The Poetry of J.H.Prynne: Thoughts



Having sauntered down to the library to pick up a copy of Prynne’s Poems, I hopped onto the bus and headed home. En route, I thought I’d dabble in a sneak preview of the week’s reading and pulled the hard-bound book from my bag. I can’t remember which poem I read first, but I can recall my immediate response; face scrunched up, eyes blinking repeatedly in confusion, I glanced from page to window and back again, making sure that what I had just read was written in the English language. Because normally, when you read things in your mother tongue as you are doing right now, your brain somehow assimilates the black forms on the page into a nice, neat, meaningful bubble of information and might stimulate your stream-of-consciousness. From the off, you know that Prynne’s poetry is operating on another level, a level you do not (yet, perhaps) have the key to. It is notoriously difficult, although perhaps ‘difficult’ is a bit soft – at times, it seems nigh impossible, an impenetrable jumble of diction thrown together for some confused purpose. I remember feeling frustrated and incapable of accessing this poetry. A final year English undergraduate who couldn’t make head nor tail of a poem. This can’t be happening, I despaired. What have I been doing for the past three years? After one last glare at the text (I saw the words, I knew what they meant, most of them, on their own, but as a sentence – what on earth!) I flipped the cover, slid it into my bag and sat silent in a sordid pool of nervous anticipation for when I got home and had to study the damned thing.


Yet what I found is that Prynne’s poetry, although certainly esoteric, is an exciting challenge which bears fruit when getting your teeth into. But how do you get your teeth into such a mesmerising maze of obscure allusions, extraordinary Will Self-like diction and a wide range of experimental forms. Here are a few pointers and thoughts for anyone compelled to explore the poetry of Mr Prynne:

  1. Always have the OED and Wikipedia at your disposal. Even if you feel familiar and comfortable with a word, look it up and check out the various meanings Prynne may be juggling with. As a poet, Prynne is fascinated by language and the possibilities it offers. However, following post-structuralist analysis of philosophers such as Jacques Derrida, there developed a notion of discomfort and instability surrounding language which Prynne meddles with in his poems. Derrida says that language is intangible, with meaning always slipping away from us and impossible to pin down. So if you don’t understand a word and go to the dictionary to find out what it means, this meaning is conveyed to us through a load more words which, in turn, you don’t understand properly anyway! In this way, you may feel comfortable with the words in Prynne’s poetry, but the words are supposed to lull you into the false sense of security that language gives and Prynne makes you aware that the tool you use to create meaning (language) is much more complicated that you might have thought. Also Wikipedia is useful for giving relatively brief explanations of more technical terms and theories which you will encounter in the poems.tumblr_m7yfi1RRti1rc6qh8o1_500
  2. If you become frustrated and exhausted because of the poetry, take a break and don’t worry too much about it. Bear in mind that Prynne wrote this poetry with a particular audience in mind; a highly intellectual one, aware of post-structuralist linguistic theory and interested in bio-chemic subjects, plus many others. Prynne is aware of the decline in the readership of poetry in the 20th century, which (unfortunately) continues up until today, and instead of trying to lure in and attract a wider audience, Prynne opts to pitch his poetry to the academic audience of contemporary poetry. Thus the poetry is somewhat elitist, and is almost a high culture puzzle or experiment which exists to challenge fellow academics. For this reason the poetry is sometimes intolerably difficult, but what I found is that the amount of effort and thinking required by Prynne’s poetry pays dividends elsewhere and will make you a more active reader in general.
  3. Don’t, as we so often do, disregard or skim over the poems’ titles. Perhaps even read the poem first, try to decipher some themes, ideas, discourses, and then read the title in relation to the content of poem. Often, as in ‘Thoughts on the Esterhazy Court Uniform’ (See below), the title seems to bear no relation to the poem itself. Strange. Why? Prynne appears sceptical of accepted poetic form and formalities and continually questions these traditions. Why do we give poems titles? What purpose do they serve? Are they useful? What happens if we give the poem a nonsense title? These are the sorts of questions that fuel Prynne’s work. Also question other elements of poetic formality; how is the enjambment working? Does it look like a poem? If so why? Or if not, why not? Why does he choose this or that form?
  4. Do not think that this poetry is above and beyond you. Although arguably being an ‘elitist’ brand of poetry, Prynne himself (I think) would not claim that his poetry is beyond anybody. To me, his poetry subscribes to Roland Barthes’ theory of the death of the author. In short, Barthes’ claims that a book is a ‘fabric’ woven from the different strands of the writer’s life at the point when the pen touches the page; the historical/social/economic context in which it is written, the purpose for which the book is being written, the processes it goes through after being written (editorial changes), etc. With so much going on, the author becomes a negligible feature in relation to the text itself and is solely the human being who put the pen to paper at that time. Thus the text is exalted and the author dies. The importance then turns to the reader, because without him/her the text carries no meaning whatsoever. And so meaning can only be created using the imagination of the reader and that meaning, no matter what it is, becomes the foremost important element at that point. This is suggested by the presentation of some of Prynne’s texts, for example. Brass (1971) and many of his other titles do not contain the authors name on the exterior of the book, which is often of a simple design, and so the importance of the author is played down. What is important is the title, the poems themselves, and what they evoke in the reader.                                                      roland-barthes
  5. Read poems in sequence and note down themes which are constructed and dealt with through several poems. Many poems deal with similar ideas or themes which are sometimes referred to briefly and might need to be read alongside sections of other poems to create a fuller idea of Prynne’s discussion. A couple of themes I have noticed are; ideas around water/frost/ice, the processes between different states and the importance of this chemical in natural history; religion, its role in society, and philosophical ideas surrounding the concept of a ‘God’; the notion of return, going back to something in the past, appears to be a recurring idea and this also relates to ideas surrounding the concept of nostalgia (why do we yearn for the impossibility of the past), the passage of time, the process of aging, and the importance of sequences and development through time.


