©Gayle Lazda/Prof. Quondam Lichen

Jeremy Prynne, prankster poet

The famously obscure poetry of JH Prynne glitters with aphorisms and jokes
May 18, 2016
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At the English Faculty in Cambridge, everyone has a story to tell about JH Prynne, poet and life fellow of Gonville and Caius College: his mind-expanding lectures, his nocturnal hours, his personal generosity, his pithy opinions, his unchanging dress code, and his vast scholarship. Latterly, the legend of Prynne—who will be 80 in June— has spread to the national press, with one broadsheet resorting to a telephoto lens to get a shot of a tall, suited, unsmiling man on a bicycle, and Private Eye inventing a shadow-Prynne, “AD Penumbra,” for their books pages (a descendant, perhaps, of the distinctly Prynne-like don “Simon Undark,” who appears in Iain Sinclair’s 1994 novel Radon Daughters, speaking “obliquely to make all things clear”).

Travellers’ tales, however, will tell you little about the single-minded devotion of this avant-gardist to his art. Prynne’s statements on poetry have been scattered to the winds as letters, lectures and notes in academic and samizdat publications. Private Eye scored a satirical hit when they informed readers that photocopies of AD Penumbra’s critical essay “Than With Whom What Other: A Challenge to Scansion” could only be obtained “by application to the British Library.”

A two-volume collected prose is at last in preparation. It will become a necessary complement to the massive third edition of his Poems (2015), which harvests half-a-century of small-press publications. To chew through Prynne’s oeuvre unaided would be a challenge to digestion—which may be why a recent, ineffectually angry hatchet-job in the magazine Areté concluded with the reviewer declaring that the book made him “literally” sick. Prynne’s most impatient detractors sound like Top Gear reviewing the International Space Station. This is not writing in a hurry to come down to earth. As the poet Michael Haslam once observed: “my own experience of Prynntexts is that, after an initial bafflement, they should be put on a shelf to mature for a couple of years, after which they become, mysteriously, more accessible.”

Haslam’s ripening analogy suggests the distinction that Prynne once proposed, in a 1961 essay, between unrewarding “difficulty” and satisfying “resistance”: “the palpable texture of human affairs,” from which “we derive our most powerful and sustaining sense of the world, in all its complex variousness.” As a young critic with Ezra Pound’s Cantos under his belt, Prynne was unimpressed by cotton-wool-wrapped evocations of “a landscape or environment not containing other beings that we can conceive of as living… their own various lives.” Nor was he satisfied with the man-in-the-street knowingness of contemporaries such as Philip Larkin. Neither kind of poetry was responsive enough to the world as it spread out beyond the writing desk: “the modern poet would hardly recognise a contingent event if he saw one, and least of all if he had been expecting it,” concludes another essay from the early 1960s.

Prynne’s early poems are full of cities, streets and houses. At the same time, they seek to encompass “the formal circuit” of our lives: the invisible forces that shape experience, just as the words of a poem are shaped into verse by its rhythms (“line breaks like tea breaks,” as Prynne quipped admiringly of the poetry of EA Markham). What, these existential meditations ask, is the condition or “quality” that we have in common, moving through the world at the mercy of the elements and each other:


The turnings of thought here—in a poem from Prynne’s 1969 collection, The White Stones, now reprinted by NYRB—are characteristically contradictory. “The continuance / of quality” is proposed as an ideal condition, “the time / of accord” between self and world. Idealism comes to grief, however, when it meets real life: well-meaning small talk in a car accidentally leads to a moment of alienating pain (“He could / have flown off just there as he was… across the / next hedge and into a field”). The temporary “accord” of kindness between two people is broken, and the speaker comes to suspect his notion of “quality” as a mode of romantic solipsism.

For Ben Watson—a former student of Prynne and one of his wittiest critics—the philosophical devotion to contradiction is what has driven this poetry to ever greater obscurities (including, since the 1970s, its general withdrawal from the personal voice). Responding to Kazoo Dreamboats, or, On What There Is, a long poem from 2011 which reads like a raging argument between a research library and an electric fence, Watson writes: “Prynne is a prankster, a trap, a contrary Mary in a blue robe twinkling with kitsch lights… a creator of baroque caves of language glittering with aphorisms and jokes and surprises.”

Prynne’s humour in person, delivered with a precise accent over half-moon spectacles, can be disarmingly Wodehousian. The poet and critic Veronica Forrest-Thomson once reported that her doctoral super- visor claimed Cambridge University Library had “got his middle name wrong. / He says it stands for Hah / But there is a limit” (in fact, his given names are Jeremy Halvard). In his poetry, however, the wit is sardonic and satirical, expressing a profoundly sceptical worldview in which English slides every- where on a flood of contamination and corruption—political, financial and environmental. “Make a dot / difference, make an offer; these feeling spray-on / skin products are uninhabitable, by field and stream” advises Unanswering Rational Shore (2001), vamping on the staccato verbalism of shopping channels and rolling news.

