Saturday 16 February 2013

J H Prynne on poetic inspiration

J H Prynne gave a lecture at Sussex University last week.  I went along with friends who live in Lewes.  Two of us walked there over the South Downs, up a long ridge and down a spur.  We arrived at dusk with boots whitened by chalk mud.  Universities after dark are strange places.  60 or so people in a large, grimly fluorescent lecture theatre, somewhere on an emptied-out campus. 

We went out of curiosity, I suppose, and to be entertained... I’d rather have got JHP the poet, but the academic satisfied both motives.  One would have cast him for the part: tall, thin, black velvet jacket, energetic, deploying a fair amount of academic wit and charm.  One would have cast the audience, too, lots of intense young men (mostly) in an array of woolly jumpers.  The faculty didn’t seem to have turned out for the occasion, apart from Keston Sutherland who gave a rather sweetly adulatory introduction.  
The lecture was called 'The Poet's Imaginary'.  Prynne told us he was floating an idea that he hadn’t tested or researched.  His starting point was the imaginary friend that some small children have. Such friendships involve conversation, sometimes out loud, though they may start in the pre-language phase.  Could the adult poet’s inspiration come from a similar or successor relationship, an internal dialectic with an inwardly generated other?  This other, the imaginary, would come (or not) when the poet sharpens his/her pencils, clearing the mind to write.  The relationship would be like a real life one, sometimes friendly, sometimes more difficult, not necessarily life-long.  Indeed real life close literary collaborations (Wordsworth/Coleridge etc) might have a similar effect. 

That’s a rudimentary account.  It may be inaccurate.  (I made a few notes on the trains home, by which time I was full of good Lewes bitter, proof against the cold of various station platforms.)  Prynne had some fun with his idea; he also clothed it, at times, in the language of lit crit. There was a subtext on class and education.  There was politics outside too – somewhere on campus was the student occupation, supported by Prynne, in protest at a plan to privatise various university services and facilities. 

I liked the domestic nature of the imaginary.  It’s good to bring the muse down from the mountains and, as Prynne said, take the religion and mysticism out of poetic inspiration.  I’m not sure he used that latter term at all.  I also liked the tracing back to the solitariness of childhood; apparently, elder siblings and only children are more likely to have an imaginary friend.  (During questions, it emerged that one young man had had several.)

Beyond that, the imaginary didn’t resonate with me as an explanation for where poems come from.  I never had an imaginary friend, and the event of inspiration doesn’t feel like dialectic.  It’s more like an underground river surfacing.  The river’s usually so far down that I can hardly believe it exists, and occasionally near enough the surface for me to have one ear constantly listening for it. 

One questioner quoted W S Graham’s “What is the language using us for?”  That resonates. 

In the pub afterwards, the imaginary didn’t really work for anyone in an unrepresentative sample of four.  One person said it reminded him of a teddy bear relationship he’d had, though – maybe imaginary friends can take various shapes.  A couple of people in Prynne’s audience who asked questions about animals could have been thinking of Philip Pullman’s daemons. 

I wanted to know why Prynne had come up with this theory.  Did he have an imaginary friend himself when small?  Does inspiration feel like dialectic for him?  I did ask, in the Q&A session at the end, and Prynne gracefully declined my question (twice) and said something else interesting instead.  Fair enough.  Pocket-sized copies of Pearls That Were were on sale.  I asked him to sign mine and got a dedication in the most beautiful black-ink italic script: “This book is for Fiona, who knows how to ask a difficult question”.  I chose to take this as charming, rather than patronising.  The students were all too cool to ask for a signature; or, as one of my companions thought, too scared.

Anyway, next time I read JHP the poet, his imaginary will be there in the background. 

See here for more on the poetry, and some links.  This is from Pearls that Were:

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


  1. Interesting. But - don't all of us have imaginary friends in our heads? Otherwise, who do we talk to when we talk to ourselves? Some psychologist or other came up with this theory that we are all dual personalities. (Think hard, you'll remember who it is. No I won't. Lazy cow.)

    1. I'm not sure, Judi... but then I'm not a psychiatrist. Talking to oneself runs in my family (female side). To me, it doesn't feel like an imaginary friend. Did you have one when you were little?

      As for poems, quite a lot of mine are addressed to a real person. But I think that is partly the way they come out.

      It's a vast subject, isn't it... I mostly kept to Prynne's lecture in this piece, but could have gone off anywhere. Lots must have been written about the psychology of poetic inspiration, let alone the question of who is in our heads.

  2. Thank you for posting this interesting article on Prynne. I am a big fan of Prynne and Sutherland. Looking for others who are similarly disposed. I am at (Against Interpretation).

    1. Thanks, rockcru. Have just enjoyed looking at your blog.

  3. It reminds me (from this brief sketch) a bit of Julian Jaynes' idea of bicameralism, or at least the vestiges of it.

    1. Thank you. Have just looked it up - I see what you mean.