What we lack in knowing we make up for in syntax

An introduction to new recordings of Larry Price’s poetry

On December 12, 2023, Larry Price visited the Wexler Studio at the Kelly Writers House to record a series of his poems for the PennSound audio archive. This complete recording session, as well as excerpted recordings of each individual poem, can be found HERE at PennSound.

I had the pleasure of being in the recording studio while Price read his work, and was extremely moved — literally entranced — by the rolling cadence of his reading and his strange, almost-sensical syntax. I am glad I first encountered Price’s work in this way, out loud, performed, because the first elements of it that struck me were those that thrive through performance — its sound, its music and pace. It felt immediately clear to me that these poems were modern Shakespearean monologues — the monologues of a person, a poet and performer, with a critique of society that has become a music and a math. Price pointedly critiques and transforms the language of what he calls “the Market” (he capitalizes it), the baffling, nonsense world of contemporary capitalism. His work makes use of the blank language and reality of capitalism, of money and corporate life (Price himself works in advertising), of efficiency and uniformity, and begins to redeem it into something else — into a play, a theatre, a performative language whose very emptiness and circularity begins to become a feeling and a form. 

One of  the poems Price read is called “Only momentum tells us what to write, lunging from the platform of each new word:”

Art is a slipknot. One end of the rope exists. The other does not. Tying freedom-to-be to opposed ends of a transference: body to mind, mind to an X, X to an equation being
solved in the body that’s left behind when the knot is slipped.

Price’s poems are forced onward by a necessary momentum of syntax and speed of performance. His work feels like a high-wire act, poised on the razor edge between sense and nonsense, with the ultimate effect of the work being achieved only through the balance of continual movement, through “lunging from the platform of each new word.” Price’s delivery shows this: he speaks fast, sometimes intensely, sometimes lightly, liltingly, with a curious, rolling performer’s tone. But always, always, he keeps moving. He does not give us, the audience, time to really stumble over or get stuck on the question of “meaning.” I got the sneaking feeling that this “momentum” is both the pace we need to keep to navigate the nonsense act of meaning-making, and the cyclical, panicky pace of “the Market,” moving relentlessly without heed of human nature and oriented always towards the short-term future.

Price is also fascinated by language as a medium itself, by syntax as a redemptive math or the logic of words as a kind of relation between the disjointed “monads” of society. Another of his poems is titled, “What we lack in knowing we make up for in syntax,” which strikes me as a kind of statement of intent, an ars poetica of sorts. Although broken up by punctuation and performance, Price's sentences are robustly syntactical — they are faithful to and fanciful with English syntax, and yet they rarely quite “make sense.” The nouns that freight them are too strange, or too strangely paired, or too blank and empty of meaning. Yet, the logic of syntax strings them along, and begins to feel like a form in itself.  Price’s syntax is bounding and intensifying, like the structure of a rhyme scheme, or of a villanelle, or of any rigorously followed poetic form; it is a faithful math, always exact and exacting, with a strange, Shakespearean world of words as variables. 

The full recording of Larry Price’s session in the Wexler Studio can be found HERE, including segmented recordings of each individual poem he read. 

Price also recorded an interview about his work with Al Filreis and William Fuller during his visit to the Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania, which can be listened to HERE. In this interview, Price discusses several important aspects of his work, including his love of Shakespeare, his critique of capitalism and its accompanying blight of hyper-individualism, and his former work as a performance artist.