As far as they can be descried, Prynne’s politics are to the left of the Labour Party, and one day, no doubt, will turn up as an occasion for puzzlement in a Cold War-era MI5 file on Eccentric Cambridge Marxists. The typical imaginary citizen of his work is a helplessly consuming dupe, buffeted by market forces and responding with impotent anger. Here is the Pinteresque end of the late 1970s sequence Down where changed:


Yet there is also an enormous relish for the world, and all its “stuff,” which saves this writing from being merely high-minded. “I for my own part,” Prynne has said, “have a positive addiction to the meanest trash and to unmitigated urban pollution.” Over the years he has also immersed himself in the study of shamanism; Chinese; metallurgy; medieval and Tudor music; botany; and geology (which resulted in one of his greatest single poems, “The Glacial Question, Unsolved”).

All these pursuits are not alternatives to poetry, but knowledge that feeds Prynne’s ruling passion for philology: the study of human language as the most finely-contoured map of the world available. His more autobiographical public statements confirm that he has long seen language as an inner landscape. Speaking in 2012 about the translation of his poems into Chinese, he recalled how “being somewhere in the experience-space between English and Latin was one of the most amazingly exhilarating experiences I had as a schoolboy. It made me feel what it was like to be in the zone of language… almost as a place of awareness, almost in a sense as a place to be.”

Prynne’s criticism rises to poetry itself when he speaks about the life of words in this mystical way. “Within the great aquarium of language the light refracts and can bounce by inclinations not previously observed”; “rhyme is the public truth of language, sound paced out in shared places, the echoes are no-one’s private property or achievement”; “language is a human emotional system, an engine of love not just in nomenclature but in the syntax of passion.” Such claims for language as the symbolic medium that brings the world into being locate his literary thinking in the high modernist tradition of Stéphane Mallarmé, Gertrude Stein, TS Eliot and Wallace Stevens. In a lecture on the verse of his American mentor, Charles Olson, from 1971, he described the “language” of the universe as “its capacity for love. And the capacity of the universe for love is that for which man was born. I believe utterly that it is man’s destiny to bring love to the universe.”

Prynne’s later tendency, however, to knit words in a mesh of hermetic indirectness has dismayed some poets who might otherwise admire such visionary sentiments. Peter Riley, a close contemporary from the Cambridge poetry scene in the 1960s, writes in his latest book, Pennine Tales:


A younger poet, Emily Critchley, alludes to his reluctance to cultivate a wider audience in her “translation” of one of Shakespeare’s sonnets addressing a handsome man who is reluctant to marry: “Selfish—though lovely! You, remove / yrself frm circulation, like a Prynne / poem.”

“Britain’s leading late modernist poet,” as his Poems bill him, nevertheless remains as enthusiastic about his vocation as ever. He has begun to speak more candidly in old age about his work, happily telling a Cambridge audience recently how Kazoo Dreamboats was written in a Bangkok hotel room with a view of a concrete wall (“just what I wanted”) and a physics textbook for company. In a statement from 2010, published in Kathmandu as part of a collection of essays otherwise written in Nepalese (AD Penumbra, eat your heart out), Prynne writes: “To be in and across all things a poet, in daily involvement with the dialectic of imagination and real things, has been a task giving the profoundest joy and fulfilment. The task in this work has been to maintain the fundamental argument of contradiction, even while opening one’s powers of feeling and knowledge to the largest extent, so that language occupies the entire space of the poet’s self-being and then overflows it.”

“Poetry,” to quote Wordsworth—the canonical poet with whom Prynne is most often in conversation—is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” Dialectical “contradiction” is Prynne’s twist to this definition, and the key to understanding the perversely stilted beauty of his lyricism, which doubles back on itself constantly, checking its fluency of thought and rhythm (a tendency that became pronounced in the 1980s, when he began to include the language of computer programming in his work).

His most recent collection is a pocket-sized set of brief, spare poems, mostly composed from a vocabulary of small and familiar words. Its title, Al-Dente (2014), suggests this is food intended to be just tough enough to the reader’s bite. “Truth,” a 15-line poem which feels like a sonnet in its compact unfolding, concludes with an abstract evocation of life as a give-and-take between dark and light, exhaustion and renewal, resistance and flow:


“Staff” here is the word that jars most at first reading, but also yields the most when illuminated in the lexicographical manner of Prynne’s own word-by-word “commentaries” on short poems by Shakespeare, Wordsworth and George Herbert. A “staff” may be: a stick to aid walking; a flagpole; a set of lines on which music is written; a stanza of verse; a sign to a train-driver to proceed; the gnomon of a sundial; a body of military officers or salaried employees. The word can be traced back to a root meaning “to be firm or fixed,” taking in, on the way, the Old English “stæf,” meaning “letter, writing, literature.” None of this, of course, is “simple to see,” nor is the meaning of the whole something you can “find out now.” But if Prynne’s poetry is for you, the possible meaning of all these layers of meaning—pinned together by “staff,” at the end of a poem called “Truth”—will linger in the mind like the hidden rhyme with “half” that haunts the ear.