In the next installment of our Writers On Teachers series, Geoff Nicholson recalls the daunting yet illuminating experience of having the famously inscrutable Cambridge poet J. H. Prynne as his Director of Studies.
I sometimes say that Jeremy Prynne taught me everything I know about poetry: which is why I know nothing about poetry. It’s not a bad joke, given the received wisdom that Prynne’s poetry is as impenetrable as granite, but it’s a cheap and slightly shameful one. The truth is, I learned a lot from Jeremy Prynne, but mostly not only about poetry.
My memory of first meeting Prynne is intense but full of holes. These lacunae are no doubt for my own protection. It was 1971 and Prynne was interviewing me for admission to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, to study English. It was the most thorough and scary intellectual roughing-up I’ve ever experienced.
For obvious reasons, being an 18 year old, working class, grammar school boy from Yorkshire I had never met anyone like Jeremy Prynne. He wasn’t exactly the traditional idea of the tweedy academic — for one thing he favored black velvet jackets worn with primary colored ties — but he was certainly patrician and mannered. He had an inimitable voice (boy, how people tried to imitate it) high-pitched, fluting, with a slight but defining lisp. His tautly swept back hair made him appear both sleek and austere.
I was reckoned to be “good at English,” and I wasn’t shy about having or expressing opinions. The problem was that, for most of the interview, I honestly didn’t know what Prynne was talking about. We were, at least initially, discussing D.H. Lawrence, and I knew, or thought I knew, something about the subject. Prynne would begin a long, wide-ranging and apparently free-associative monologue. There was a certain relief in this, because it meant I didn’t have to do too much talking, but then suddenly Prynne would round on me, and with sickening horror I’d realize that this monologue was actually a very, very long question and I was now required to respond to it. My “technique,” which is to say my only hope, was to pick out some random phrase of Prynne’s, one of the few that made any sense to me, and then say the first thing that came into my head; something, anything.
I am as amazed today as I was then that this worked. I was accepted by the college, and word came back that I’d done well in the interview. My best guess is that I had been, or anyway had given the impression of being, as oblique and free-associative as Prynne himself. Perhaps he’d seen me as a kindred spirit, though that surely wore off very quickly.
Having Prynne as Director of Studies gave Caius English students a certain status around the university. He was an éminence grise but also a dissenter. He had no doctorate, for instance, and he seemed to find the idea of PhDs absurd. He once suggested that potential doctoral candidates should be locked in a room and given a very long document to copy out, and accepted or rejected solely on the basis of how many mistakes they made in the copying. His mystique was only increased by the fact that he had published no substantial academic work. At that time there was perhaps less pressure for academics constantly to publish, but even so most of the English faculty were working on books drawn from their lectures. Prynne didn’t lecture much either.
But he did, of course, publish books of poetry. I have a few of them—High Pink on Chrome, Kitchen Poems, The Oval Window—unsigned alas. I still “read” them from time to time, when I feel in the mood for a little linguistic cage-fighting. Take this example from The Oval Window, a standout piece of Prynne obscurity that reaches sublime heights. Its completeness uncertain, the poem has no separate title but stands alone on the page:
Droplock to gab
off you steel
by wed foot
and fall under
fur on the gate
and if flatter so
the better to win
O spite reserve
at all given to
pad out, fill in
hold this piece
forth with and
so on go on
to the lammas
of forbidden let
Naturally there is some familiarity at this point, certain provisional readings that I’ve teased out, but the fact is I find reading Prynne today every bit as difficult and baffling as I did back then. I am not for a moment suggesting this is a criticism.
We heard that a previous intake of students had sat Prynne down and said, more or less, “All right Jeremy, what the fuck is this poetry of yours all about?” And he had explained himself spendidly: the skeptics were converted into ardent admirers. My crowd didn’t force him to do that. Perhaps we simply didn’t want to do what previous students had done, but in any case it didn’t matter. Whether we “understood” Prynne’s poetry or not, we were ardent admirers already. The obscurity was part of the appeal. And frankly I get a bit weary of those articles about Prynne being the most neglected poet in England. He didn’t seek attention but he received plenty. I’m sure there are armies of poets who would kill for that kind of “neglect.”
