No Supper.” Consider the poem’s first two lines:
Not in this voice, by the leaf-nubs
crowding upwards: the assent so free
It will have to suffice for now to say that these lines begin the poem by placing “this voice,” whether of an individual or a group, in some kind of relation to nature, or its semblance. In the botanical context so suggested, “riot of colour,” is readily associated with colorful and varied displays, and is often used with reference to flowers and foliage. Likewise, among the senses of “border” is a “strip of ground in a garden, forming a fringe to the general area, often reserved for flowers.” It is inevitable that one is meant to register the punning of these words, and this is exacerbated by “laughs it off,” which activates in “riot” the sense of a very funny person or thing. Predominantly, though, “laugh it off” is an idiom of dismissal, and so, when read alongside “no hopes / for them,” reenforces the stanza’s unstable perspective. The grammatical friction of these lines makes it difficult to resolve an identity for “them” or even to ascertain their position toward the “riot / of colour,” further complicating the stanza.
Botanical imagery, and the biological sciences more generally, have been variously important for Prynne’s poetry since Brass. This variety has been studied and is increasingly the focus of ecologically attuned criticism. But a survey of that criticism seems to confirm that while these poems, in their attentiveness to the imbrications of botany, ecology, and so on with capitalism, do register the human cost and suffering that this imbrication occasions, it is a human suffering uninflected by race. From this too, then, it is unlikely that the botanical imagery in Bands Around the Throat is an index of a racialized experience of capitalism in the UK. And so, as with “No Song No Supper,” it is difficult to conclusively locate within “Ein Heldenleben” an active awareness of these experiences.
The critical reception of Bands Around the Throat is yet small, and especially so within the larger context of the study of Prynne’s work, which is itself still at a germinal stage, in spite of the length of the critical bibliography addressing it. In light of this it seems particularly important not to allow positions on and understandings of Prynne’s work to petrify through lack of careful scrutiny. Allowing the poetry to be misrepresented, to restrict the frames through which it is understood, does it no favors. In as much as the poems of Bands Around the Throat can be said to sustain the critique of capitalism found in Prynne’s poetry, and in as much as these poems are involved with the political and social situation of the UK, it has been the concern of this essay to draw attention to a limit of the collection’s critical reach. The racially differentiated experiences of capitalism articulated by the work of Robinson, Gilroy, and many others are, at most, flickeringly registered in the poems of Bands Around the Throat. Although it is true that this essay is focused on only one aspect of the work of these poems, it is an aspect to be taken seriously, and so I am at pains to draw it out. I consider this to be applicable not just to these poems, but to Prynne’s poetry in general, and that the operations of race in this important and influential body of poetry warrant further study.
1. J. H. Prynne, Bands Around the Throat (Cambridge, UK: Privately printed [distributed through Ferry Press,] 1987). The date and phrasing are from the colophon to the second impression of the pamphlet. Throughout this essay, however, I refer to Prynne’s poems as they appear in his Poems (Hexham, UK: Bloodaxe Books, 2015). Line numbers will follow the page reference.
2. The very first published review of Prynne’s work, specifically 1968’s Kitchen Poems, notes their “attempts to expose the spiritual structure of neocapitalism.” Terry Eagleton, “Recent Poetry,” Stand 10, no. 1 (1968): 72–73, quoted in Ryan Dobran, “The Difficult Style: A Study of the Poetry of J. H. Prynne” (PhD diss., University of Cambridge, 2012), 15. Unfortunately, I am not able to examine this review myself and so rely on Ryan Dobran’s quotation of it. Recent studies of 1969’s The White Stones specify both its efforts to provide fundamentally alternative conceptualizations of knowledge and human existence to those forced on us by capitalism, as well as its dissatisfaction with the values imposed by bourgeois individualism. Keston Sutherland, “Prynne and Philology” (PhD diss., University of Cambridge, 2004), 208–9, 264–265; Dobran, “The Difficult Style,” 46.
3. Christopher Nealon attempts to address something like this, although directed at Prynne’s poetry in general, in “The Prynne Reflex,” The Claudius App, 2013. The link is to a version of the page cached by the Internet Archive; but see also Ryan Dobran, “Commentary on “The Prynne Reflex” by Christopher Nealon,” on Ryan Dobran’s website.
