- That Room in Cambridge by Emily Witt
That Room in Cambridge
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 light- ing, 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.
I was brought to realize my profound ignorance of the formal structures of English versification when I decided I really wanted to be friends with the poetry people in my course. It seemed all they did was talk about two things that I suddenly felt extremely embarrassed about never having read. The first was the entire canon of English poetry; the second was Moby-Dick.
At home in America I had never needed to know anything about poetry. It was not that I had heretofore dismissed poetry; it was that it was never really around to be dismissed or enjoyed. And it wasn’t just contemporary poetry: nobody had ever said to me, “Have you read Keats?” or “That reminds me of the part in The Prelude when Wordsworth goes ice skating,” or anything that would make me feel embarrassed about my illiteracy. I knew nothing about poetry, but I considered it a dead thing. What had happened to poetry? Who read it? These questions did not interest me.
I went to Cambridge to read travel writing by 18th-century British explorers in Africa and postcolonial theory. I guess I also went to Cambridge because sometimes it’s easier (if imprudent) to take out another federal loan and get another graduate degree than it is to sit in front of a computer in lower Manhattan for ten hours a day. When I stepped off the bus from Heathrow into the wan autumn light, and found myself surrounded by a sense of decay and musty carpets and the British obsession with fire safety, and all the restaurants were expensive and bad, I realized I had made a mistake. Also, at 28 I was at least five years older than everyone else in my course. I knew that, because I was older, had perceptibly failed to secure what might be called a career, and had taken a loan where they all had full scholarships, they probably wouldn’t want to be friends with me.
I resigned myself to a year of solitude. For the first couple of months I jogged through the fens past interminably masticating cows. I ate terrible cafeteria lunches, socialized strictly with scientists, and woke up early. I felt so guilty about being back in school that pretending I had lots of important work to do became a kind of penance. Except there wasn’t all that much to do. The days just got shorter and the scientists more boring. The weather shifted from damp to frosty. The cows disappeared. I ran past dead blackberry brambles and safety-conscious English joggers clad entirely in Day-Glo colors and reflective tape. I wondered whether the ghosts of cows masticated in the fields at night. It was around this time, the time of reading “Huts,” that I concluded there was very little virtue in solitude. My coursemates began staggering into class discussing hangovers from revelries with each other, and I began to think my willed isolation was dumb. It wasn’t that I wanted to be hungover, but I was ready to make friends.
It seemed there was a spectrum in my class. At one end were people who studied mostly prose and at the other people who studied mostly poetry. The prose side mostly discussed works one could find in most chain bookstores, while the poetry side seemed to assume that everyone had read the complete works of Swinburne and memorized key passages from Tender Buttons. In the middle were people who studied, say, Beckett.
My classmate Elliot was editing a student literary journal called The Mays that occasionally held poetry readings. Some of the poetry people in my course would be reading at one shortly before the winter holidays, so I decided to attend, part of setting properly out on the task of making friends. The readings were held in a storefront that had been converted into an art workshop of sorts, with graffiti on the walls and a pervasive smell of paint. We sat in folding chairs placed on a painted concrete floor beneath bright exposed light bulbs. A space heater provided some warmth, but it was still cold and everybody was wrapped in scarves.
The reading made me feel particularly old: there were poems about what student housing might say if student housing could speak (I remember tears in a sink), poems about anguished breakups on park benches, about long-distance relationships, drunken liaisons . . . My mind wandered and I thought about the curious nature of this artsy yet somehow posh group of British people, so young and well educated but dressed like grandmothers from Palm Beach, even the men, with satin windbreakers and creative knitwear; thin, beautifully pale women in black tights and giant hair bows and men in snowflake sweaters and colorful socks. They processed their love lives in verse, lounging on manicured green lawns and drinking sparkling wine and making clever puns. I thought of America and its parking lots.
At intermission I stood up to leave. Elliot and his friends were selling tea and cake, but around the corner was the Maypole, where there would be beer. Some of my classmates had already headed in that direction, but others wanted to stay for one more poet—someone named Justin Katko. I decided to wait. Justin Katko was American, a graduate student, tall, narrow-eyed, and loping. He sat upon the recitation stool. Then he started to yell. “Up against the screen motherfuckers!” he yelled, while the audience at first suppressed their tittering and then gave up and laughed, except that it did not seem like it was supposed to be funny. Justin Katko certainly wasn’t laughing. It seemed that his poem was about a traveler in outer space, but I also recall a line about seat-back movie screens on airplanes.