Prynne taught practical criticism, a Cambridge tradition and discipline that began in the 1920s with I.A. Richards. It was (and is) a sort of boot camp in reading, in how to scrutinize a text, usually without knowing its context or author. The text is allowed to speak for itself, while the reader acknowledges that the language itself might be saying something quite different from what the author intended. These ambiguities are to be acknowledged and embraced. The reader brings a full range of of sensitivities to the text, but reads without preconceptions, certainly without “theory.” This still strikes me as the sanest, and in many ways the “natural” way to read, but that’s perhaps damning evidence of the unshakeable influence of Prynne and Cambridge.
We had weekly “supervisions” with Prynne; the great man with two or three of us undergraduates. These sessions were easier than that first interview but there was still nowhere to hide. Inevitably I don’t remember much of what we read, though I think there were some Shakespearean sonnets, probably Ezra Pound’s “The Return” and definitely Yeats’s “No Second Troy.” Prynne disapproved of that last poem, and I remember our discussion turning eventually to the nature of love. Prynne said something like, “One may demand many things from another person. One may demand respect or consideration or kindness. But one is not entitled to demand love.” I know I haven’t got that verbatim, but in my head I can still hear him saying it.
The Prynne education continued outside of supervisions. There were times, say after a college dinner, when a group of us would end up back in Prynne’s study, and he’d open a couple of bottles of very good, though warm, champagne. We usually found ourselves listening to his collection of poetry on tape. Ed Dorn’s Gunslinger was a particular favorite. Prynne found this funnier and more wonderful than anybody else in the room, probably more than anybody on the planet. Tears of laughter filled his eyes as he listened to Dorn’s droll (and very badly recorded) recitation of the adventures of the gunslinger and his stoned, talking horse. Prynne could also be pretty hilarious himself. When one cocky student said he’d been reading Shakespeare’s “minor works,” Prynne replied brightly and dismissively, “Ah yes, Two Noble Kinsmen, that’s a good read, isn’t it?”
Unlike his poetry, Prynne was never inaccessible. You knew that if you walked across Caius Court at ten in the evening you’d most likely see the light on in his study, and if you felt the need to go up there and talk to him, you knew you’d be welcomed. You wouldn’t go to discuss anything frivolous (you wouldn’t dare) but when, for example, I wanted some information about the avant-garde filmmaker Stan Brakhage, Prynne had not only met the guy, wasn’t only prepared to lend me some impossibly rare books by Brakhage, but he was also able to give me the man’s address, in some profoundly inaccessible region of Colorado.
Prynne also, perhaps surprisingly, tried to keep up with pop culture. He asked some students to lend him a stash of the rock albums he ought to be listening to. He diligently listened, and the word was that he enjoyed Frank Zappa, but didn’t really “get” Captain Beefheart. When Prynne learned that I’d been to London to see Heathcote Williams’ “revue” Remember the Truth Dentist, he appeared rather excited to hear that Angie Bowie—glam icon and one-time wife to David Bowie—had been in the cast. I was stunned that he’d even heard of Angie Bowie. He also did me the considerable honor of coming to see a play I’d written and was having performed. I assume he hated the experience but he was generous enough to find some positive and interesting things to say about the play; quite a task, I now see.
I would say that Prynne taught me to read as carefully and as widely as possible, but above all to pursue the things I was truly interested in, whether or not they fitted inside the accepted boundaries of “Cambridge English.” That hardly sounds revolutionary today but it was an uncommon stance within the university at the time. This went along with encouraging a deep but considered skepticism about the opinions and estimations of others. My writing has nothing in common with Prynne’s, but even so his poetry strikes me as the perfect example of writing exactly what you want in the only way you can. That hardly constitutes a philosophy, even less an imitable model, but I’m sure that Jeremy Prynne wouldn’t want it any other way.
Geoff Nicholson is a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Review of Books. His books include the novels Bleeding London and The Hollywood Dodo, and the non-fiction The Lost Art of Walking. He blogs about “food, sex, obsession, and the madness of the mouth” at http://psycho-gourmet.blogspot.com. He wrote about Buster Keaton for us in April and Will Self in July.
Photo source here.