Thursday 2 June 2011

Why does nobody read J H Prynne?

Well, not nobody; I do, for a start.  But I have yet to hear anyone else express enthusiasm for his work. 

He doesn’t make it easy.  I’ve just weighed Poems on the kitchen scales: 2¼lb, or just over 1 kilo.  This slab of a book would be a useful accessory for yoga, or for building a wall.  And getting hold of a smaller helping of his poetry is difficult.  With one exception, on Amazon you pay between £95 and £322 for old pamphlets, but most of them are unavailable.  Prynne hardly ever does readings.  There’s a recording on YouTube of him reading at Chicago a couple of years ago, but the sound quality is very poor, and, having expressed doubt about the value of readings in his introduction, he doesn’t read particularly well. 

And then there are the poems.  Here is the opening of ‘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
cage called fear and yet flight into
     his pectoral shed makes for comic
hysteria, visible hope converted to the
     switchboard of organic providence
at the tiny rate of say 0.25 per cent
     “for the earth as a whole”.  And why
go on reducing and failing like metal: the
     condition is man and the total crop yield
of fear, from the fixation of danger; in
     how we are gripped in the dark, the
flashes of where we are.

That poem is from Brass, 1971.  It’s one of the poems he read in Chicago, maybe chosen because it is relatively easy to follow.  It seems to me to be a violently pessimistic poem.  In the last section it includes the lines “We walk / in beauty down the street, we tread / the dust of our wasted fields…. we have already induced / moral mutation in the species”. 

Typically for Prynne, it plunders the vocabulary of various specialisms, politics and also literature to produce strange juxtapositions, connections and imagery.  I find this exciting – it makes my synapses spark, whether or not I understand what is going on.

I’m not sure that late modernist poets are meant to be lyrical.  A few years ago I went to a reading/lecture by John Kinsella, organised by The Wolf magazine, in which JK and others referred admiringly to Prynne’s non-lyricism.  I suspected them of macho posturing, reflecting a value system which at least has the merit of rarity.   I find some Prynne very lyrical, including the poem quoted above.  More obviously, Moon Poem (from The White Stones, 1969), which ends:

I know there is more than the mere wish to
wander at large, since the wish itself diffuses
beyond this and will never end: these are songs
in the night under no affliction, knowing that
            the wish is gift to the
            spirit, is where we may
            dwell as we would
go over and over within the life of the heart
and the grace which is open to both east and west.
These are psalms for the harp and the shining
stone: the negligence and still passion of night.   

And the first poem, untitled, in Pearls that Were (1999), which ends:

So Orpheus tamed the wild beasts
  for long night comes down
moving naked, over the wound,
  the gem from the crown.

Ivory tower: not Cambridge Gothic
but Khiva minaret (pinkish bricks
the colour of Prynne's book cover)
What I don’t like at all is what is evident throughout his long oeuvre but becomes more pronounced in some later poems: a sort of senior common-room cleverness, an arid playing with language.  So I can see why people say, when asked about Prynne, that they find him dry and cerebral, as well as obscure and difficult.  But I think they miss the lyricism – and the emotion. 

I wonder if people also find the obscurity and difficulty threatening because they may not get individual references in a poem, let alone the whole picture.  Though in this google age, the former can be less of a problem – I just googled a quotation in ‘A New Tax on the Counter-Earth’ (from Brass) and found it came from Trollope’s The Prime Minister.  The poem, which is highly ironic and in parts comic, includes these lines:

          … the stupid slow down & become
wise with inertia, and instantly the prospect of
money is solemnised to the great landscape.
It actually glows like a stream of evening sun,
value become coinage fixed in the grass crown.
The moral drive isn’t
            quick enough, the greasy rope-trick
has made payment an edge of rhetoric;
                           the conviction of merely being
                 right, that has
marched into the patter of balance.   

That could have come from a 2011 collection, not 1971.  Prynne’s  poems often use words from  finance and economics; they address the environment, disintegration, the edges of things, the end, muddle, disaster.  It is a shame his fractured language should be perceived as a barrier to such contemporary stuff.  I can’t think of anyone else who writes about it half as compellingly.  ‘On the Matter of Thermal Packing’ starts

In the days of time now what I have
is the meltwater constantly round my feet
and ankles.  There the ice is glory to the
past and the eloquence, the gentility of
the world’s being… 

That’s from the end of the 60’s.  I am probably reading it too literally, but the poem does contain a powerful metaphor for transience and instability (and/or other things I’ve missed); and becomes all the more powerful when read today. 