4. Joshua Stanley’s recent essay is an attempt to track part of the changing shape of this critique across Prynne’s poetry from 1968 to 1987. Joshua Stanley, “J. H. Prynne’s Romanticism: Wordsworth and the Dawn of Neoliberalism,” Textual Practice (February 25, 2020): 1–22.
5. John Wilkinson, “Off the Grid,” in The Lyric Touch: Essays on the Poetry of Excess (Cambridge, UK: Salt Publishing, 2007), 122.
6. See, for example, Keston Sutherland, “Introduction: ‘Prynne’s Late Work?’” in “On the Late Poetry of J.H. Prynne,” ed. Joe Luna and Jow Lindsay Walton, special issue, Hix Eros 4 (September 2014, print edition April 2015): 9–13 (citations refer to the 2014 edition); and Luke Roberts, “By Law in Sound: J. H. Prynne’s Recent Poetry,” review of Kazoo Dreamboats; Al-dente; Each to Each; Of the Abyss; Or Scissel; and Of Better Scrap, by J. H. Prynne, Chicago Review, July 2019. Roberts notes a further modulation and possible attenuation of these earlier critical energies. An observation that is especially pertinent in light of the twenty collections of poetry Prynne has produced since the review; to what extent this critical thread is still visible in this new work remains to be seen.
7. J. H. Prynne, “The Art of Poetry No. 101,” interview by Jeff Dolvin and Joshua Kotin, Paris Review, no. 218 (Fall 2016): 186. The interview is indexed online, but is unfortunately behind a paywall.
8. Keston Sutherland, interview by John Tamplin, Blackbox Manifold, December 7, 2015.
9. See, for example, two letters to Douglas Oliver of June 14, 1987, and October 8, 1987, in folder 244, the J. H. Prynne Papers, MS Add.10144, Cambridge University Library Special Collections, cited hereafter as the J. H. Prynne Papers. More direct statements of this connection come much later, in prefatory remarks to a reading in Chicago and teaching material. See Prynne, and Keston Sutherland, “Poetry Reading,” The Poem Present Series, University of Chicago, April 16, 2009 — the relevant remarks are from 54:24 to 54:51; and Prynne, “Discussion Topic: ‘Listening to All’ (3)” (teaching materials distributed in advance of a discussion topic, University of Cambridge, January 2014) in folder 74, the J. H. Prynne Papers.
10. To my understanding these are, firstly, Simon Perril, “Hanging on Your Every Word: J. H. Prynne’s Bands Around the Throat and a Dialectics of Planned Impurity,” Jacket 24, November 2003, republished in Ian Brinton, ed., A Manner of Utterance: The Poetry of J. H. Prynne (Exeter: Shearsman Books, 2009), 83–103 (citations refer to the 2009 version); and then Matthew John Hall, “Violence in the Work of J. H. Prynne” (PhD diss., University of Western Australia, 2013), 136–91, subsequently published as On Violence in the Work of J. H. Prynne (Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015), 87–126 (citations refer to the 2013 dissertation). In between comes Wit Píetrzak’s somewhat shorter account in Levity of Design: Man and Modernity in the Poetry of J. H. Prynne (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2012), 110–17. I have not been able to read D. S. Marriot’s contemporary review of the collection in Archeus 1, 1989.
11. Lisa Jeschke, “Theatricality and J. H. Prynne’s Work” (PhD diss., University of Cambridge, 2015), 27; and Joshua Stanley, “Prynne’s Romanticism,” 20. It is worth noting, however, that as useful as his comments on Bands Around the Throat are, Stanley incorrectly claims that the poems were written and published after the 1987 general election, which introduces abrasive inaccuracies into his reading of them.
12. This being said, “limit” is a charged term in Prynne’s poetry; see for example, Keston Sutherland, “XL Prynne” in Complicities: British Poetry 1945–2007, ed. Robin Purves and Sam Ladkin (Prague: Literaria Pragensia, 2007), 43–73; republished in A Manner of Utterance, 104–32.
13. One of the more immediately available and accessible of these moments is the online forum, “Race and the Poetic Avant-Garde,” Boston Review, March 10, 2015. The introduction acknowledges the collaboration of Dorothy Wang and is signed by Stefania Heim, the poetry editor. Wang is a consistent and key figure in this moment, and her book, Thinking its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry, is an important antecedent in its discussions. Although less accessible for being behind a paywall, see also “Dossier: On Race and Innovation,” edited by Dawn Lundy Martin in Boundary 2 42, no. 4 (2015): 1–138.
