Kind of Inadequate and a Little Guilty

Poems (second edition), J.H. Prynne
[Bloodaxe, 15]


I pretended I had never read any Prynne before. Which wasn't difficult. I had not read much.

I also pretended I didn't know that Prynne was what it says on the back of the book: 'Britain's leading late Modernist poet.' Is he dead? No. Not at all. It's not that kind of late. Reading can be so tricky sometimes; it's easy to misunderstand.

And I opened the book at random and read this. It happens to be almost exactly at the halfway point of thirty-six years of poetry, page 248 out of nearly six hundred.

     Pink star of the languid
       settles by a low window
     lap to flit, give the life
       too quickly, the storm
     a mere levelled gaze.

     And count the hook by the water,
       rely on modest delay;
     it is I who say this, not to
       fade or shine out,
     to be trusted and played.

     There: heat rises now
        with the bank speckled,
     going down to the point
       of noon. Take stock, be
     fair while there's room.

Which is one section of 'High Pink On Chrome' (1975). This is quite nice. An A-level Literature student could probably do a decent job on it, and tell you what it means. For me, I have no idea if I should side with whatever the student comes up with (probably not) or with someone with more jargon at their disposal, who might argue that Prynne's poetry is about 'the simultaneous processes and viewpoints of the worlds created in language', as Robert Potts has put it. This is mainly because I don't know what Robert Potts means, exactly.

But I do know I think the poem is elegant; perhaps it is even beautiful. And I know I enjoy reading it.


I took a break, and headed for The Times crossword:

     1 across: Satisfied in the Kodak gantry
     3 across: The rail is interfered with
     4 across: Thanks to the lurid airways
     7 across: Go ahead to the plant rally
     15 across: The sick man polishes his shoes

I wasn't getting very far, so I tried the
Down clues:

     2 down: A limit spark under water
     4 down: Amy's lurch gives true colour
     5 down: Chill to the neck
     8 down: This time, the relics turn out in force

I don't know if you ever do
The Times crossword. I enjoy it, and if there are enough hours in the day I can sometimes finish it. Or at least get pretty close. Other days I have trouble even getting started. The clues can sound like lines out of Prynne poems: you understand the individual words, they even seem to be strung together in an apparently sensible way, but your brain refuses to engage with them or make any kind of sense out of the phrases. And you feel kind of inadequate and, strangely, a little guilty, because you know you're trying to make sense of them in absolutely the wrong way. The frustrating thing is, you sort of know what the right way is but your brain won't go there.

(Oh, and yes, I'm cheating a little here. All the 'clues' above are lines from Prynne's poems, from the collection 'Down Where Changed'. I wasn't sure if I should mention this or not, but I decided to err on the side of, um, caution.)


Poems are not puzzles, of course. Poems are like horses. They have a life of their own, and challenge you to encounter them on terms about which you cannot be altogether clear. Having said that, once upon a time I was in a field with a horse and he looked at me and I looked at him and it was pretty clear whose field it was.


The poem on page 248 is not the most representative of Prynne's poems, of course. There is this kind of thing here, in bewildering plenty.

     Suddenly in salt water, some hopeful equine lustre
     Folds under enquiry. Purist's watery bus route
     And the bored plank salesman. Some elite estranged bole,
     Slippery on holiday. Don't touch this. Don't even begin
     To touch this. The movement is easy to the highest temple.

Please note: I said 'this kind of thing'. This is not Prynne I just quoted. I stumbled across it in a dusty corner of the thing I call my mind.


You know that thing where someone stands in an art gallery and looks at a piece of abstract art and says, very loudly, My two year old could do better than that?

Don't you just hate it when you hear someone say that? It's terribly annoying.


It has mostly been my own aspiration, for example, to establish relations not personally with the reader, but with the world and its layers of shifted but recognisable usage; and thereby with the reader's own position within this world.
                - J.H. Prynne, September 1985.


The poem on page 248 is not the most representative of Prynne's poems, of course. There is this kind of thing here, in bewildering plenty.

     Ready hands sanction their new ebb, the especial
     oratory shunt attachment. Overstock digit perverse
     deployment adds a pungent new flavour, stepping
     forward to claim the spoilage; that ragged applause
     is for the assembled strollers with reverse anklets,
     their part in the passion play at consent, on the valve
     monitor. The grading is recognised, no doubts

     assail the ready-to-eat counters of the absentees....

Which is from 'Unanswering Rational Shore' (2001), which just happens to be the only Prynne book(let) I own, apart from this huge Collected. Mind, it's probably necessary to say this isn't wholly representative either, because several poems (and some of them are even in prose) bear much closer resemblance to conventional methods of discourse. By which I mean, they seem, almost, to make sense in a conventional way. But Prynne is mainly this: words strung together in ways that will disorient you, Dear Reader. Oh, and lots of words you won't know the meaning of without recourse to a dictionary.


I will admit it now. I feel somewhat ambivalent towards these poems. Some days I warm to the experience they offer, other days I think 'Fuck off'. Perhaps that's good. I have no idea.


There is, I think, much in Prynne to like. And if not like, admire. The epigraph to 'Down Where Changed' (1979) says 'Anyone who takes up this book will, we expect, have done so because at the back of the mind he has a half formed belief that there is something in it.' A friend of mine who likes Prynne's work a lot told me that he thought this was a good way into the poems, and I think he's right. I kind of think there is something in it. I'm not always sure I know what it is; I'm not always sure I'm even interested. But even at those times, I'm kind of interested in my own disinterest, and so the poems have done some sort of a job in spite of me.

I know, for instance, that Prynne's poetry can be argued for on political grounds, which I'm not too bothered about doing. There is an argument that goes something like how by saying things the way he does, how by not sticking to any regular or even consistent way of saying, then he is resisting oppressive systems of discourse, systems that use language to wield their power, or such like. Perhaps this is so. I tend to think that even laying this down as one way of dealing with the poems is itself a pinning down of poems which actually don't want to be pinned down at all. They rather prefer to release you from whatever it is ties you down when it comes to words and language and thinking.

I approach the poems in the only way I know how. I walk into an art gallery and stand in front of an abstract painting and don't see any figurative representation, don't see anything I can latch on to and say 'Aha! A parrot!' (for example). But if I and the painting connect on a level that is by its very nature unpredictable then I will respond in some way, and I can't say here in what way, or how, because there is no recipe, but the mind is excited, ideas buzz, and imaginative life happens. Something unexpected happens. If art doesn't do this then I worry. This isn't about the individual, and some vague expression of celebrating the imagination. I think this is just about the artist doing something true, and the audience responding to it. Positively or negatively, but responding. The positive is exhilarating, I think. And bewildering can be good. But you can narrow this down, and say 'One afternoon I was reading a Jeremy Prynne poem and came across the phrase
Everything is here and is being burned slowly and is enough and I liked it, and it stuck with me. I found myself thinking about it on the bus an hour later. Isn't that good?


The first lines of the first poem in this big book are

     The whole thing it is, the difficult
     matter: to shrink the confines
     down. To signals, so that I come
     back to this, we are
                            small / in the rain,
                            open or without it,
                            the light in de-
     light, as with pleasure amongst not merely
     the word, one amongst them....

I think they are worth thinking about. To start at the beginning has always been a good idea.

The last lines in the book are

                                                                       Better broken
     keep house yielding softly gnomic cataract depressed
     inwardly sent away. In care from hers avoidance transit
     accept in strong wardship, order holding trace and lock.

And this morning I can't think of anything useful to say about them at all. But tomorrow is another day.

            Martin Stannard, 2005