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!


W.H. Auden: A few thoughts

IMG_2972W.H.Auden, Collected Short Poems 1927-1957 (London: Faber, 1966)

This semester at university I opted for a module on British Poetry post-1930 and thus over the coming weeks I will hopefully be disciplined enough to delight or bore you with my ramblings on works by writers such as Auden, Larkin, Plath, Ted Hughes plus various others (Heaney, Muldoon anyone?). I’m thrilled to get the chance to study and discuss such wonderful writers and can’t wait to get my teeth into them! Exciting times.

This week we set the ball in motion by looking at W.H.Auden and the poetry of the nineteen-thirties. A poet I’d shamefully never read before, simply reading parts of his biography made me eager to get my hands on the poetry (Coincidently I also found out that Auden refused to write his own autobiography or collaborate in the production of his own biography as he believed that a poet’s life offers no insight whatsoever into the poetry. An interest point of view. I feel a lot of students and critics nowadays do actually use authors’ biographies as a starting point to reading the text and I think it is relevant to question whether biography is useful/necessary in literary studies). Auden came from a professional middle-class family (detected from his delightful and quintessentially British accent, check it out!) in the Midlands (near Birmingham, UK) and ended up reading English at Oxford. He began writing poetry at around the age of 16 and was influenced by T.S.Eliot’s The Wasteland amongst other texts. Although he did have occasional sexual relationships with women, Auden was a homosexual and experimented with his sexuality during a trip to Berlin in the late 1920s. Later when he moved to New York he fell hopelessly in love with a younger man named Chester Kallman with whom he lived for 25 years and produced a number of works, both personally and collaboratively in a life based between New York and Austria.


Auden seems to me a poet of variety. In theme, form, style, voice, ideas, virtually everything, Auden is ceaselessly change. Indeed American critic Randall Jarrell famously mangled Heroclitus to claim that “We never step twice into the same Auden”, and in this he was spot on. Especially in form I don’t think I’ve read any two Auden poems which take the same form, and even if a poem does use a particular form it most definitely does not stay within the rules, which Auden seems to break on every instance. Many of his poems from the thirties have a note of doom and gloom about them; they seem expressive of their epoch during which people were increasingly aware of the fascist rumblings in Germany and Italy and terrified at the possibility of another war, which was lurking just around the corner. One example is his poem ‘O What is that Sound’ during which the speaker comes to realise that the once-distant soldiers are coming not for the farmer, nor the parson, but for him(/her).

Yet at other moments Auden is brilliantly funny, amusing and light-hearted. During this documentary I viewed on Youtube Auden says that when he wrote poetry he tried to fun, because if you don’t have fun, what’s the bloody point!? Although capable of writing highly serious, complex, challenging verse such as ‘In Praise of Limestone’ (Which I struggle to understand/enjoy, any elucidations would be welcome?!) he also sang to the tune of his times which was being increasingly influenced by ‘fun’ poems such as limericks and other forms which were sprouting up at the time. I’d like to share two of my favourite Auden poems at the moment and see what you think. Both are taken from his Collected Shorter Poems 1927-1957 as seen above in the picture.


Underneath an abject willow,
Lover, sulk no more:
Act from thought should quickly follow.
What is thinking for?
Your unique and moping station
Proves you cold;
Stand up and fold
Your map of desolation.

Bells that toll across the meadows
From the sombre spire
Toll for these unloving shadows
Love does not require.
All that lives may love; why longer
Bow to loss
With arms across?
Strike and you shall conquer.

Geese in flocks above you flying.
Their direction know,
Icy brooks beneath you flowing,
To their ocean go.
Dark and dull is your distraction:
Walk then, come,
No longer numb
Into your satisfaction.

(W.H.Auden, The Collected Shorter Poems 1927-1957, p.91)


Some say love’s a little boy,
And some say it’s a bird,
Some say it makes the world go around,
Some say that’s absurd,
And when I asked the man next-door,
Who looked as if he knew,
His wife got very cross indeed,
And said it wouldn’t do.