14. While it is the case that the critical mass achieved in 2015 is notable, it is also the case that the various arguments and animadversions are not wholly “new.” One attempt to historicize these concerns in the US is Daniel Borzutsky, “Delusions of Progress,” Harriet (blog), Poetry Foundation, December 29, 2014. In the UK, an earlier account of the difficulties due to structural racism is Fred D’Aguiar, “Have You Been Here Long? Black Poetry in Britain,” in New British Poetries: The Scope of the Possible, ed. Robert Hampson and Peter Barry (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993), 51–71.
15. RAPAPUK was founded by Sam Solomon and Dorothy Wang, with a steering committee including Robert Hampson, Nat Raha, and Nisha Ramayya. Their website contains details, documentation, and so on, of the conferences organized so far.
16. Dorothy J. Wang, Thinking its Presence: Form, Race, and Subjectivity in Contemporary Asian American Poetry (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014), xxiv.
17. For a discussion of these questions which is addressed to poetry in the UK of the last sixty years, see Sandeep Parmar, “Not A British Subject: Race and Poetry in the UK,” Los Angeles Review of Books, December 6, 2015.
18. In a recent article Claire Grossman, Juliana Spahr, and Stephanie Young comment on a moment in Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: “In Rankine’s Citizen (2014) the second-person narrator is asked, ‘Will you write about Duggan? the man wants to know. Why don’t you? you ask, Me? he asks, looking slightly irritated’ (115). The exchange points to a prevailing assumption that defines contemporary literature: that Rankine’s ‘you’ must write about a Black man murdered by the police, while a (presumably) white writer has either no responsibility to or should not for reasons of appropriation.” “Literature’s Vexed Democratization,” American Literary History (February 11, 2021): 17. It is against the lack of responsibility assumed by white writers that I wish to lay this essay. For an account of the death of Mark Duggan at the hands of officers of the Metropolitan Police Service see, “The Killing Of Mark Duggan ← Forensic Architecture,” Forensic Architecture, updated June 9, 2020.
19. Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (London: Zed Press, 1983, repr. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 2. Citations refer to the 2000 edition.
20. This is the subject of Black Marxism’s fifth chapter, 101–120.
21. Robinson, 113, 116. Compare Gareth Austin, “Capitalism and the Colonies,” in The Cambridge History of Capitalism, ed. Larry Neal and Jeffrey G. Williamson, vol. 2, The Spread of Capitalism: From 1848 to the Present (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 309–11.
24. Jodi Melamed, “Racial Capitalism,” Critical Ethnic Studies 1, no. 1 (Spring 2015): 77.
26. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016), 15.
27. Paul Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack: The Cultural Politics of Race and Nation (London: Unwin Hyman Ltd, 1987, repr. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2002); citations refer to the 2002 edition.
28. By place, I am referring broadly to the United Kingdom. It seems likely however that the specifics of the respective places in question, the University of Cambridge on the one hand, and the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham on the other, have a lot to do with the differences in perspective that I am thinking about here. Although occurring many years later, consider also Dorothy Wang’s (admittedly offhand) articulation of a certain “siloing” of poetry and race from each other, occurring at Cambridge, in comments made during a 2016 panel discussion organized by RAPAPUK. “Symposium — part 4,” February 27, 2016, Bedford Square, London; the relevant remarks are from 4:59 to 5:48.
29. Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, 25.
30. This is an incredibly brief schematic of the book’s first chapter. Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, 1–40.
31. “Major Critical Discussion” and “Minor Critical Discussion / Prynne in Other People’s Art” section of “The Bibliography of J. H. Prynne,” maintained by Michael Tencer, updated April 14, 2021.
32. Perril, “Hanging on Your Every Word,” 84; Prynne, Poems, 350, lines 1, 9, 13.
33. For a full account of the complexity and ambiguity of necklacing see Riedwaan Moosage, “A Prose of Ambivalence: Liberation Struggle on Necklacing,” Kronos no. 36 (November 2010):136–56, and “The Impasse of Violence: Writing Necklacing Into a History of Liberation Struggle in South Africa” (master’s thesis, University of the Western Cape, 2010). For a much briefer yet immediate account of the same see Chris Hani, “Twenty-Five Years of Armed Struggle,” Sechaba (December 1986): 15–18.
34. Perril, “Hanging on Your Every Word,” 84. Perril’s sentence is largely a reproduction of the newspaper citation he points to; “lynching” is his addition. See OED, 3rd ed (December, 2020), s.v. “necklace,” sense 2.b.
