"Scheming for the possible world": J.H. Prynne's The White Stones and The English Intelligencer

Alex Latter


J.H. Prynne published fifty poems in The English Intelligencer, forty-four of which were subsequently reprinted in The White Stones (Lincoln: Grosseteste Press, 1969).[1] As such, the Intelligencer poems constitute the bulk of The White Stones, but their provenance has largely been neglected in critical considerations of the collection. This paper argues that the significance of The White Stones' origins in the Intelligencer is two-fold: firstly, that they are deeply embedded within the context of the critical discussion conducted in its pages; secondly, that the poetic on which they are predicated shifts during—and because of—their situation in that context.

The neglect of the Intelligencer in discussions of The White Stones is evident in Simon Jarvis's account of 'ARISTEAS, IN SEVEN YEARS', where he asserts that the poem 'first appeared in the volume Aristeas in 1968 and was then reprinted in The White Stones in 1969'.[2] 'ARISTEAS, IN SEVEN YEARS' had in fact first appeared in Series 2, Issue 1 of the Intelligencer, without the appendix that was eventually printed in Issue 8. This has important implications for Jarvis's assertion that readers of the poem 'are asked to become researchers, to take purchase on the whole body of the language and the history and polity sedimented within it, rather than acquiescing in their dispossession in the name of the figment of a common readership'.[3] Resistance to passive modes of reading was implicit in the context of the Intelligencer, within which readers were to some extent already researchers. 'A Note On Metal' was printed in the same issue as 'ARISTEAS, IN SEVEN YEARS' and is representative of this process; it does not directly address the poem, although it does refer to Herodotus. Rather, its account of the development of metallurgy and the concomitant emergence of 'the stratified functionalism of a monetary system' resonates both with some of the poem's themes, and also with the discussion in the Intelligencer more broadly.[4] As such, Jarvis's contention that the use of the first person plural pronoun in poems such as 'DIAMONDS IN THE AIR', which appeals 'as if to a community of speakers and writers, which is as yet no community but a series of markets and hierarchies', is both confirmed and contradicted by the context of its first appearance in the Intelligencer: a community of speakers and writers is exactly the model of community to which it is appealing.[5]

The origin of 'ARISTEAS, IN SEVEN YEARS' in the Intelligencer also has a profound impact on the way the poem is read. Jarvis suggests that the appendix that is attached to the poem in both the Ferry Press Aristeas and The White Stones publications is an integral part of Prynne's poetic in its insistence 'that reading should not be contemplatively confined to the text itself, but prepared to enquire beyond it.'[6] Since 'ARISTEAS, IN SEVEN YEARS' initially appeared without its appendix, however, this insistence was either absent from its original installment, which would entail that the poem reproduced in the Intelligencer is incomplete and that subsequent publications are in some way different poems, or that the insistence on 'readers as researchers' was already implicit in the context in which it appeared.

'ARISTEAS, IN SEVEN YEARS' was published in at the beginning of the Intelligencer's second series; towards the end of the first, the Intelligencer had reprinted Peter Riley's 'Working Notes on British Pre-History: or, Archaeological Guesswork One'.[7] Riley's essay provides an account of the settlement patterns of British pre-history that took as its theme the idea that:

something existed in the life of man, as the life of man on this island up to about 1500 BC at the latest, that we've lost sight of and need to reconsider. That we could get it back is something that frightens with its possibilities.[8]

The thesis drew a series of responses from Prynne and others which formed a critical nexus in which 'ARISTEAS, IN SEVEN YEARS' could be read immediately and meaningfully, without necessary recourse to an appendix.[9] The poem is deeply embedded within this discussion and, as such, it does not insist that 'readers [...] become researchers' in the first instance since the forms of knowledge requisite for an understanding of the poem are already in play around it.


The skeleton of the possible

Reading 'ARISTEAS, IN SEVEN YEARS' in the context of the Intelligencer firmly grounds the poem in the terms of a dialectical process, generating new interpretative possibilities. Although the wanderings of Aristeas through the Asian steppe—as set out in Herodotus—provide the mythic background of the poem, the immediate context of the Intelligencer allows the poem's readers to extrapolate meanings from it that are at once more local and more general. Prynne's response to Riley's 'Working Notes', in which he outlines his own working theory of pre-historic population patterns, is a case in point. The letter of 14 February 1967 acknowledges the manifold complexities involved in evidencing accounts of pre-historic times, but describes the gradual settlement of semi-nomadic tribes. From this, Prynne works out a meta-narrative that details the gradual substitution of shamanic ritual for the 'specialisation of function leading to the economies of exchange.'[10] These ideas have direct bearing on the passage in 'ARISTEAS, IN SEVEN YEARS' which asserts that:

                        Prior to the pattern of settlement then, which

                        is the passing of flocks fixed into wherever

                they happened to stop,

                        the spirit demanded the orphic metaphor

        3              as fact

                        that they did migrate and the spirit excursion

                        was no more than the need and will of the



This passage is not explained by reference to the letter in the Intelligencer; rather, its context provides a working vocabulary with which to approach Neolithic history, which in turn enables a poetry that forms a continuum with critical thought.