I hope some of these thoughts might help any novice readers of Prynne or tempt you to give him a go. Despite the complexity and challenges of his work, he is a writer whose work bears fruit to the reader who tackles the obstacles with the right tools. He is a writer who, although I cannot claim to fully understand the concerns of his poetry, has changed the way that I approach the experience of reading poetry (and literature in general) which for many of us remains such a passive one, although we assume otherwise. If you want to have a dabble, here is a poem published in his Poems (1982):




I walk on up the hill, in the warm

sun and we do not return, the place is

entirely musical. No person can live there

& what is similar is the deeper resource, the

now hidden purpose. I refer directly to my

own need, since to advance in the now fresh &

sprouting world must take on some musical

sense. Literally, the grace & hesitation of

modal descent, the rhyme unbearable, the

coming down through the prepared delay and

once again we are there, beholding the

complete elation of our end.

Each move

into the home world is that same loss; we

do mimic the return and the pulse very

slightly quickens, as our motives flare in

the warm hearth. What I have is then already

lost, is so much there I can only come down

to it again, my life slips into music &

increasingly I cannot take much more of this.

The end cadence deferred like breathing, the

birthplace of the poet: all put out their lights

and take their instruments away with them.


How can we sustain such constant loss.

I ask myself this, knowing that the world

is my pretext for this return through it, and

that we go more slowly as we come back

more often to the feeling that rejoins the whole.

Soon one would like in a sovereign point and

still we don’t return, not really, we look back

and our motives have more courage in

structure than in what we take them to be.

The sun makes it easier & worse, like the

music late in the evening, but should it start

to rain—the world converges on the idea

of return. To our unspeakable loss; we make

sacred what we cannot see without coming

back to where we were.

Again is the sacred

word, the profane sequence suddenly graced, by

coming back. More & more as we go deeper

I realise this aspect of hope, in the sense of

the future cashed in, the letter returned to sender.

How can I straighten the sure fact that

we do not do it, as we regret, trust, look

forward to, etc? Since each  time what

we have is increasingly the recall, not

the subject to which we come. Our chief

loss is ourselves; that’s where I am, the

sacral link in the pantheon of hallowed times.

Our music the past tense:

If it would only

level out into some complete migration of

sound. I could then leave unnoticed, bring nothing

with me, allow the world free of its displace-

ment. Then I myself would be the

complete stranger, not watching jealousy

over names. And yet home is easily our

idea of it, the music of decent and proper

order, it’s this we must leave in some quite

specific place if we are not to carry it

everywhere with us.

