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"The white bees / swarm out": J.H.Prynne and Me

Updated: Dec 15, 2022

I’ve loved J H Prynne’s poetry ever since Easter Term 1989. I know that date because it’s penned into the front cover of my now slightly dog-eared copy of ‘Poems’ in the original Agneau 2 edition. (There are two much more glossy, compendious Bloodaxe ones since then).

The funny curly A’s of my name and the just post-teenage uprightness of my handwriting on that fly leaf are touching. I was a bundle of raw anxiety and ego-arching back then – but even aged 19 I was determined to be a poet – and unbeknownst to me, Prynne was a big-hitter in the contemporary world. He was also my director of studies at college. I’m not sure whether I bought the volume to get some brownie points or because I was intrigued.

I remember vividly going to his rooms in Caius court with their subtle white wood panelling and odd collection of abstract art. He gave evening supervisions with a glass of port. We would listen to Tudor madrigals and try and puzzle out the words aurally. Or try and spot Irish song patterns in Larkin. Mostly we’d listen to his rainbow-coloured but barely trackable flights of associative logic. I would drift off looking at the impressive collections of books. The complete editions of Celan in German. Ungaretti in Italian. Montale too. And we knew he was also a leading world authority in Chinese poetry. We also knew he worked through the night. How else could he possibly know so much stuff?

My dreams of being a poet didn’t survive two years of post-University reality but my love of Prynne’s writing has. It’s gone through patches of intensity and lassitude. I occasionally write to him or see him in Cambridge. He was always very encouraging of my writing but it’s his that draws me in.

I can’t begin to explain why I love it so. There is certainly no message in his writing – there is no obvious meaning – and yet… And yet.

I once wrote a poem, probably back when I was 19, where I said:

The secret is around the words and I live there, in the sounds around the words,

which was a pretty accurate description of my modus operandi when it came to poetry (and perhaps life). I daren’t get too involved in the obvious meaning but enjoyed the nuance. Perhaps it was growing up gay in a straight world – where the bare facts were too unacceptable and the nuances and spectral inflections nourished my hopes more.

The bare facts were often too starkly uncomfortable – the boy I loved would never love me – so I hid in the aura and allusion around the facts. A penumbra of possibility.

(This is probably why I stopped writing and reading poetry when I got to Berlin aged 24 and discovered that the bare facts could be quite enough. Who needs spectral allusion when a nice German will actually get into bed with you?)

Anyway, back aged 19, and alive with the frizzing, electrical excitement of Cambridge after a life in the provinces, Prynne intoxicated my mind with allusive fumes.

That poem I wrote continues,

I live there, in the sounds around the words, in a Kirillian blue that haloes the Bikini Atoll and all manner of matters, dark matter or paler, the colour of grapefruit flesh pale on the sand and in the sand

I think it’s a fine poem, even now, thirty years on. Certainly the type I like to read – but I also see how richly seamed it is with Prynne. This is the beginning of his poem ‘Landing Area’ from the 1974 volume, Wound Response.

The spirit is lame and in the pale flash we see it unevenly spread with water. Lemon yellow, very still, some kind of bone infection, both heroic and spiteful.

I unconsciously borrowed his ‘pale/flash’ as “pale… flesh” and my poem is personal and Romantic while his is objective and biological. But there is a similar avoidance of too much meaning.

Prynne’s whole poetic is about frustrating the meaning-making mind. If you engage with it deeply it becomes a phenomenological experience – about holding oneself on the edge of meaning-making and enjoying a spray, an exuberance of possibilities that sort of add up. They add up to a glow around the words that is ‘almost too much’.

I remember him being quite impressed (or perhaps relieved) by a hurried essay I’d knocked off about the musical spray of sound play in Wordsworth’s Prelude. I was quoting Kristeva (as one had to back then) and talking about Gertrude Stein, but the basic idea was that there is a juice and a joy in the gush of sound that exceeds meaning. Wordsworth talks a lot about sounds beyond hearing and there is a sense of exhilaration in stretching oneself to hear them.

Last year, I met Prynne at a gig in Cambridge – in a warehouse with a drum and bass DJ. It was a classical / avant-garde affair. The sort of thing that never happened when I was at Cambridge but seems to now. Prynne, now in his 70s, was wandering around, dressed as he always is in a corduroy suit and shirt. The music was deafening and wonderfully aggressive. I raised my eyebrows and he looked at me and said: ‘I love drum and bass’ and then told me a story about how he used to sneak into the Fridge in Brixton where his daughter used to work and skulk by the speakers where the music was at its loudest and most vast.

I love that image: his poetic mind, so attuned to so many registers of linguistic nuance, happily immersed in the brutal simplicity of very loud techno music.

Though Prynne’s poetic music is never deafening. It’s dizzying. I wanted to quote a bit but it defies quoting really. But I enjoy typing it out and patterning its sounds in my head. So, this is from the last poem in Wound Response (sadly, this blog software loses all the beautiful tabulation of the original):

Shouts rise again from the water surface and flecks of cloud skim over to storm light, going up in the stem. Falling loose with a grateful hold of the sounds towards purple, the white bees swarm out from the open voice gap. Such ‘treasure’: the cells of the child line run back through hope to the cause of it; the hour is crazed by fracture. Who can see what he loves, again or before, as the injury shears past the curve of recall, the field double-valued at the divine point.

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