The reciprocity of practice and criticism is manifest in the complex representation of pre-historic society in 'ARISTEAS, IN SEVEN YEARS'. Repeatedly, it draws attention to it sources: both those that are traceable, like 'the griffins, which lived close to the | mines, the gold reposed as the divine brilliance' ('ARISTEAS, IN SEVEN YEARS', 229230) which alludes to 'the griffins which guard the gold' in the Herodotean source, and others that are left to hang, unattributed[12]:

180013th Century B.C., the north

of the Caucasus, then

1.    13th8th Centuries, invaded

by the Scythians and deflected

southwards & to the west. And

2.    after that, once more displaced

(8th Century to maybe 500 B.C.),

the invasion of Asia Minor


The text is saturated with unattributed quotations in scare quotes, although it never moves towards a complete synthesis of their often-dissonant counterpoints. Crucially, though, the formal fragmentation of 'ARISTEAS, IN SEVEN YEARS' is not underwritten by a recuperative ideology like Eliot's 'mythical method'[13]; nor does it, as Anthony Mellors suggests, 'buy into […] political evasion'[14]. Mellors contends that Prynne's representation of the singularity of shamanism in nomadic cultures is a narcissistic self-identification of 'the romantic predicament of the poet', which is in turn further aestheticised by Prynne's anachronistic positioning of nomadic cultures as 'the ideal antithesis of commodification.'[15] The claim that Prynne has appropriated and distorted the figure of the shaman to galvanize his own poetic implies a fundamental contradiction in this poem: if the shaman is included symbolically, standing in for a set of values that Prynne has projected onto it, then the process of this exchange is the antithesis of the commitment to quality—where quality is that which cannot be assimilated into commodity exchange—that underpins both the poem and the Intelligencer.

The work that the poem does to establish and acknowledge the economic determination of both the pre-historic societies in question and also the routes by which knowledge about these societies is transmitted and, invariably, mediated flatly contradicts Mellors' reading. 'ARISTEAS, IN SEVEN YEARS' never loses sight of the fact that the basic term on which all knowledge of pre-historic culture is founded:

as has been pointed out,

is bone, the

flesh burned or rotted off but the

branch calcined like what

it was: like that: as itself

the skeleton of the possible

in a heap and covered with

stones or a barrow.


Rather than blindly trusting the figure of the shaman to offer some kind of redemption, this passage explicitly counts 'the cost of such trust by recounting the material needs and desires which such motifs support and depend upon.'[16] This counting demands a continual awareness of the unspoken conditions on which knowledge of the past is predicated, and how knowledge is always mediated by those conditions. The passage alludes to this in its acknowledgement that its truth has already 'been pointed out': it omits details of when, where or by whom, since it is enough to know that the poem is indebted to systems of knowledge beyond the parameters of the page on which it is printed. This is the paradox of the 'skeleton of the possible': it is both the residuum of what was once possible, and also the framework for what may yet be.

'ARISTEAS, IN SEVEN YEARS' engages dialectically with the idea of a culture that 'demanded the orphic metaphor | as fact' ('ARISTEAS, IN SEVEN YEARS', 101102). Although the culture that existed before the emergence of 'the economies of exchange' is valorized by the poem, Prynne writes in the Intelligencer that he could not 'want it back, nor any version of cultural nostalgia. We are the prize of our own landscape condition, and our quality, now, is exactly that.'[17] 'ARISTEAS, IN SEVEN YEARS' insists on the orphic metaphor as fact, too, but it also necessarily insists on the recognition of the mediation of these facts. The original context of The English Intelligencer, and its insistence on a continued exchange between poetry and theory, is integral to this end, and is a necessary consideration in critical appreciations of the poem.


