Celebrating 25 Years of Scoop
Special: Up To 25% Off Scoop Pro Learn More

Art & Entertainment | Book Reviews | Education | Entertainment Video | Health | Lifestyle | Sport | Sport Video | Search


‘Yearning For A Spoon’ - The Late Poems Of JH Prynne

“Packed with a kind of fertile obscurity.” - JH Prynne, Lectures on Maximus IV, V, VI.

“Here is something I can study all my life, and never understand.” - Samuel Beckett, Molloy.

Rarely do creative artists become more productive as they grow older. More usually, after a brief period of youthful efflorescence in their twenties and thirties, they either die or slowly flatline into a condition of comfortable mediocrity, resting on their youthful laurels and releasing compilations of their ‘Greatest Hits.’ This is hardly the case with the English poet and master-craftsman JH Prynne who, rather than bottoming out in his ‘declining’ years, has only become more prolific, achieving the kind of sharp angle of inclination that jetliners encounter preceding the turbulence that can inflict traumatic damage on the shape of their contents, often disfiguring them beyond recognition. Much like Pablo Picasso and musicians such as Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell, and Paul Weller, Prynne has constantly reinvented his corpus, continually evolving from his initial poetic density toward ever greater obscurity.

After retiring from his posts teaching English Literature as a Lecturer and University Reader in English Poetry at Cambridge University and Librarian at Gonville & Cauis College in 2006, Prynne has only become more productive and abstruse, with a prolix spate of lovely individual publications issued by Ian Heames’ Face Press. The long-awaited appearance of the second volume of his collected Poems 2016-2024  by Bloodaxe brings together all the limited edition Face Press imprints and cements Prynne’s reputation as the foremost exponent of late Modernist poetry in England. The effect of the individual volumes, some of which are hardly more than beautifully produced pamphlets, is wholly out of proportion to their modest dimensions. Taken together, the arrival of over seven hundred pages of new work constitutes a remarkable outpouring of creative verbal effusion, the cumulative effect of which can be overpowering.

Advertisement - scroll to continue reading

Are you getting our free newsletter?

Subscribe to Scoop’s 'The Catch Up' our free weekly newsletter sent to your inbox every Monday with stories from across our network.

There is a discernible American poetic ancestry that can be traced from Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, with a diverting detour via Hart Crane, through Charles Olson and Louis Zukofsky, to those writers associated with the pioneering Black Mountain school such as Ed Dorn, Robert Duncan, and Robert Creeley. Discerning the shape of this lineage in the UK is more difficult, but there are nevertheless distinct lines of congruity from Basil Bunting, through Donald Davie, to Prynne, whose early poems I addressed in two previous essays (see ‘The Puzzling Poetic Praxis of JH Prynne’).

Prynne’s initial collection Poems (1982) assembled all the work he wanted to keep in print, from Kitchen Poems (1968) onward. Three expanded editions of Poems followed in 1999, 2005, and 2015, with Poems 2016-2024 following as a separate supplementary volume in 2024. Separate editions have also been published of two of his collections - The White Stones (1969) from the New York Review of Books imprint in 2016 and The Oval Window (1983) in 2018. Prynne's most productive decade has also seen the publication of three prose works, Graft and Corruption: Shakespeare's Sonnet 15, Apophthegms, and Whitman and Truth, along with editions of his correspondence with Charles Olson and Douglas Oliver. His two-volume Collected Prose will soon be published by Oxford University Press. Born in 1936, Prynne remains a Life Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.

Deliberately anoretic as his poetic output has always been, Prynne has remained politically engaged. His abiding interest in the philosophical aspects of Maoism stems from his life-long friendship with Joseph Needham, the remarkable Chinese scholar who was Master of Gonville & Cauis College when Prynne started teaching there. In his introduction to the reissue of The Oval Window, Richard Kerridge provided a wonderfully clear account of the dialectics of reading (or at least of reading Prynne), making specific reference to the use of specialized language and unmarked quotations from numerous sources - “The term ‘dialectical’ here should not suggest a progression from the encounter with two opposing elements to a single powerful synthesis that resolves the opposition … What sort of synthesis could resolve this opposition? All that is available in the present circumstances is synthesis - and song - of the most provisional kind, emerging tentatively and warily in the gaps between thesis and anti-thesis, and always subject to imminent dissolution.” This enduring fascination with the dialectical process has even lead Prynne to write poems directly in Mandarin (the cover image of his latest collection is a calligraphic rendering of his Chinese name, Pu Ling-en). For the average Western reader, you can’t much more obscure or inaccessible than that.

