That Room in Cambridge

Sara MacKillop, Picture Sections, 2007, Book Pages, 15.7 × 19.7". Courtesy of the Artist. Photograph by Thomas Müller.

The first time I heard of J. H. Prynne was through an essay he had written called “Huts.” The essay included an etymology of the word “hut” and discussed various notable huts and their place in the creative process: Henry Thoreau’s “experimental self-built hut,” Gustav Mahler’s “three successive composing huts,” the “rural hut outside Chengdu” of Tang Dynasty poet Du Fu, and Martin Heidegger’s “summer refuge and writing hut” where the poet Paul Celan had met with Heidegger in 1967 to confront the past. Prynne wrote of huts as both marginal and sacred. They exist on the fringe of civilization but also on the borders of language. They serve as refuges from more comfortable dwellings and also as a linguistic no-man’s land, “where prose reality shades into the domain of the poetic muse.”

The essay was assigned for a class, and we met to discuss it on a Monday evening in late November. Night falls at around four o’ clock in England at that time of year, and outside it had been dark for some hours already. Inside, under a scaffold of dimmer-adjustable track lighting, four white tables had been pushed together to form a rectangle. This composite table was the dominant feature of the otherwise blankly white room, with graduate students evenly arrayed about its perimeter, waiting for the discussion to begin.

I had made a few scribbled notes on my copy and placed it on the table before me when one of my classmates leaned over and scrutinized my work. He told me, somewhat reverentially, that it was funny, since we were reading Prynne, that my handwriting looked just like Prynne’s. This was my first indication that Prynne was a man whose every quality was intensely scrutinized.

When I encountered the prose of J. H. Prynne for the second time, I knew more about him than I had at the time of reading “Huts.” I knew, for example, that he was not only a scholar but also a poet, and not only a poet but a famously obscure and difficult poet. Some people said he was the most important British poet since Wordsworth. Other people said that he was terrible. Since I did not know anything about poetry, nor did I read it, nor did it strike me as a vibrant part of contemporary literature, the actual poetic aspect of Prynne mythology did not interest me in the least. At the time I just wanted to know what people were so interested in.

I could soon sketch a rough biography. Prynne, now in his seventies, had been appointed a fellow at Gonville and Caius College, at Cambridge, sometime in the early 1960s. He was semi-retired. He had never gotten a PhD, having proceeded directly to teaching upon completing his undergraduate education in the late 1950s, and was somewhat famously known as Mr. Prynne. He rarely gave readings in the UK and all but refused to do interviews, thereby contributing to the widespread sentiment that the so-called Cambridge School of poetry, of which Prynne was a pillar, was an insular, self-congratulating group.

Prynne’s verifiable biography was complemented by a great deal of hearsay. It was said that Prynne had been one of the first readers of Stephen Hawking’s The Large Scale Structure of Space-Time (Hawking had also been a fellow at Caius) because he was smart enough to give a well-informed critique. I was told that Prynne was celebrated in China, because he wrote poetry in Chinese, and that translations of his anthology Poems had sold fifty thousand copies there. In China, Prynne is known by his Chinese name: Pu Ling-en. I heard that Prynne was of the opinion that the only two countries with well-formed poetic traditions were England and China, though China’s was far better established, and that Prynne considered American poetry to be rudimentary and infantile in comparison. I read on a blog that the animated character of Jeremy Hilary Boob, a.k.a. the rhyming “Nowhere Man” in the Beatles movie Yellow Submarine, was perhaps based on Prynne — except that J. H. Boob had a PhD appended to his name. There were rumors that Prynne held parties in his chambers at Caius where poetry would be debated late into the night and deep existential topics would be broached, like which books of poetry it was acceptable to roll joints on (Pope, no; Keats, yes). People said that Prynne’s poetry was perhaps the only poetry wholly resistant to scansion. They said that he spoke with a lisp. They said that he was an avid philologist, and had a giant file devoted to the word “dust,” and believed that it was imperative to learn Anglo-Saxon. I also heard that Prynne was regularly seen bicycling past a pub called the Maypole, where the graduate students drank beer almost every night.

The document I was given in my second encounter with the prose of Prynne, “Tips on Practical Criticism, for Students of English,” was a guide for the first-year undergraduate students who drank port in wood-paneled rooms during supervisions with him and discussed poetry (I was told that Prynne always had port at supervisions). Perhaps because I had not studied English as an undergraduate, I had never heard of Practical Criticism. The term was in such widespread use at Cambridge — in casual conversation it was “Prac. Crit.” — that initially I was reluctant to ask anyone what it meant. When somebody announced that they had spent the afternoon doing a Prac. Crit. of Frank O’Hara in the library, I would just nod. When I looked up the words on the internet, I was simply directed to the web page of the Faculty of English at Cambridge University. Finally I quietly asked a British classmate for some background. He was kind enough to send me the guide to Practical Criticism for first-year undergraduates by J. H. Prynne.

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