Braced to catch the recoil

The shifting tone of the poems in The White Stones can also be usefully considered in the context of their textual provenance. A note at the back of the Cape Goliard edition of Kitchen Poems (1968) acknowledges that 'these poems first appeared as news items in The English Intelligencer'[18]. There is, however, no similar acknowledgement in the Grosseteste Press edition of The White Stones (Lincoln: Grosseteste Press, 1969). This could be attributed to the fact that ten poems had been published in The Wivenhoe Park Review[19]. These poems are published at the beginning of The White Stones however; as such, their provenance in what, by the terms of the Intelligencer, is a conventional literary magazine can be accommodated into an argument that The White Stones evidences a shift away from a hopefulness about the possibility of a sustained, collective poetic endeavour. The poems in Prynne's next collection, Brass, first appeared in fugitive publications like The Anona Wynn and The Norman Hackforth, which appropriated some of the Intelligencer's typo- and reprographic features but ran for only one issue.

Keston Sutherland has written that 'Prynne's moral anthropology of the consumerism of suffering, initiated in earnest and in violent burlesque by Brass, begins flickeringly to be tested out in the second half of The White Stones'[20]. Sutherland's dual contention—that The White Stones is broadly divided into halves, the second of which sees the beginning of a formal experiment that culminates in Brass—is supported when the poems are read back into the context of the Intelligencer. The chronological order of their appearance in the Intelligencer bears witness to these changes and broadly describes a trajectory from hopefulness to disillusion. Set against the background of the correspondence reprinted in the Intelligencer, most particularly Prynne's letter of 27 December 1966, it becomes clear that Prynne's increasing frustration with the Intelligencer catalyses the development of a different poetic, and is a significant factor in determining its form.

The comparison of 'IN CIMMERIAN DARKNESS' with 'QUESTIONS FOR THE TIME BEING' illustrates the trajectory of Prynne's development through the Intelligencer. 'IN CIMMERIAN DARKNESS' is the first poem in a batch of nine printed in Series 1, Issue 12 of the Intelligencer[21]. The poems in this batch are typeset differently to the preceding pages of the Intelligencer, as well as the subsequent poems by other poets in this issue (see Figure 1). 'IN CIMMERIAN DARKNESS' fits exactly onto the page that it occupies alone, save for the initials and page number 'T.E.I. / 134'. As such, the poem is presented as a discrete entity on the page, stand-alone and self-contained, appearing as it does when collected in The White Stones[22]. When it is collected, it appears on page 46, which is revealingly the collection's mid-point. It is in this poem that Prynne's aspirations for the Intelligencer are perhaps most fully articulated. The poem loosely describes a journey out of 'the deeper parts | of night' towards a light figured variously as a star and a hearth that 'glows in the slight wind' that will deliver us 'the | fortune we wish for' ('IN CIMMERIAN DARKNESS', 55-56).[23] It is not a linear trajectory, however, and the passage it describes is beset by the indeterminacy of the poem's title. The Cimmerian darkness can be read as an allusion to the mythic Kimmerian lands of the Odyssey to which Pound refers to in his opening Canto as:

                               peopled cities

        Covered with close-webbed mist, unpierced ever

        With glitter of sun-rays

        Nor with stars stretched

('Canto I', 1215)[24]


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Another field of reference is suggested by the subsequent reference to the Cimmerian people referred to in Herodotus and 'ARISTEAS, IN SEVEN YEARS'. This indeterminacy is an integral part of this poem's attempt to weave heterogeneous discourses into its fabric. It also begs the question of how, in the face of this uncertainty, the reader may properly proceed.

The poem's answer to this question is emphatic: we proceed by 'trusting to rotten planks' ('IN CIMMERIAN DARKNESS', 40). Only by trust can we obtain:

some other version of this

present age, where any curving

trust is set into

the nature of man, the green raw and fabulous

love of it, where every star that shines,

    as he said, exists

in love


Trust resonates throughout the poem, and is implicitly bound up in the multi-faceted figure of 'the brother' ('IN CIMMERIAN DARKNESS', 11). Broadly commensurate to 'the ready world | which waits for us' ('IN CIMMERIAN DARKNESS', 2425), the brother is both the figure that we are asked to trust and also that which legitimizes this leap of faith. The poem does not advocate blind trust as the condition on which to proceed; rather, it advocates a model of trust which is figured as 'an agency | of surrender' ('IN CIMMERIAN DARKNESS', 33–34). Just as the reader must proceed with cautious deliberation through the poem to tease out the nuances of these paradoxes, revisiting previous lines and passages the meaning of which has been subsequently re-contextualized or undermined, so the poem suggests that it is by these means that we should move forwards. Without the requisite caution, the light towards which the poem moves becomes jeopardized:

                                                   since no more simple

     presence will fade, as the dawn does, over

     water, the colonies of feeling like stacks

                              of banknotes waiting to be counted.