When his Poems was first published in 1999, it was immediately acclaimed as a landmark in modern poetry. Four further collections were added to the second edition of Poems in 2005, followed by a further seven along with a group of uncollected poems to the third edition of Poems (2015). The following decade has been the most fertile period of Prynne’s life, with over thirty limited editions published between 2017 and 2024. To have added these to a fourth edition of Poems would have doubled the size of that volume. Poems 2016-2024 is therefore a separate, supplementary edition of his later work, including the mostly unchanged contents of thirty-six texts written since Poems (2015), from Each to Each (2017) to Alembic Forest (2024), all previously only available in limited editions from small presses, as well as the corrected 2023 text of At Raucous Purposeful (2022). The twenty-six Impromptus comprising Memory Working, originally published in three separate editions in 2020 and 2021, appear here as a complete sequence for the first time.

The significance of this magisterial tome has not escaped contemporary literary critics. In his review for The Observer, Adam Phillips described it as “One of the most inventive, intelligently experimental collected poems of the century,” while the writer (and former Prynne student) Peter Ackroyd described Prynne in The Times as “Without doubt the most formidable and accomplished poet in England today, a writer who has single-handedly changed the vocabulary of expression.” Roger Caldwell in the Times Literary Supplement was equally effusive - “Prynne presents a body of work of staggering audacity and authority such that the map of contemporary poetry already begins to look a little different.”

* * *

As his early lectures on Olsen’s Maximus poems make clear, inflection, curvature, and bending are key concepts in Prynne’s lexicon. Spoons are curved in the sense that they turn back on themselves, but he’s also talking about the curvature of the oceans, of the earth, of the universe, and finally of love, how ultimately they all bring us back to our original starting points - 

“Finally, what this takes us right round to is that it is simple. Simple in a technical sense: that’s to say, the universe is simple. Any part of the universe is complex. In fact, there are only two things in the universe which are simple, and one of them is the universe taken as a whole; and the other is its language, because its language is its capacity for love. And the capacity of the universe for love is that for which man was born. Oh yes, I am an absolute predestinarian in that sense. I believe utterly in that it is man’s destiny to bring love to the universe, I mean, to fulfil the universe’s potential for love … Then you can also have the particular condition of transpiring through the noble arc, from the land to the shore, from the shore to the sea, from the sea to the ocean, from the ocean to the void, from the void to the horizontal curve, which is love. You have the condition. You turn it round. You bring it all back in. You come right down, and you are home.”

If language expresses the universal potential or capacity for love, where is this evident in Prynne’s recent poetry, which seems to have very little to do with amatory fixations? It is far too fluid and oceanic (or non-binary, if you prefer) for that. What fascinated Prynne in his Lectures on Maximus is “the poem as the simple set of its occasion … the obscurity was part of the process … there was a kind of grandeur in the smoke and clouds of the far reaches of the learned imagination. Oh, it’s a great idea, and if only, if only we could really follow it. I mean, we have the glimmers, we have the lurking glimmers of what it’s like, and then there comes the point when it could be one thing or it could be the other thing: and we carry the fork in our minds and we go on, and then we come to another point where it could be one or another thing, and we carry the fork in our minds. And finally we just yearn for a spoon. I mean, the situation is that desperate.”

Prynne has always shied away from exposing any personal details of his private life and his recent poetry reflects this deep desire for anonymity, shunning the use of personal pronouns and eschewing verbs almost entirely. Although much of his earlier work contained dense and opaque references to both past and contemporary events, he would much prefer his poems to stand alone, as though outside of time and history. So what Prynne means by a ‘capacity for love’ is clearly not the kind of overwrought sentimentality or confessional details of a tortured emotional existence that we find littered throughout the verse of TS Eliot, Robert Lowell, or Sylvia Plath, to name but three tragic figures in the world of modernist American letters.

Just as the curious reader will search in vain for simple copulas such as and or but, or prepositions like I, he, or she, very few people materialise in Prynne’s poetry. No characters or dramatis personae in the tradition of Browning or Pound appear among the multiplicity of dusty academic references, nor does time proceed with any kind of logical progression or development. The exception is Kazoo Dreamboats, which Luke Roberts has identified as “a crucial twist-point in his work of the last two decades” with its reliance on the formulaic ‘I saw’ and the inclusion of what appears to be autobiographical material “held together through bravura travesty and aggressive scepticism.” 