35. In addition to only mentioning necklacing once, Perril refers to two newspaper reports “as quoted in O.E.D.” to corroborate the ubiquity of the practice in UK media, and perhaps also to imply its presence in the standard record of the English language (84). However, troubling Perril’s argument, the quotations he refers to, and the sense of “necklace” they illustrate, first appear in the 1989 2nd edition of the OED, and are not present in the editions to which Prynne presumably had access. See OED, 1st ed. Corrected reissue (1933), s.v. “necklace.”
36. Erik Ulman, “Composing with Prynne,” in A Manner of Utterance, 148–49. “Stanza” is Ulman’s phrasing; whether they are stanzas in a long poem, discrete poems in a sequence, or something in between, the lines referred to by Ulman appear in Prynne, Poems, 424, 426.
37. Sumanth Gopinath, “The Problem of the Political in Steve Reich’s Come Out,” in Sound Commitments: Avant-garde Music and the Sixties, ed. Robert Adlington (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 124–25.
38. Louis Goddard, “‘An Object with No Predecessors’?: A Computational Reading of J. H. Prynne’s For the Monogram,” Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry 9, no. 1 (2017): 5–6.
40. Peter Middleton, “Dirigibles,” QUID 8ii (2001): 48–49. This is reprinted in Peter Middleton, Distant Reading: Performance, Readership and Consumption in Contemporary Poetry (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama, 2005), citations refer to the 2001 version.
41. Prynne, Poems, 165, lines 1–4.
42. Calum Gardner and Lisa Jeschke, “Book Reviews: Poetic Artifice, Levity of Design and On Violence in the Work of J. H. Prynne,” Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry 9, no. 1 (2017): 9.
43. Stanley, “Prynne’s Romanticism,” 9.
44. OED, 3rd ed. (March, 2021), s.v. “albino.” A hint of fraught interaction between the color of skin occasioned by albinism and other “racial markers” is visible even across the quotations used to illustrate the various senses of the word. This is also true of previous entries, for example, OED, 1st ed. Corrected reissue (1933), s.v. “albino.”
45. Píetrzak, Levity of Design, 70–71.
46. Prynne to Edward Dorn, November 3, 1984, folder 71, the J. H. Prynne Papers.
47. These articles are divided among folders 69–73, the J. H. Prynne Papers.
48. The recent annotated edition of The Oval Window provides what appears to be the first precedent for this particular compositional practice in Prynne’s poetry, The Oval Window: A New Annotated Edition, ed. N. H. Reeve and Richard Kerridge (Hexham, Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books, 2018), 6.
49. Despite some overlap, my separation here of these articles into those appearing in the archive, and those appearing in the poems is made for the sake of clarity. Lines 7 and 29–30 of “Fool’s Bracelet” cite Michael Tate and David Smith, “Shares Peak on Poll News,” the Times, May 12, 1987, Business News, the Times Digital Archive; line 17 of “Punishment Routines” cites Kenneth Fleet, “Cash Flood Ready to Descend on London,” the Times, May 9, 1987, the Times Digital Archive; line 28 of “In the Pink” cites Michael Kinsley, “A Bad Attack of Social Anaemia,” the Times, November 15, 1986, folder 73, the J. H. Prynne Papers. Finally, parts of lines 14–15 of “Rates of Return” can be found in three articles: Mark Dowd, “Moscow Rules Out British Farmers,” the Times, August 22, 1986, News, the Times Digital Archive;“Slaughter Ban Lifted in More Areas,” the Times, September 5, 1986, News, the Times Digital Archive; David Guest, “Lotus Unveils Four New Styles,” May 19, 1987, News, the Times Digital Archive. Additionally, a clipping of a further article, “Watching and Waiting in the Welsh Hills,” the Times, September 26, 1987, in folder 1601 of the J. H. Prynne Papers, possibly indicates an interest in the accident at Chernobyl extending beyond Bands Around the Throat.
50. N. Gregson Davis, translator’s preface to Journal of a Homecoming / Cahier d’uns retour au pays natal, by Aimé Césaire, ed. F. Abiola Irele, trans. N. Gregson Davis (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), xii. Davis is speaking here specifically about the translation of Césaire’s great poem from French into English, but I do think that the thought is applicable more generally.
51. Prynne to Douglas Oliver, November 30, 1987, quoted in Jeschke, “Theatricality and J. H. Prynne’s Work,” 133. A copy of this letter is in folder 244, the J. H. Prynne Papers.