Commodity and quality are explicitly opposed here, but the poem articulates the fear that these hopes of a bright new dawn may be assimilated into extant systems of exploitation and commodity exchange. It is ultimately hopeful, however, and its hopes are bound up in the model of community that Prynne sought in the Intelligencer. In place of the fixed value and accumulation of capitalist economics, 'IN CIMMERIAN DARKNESS' insists that 'the divine' is not 'in any sense | Full'; instead, 'the vacancy stretches away' ('IN CIMMERIAN DARKNESS', 4647). This vacancy is not figured nihilistically; rather, it is the element through which our lives move, both cosmically and domestically. What makes this vacancy not just bearable but the condition of revolutionary change is the possibility of reciprocity, which Prynne deftly captures in the description of how:

                                                  the cups

        of our radio telescopes stand openly

        braced to catch the recoil.


The radio telescopes are cupped like ears to the cosmos, poised with the hopeful anticipation of reply; they encapsulate both the poem's imagery of starlight in the vast darkness of space, and also the repeated references to the 'equal limit' ('IN CIMMERIAN DARKNESS', 12, 41). It also corroborates Prynne's description of the function of the curvature of space in Olson's poetry, whereby 'once that curvature is reached, the lyric concludes, and what takes over is the condition of myth.'[25] This is the point from which the radio waves return to where we are, and to which the poem self-consciously returns us after the caesura:

Focus, the

hearth is again warm, again the human patch

waits, glows in the slight wind


The poem ends poised and expectant like the radio telescopes, bracing itself at once for the possibility of change and insisting that:

    we are ready for this, the array is there in

             the figure we name brother, the

    fortune we wish for, devoutly, as the dip

      turns us to the face we have

    so long ignored; so fervently refused.




The mirror of a would-be alien

'So long ignored; so fervently refused': if there is hope at the end of 'IN CIMMERIAN DARKNESS' that the conditions of exchange in the given world may be about to give way to a reciprocity predicated on trust and the recognition of quality, Prynne's subsequent contributions to The English Intelligencer chart its dissipation. The Intelligencer is deeply implicated in, as well as descriptive of, this change, and although it is not the sole motivating factor in this subsequent shift in Prynne's aesthetic, it is decisive. Prynne's letter of 27 December 1966 is a crucial moment, indicative of the intensity of his frustrations with the Intelligencer.

The letter is distinguished from the tone of much of the Intelligencer by its vehemence, and operates at the limit of its internal dialectic. It appears in the fifteenth issue of the first series, and is written in response to Andrew Crozier's open letter that appeared two issues earlier. Crozier's letter states that:

When I began to be interested in the possibility of a writing in this country of the same order as that I could see achieved in North America, which is a concern you appear to share, an immediate referent at least was the activity associated with the magazine Migrant. So I am disappointed to see no carry over from that in your pages, say in new work by Roy Fisher, or Michael Shayer, or Gael Turnbull. What is the reason for this omission? Are you pursuing a policy of deliberate exclusion? I hope not, for I doubt that we are yet strong enough to sustain such divisiveness.[26]

Peter Riley has written that Prynne 'was at this time rather ignorant about modern British poetry', claiming that he had never heard of W.S. Graham and would 'have nothing to do with [Roy] Fisher and other English poets connected with him'[27]. If this is the case, it is possible to read Crozier's reference to Fisher here as an allusion to the perceived lacunae in both Prynne's reading and his awareness of contemporary British poetry, which may in part explain the fiercely personal tone of the subsequent response, referring to the Intelligencer as a 'drooping matter'[28].' This perceived impotence is explicitly ascribed to the deficiencies of its contributors, asking:

What do all these damn neat craftsmen or rowdies do with their lives, how do they get on with it, in heaven's name? Do they read? or think, or scheme for the possible world? Who are the people as a figure of insistence, as they could go at it, necessary & honourable? Don't they trust anyone, so that each dubious effort sinks to its own small death by adjustment? Isn't there any form of active constancy, of trust and the directions in which support or any fluency of connection can keep the thing afloat?[29]

This perception resonates in the description of the Intelligencer's effort sinking to 'its own small death'; 'small death' denotes immediate gratification and its limits, and connotes barrenness and non-regenerative practice. The repetition of 'trust' broadens the letter's range as the personal frustration is superseded by a more general and profound frustration that is deeply implicated in the core aspirations shared by the Intelligencer and 'IN CIMMERIAN DARKNESS':

I had thought that perhaps something might move, if there were perhaps some initial measure of trust, so that the community of risk could hold up the idea of the possible world; we could approximately and in some sense or other mostly be in it, or moving in part across the same face, giving out something and who am I to care how it might be done? Get back the knowledge, the purities, the lightness of language, whatever it is.[30]

Read back into 'IN CIMMERIAN DARKNESS', this passage directly critiques that poem's hopes. Although it cannot quite bring itself to renounce them, its angry, flippant rhetoric—'and who am I to care'; 'whatever it is'—betrays this professed faith in the power of taking 'knowledge | back to the springs' ('DIAMONDS IN THE AIR', 12)[31]. The consequences of this begin to be worked out through Prynne's subsequent contributions to the Intelligencer.