Franz Kafka is supposed to have said that he entered literature by learning to say he rather than I. Marcel Proust’s Jean Santeuil, his first, abandoned novelistic venture, is written in the first person. However, by Time Regained he chose to say I, but it’s an that isn’t identical with the writer, but rather an I that is shifting, elusive, and constantly evolving. ‘Marcel’ may be the protagonist of the novel, since Proust at one point hypothetically gives himself that name in distinction to ‘the narrator,’ the retrospective teller of the story, although his fluid narrative style (as Peter Brooks has pointed out) moves vertiginously through different periods and prevents the reader from maintaining any clear distinction between the two. These were aspects of composition that Prynne seemed to have ditched long ago, but the alibi for the return of this personal pronoun Kazoo Dreamboats was “the poem’s thematic and textual conversation with Piers Plowman - the great Middle English poem of the Peasant’s Revolt - and a genealogy that would also include Milton and Blake.”

Generally, however, Prynne’s focus remains much dryer and academic, since he is more interested in the phenomenology of language itself. He is concerned with the textual deployment of single words (and even single letters) that resonate deeply on the fundamental level of etymology and philology. The eclectic sounds created by juxtaposed and apparently disparate phonemes alert the reader to an almost microscopic absorption in the dense particularity of language - its ‘roots and culture’ to adopt terms more usually employed by Jamaican reggae artists than distinguished Cambridge professors. This is a deep historical and political engagement not only with linguistics, but also with philosophy, geology, anthropology, and modes of social control as they are embodied in the very fabric of language itself as a signifying system.

It is here that the idea of inflection - a tendency either toward or away from us in a kind of magnetic process of attraction or repulsion - proves crucial. ‘Inflection’ possesses multiple meanings: it can indicate a grammatical change in the form of a word (typically the ending) to express a grammatical function or attribute such as tense, mood, person, number, case, and gender, the modulation of intonation or pitch in the voice, as well as the variation in the pitch of a musical note. In mathematics, an ‘inflection point’ indicates a change of curvature from convex to concave at a particular point on a bell curve - and by extension the cultural acceptance or rejection of some concept or practice when it reaches a cultural ’tipping point.’

As Susan Tallman recently observed in The New York Review of Books, the disconnect between the art that people appreciate and choose to acquire in any given moment and the art that later generations find valuable is a recurrent trope of art history Vermeer died bankrupt, while Van Gogh sold only one canvas in his entire life, etc. Thus, the narrative of midcentury American art in the normative discourse is often presented as a heroic saga of hyperbolically talented painters working abstractly and at scale to manifest an existential encounter between men (and the occasional woman) and their material. In an era when the average American home measured about a thousand square feet, leaving little room to accommodate large canvases regardless of their cost or style, Harold Rosenberg’s catchy 1952 formulation in ARTnews made perfect sense - “What was going on the canvas was not a picture but an event.”

By the mid-twentieth century, this concept of considering a canvas as an “event” had become a publicity tag-line, inspiring popular news items like Life magazine’s 1949 article ‘Jackson Pollock: Is He the Greatest Living Painter in the United States?’ In 1948, when Life convened a roundtable discussion on modern art (“fifteen distinguished critics and connoisseurs undertake to clarify the strange art of today”), Aldous Huxley compared Pollock’s drip-painting Cathedral to wallpaper, arguing that it could repeat indefinitely around the room. The catch, as Mary McCarthy pointed out in Partisan Review ten years later, was that once an object leaves the studio, its original oddity begins to settle into an easy conformity. Eventually, that original gestural event becomes “just as much an art-object as the piece of driftwood on the coffee-table … The truth is, you cannot hang an event on the wall, only a picture.” And a mere picture is only one remove from becoming a “profit-commodity,” ready for appropriation and exploitation by “fashion designers, educators, and wallpaper firms.”

In his seminal essay “Mental Ears and Poetic Work,” however Prynne argued that the sounds poems make are not acoustic events at all, but rather “semi-abstract representations of relations and orderings between and across sounds within a textual domain.” His adamantine refusal to supply any easy coherent meaning to his evasive syntactical strategies (their sound, the patterning of vowels and consonants, the falling of stress at the line break, and the way the words are conjoined) may be usefully compared to the radical tactics of Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s. Among other things, this means we simply cannot evaluate the quality of his poems. There are no traditional yardsticks by which they can be measured and any effort to rank one poem above another is inevitably and deliberately doomed to failure, just as we find it impossible to say that one Pollock canvas is better than the next one (all derivative of Navajo sand-paintings as they may be), or one of Warhol’s silkscreen prints of Elizabeth Taylor is preferable to any other (all blown up in garish pink smudges and blue smears as they are). In the end, either we like them - or we don’t.

There is an element of blithe acceptance and enjoyment in Prynne’s poetry. His sense of dry, but always vivacious humour is everywhere evident in his semantic play-time, the sheer pleasure that comes from juxtaposing words and sounds that display no apparently rational connection. As Lisa Jeschke suggested in her discussion of Unanswering Rational Shore, “Prynne’s late poetry is, not least, funny, because it dares to allow words and meaning to crash, continue, crash again, get up again; it is a funny response to the new media communication show spreading the simultaneously naive, cynical and brutal assumption that understanding can be improved and community achieved without any actual change in the organisation of labour and work.”