After Katko’s irate finale the night seemed shattered. He stood up from the stool, glaring. Then a large, mild, and pink-cheeked British undergraduate, pushing his overgrown bangs out of his eyes, recited a poem about a Nespresso salesman who tried to hit on his mother. I heard the words “George Clooney.” After Katko, the undergraduate poets seemed more insipid then ever, their affected British modesty more tragically timid, their shy sex lives reduced to tremulous hand- holding and dorm room anguish. We sat in our folding chairs until it was over, and then went to drink our beers.
I looked up Justin Katko on the internet when I got home that night. I was surprised to learn that despite his colloquial diction, Katko was of the cult of Prynne, a PhD student researching the long correspondence between Prynne and an American poet named Edward Dorn. Prynne’s anthology Poems was dedicated to “Edward Dorn, his brilliant luminous shade.” I also found a comment Katko had appended to a book review on the Poetry Foundation website:
On August 21, 2009 at 1:36 pm Justin Katko wrote:
Consider the poetry of JH Prynne. Intensive use of scientific discourse in his work. Especially his Plant Time Manifold Transcripts from the early 1970s. Check it out!
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I did not go back to America that Christmas. Instead, over the winter break, which I spent on a friend’s couch in a very snowy, cold, and dark Berlin, I did two things: I read Moby-Dick and I read a book called The Poetry Handbook: A Guide to Reading Poetry for Pleasure and Prac- tical Criticism, by a guy named John Lennard, former Cambridge professor, which covered the basics of versification. When Lennard listed examples, I would look those up in the Norton anthology. In this way I went from total illiteracy to almost-total illiteracy. I now knew what a spondee was, and ottava rima, and Coleridge, and when I returned to Cambridge, to continue my personal trajectory of learning, I looked up some context on Prynne.
In 2007, the Chicago Review devoted a special issue to British Poetry, featuring the work of the younger generation of the so-called Cambridge School. I say “so-called” because unlike the Objectivists, or the New York School, or the Language poets, the Cambridge School had no manifestos, no unifying style, no publication singularly associated with them, and no specific generational limit. Instead, as I figured out as I went along, the label mostly refers to a self-selecting group of people who are friends with or have studied under Prynne at Cambridge. If there is something like stylistic unity to be found, it’s that the poetry is frequently nonmetrical and incorporates the language of industry, business, and science.
That was the thing that seemed to stick about Prynne—that he incorporated languages that were hitherto alien to poetry: the languages of biochemistry, geology, stock markets, business jargon, advertising, and computer programming. His wide-ranging use of seemingly unrelated words was differentiated from Language poetry in that one could be sure that each word of Prynne the poet had been exhaustively researched by Prynne the philologist. If Prynne's poetry was also totally incomprehensible, it was a function of the complexity of the world he sought to describe. For Prynne, resisting comprehension alerts us to the world’s defiance of our desire to neatly encapsulate it. In other fields, committing to complexity was a mark of prestige: no one picked up a journal of applied physics and complained that it was hard to read, but the literary world was still stuck on the idea of easily transferable meaning. In the case of its youngest generation, the Cambridge poets purported to urgently concern themselves with the task of resisting the forces of evil in the world and revealing what the Review described as “the truth that our identities, as we crouch over a laptop or eat a clementine on the subway, are dependent for their making and sustenance on the catastrophic exploitation of the unfortunate inhabitants of other places.”
For most people, even the poets themselves, it was confusing to understand how these overtly political goals could be reconciled with the isolation of experimental poetry as a medium. If one was writing poems that obliquely referenced manufacturing in China, migrant labor, white phosphorus, or Abu Ghraib—as some of the Cambridge poets have—it seemed far-fetched to say that they revealed the catastrophic exploitation that allowed one to eat a clementine on the sub- way. It was rather that they produced a literary experience of such global disparities, an experience that then merely joined all of our other rather comfortable experiences of this exploitation—when we watched it on television, say, or as tourists, or in the stories of friends who were tourists, or when a homeless crazy person got on the subway while we were eating our clementine. But if it was instead that the poets felt that the very act of defying the language we spoke to one another and read in a newspaper had the power to reveal (as W.S. Graham once put it) what the language is using us for—if it was language that was catastrophically exploiting us—then, well . . . the question remained: What was the point if nobody understood what you were writing, however broad a definition you want to give to the word “understood”?
The editors of the Review didn’t answer this question. They acknowledged furthermore that American readers had probably never heard of any of these poets. They added that most would probably find the work inaccessible, but went so far as to express a sort of envy at the delightful prospect of being flummoxed for the first time: “We want to avoid offering the kind of reassuring exposition that would seriously blunt the impact of poetry that is designed to confront and unsettle," they wrote.
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That Room in Cambridge