The ramifications of Prynne's loss of faith in the Intelligencer and the confident poetry epitomized by 'IN CIMMERIAN DARKNESS' become slowly manifest, and there is no neat divide into before-and-after in its pages. There is however a broad but distinct difference between the poems that appear before this letter, and those that appear after it; this difference also directly corresponds to the difference between the first and second halves of The White Stones. The shift is manifest in the diminishing frequency with which his poems appear in the Intelligencer: in the 188 pages leading up to the letter of 27 December 1966, Prynne contributed twenty-one poems, or one roughly every nine pages; in the 501 pages subsequent to that letter, he publishes only a further twenty-nine, or one roughly every seventeen pages. This can be partly, but not entirely, ascribed to the increasing number of contributors to the Intelligencer. Over the 200 pages of the Intelligencer subsequent to this letter, Prynne's major contribution is 'ARISTEAS, IN SEVEN YEARS', and a set of prose expositions in the form of notes, letters and a bibliography that establish a critical context in which that poem might be read. When poems do appear, they are no longer presented in large groups, as was the case with 'IN CIMMERIAN DARKNESS', but in isolated ones and twos. It is not an immediate transition into the search for a new style: 'SKETCH FOR A FINANCIAL THEORY OF THE SELF', which is printed after the letter of 27 December, is reprinted in Kitchen Poems and 'FIRST NOTES ON DAYLIGHT', which again comes after the letter, is collected before 'IN CIMMERIAN DARKNESS' in The White Stones: both poems belong definitively to that more confident, earlier style. Once 'ARISTEAS, IN SEVEN YEARS' has been printed in the first issue of the second edition, however, the development of the style of the second half of The White Stones begins to become manifest: all the poems published after it in the Intelligencer are reprinted in the second half of The White Stones.

The shift is visible in the poems' appearance on the page too: gone is the wandering margin of Olsonian open form composition. In its place is a more severe form: long, unbroken blocks of verse reminiscent, almost, of the Augustan satirists. The tone changes too, moving away from the aureate symbolism of 'IN CIMMERIAN DARKNESS' towards something more scabrous and satirical. These poems—'FOOT AND MOUTH', 'STAR DAMAGE AT HOME', 'ONE WAY AT ANY TIME', 'ACQUISITION OF LOVE', 'QUESTIONS FOR THE TIME BEING', 'STARVATION/DREAM', 'SMALLER THAN THE RADIUS OF A PLANET' and 'CROWN'—are clustered together at the end of The White Stones, and appear exclusively in the final 150 pages of the Intelligencer's run.

'QUESTIONS FOR THE TIME BEING' is printed across the final two pages of the fifth issue of the third series of the Intelligencer (see Figure 2). As Prynne was involved in the type-

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setting and printing of the sheets, this formatting choice reflects an intentional shift. It also provides a neat counterpoint to the appearance of 'IN CIMMERIAN DARKNESS': against the self-confidence of the earlier poem's presentation, 'QUESTIONS FOR THE TIME BEING' appears half-way down the final page of its issue, beneath Andrew Crozier's 'DRIVING TESTING', and bears no typographical distinctions. It is split across two pages, where it would comfortably fit onto one, and the page break occurs just four lines before the end of the first stanza. Beneath its final line and Prynne's name, there is a paragraph of bibliographical information, an address and solicitations for further submissions.

By situating it emphatically in the midst of the Intelligencer, with no distinguishing features, 'QUESTIONS FOR THE TIME BEING' appears more integrated with the quotidian reality of the Intelligencer than the differentiated presentation of 'IN CIMMERIAN DARKNESS', even as it seeks to assumes a critical distance from it. Both poems ostensibly address revolutionary hope, but where the earlier poem ends on a note of hopeful anticipation, 'QUESTIONS FOR THE TIME BEING' dismisses this sentiment as 'silly', no more than:

delay, or gangsterism of the moment, some

Micawberish fantasy that we can snatch the controls

when the really crucial moment turns up.


