Richard John Davis
Cambridge-based JH Prynne doesn’t give interviews, doesn’t do readings and only publishes through small press companies. Yet he has been described as the UK’s greatest living poet.
It could be argued that JH Prynne fights against any sort of mainstream or conventional aspects to his literary career. The Cambridge-based poet does not give readings, does not appear in anthologies and somehow manages to avoid being nominated for prizes. He also doesn’t give interviews, isn’t keen on being photographed or filmed and normally publishes his work via small presses – more often than not in limited edition chapbooks. And all of that is before we get to the language of his verse.
Prynne’s poems are, the consensus goes, notoriously difficult. In fact, “difficult” would appear to be the word most often used to describe both the writer and his work. Academic and critic John Sutherland once claimed that “only four people […] can understand him”.
Another, perhaps less irritating, form of categorisation often used for Prynne is the word modernist. Sometimes, this is adjusted, or narrowed to, “late modernist”, referring to the fact that modernism is associated mostly with early twentieth-century art, music and literature. Investigate more closely, and it is possible to discern further connections between the poet and the revolutionary movement.
TS Eliot, high-priest of modernism, when asked what “Lady, three white lions sat under a juniper tree…” meant, famously replied, “I meant, ‘Lady, three white lions sat under a juniper tree.’” And it is possible to imagine Prynne responding in a similar fashion if asked about lines such as “[…]now we are eating snow in handfuls[…]”, “And how much we hope for it is the primacy of count,” or, “[…]having nothing to do with some zeal about traverse […]”. Or, indeed, about poem titles such as ‘Air Gap Song’ or ‘The Glacial Question, Unsolved’. Many such snippets of Prynne appear to bear more likeness to cryptic crossword clues than lines we more usually associate with poetry.
And, like cryptic crosswords, understanding eases with familiarity and length of intimacy with the form. Such is the case with Prynne’s work. Like people, his poems become easier to adjust to, empathise with and form attachments to with the passage of time. Why shouldn’t poetry be this way? Any other way and we may as well be talking about prose. If something can be said using any other word-based method, then it should probably not be said in poetic form, or perhaps not that particular way at least. Some things are not easily expressed via linear, logical word formations. Arguably, this is why we have the need for abstract forms such as music, as well as poetry.
Jeremy Halvard Prynne taught at Cambridge for many years. He is life fellow of Gonville Caius College. He retired from lecturing in English literature at Cambridge in 2005.
His poetry first emerged in 1962, with the publication of his first collection, Force of Circumstance. Influenced by Donald Davie and Charles Tomlinson, the collection demonstrates an intention to extend and develop their ideas and techniques. Another collection, Kitchen Poems, appeared in 1968. Prynne was now more interested in American poets, such as Charles Olsen and Robert Creeley. In the new collection, Prynne explored both the limitations and possibilities of language, alluding to the semiotics of philosophers like Roland Barthes and language pioneers like Ferdinand de Saussure. He also insists on the primacy of real objects and images, and focuses on the deceptions that language can place upon them – all of which echoes and extends the imagism of Pound and his poet contemporaries. Images can be mere signifiers, with attendant connotations, as in
‘Living In History’:
Walk by the shore, it is
a cool image, of water
a bearing into certain
the stretch, out there
Although embraced by those still pining for the experimental wonder years of Eliot and Pound, many felt Prynne’s work too hermetic. It wasn’t until publication of his collected works in Poems that wider recognition finally arrived – although criticism didn’t dissipate completely. The collection had gone through three editions by 2005, with a new edition out this year.
In the UK, there had been a palpable shift away from modernism, towards the more straightforward and narrative poetry of WH Auden and the movement’s Philip Larkin (who despised modernism). The Americans found little warm reception, but Prynne – who became the central force in what was to become known as the Cambridge school – became a sort of conduit for their work, teaching, writing and collaborating creatively with their ideas. Eventually, the movement known as the British poetry revival developed out of this.
In The White Stones, published in 1969, Prynne shifted his interest towards concerns about lyrical representations of the self. Problems of philosophy were again included, leading to further criticism. “It is as if, ninety years after [modernism] it has become a form of elegy: a lament for the fact that words can never exactly match things,” said Ruth Padel on Prynne’s early work.
Others have described his poems as “self-referential closed circuits”. To his detractors, Prynne is “baffling”, or “incomprehensible”. The Guardian has described a “disproportionate amount of alarmed hostility” ranged at him. Despite this, Prynne has a sizeable readership, not just in the UK. In France, the US and China, his work is widely appreciated. French poet Jérôme Game has described him as “the most important living English poet”. Indeed, since Poems was published, Prynne has remained one of the most published living British poets. In China, a translation of ‘Pearls That Were’ has sold more than 50,000 copies. Only 500 were produced in the UK.
Perhaps it is the mysterious-seeming processes evident in Prynne’s work that keep readers coming back. Just as Jean-Luc Godard breaks down the process of film-making within his work, so Prynne does the same within his poems, revealing the machinery of language as the engine is running.
A new edition of Poems, by JH Prynne is out now, published by Bloodaxe.