Fortunately, this sort of raffish nonchalance also infuses his later poems, demanding only that the reader forget normative standards of traditional versification and simply ‘go with the flow.’ His typographic preferences include large blocks of lattice work ‘stanzas’ that employ chunks of text, line breaks, and semi-colons with apparently random insouciance. Snooty Tipoffs, for instance, begins by evoking both Noël Coward and Ivor Novello -

                                                       Music in the ice-box, music by the sea,

                                                              music at the rice-bowl, for you as well as me:

                                                       swinging from the rafter, after time for tea,

                                                              ever-present laughter, in sweetest harmony.

There may be no apparent reason, but at least there’s some rhyme. As for what it’s all about, the often confused and struggling reader is perhaps best advised to show -

                                                       no anger now, childish first near finish

                                                       up in debt beyond reason or meaning. 

As Allen Ginsberg inquired in his introduction to Gregory Corso’s Gasoline - “But what is he saying? Who Cares?! It’s said!”

* * *

I would like to conclude with what Prynne’s poetry both evokes and invokes for me personally. Perhaps no adjective better describes the modulations, dissonances, and distillations of his language than alchemical. Like a strong solvent, it converts images, concepts, symbols, and metaphors into a mysterious transparent liquid of camphorous odour which, by its mellifluous resonances, suggests the perpetual alienation and interchange of idea and impulse. Issuing like a steaming geyser from a sulphurous crater, Prynne’s music (for it is hardly a language) consumes everything with which it comes into contact, intoxicating the brain with the pungent, acrid fumes of its metallic source. A poet employing the medium of this supra-liminal arena is no longer a mere writer - he has appropriated the totemic powers of a shaman or sorcerer. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, involving as its does ‘liberation through hearing,’ could only have been written in such a language.

Reading Prynne, we become aware once again of the existence of those invisible rays which emanate perpetually from the most remote parts of the cosmos and are reflected in and inflected by both the microcosm and the macrocosm. To paraphrase the second verse of the Emerald Tablet (a short hermetic text from the late eighth or early ninth century) - “As above, so below.” In the twinkling of any eye, we’re divorced from the illusory world of material reality and placed at the carrefour of those concentric radiations which are the true substance of an all-encompassing and all-pervading reality where all that exists is vibration, creation, and re-creation. 

The song of the world, registered in every particle of that specious substance called matter, issues forth in an ineffable harmony filtered through those angelic beings that lie dormant in the shell of the physical creature called man. When man, with his pitiful sense of relativity, looks through the sublunary lens of a telescope and marvels at the immensity of creation, he only succeeds in reducing the limitless to the limited. What matter if we succeed in putting a thousand universes within the focus of our microscopic telescope? We can only ever hope to acquire a temporary optical lease on the boundless grandeur of creation which remains ultimately unfathomable.

The microscopic eye of the angel, however, sees nothing but totality, which is perfect. In the angel’s wake, size and scale mean nothing - there are only infinite alternate universes to behold. The process of enlargement merely enhances the sense of the miniature. The thought that our universe may be no bigger than a blood corpuscle entrances us, lulling our desperate anguish, and the greater our physical vision, the more in awe we become.

It is only with the angelic eye that man can behold the wonder of his true substance. We understand (though we may refuse to believe) that with this mechanical eye we will never fully penetrate, still less partake of, the curvature of creation. We linger before the verbal structures which palpitate and pullulate like living beings trapped within the cosmic ambit in which both language and events are preserved as in amber. Prynne’s lines of verse, which may at first appear to be pure nonsense, remain astral in their implications. We realise, in a vague, dim way, that other eyes and fresh ears are required in order to re-enter the mysterious world from which we have sprung.

And so, unsuspecting readers are left to enjoy an angelic sport, twisted like corkscrews as we squint and stammer in a vain endeavour to fit our world into the existent one. The angels sleep lightly within us, ready at the slightest tremor or turn of the screw to assume command. Perhaps it is only when we are entirely alienated that we really begin to communicate with each other as vibrant portions of the infinite whole. Only when the inaudible music begins, do we know with absolute certainty that we are fundamentally alive.

© Scoop Media

Culture Headlines | Health Headlines | Education Headlines



  • Wellington
  • Christchurch
  • Auckland

Join Our Free Newsletter

Subscribe to Scoop’s 'The Catch Up' our free weekly newsletter sent to your inbox every Monday with stories from across our network.