Their respective attitudes might be summed up by comparison of their opening lines:

When the faint star does take

us into the deeper parts

of the night


All right then no stoic composure as the

self-styled masters of language queue to

apply for their permits


The tone of the latter clearly resonates with the tone of the letter of 27 December, in its angry retort (here, to some unspoken assertion or unspecified malaise). The gesture of vernacular impatience in the opening line is repeated throughout the poem—'seems not to have struck home'; 'the scout-camp idea of revolution'—and bears distinct echoes of the intemperate language of Prynne's letter of 27 December.

'QUESTIONS FOR THE TIME BEING' is fiercely and richly satiric, confidently asserting (and assuming) its authority. It turns around 'the direct question' of whether:

                                         any discrete

        class with an envisaged part in the social process

        is not creating its own history, then who is doing

        it for them? Namely, what is anyone waiting

        for, either resigned or nervous or frantic from

        time to time?


The 'scout-camp idea of revolution' is dismissed out of hand, as is the modish idea of a revolutionary counter-culture:

                            so much talk

        about the underground is silly when it would re-

        quire a constant effort to keep below the surface

        when almost everything is exactly that, the

        mirror of a would-be alien who can't see how

        much he is at home.


The final two lines contain one of the poem's few metaphors which operates very differently to the image of 'the faint star' in 'IN CIMMERIAN DARKNESS'. It counterpoints the earlier poem's image of the radio telescopes braced to catch the recoil: where 'IN CIMMERIAN DARKNESS' ultimately embodies the hope of reciprocity between the possible world and the given, the latter image resists the terms on which this hope is predicated, denying the dialectical structure that would enable change and replacing it with a situation in which 'nearly everything' is just 'surface'. The image is also far more complicated than the bold assertions of the kind of imagery characterized by the radio telescopes: the complex interplay of 'mirror' with 'would-be', and 'alien' with 'home', suggests at once duplicity and singularity, neither of which is easily identifiable as authentic. It resonates with Althusser's account of ideology as 'a mirror-structure' that is simultaneously 'constitutive of ideology and ensures its function'[33]; for Prynne, 'the underground' is just another ideological position, complicit with the authority positions it presumes to challenge.

As such, this might be read as a damning self-critique of earlier poems such as 'IN CIMMERIAN DARKNESS' and even 'ARISTEAS, IN SEVEN YEARS', which looks to alien cultures for 'the orphic metaphor | as fact'. Although the latter poem goes to great lengths to show how mediated such a reading of an alien culture is, it presents this mediation as ultimately regenerative, part of a dialectical process; 'QUESTIONS FOR THE TIME BEING' is less optimistic, arguing that such efforts are so completely mediated by mid-twentieth century vantage that any attempt to engage with these cultures is anachronistic, and ultimately just 'so much talk'.

The emphatic rejection of stoicism with which 'QUESTIONS FOR THE TIME BEING' begins is soon mitigated, and the poem may be read as a dialectical confrontation between false hope and quietist consolations of stoicism. Where the first line of the first verse-paragraph opens by dismissing the latter, the second dismisses the former: 'Yet living in hope is so silly' ('QUESTIONS FOR THE TIME BEING', 37). The poem attempts to take recourse in refining the language since 'our desires | are so separate, not part of any mode of con- | dition except language' ('QUESTIONS FOR THE TIME BEING', 3839), but the line-break suggests that this might just be another 'con' or false position that cannot move beyond the passive infinitive of critical injunctions:

                              & that the noble fiction is to have

a few good moments, which represent what we know

ought to be ours. Ought to be, that makes me

wince with facetiousness: we/you/they, all the

pronouns by now know how to make a sentence

work with ought to, and the stoic at least saves

himself that extremity of false vigilance.


The pronouns that 'IN CIMMERIAN DARKNESS' appropriates with such confidence are now implicated in the problem. The first person plural too readily allows for the easy consolation of doxic reassurance, where the first person singular, as Prynne puts it in his letter of 27 December, can amount to no more than some 'adept little heroism'. Against the optimism of 'IN CIMMERIAN DARKNESS', revisionist plots 'are everywhere and our pronouns haven't even | drawn up plans for the first coup' ('QUESTIONS FOR THE BEING', 4849):

                        How much

        cash in simple gross terms went through the

        merger banks in the last three months? Buy one

        another or die; but the cultured élite, our squad

        of pronouns with their lingual backs to the wall,

        prefer to keep everything in the family.