Relevance is only part of it, though.  One way to enjoy the poems is to… well, enjoy them – read them in a state of negative capability, and see what happens.  Maybe have fun reaching after references later, but only once the poem has entered in, as a poem, with all its richness and energy and colours, and anger, confusion and sometimes despair. 

There is a bit of help available with reading Prynne, though some of it is written in language which may well put off anyone who’s put off by Prynne anyway.  Thus keeping the smooth walls of the ivory tower in good repair.  An exception is a piece by Ruth Padel on his early poem ‘The Holy City’, in her book The Poem and the Journey.  She says, of modernism generally and JHP in particular:

‘It is as if, ninety years after [Modernism started, it] has become a form of elegy: a lament for the fact that words can never exactly match things Or else it has become an intense form of yearning driven by two incompatible desires: to get everything in and say you can’t.  A poem may want to be all of life but has to use form and language.  Form and language limit it, so the poem can never fulfil what it longs for… words can never completely represent the world. 

‘Formal traditions make a virtue of this; they revel in it.  Avant-garde work, like space travel, always wants to go for broke, go farther, strip away frontiers and boundaries.’  

Another exception is an interesting piece by Robert Potts in the Guardian, here, from which comes this statement by Prynne himself about his poetic practice:

‘It has mostly been my own aspiration, for example, to establish relations not personally with the reader, but with the world and its layers of shifted but recognisable usage; and thereby with the reader's own position within this world.’

A more recent piece by Potts is here.  And there’s a whole Prynne poem in Jacket, here, analysed by John Kinsella.

Two years after writing this I went to a lecture by Prynne at Sussex University.  It was rather entertaining see here for an account.  

Prynne’s Poems are published by Bloodaxe. 


  1. I remember that a critic once faced head on the problem of Wallace Stevens' precious diction - were the words chosen because they were shiny baubles or did they have a particular function? What of Prynne's syntax - does it earn its keep? His vocab? Is the difficulty a mask?

  2. This is a nice post - always nice to come across an enthusiast for this great poet's work.

    Lots of people read J H Prynne, and lots of them read him with enthusiasm, too! The implication of Padel's argument, that the "avant-garde" is a kind of hopeless dead-end, is baloney. I can't think of much poetry more optimistic about the possibility of a full transfer, a total release into the potential of language to bring us into communication, than Prynne's - especially late Prynne, actually, but it's not easy to get there.

    Some fascinating recent readings of his work here: I like the way they express the amazing commitment and love that his poems call on sometimes from his readers:

  3. Stephen – interesting questions. I think Prynne’s skilled use of syntax that varies from formal to disjointed to idiomatic is one of his strengths, and adds energy and a sort of clarity to the poems. Similarly with the vocab. Is the difficulty a mask… for what, I wonder? When the poems work, the difficulty is somehow part of the working. When they don’t and Prynne seems to be on poetic autopilot, then the difficulty can feel like a mask for lack of content or meaning. I’m no linguistics expert, though. What do you think?

    Tombola – thanks for the nice comment, and for rising to the bait of my title! It’s good to hear that someone somewhere knows lots of people who read JKP. Seriously, though, I think mainstream British readers and writers of poetry tend to avoid him. One could write a sociological analysis of why. My sample size is probably statistically significant, after several years of asking and finding this out.

    I love your comment on language optimism; and thanks for the link which I’ll explore.

