Shouting and laughing and intense felicity given over, rises under the hill

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, compedious 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 is touching. I was a bundle of raw anxiety and back-arching back then – but even then 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 perciptible 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 intenstity 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 unconciously 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 an phenomenological experience – about holding oneself on the edge of meaning-making and enjoying a spray, an exuberance of possibilities which 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 soundplay 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 excedes 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 into 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.



  1. May

    February 16, 2012 at 12:41 am

    Hey Alistair, welcome back!
    And straight in with a most intriguing bit of poetry…the library overhere has never heard of him, it seems, but Prynne is now definitely next on my reading list! Beautifully evocative, albeit ‘difficult’ and full of your ‘sounds around the words’…which I LOVE. You have inspired me, as ever.
    Happy birthday, by the way!

  2. Andrew

    February 20, 2012 at 8:40 am

    Dear Alistair,

    I have just been reading your recent 9th February musings on Prynne, poetry, Cambridge etc. – all very interesting and undeniably inspiring, and further to May’s recent posting, there is certainly something evocative about Prynne’s ‘sound-world’ (if, perhaps somewhat elegiac at times).

    I do not usually contribute to blogs etc., but if I am honest, I am looking for a diversion (or ‘distraction’!) from trying to work on my PhD! I was intrigued to post you something having had a look around your impressive website…I must confess to not possesing a website of my own. Never a lark, but always an owl, I have been grappling with various parts of my thesis throughout the last five hours or so of my life and it seems that I have just been going round in circles with my own musings on my laptop! Interestingly, penning my own thoughts here (which, admittedly, seem rather long for a ‘comment’ for which I express ‘molto apologies’) has been a welcome and refreshing break from endeavouring to write my doctorate (which is concerned with ‘The Christmas Carol’). Yes, as you have probably guessed, I am a musician (pianist) and an accompanist by specialisation – indeed, working with singers is truly one of my joys and has probably something to do with the fact that singers provide instrumentalists with words which, when combined with music make for a very special marriage…two great art forms combining to make for something even greater and all that.

    I recently worked for an MMus (Master of Music) at Cambridge with my being based at St Catharine’s College – only a few doors down the road from Gonville and Caius College. I had a really good friend at Caius whom often invited me to meals and endless champagne drinking – he was a very funny Irish man (and colleague on my Masters course) who could drink for all of England (and probably all of Ireland for that matter!)…alas, we have lost contact these days, but when I think of him, he makes me laugh quite uncontrollably! Caius Chapel, set in idyllic greenery and flowers, is beautiful and was one of the chapels where I attended many a Choral Evensong during my time in Cambridge.

    On the subject of graduate work, I hope that your MA is progressing well – where are you working for this award? My PhD is being supervised at Durham University although I am based in Gloucestershire – Durham is a handsome part of the country with some splendid and quite appealing architecture.

    In closing, may I also take this opportunity to pass on my ‘belated birthday greetings’ for your recent birthday which I trust was a pleasant one and brought you everything that you wished for. Once again, thank you for your blog and here’s hoping that you read this entry of mine. Take care and all the very best with all your endeavours.

    Sincerely yours


    PS I sometimes catch you on BBC’s charming ‘Escape to the Country’ programme – in my opinion, you are by far the best presenter and your presence is always enjoyed with a nice pot of Earl Grey tea and a slice of some delicious cake…! (I sound like I might be retired, but I am still not quite forty years of age!) Keep on entertaining and inspiring in your inimitably humourous way as presenter…in fact, there was one recent episode in which you delighted your viewing public in an especially delightful way with a real ‘air of whimsy’!…it was terrific!

    PPS Once again, I am sorry that I have no website.

  3. Sea

    March 13, 2012 at 2:25 pm

    Hi Alistair,
    This is first time am reading your blog, not good with English though (enough for a Microbiologist, fine Artist), I have learnt that its the best place to be to improve. I love u as a presenter on TV (the most decent, if u waren’t gay, any woman would love such a gentleman for a husband !! ha ha..) so I googled to know about you…only then I came by your website and thus the blog. From now on You have one more regular reader for your blogs….
    Wishing U All The Best n Good Luck,

  4. Daniel David

    March 19, 2012 at 2:07 am

    I’ve heard many times of the magic that happens around the words, between the words — it is not new to me: it is profoundly magical.

    Daniel David

    Your words were very moving.

  5. Kath Riley

    September 15, 2012 at 8:44 pm

    Your life is one I have no knowledge of having lived in the industrial north for ever. My question to you is have you ever visited say Blackpool, Burnley or Blackburn? If so would you be able to wax lyrical about them in the same way?
    How to describe Blackpool Tower/Blackburn Cathedral/Burnley town centre?
    I’m being unfair – I do love watching you on Escape to the Country and am glad I discovered your site. It just brings home the north south divide even more.

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