'Buy one | another or die': the enjambement indicts the world of merger banks to which the hope of 'IN CIMMERIAN DARKNESS' stands opposed, appropriating an incentivized sales lexicon ('Buy one, get one free') before cutting back to expose the true nature of capitalist exchange, predicated on oppression and exchange-value that, under the guise of consumer 'choice' and the 'free' market, conceals its obviation of meaningful choice: you buy into the system, or die.

'QUESTIONS FOR THE TIME BEING' offers no answers to the questions it poses; it provides no way out of its impasse, even though it appears to attempt to. The poem ends with four bullet-points that claim to show that 'The up- | shot is simple & as follows' ('QUESTIONS FOR THE TIME BEING', 5657). Each bullet-point (see Figure 2) offers a fairly lengthy exposition on correct behavior, arguing variously against 'idle discontent' and 'Con- | tentment or sceptical calm' (again, the line-break raises the awareness of being conned), before asserting that 'language is the corporate & prolonged action | of worked self-transcendence' and concluding that:

4. Luminous

take-off shows through in language forced into any

compact with the historical shift, but even in a given con-

dition such as now not even elegance will come

of the temporary nothing in which life goes on.


Ultimately, everything is subsumed by the temporary nothing that is the 'given con- | dition' of the contemporary, putting the compact of language with 'the historic shift' beyond the remit of 'telic fantasies'.[34] The poem pushes against the parameters of its own telic possibility: its caustic tone owes as much to its frustration with its own limits, as the failure of 'the historic shift'. Anthony Mellors argues that 'QUESTIONS FOR THE TIME BEING' shows Prynne 'on the ropes, and he knows it; the whole diatribe is just, well, too personal', and that the poems in The White Stones—and, by implication, the poems in The English Intelligencer—show him 'struggling to overcome his residual allegiance to the Olsonian ethic.'[35]

Despite their typographical resemblance to Augustan satire, the satire of the Intelligencer poems operates very differently from the 18th century model. These poems lack the aloof control of the Augustans, oscillating instead between angry frustration and sour disappointment. The method of 'QUESTIONS FOR THE TIME BEING' is close to what Prynne later describes as the 'method of pyrrhonic tirade, so enlarging and suffusing to the reader at ground level, [that] subtends constantly to a theology by inversion to fill the interval, an ironic doxa of confounded optative imagination.'[36] The poem castigates all forms of delay, yet its ironies ultimately can amount to no more than 'an ironic doxa' that invigorates the reader in the short-term but amounts only to a diversion in the long-term; it becomes a form of delay itself.

Prynne does not move beyond this 'theology by inversion' in these poems; rather, this shift becomes manifest in his subsequent collection Brass (1971). It is in this collection that Prynne's poetry demonstrates what Keston Sutherland describes as 'the affirmation of bathos'[37]. Sutherland returns to Alexander Pope for a definition of bathos as the reduction of the Classical 'sublime' to the depths of the contemporary 'profound'[38]. Pope catalogues the various stylistic and technical manifestations of bathos which include making 'their language more difficult or obscure; [...writing] about valueless or repulsive objects, what he calls 'the Dregs of Nature'; [...and introducing] 'Technical Terms ' to the lexicon of poetry', features that, Sutherland writes, had become 'without exception deliberated and uncontentious features of current experimental poetry' by the end of the twentieth century.[39]

A point of comparison is the use of bullet-points in The White Stones and Brass. Whereas, in 'ARISTEAS, IN SEVEN YEARS' and 'QUESTIONS FOR THE TIME BEING', Prynne uses bullet points in such a way that they can be rationally assimilated into the poem's argument, the bullet-points in 'L'Extase de M. Poher' in Brass operate bathetically:

            we are too kissed & fondled,

            no longer instrumental

            to culture in "this" sense or

            any free-range system of time:

    1. Steroid metaphrast
    2. Hyper-bonding of the insect
    3, 6% memory, etc

any other rubbish is mere political rhapsody, the

gallant lyricism of the select

('L'Extase De M. Poher', 5564)[40]

These bullet-points cannot easily be synthesized into meaning, either within themselves, or within the context of the poem more broadly. They incorporate an obscure and technical lexicon into the text with no contextualizing framework of explanation and, unlike some of the Intelligencer poems, they provide no auxiliary appendix or reading list. In this, they disappoint the expectation of the type of workable meaning that might be extracted from the text. The focus of the poem shifts instead from 'the problem of how to misdescribe the world in a useful manner […to] the element of social reality from which we can never be excluded: language itself.'[41]