I know I will go back

down & that it will not be the same though

I shall be sure it is so. And I shall be even

deeper by rhyme and cadence, more held

to what isn’t mine. Music is truly the

sound of our time, since it is how we most

deeply recognise the home we may not

have: the loss is trust and you could

reverse that without change.

With such

patience maybe we can listen to the rain

without always thinking about rain, we

trifle with rhyme and again is the

sound of immortality. We think we have

it & we must, for the sacred resides in this;

once more falling into the hour of my birth, going

down the hill and then in at the back door.


Thanks for reading!

“Borges on Writing”

IMG_2963Borges on Writing, ed. by N.T. di Giovanni, D.Halpern, F.MacShane (London: Lane, 1974)

Having recently discovered the fiction or Jorge Luis Borges at university where I studied a few of his short stories (“The Shape of the Sword”, “The House of Asterion”, “The Garden of Forking Paths” amongst others), I was intrigued by this book as a paced the stacked shelves of the library seeking out critical analyses of Borges’ work. I took it out but, as happens frequently during the skitty exam period, it remained on my desk unread for a good couple of weeks. But with my exams and essay deadlines behind me, I had the freedom to read whatsoever I wished until I return to extensive uni reading lists on Monday…

Published in 1974, the text recounts Borges’ seminars alongside his translator Norman Thomas di Giovanni with students enrolled in the creative writing course at Columbia University. Borges gave three seminars, each with its own specific subject; fiction, poetry, and finally translation. Which is thus how the text is divided. Initially di Giovanni reads Borges’ work in translation, providing a springboard for Borges to offer comments on how he went about composing the text and allowing the students to pose questions about the text. Borges replies rather laconically, and Di Giovanni offers additional information about his own experience of the text in translation. Overall I felt the text is replete with insights into the mind of this great artist, delayering his methods of thinking and composing texts and his philosophy on art.


The Young Artist

Despite covering three different realms or fields of writing, I feel the book’s title is effective in that as a whole it offers Borges’ viewpoints on the art of writing as a whole. He seems highly aware of the aspiring authors of his audience and offers them several pieces of advice on starting out:

‘A young writer, he says, should begin, of course, by imitating the writers he likes. This is the way the writer becomes himself through losing himself—the strange way of double living, of living in reality as much as one can and at the same time of living in that other reality, the one he has to creative, the reality of his dreams.’ (p.64)

He proposes that contemporary authors are too focused on being ‘revolutionary’ and ‘unique’ but they should rather respect and abide to their literary heritage and tradition which is omnipresent.

‘Tradition is the language he is writing in and the literature the has read. I think it is wiser for a young writer to delay invention and boldness for a time and try to merely writer like a good writer he admires’ (p93).

As well as imitating other writers, Borges indicates that he has taken inspiration for many of his stories from real life, stories which he is told and lets stew in his fermenting imagination for years before composing them again. When committing the story to the page, Borges proposes that the story should be clear and concise, but also that the story should imitate reality, for example

‘one should work into a story the idea of not being sure of all things, because that’s the way reality is’ (p.45).

Art imitates reality. Or is it the other way round?


The Short Story vs. the Novel?

As a practitioner of several forms, Borges’ comments on the differences between forms are intriguing. For him, the distinguishing element between the short story and the novel is simply what is at the centre of the story; the characters or the plot?

‘What I think is most important in a short story is the plot or situation, while in a novel what’s important are the characters. You may think of Don Quixote as being written with incidents, but what is really important are the two characters, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza… in writing a novel, you should know all about the characters, and any plot will do, while in a short story it is the situation that counts’ (p.46).



When discussing his oeuvre Borges also touches on numerous elements of the writer’s style. First and foremost, when asked whether he consciously tries to be a contemporary author, he expresses the opinion that the writer is defined by his epoch and cannot but be contemporary. It is part of his/her voice:

‘You have a certain voice, a certain kind of face, a certain way of writing, and you can’t run away from them even if you want to. So why bother to be modern or contemporary since you can’t be anything else?’ (p.51)

This, I imagine, is why it is acceptable for the writer to imitate his favourite authors when starting out. A writer’s voice seems to be pre-defined deep within the author before he even starts writing, and initially you write simply to find your own narrative voice. Borges offers another enlightening comment when he says that

‘I couldn’t say “What an awful thing happened,” or “This story is very gruesome”, because I would make a fool of myself. That kind of thing must be left to readers, not to writers’ (p.48).

