Resonances in the Poetry of J.H. Prynne

Since I have spent more time with the work of J.H. Prynne, I am forced to revise my statement from an earlier post on ambiguity in Marvell and Prynne, in which I concluded that we miss the point if we look for meaning in his poetry. At the last meeting of the Culture Club we covered a lot of ground in this respect, and I found everyone’s insights fascinating.

One particular thing that struck me was the references to other poets that emerged in Prynne’s poems. For example, KC placed Acquisition of Love in a tradition of Mower poems, of which the most famous are Marvell’s. This really helped to explain the subtleties of this work, which was described by members of the Culture Club as ‘cynical’ and even ‘sinister’, with its reduction of love to a genetic disposition, drawing comparisons between a broken lawn mower and the dna make-up of the children watching the writer who is fixing the mower. From Prynne we have:

mower works now, related to nothing
but the hand and purpose, the fear of
collapse is pumped round by each linked
system & the borrowed warmth of the heart.

From Marvell:

For Death thou art a Mower too.

Elsewhere I couldn’t read Prynne’s The Glacial Question, Unsolved without feeling the influence of W.H. Auden’s poetry, especially his works examining natural landscapes, such as In Praise of Limestone. For Auden, the landscape mirrors character:

…when I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.

For Prynne the landscape forms the basis of our condition:

We are rocked
in this hollow, in the ladle by which
the sky, less cloudy now, rests on our

The glacier itself is often a symbol in Auden of the power of nature, something I am sure Prynne would have been conscious of – think of the lines from As I Walked Out One Evening:

“The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.”

But the most striking comparison for me is that between Prynne’s Sun Set 4.56 and Coleridge’s Frost at Midnight. Both are ruminations that start in front of a home fire:

Small flares skip
down the coal
face how can I
refuse them
warm indolence
of fancy…
J.H. Prynne, Sun Set 4.56

the thin blue flame
Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not;
S.T. Coleridge, Frost at Midnight

In both poems the writer is in darkness (a midnight and a sunset), both are set in winter (which we can infer from Coleridge by the frost, and from Prynne by the early hour of the sunset). Both poems talk of the poet being ‘taken from the hearth’ (Prynne) – for Coleridge this leads to an indulgence in ‘abstruser musings’ in which he talks of the Stranger, a piece of Devonshire folklore that regarded the transparent heat-tremor above a firegrate as promising the arrival of an absent friend. This stranger, however, is also an image of Coleridge’s fluttering imagination, contrasting with the images of stillness that populate the rest of the poem. From Prynne we have the ‘estranged blood in the vein’, after the sudden jolt instigated by the Bruckner on the radio. These are powerful resonances, but the ambiguity of Prynne’s work continues to make it difficult for us to come to understand exactly why he creates them, and what he is pointing to beyond it.

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