52. I have been able to consult letters collected in folders 240–46 and 352 in the J. H. Prynne Papers.
53. Gilroy, There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, 43–49. This is discussed throughout the second chapter, which includes the cited pages.
55. Gilroy, 43. See also 50–53.
56. I mean “counterfactual” here in what might be called its mundane sense and not in its specialized philosophical, logical, or linguistic senses which became important to Prynne at some point, as evidenced by the David Lewis epigraph to Not-You of 1993, Prynne, Poems, 381. For a discussion of the role of counterfactuals in that book, see John Wilkinson, “Counterfactual Prynne: An Approach to Not-You,” in The Lyric Touch, 5–21.
57. Prynne, Poems, 345, lines 49–52.
58. Gilroy’s insights, sketched in the preceding paragraph, suggest something of the symptoms and causes of this structural power. One such example is the reverberations of Enoch Powell’s 1968 “Rivers of Blood” speech discussed by Gilroy in There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, 48–49.
59. Prynne, Poems, 344–45, lines 15, 23, 33, 43 (with “leaves” again at 53).
60. See for example, Wilkinson, “Off the Grid,” 122.
61. Prynne, Poems, 342, lines 10, 20.
62. Perril, “Hanging on Your Every Word,” 84. See also a reproduction of a page from the July 12, 1983 edition of the Cambridge Evening News in folder 69, the J. H. Prynne Papers. The page is given over to various coverage of a parliamentary debate over the reinstatement of capital punishment to be held the following day. In April of 1987, this issue was again debated in parliament, 113 Parl. Deb. H.C. (6th ser.) (1987) cols. 1115–91.
63. OED, 3rd ed (December, 2020), s.v. “root and branch.” The text of the petition is available at “The Root and Branch Petition (1640),” Hanover Historical Texts Project, updated March, 2001. They cite the following source for the text presented: Henry Gee and William John Hardy, eds., Documents Illustrative of English Church History (New York: Macmillan, 1896), 537–45.
64. On the connection between the petition and Milton see, for example, Elizabeth Skerpan Wheeler, “Early Political Prose,” in A Companion to Milton, ed. Thomas N. Corns (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2001), 265; and Stephen B. Dobranksi, “Milton’s Social Life,” in The Cambridge Companion to Milton, ed. Dennis Danielson, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 8. The full measure of the influence of Milton’s work and thought on the pamphlet is still to be considered. For example, Ian Patterson notes that “Fool’s Bracelet” quotes book 1 of Paradise Lost, “Fool’s Bracelet,” in “For J. H. Prynne: In Celebration,” QUID 17 (June 2006): 51; see also a holograph note listing a variety of phrases and sources quoted in that poem, in folder 1601, the J. H. Prynne Papers. So too “Punishment Routines” appears to recombine sentences from both 1641’s Of Restoration Touching Church-Discipline in England and 1645’s Colasterion. Significantly, this latter title is a Greek word meaning “instrument of punishment.”
65. Prynne, Poems, 355, lines 9–12.
66. These are two of a number of riots occurring in the 1980s that have a complex relationship to race, racism, police violence, community solidarity, antiracist action, and media representation. Gilroy discusses aspects of these conjunctures in There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack, 84–145, 324–36.
67. OED, 3rd ed (March, 2021), s.v. “color,” sense P11.
68. The line is, “towards the lime-pits, topped in vain,” Prynne, Poems, 355, line 14.
69. Prynne, Poems, 355, lines 1–2. Regarding “assent so free” and its effect on the rest of the poem: although published many years after this poem, it may yet be useful to consult Prynne’s discussion of the conditions of giving assent in his George Herbert, ‘Love [III]’: A Discursive Commentary (Cambridge, UK: privately printed, 2011), 6–7, 28.
70. In the context of the general election, the tension in “voice” between individual utterance, and collective representation, a voice in parliament say, seems crucial. It is worth noting here too, that “nubs” distantly evokes the gallows and the neck, pulling on a thread briefly implied above. See OED, 1st ed. Corrected reissue (1933), s.v. “nub.”
71. OED, 3rd ed (December, 2020), s.v. “riot,” sense 8. The comparative sense is 2.d in OED, 1st ed. Corrected reissue (1933), s.v. “riot.”
72. OED, 3rd ed (March 2021), s.v. “border,” sense 4.