Does it look like a pair of pyjamas,
Or the ham in a temperance hotel?
Does its odour remind one of llamas,
Or has it a comforting smell?
Is it prickly to touch as a hedge is,
Or soft as eiderdown fluff?
Is it sharp or quite smooth at the edges?
O tell me the truth about love.

Our history books refer to it
In cryptic little notes,
It’s quite a common topic on
The Transatlantic boats;
I’ve found the subject mentioned in
Accounts of suicides,
And even seen it scribbled on
The backs of railway guides.

Does it howl like a hungry Alsatian,
Or boom like a military band?
Could one give a first-rate imitation
On a saw or a Steinway Grand?
Is its singing at parties a riot?
Does it only like Classical stuff?
Will it stop when one wants to be quiet?
O tell me the truth about love.

I looked inside the summer-house;
It wasn’t over there;
I tried the Thames at Maidenhead,
And Brighton’s bracing air.
I don’t know what the blackbird sang,
Or what the tulip said;
But it wasn’t in the chicken-run,
Or underneath the bed.

Can it pull extraordinary faces?
Is it usually sick on a swing?
Does it spend all its time at the races,
or fiddling with pieces of string?
Has it views of its own about money?
Does it think Patriotism enough?
Are its stories vulgar but funny?
O tell me the truth about love.

When it comes, will it come without warning
Just as I’m picking my nose?
Will it knock on my door in the morning,
Or tread in the bus on my toes?
Will it come like a change in the weather?
Will its greeting be courteous or rough?
Will it alter my life altogether?
O tell me the truth about love.

(W.H.Auden, The Collected Shorter Poems 1927-1957, p.94)

The first of these two poems is perhaps one of Auden’s poems which actually follows a particular form, although the form is not rigidly abided by. The ABABCDDC rhyme scheme gives the poem its light-hearted feel and I enjoy the mixture of longer and shorter lines in the poem. But what I think I adore about this poem is it’s ‘message’ (even though it is a hideous word when applied to poetry I feel?), that we should all stop dilly-dallying around and attack life or love or whatever with a certain amount of purpose and determination. The natural images in the final stanza of the ‘geese in flocks above you flying’ and the ‘icy brooks beneath you flowing’ are particularly memorable and persuasive. The poem reminded me of Herrick’s ‘To The Virgins’ in message and looking at that poem now the voice of the poem is not a million miles away either.

The second poem, often referred to by the repeated line ‘O tell me the truth about love’, I chose because once again it contains a similar light tone but also I feel this poem bathes in Auden’s comic genius. The poem may be simply put as describing mankind’s futile attempt at comprehending love and about the very nature of love which is both inexplicable and elusive, running away just as you think you have it. But by evoking some common ideas about love, Auden turns the poem from a philosophical enquiry about love into comic accounts of us trying to pin it down. In the first stanza you can’t help but smile at the line “And when I asked the man next-door,/ Who looked as if he knew,/ His wife got very cross indeed,/ And said it wouldn’t do”. I think everybody can sympathise with the poor man next-door. And the next paragraph is similarly charming and witty posing whether love looks “like a pair or pyjamas,/ Or the ham in a temperance hotel?”. Despite the obviously humorous tone in the poem, don’t be deceived. Auden is a chameleon and even in such apparently self-evident poems as this one, he still manages to tackle polemic questions. In this poem, for example, Auden is certainly probing questions of social class and sexuality. This is probably what makes this poem one of Auden’s most famous: it is easily accessible to a wide audience and the reader can extract as much as he/she wants from the poem, as long as he/she is willing to dig.

What do you make of the two poems? I will be studying Auden and the poetry of the Thirties for a little while longer so any recommendations of poems/books by/about Auden or other poets would be welcomed and appreciated!

Thanks for reading