The Poetry of J.H.Prynne: Thoughts

 

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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.

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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):

 

THOUGHTS ON THE ESTERHÁZY COURT UNIFORM

 

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.

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Thanks for reading!

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The Selected Letters of Philip Larkin (1940-85)… in Quotes

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The Selected Letters of Phillip Larkin 1940-85, edited by Anthony Thwaite (London: Faber, 1992)

1) To J.B.Sutton – 10 August 1943

“Yesterday I was 21 – thank you again for the ‘El Greco’ card – and it doesn’t interest me. Yesterday, too, I had to go to London for a Civil Service interview, which was a bit flustering. They asked me what I really wanted to do, and I said ‘Be a novelist’. I had to stick to it, too—but if you’d known how presumptuous it sounded… Aaahhss!! (expressing disgust). Particularly as I have been trying to write a proper story all week, and failing miserably. For the present I seem to have lost all touch with the mystery that lies at the bottom of creating art…”

Reading Larkin’s poetry, you would describe the man as being anything other than Romantic. His work draws from the quotidian of his suburban life in Hull – from renting out a room (‘Mr Bleaney’), to train journeys (‘The Whitsun Weddings’, ‘Here’) to going for a walk in a park and getting irritated at everybody (‘Toads Revisited’) – but here Larkin shows signs of being engrossed by the ‘mystery’ of writing and creating art, a very Romantic idea, and something which is incessantly lurking in his thoughts.

2) To Norman Iles – 26 August 1943

“Dear Norman –

Sorry there has been a noticeable hiatus between my receiving your last letter & my writing of this. Time drifts by, & any resemblance to a serious & valuable existence is entirely coincidental.”

In his letters, as in his poetry, Larkin makes clear his obsession/awareness of the passage of time. He was a man who sought to live a ‘meaningful’ existence, but he often demonstrates difficulty in discovering what is ‘meaningful’. He was, on the other hand, an expert on the meaningless in life…

3) To J.B.Sutton – 29 November 1946

“Every now and then a ghostly hand grabs the seat of my trousers and hauls me several feet off the ground, and I hear a ghostly voice say ‘Philip Larkin! You and your sharp sensitivity to words! What have you written since August 1945? Cock all!’ The hand then releases me and I come a terrible bash on the cobbles.”

Written 3 years after the first quote, this demonstrates Larkin’s obsession with the production of literature. I’m no psychoanalyst, but this image of a Christmas Carol-esque ghoul interrogating Larkin is fascinating and, for me, underlines the meaning that the production of literature has for Larkin; to defy this ghoul, to defy death and live on in the world. I also love Larkin’s hilarious description of his recent output:- ‘Cock all!’ This is quite typical of the letters and Larkin is constantly effing and blinding to his hearts content.

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4) To J.B.Sutton – 9 September 1948

“It greatly irritates me that these days are taken away, we are robbed of our lives, by employers & the like.”

Once more Larkin worries about the passage of time and ageing. Neil Corcoran (in English Poetry Since 1940) describes Larkin as ‘pre-eminently a poet of the terror of ageing’ and such quotes makes it clear to see why. In his poetry, he often concerns himself with how we, as human beings, spend the passage of time (see ‘Here’, ‘Toads Revisited’). Yet he often comes to the contradicting conclusion that it doesn’t matter what we do in life as nothing we can do has any meaning (gleeful fellow!). So when he comes to the end of ‘Mr Bleaney’ and announces ‘He warranted no better’ he has to add a sceptical ‘I don’t know’ – who is he to judge?

5) To J.B.Sutton – 15 September 1948

There is “a quarrel between the necessity & beauty of being united with a woman one loves, & the necessity of not being entangled or bullied or victimised or patronised or any of the other concomitants of love & marriage.”

As in his poetry, Larkin frequently denounces marriage in his letters. In this one, where he discusses the treatment of marriage in a DH Lawrence (Larkin is a huge DH Lawrence fan) novel, his language clearly extolls how he feels about marriage. This is something mirrored in poems such as ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ where the significance of the weddings become on a par to

An Odeon [going] past, a cooling tower, And

Someone running up to bowl…

Ouch…

6) To Norman Iles – 30 December 1942

“we only have one fire nowadays & although I can light a gas fire in the dining room if I like, the pressure is so low you have to dangle your balls on it before you feel any heat.”

This is Larkin on the perks of student life. Throughout his letters with his closest friends (especially Norman Iles, Kingsley Amis (Author of Lucky Jim), and J.B.Sutton) Larkin is downright crude and vulgar. When such letters were released Larkin’s reputation took a sudden dive as people became aware of some of his more controversial views. Nevertheless I find such passages as this full of the vibrancy of youth and incredibly funny. As I sat wrapped in several layers to keep warm in my student accommodation, I could certainly connect with Larkin’s pain!

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7) To J.B.Sutton – 24 March 1949

“My great trouble, as usual, is that I lack desires. Life is to know what you want, & to get it. But I don’t feel I desire anything. I am unconvinced of the worth of literature. I don’t want money or position. I find it easier to abstain from women that sustain the trouble of them & the creakings of my own monastic personality.”

I felt this quote contains a resonant truth, that life ‘is to know what you want and to get it’. Spot on. A truly modern philosophy. But as I near the end of my degree and decide on a career and what I want to do for the next 45 years, something that I will enjoy and will be meaningful and fulfilling(in the Larkinesque context), I empathise with Larkin’s sombre tone here. It is also surprising to have Larkin question the value of literature, something he seemed to strive for and build his life around. I feel it shows his breadth of mind and sceptical nature, although this is often interpreted as being a deep cynicism. This is certainly something to take on board when reading his poetry, which is often accused of criticizing but never offering anything in return.

8) To Kingsley Amis – 20 August 1943

“marriage seems a revolting institution, unless the parties have enough money to keep reasonably distant from each other—imagine sharing a bed with a withered old woman!

No, sir. A lonely bachelorhood interspersed with buggery and strictly-monetary fornication seems to me preferable…”

Aged just 21, Larkin certainly knew what he wanted. And he got it – spending his bachelor life as a librarian in Hull writing poetry in the evenings after doing the dishes, as he writes in Required Writing. His strong disapproval of marriage is once again made explicit here. I don’t think he was ever going to be convinced?

9) To J.B.Sutton – 30 October 1949

“My views are very simple and childish: I think we are born, & grow up, & die.”

For a man who reflected so deeply on life, society, religion, traditions, marriage, children, work, etc, Larkin seems to have perceived life as being quite simple. For me, this quote runs throughout his poetry. He was a man who questioned every pillar that society was built upon, but consequently struggled to find meaning in the world. Even literature, at times, became worthless, as seen above. Such being the case, all that is left to do is to live life. But always be sceptical, and stand toe-to-toe with the truth. Don’t let tradition or fashion or social rules cloud it.

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Illustration by Larkin