  4. I find that the question of form and content which a lot people sneer at as past its use by date, a valid one, because often the form is for its own sake, and the actual content trite - if we compare the very spartan lines of William Carlos Williams (or Charles Tomlinson for that matter too) with Prynne's poems - and I could dash off now and bring the paving slab to the computer to provide an example - I shall in a second - but for now my feeling is that several of Prynne's poems are circumlocutory - not in the Jamesian sense - as Henry James in nearly all cases gave you a reward - one feels an emptiness - as one might say in the case of poems lit up as neon lights - indeed this matter of form and content breaks the boundaries of the text on paper or read aloud - because when we have the poem in sms form, or in newer technology, poem as installation etc - then the form as novelty is privileged - if I grabbed balloons and created a poem - people might admire the skill - however the poem itself, its content often is trite as a hallmark greeting card - I am then not bamboozled by the cleverly constructed poem, the adventures in syntax - one has over 2000 years of that - I often respond to what I take to be integration of form and content and if the first is too much - I feel in a way cheated - as one has two much air in icecream. :-)

  5. Stephen - many thanks for replying to my question. I agree with you that form & content are not old-fashioned. I don't see how they could ever be. But shouldn't there be room for every form and style, whether pared back or circumlocutory? Current poetry practice tends to favour the pared-back, so all the more reason to challenge oneself with its opposite!

    I do agree, though, that some of Prynne seems empty, and that his distinctive and complicated style can be a barrier both to the content and to overall appreciation. Many of his poems take off for me, especially in the earlier collections, Kitchen Poems and The White Stones; others don't. Maybe after another ten or twenty years of reading him, I'd think differently, which is why he'd be one of my desert island poets.

  6. Yes I see a lot of poets these days are reading White Stones - certainly the poets befriended on FB are doing so - I find his earlier poetry like Pound's, to be - dare I say it, more lyrical, the later stuff drones. But I shall hew more at the surface - as to circumlocution - yes by all means, however often one wants a destination in mind - otherwise we are thrown back upon the design - and if it is wanting...ah well.

  7. Christopher Terry7 April 2016 at 10:39

    I find myself returning to JH Prynne every couple of years or so. I'll heft the slab into my day-bag and it'll go about with me for a couple of weeks, while I read from him. He never seems arid to me; far from it. Sometimes the wordplay is perhaps a touch too clever but his work is a true lucid show and these games are neither intrusive nor unforgivable, if he will allow such presumption on my part. And he and Larkin are not that far apart, either.

    1. Thanks Christopher. Bravo for carrying the slab around! Finding Prynne impenetrable may be one thing that gives rise to the charge of aridity. Larkin: yes, there's something of a mood in common there.
      It's nearly 5 years since I wrote this piece - nice that it's still getting read. 50 hits just in the last month.

  8. Yes, this is a very clear and attractive piece of commentary on Prynne (made newly topical by last year’s hefty Bloodaxe collection), picking up well on ‘richness, energy and colours’ and making an excellent point about the need for ‘negative capability’. Over the years, Prynne has attracted the expository labours of those who work towards something like a ‘determinate meaning’ for the poems, even if they would not accept this description. At their worst, they are rather like a group of Bletchley Park code-breakers trying to find the firm message lurking somewhere in the flow. This is hilariously mistaken as a way to approach his work, almost as if the poems were primarily cryptic political and historical essays (although a vein of political and historical commentary is one part of the mix, certainly). It needs a more relaxed openness to possibility and to diverse routes through matters of perception and abstraction. The cited lines of ‘On the matter of thermal packing’ show this very clearly. I first came across Prynne’s poetry in the early 70s as a Cambridge student. My friends and I thought it was interestingly wacky (‘Aristeas, In Seven Years’ being a recurrent source of wonder) and some were rather dismissive. However, certain passages just stayed with me, with their (shifting) suggestiveness and densities of reverberation. None more so than the opening lines of ‘In the Long Run, to be Stranded’
    Finally, its trade that the deep changes
    work with, so that the lives are heavier,
    less to be moved from or blunted. The City
    Is the language of transfer
    to the human account. Here
    phrases shift, the years
    are an acquiescence.
    (indent of last four lines possibly not shown)
    In the end, both a fair bit of interpretive effort as well as ‘openness’ are needed for getting the most from Prynne, of course, but the grim commitment of the exegetical brigade is not an example to follow.

    1. Thank you John; and thanks for sending me back to 'In the Long Run', a Monday morning treat. Nice that the next line after your quote starts "This isn't a wild comment". I don't object to the Bletchley Park approach - if that's the way some people respond to the poems' mystery, fine. I rather like it that responses can be so diverse. There's a synthesis to be gained somewhere as you suggest.