When writing my first pieces for my creative writing class, I found myself writing such foolish comments. Why? I wonder whether, due to naivety and lack of skill, the young writer is too intent on explicitly giving the message of his narrative to the reader. Maybe. But I feel this is definitely what Borges is driving at here. His comment moreover reminded me of Chuck Palahniuk’s advice in his timeless essay “Nuts and Bolts: “Thought Verbs”:

‘Thinking is abstract.  Knowing and believing are intangible.  Your story will always be stronger if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing.  And loving and hating.’

The writer should never explicitly explain emotions  or thoughts to the reader, but simply describe the action and allow the reader to do the thinking. After all, is this not the reader’s job?



As a language student myself, I was fascinated by Borges’ and Di Giovanni’s comments on translating one text to another. They discuss the idea of being linguistically ‘culturally bound’ and how texts can become difficult to translate transculturally. In particular they discuss the vast meaning of particular words in Spanish in different countries, from Argentina, to Uruguay, to Mexico and to mainland Spain:

‘Even though you may know Spanish or Mexican Spanish, you may be quite unaware of something’s being different in Argentine or Uruguayan Spanish.’

Borges seems to take this idea one step further by insinuating that our perceptions of the world are not only defined by the language we speak, but the books we have read. When asked

‘Are there no stories you consider untranslatable because they reflect a peculiarly Spanish way of looking at the world?’ Borges replies, ‘No, I don’t think so. I don’t think I have a Spanish way of looking at the world. I’ve done most of my reading in English’ (p.137).

A language he spoke from an early age due to his grandmother’s being English. He seems to have reflected deeply on the intrinsic nature of particular languages such as English, for example he gives his opinion that

‘A good sentence in English has a structure that begins with the second most important element, moves to the least important element, and ends with the strongest element. The pattern is 2-3-1…So my whole thesis on translation is that you must write good sentences—effective English. That’s all there is to it’ p.135.

He backs this up with two translations from one of his own stories which seem to indicate this to be the case. Borges also reflects on the role of rhyme in poetry and the problems it causes in translation as being down to the inherent qualities of each language:

‘The trouble with rhyme in English is that the accent usually falls on the first syllable: “courage”, which in French would be “courage”. The Latin languages therefore are easier to rhyme’ (p.141).



The Life of the Writer

Borges translated his first published short story when he was just 10 years old. It is fair to say he lived the life of a writer and in this book he details some aspects of this lifestyle. The writer, for Borges, lives a very fulfilling life because his job forces him to experience and live through the tales he tells.

‘When I think of my grandfather who died in action’ he explains,  ‘when I think of my great-grandfather who had to fight his kinsmen in the wars of the dictator Rosas, when I think of people in my family who had their throats cut or who were shot, I realize I’m leading a very tame kind of life. But really I’m not, because after all they may have just lived through these things and not felt them, whereas I’m living a very secluded life and am feeling them, which is another way of living them—and perhaps a deeper one, for all I know…’ (p.50).

One key theme of Borges’ short stories (at least that I have read) is that of human identity and humans as having a sort of dual identity or existence. It seems that the writer lives a sort of dual-life through his writing, an opinion which Borges explicitly conveys:

‘To be a writer is, in a sense, to be a day-dreamer—to be living a kind of double life’ (p.163)

Finally he applauds the ‘rewarding experience’ that the writer’s lifestyle offers to mankind, and such creative writing courses as that at Columbia which give birth to the next generation of budding authors:

‘We all have the pleasures of the reader, but the writer has also the pleasure and the task of writing. This is not only a strange but a rewarding experience. We owe all young writers the opportunity of getting together, of agreeing or disagreeing, and finally of achieving the craft of writing.’ (p.165)

Thanks for reading, what do you think about Borges’ thoughts on writing?