Rather than embodying an abstracted resistance to dialectic, however, it is exactly by means of this interpolation that 'we can vitiate and impede [reality] in ways that are negative only from the standpoint of authority, since they are genuinely expressive of individual freedom.'[42] Bathos opens up new possibilities for meaning that were beyond the reach of the Intelligencer poems. It is by means of this 'discursive friction' that the poem goes beyond 'mere political rhapsody' by 'threading [itself] back into the fabric of the whole, making it intrinsic to social practice.'[43] Although the poems in Brass have irrevocably departed from the style of the Intelligencer poems, their ambition to restore poetry to praxis marks a continuity between this earlier and later style, a continuity which recognizes that the conditions that made such a shift necessary, and in which the first steps towards this shift were made, are intractably bound up in the context of The English Intelligencer.


[1] Five of the remaining poems were collected as Kitchen Poems (London : Cape Goliard, 1968); one poem, ‘TIME TO GO’, remains uncollected.
[2] See Simon Jarvis, ‘Quality and the non-identical in J.H. Prynne’s “Aristeas, in seven years”’, http://jacketmagazine.com/20/pt-jarvis.html [accessed 26.05. 2009]. I have capitalised titles as per their appearance in the Intelligencer to differentiate them from subsequent publications.
[3] Simon Jarvis, ‘Quality and the non-identical’, http://jacketmagazine.com/20/pt-jarvis.html.
[4] J.H. Prynne, ‘A NOTE ON METAL’, in The English Intelligencer (Series 2, Issue 1), 286-289 (p. 286).
[5] Simon Jarvis, ‘Quality and the non-identical’, http://jacketmagazine.com/20/pt-jarvis.html.
[6] Simon Jarvis, ‘Quality and the non-identical’, http://jacketmagazine.com/20/pt-jarvis.html.
[7] Peter Riley, ‘Working Notes on British Pre-History: or, Archaeological Guesswork One’, in The English Intelligencer (Series 1, Issue 16) pp. 234–252.
[8] Peter Riley, ‘Working Notes on British Pre-History: or Archaeological Guesswork One’, in The English Intelligencer, p. 234.
[9] J.H. Prynne, ‘Letter 14.02.1967’, in The English Intelligencer (Series 1, Issue 16) pp. 255–258. Prynne’s ‘A Note on Metal’ (The English Intelligencer, [Series 2, Issue 1] 286-289) was printed in the same issue of the Intelligencer as ‘ARISTEAS, IN SEVEN YEARS’ and might be read as an appendix of sorts to the poem; ‘A Pedantic Note in Two Parts’ (The English Intelligencer, [Series 2, Issue 6] 346-251) is a later addition to this nexus.
[10] J.H. Prynne, ‘Letter’, in The English Intelligencer, p. 258.
[11] J.H. Prynne, ‘ARISTEAS, IN SEVEN YEARS’, in The English Intelligencer, (Series 2, Issue 1), 276–279 (p. 276).
[12] Herodotus, The Histories, trans. by Aubrey de Selincourt (London: Penguin, 2003), p. 246.
[13] T.S. Eliot, ‘Ulysses, Order, and Myth’, in Modernism: an Anthology of Sources and Documents, ed. by Vassiliki Kolocotroni and others (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998), pp. 371–373 (pp. 372–373). Eliot describes the mythical method as ‘a way of controlling, or ordering, of giving shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history’ (T.S. Eliot, ‘Ulysses, Order and Myth’, p. 373).
[14] Anthony Mellors, Late Modernist Poetics: from Pound to Prynne (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2005), p. 131.
[15] Anthony Mellors, Late Modernist Poetics, p. 131. This claim resonates with Francois Hartog’s contention that Herodotus’ representation of the Scythians is itself idealized, since ‘the Athenian, that imaginary autochthonous being, had need of an equally imaginary nomad.’ (Francois Hartog, The Mirror of Herodotus: The Representation of the Other in Writing History (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 1988) p. 11.
[16] Simon Jarvis, ‘Quality and the non-identical’, http://jacketmagazine.com/20/pt-jarvis.html.
[17] J.H. Prynne, ‘Letter 14.02.2009’, in The English Intelligencer (Series 1, Issue 19), p. 258.
[18] J.H. Prynne, Kitchen Poems (London: Cape Goliard, 1968), n.p. The description of the poems as ‘news items’ reiterates both the urgency of their distribution and also their status as ‘orphic fact’, echoing Ezra Pound’s description of literature as ‘news that STAYS news.’ (Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading (London: Faber and Faber, 1961), p. 29.)
[19] ‘Airport Poem: Ethics of Survival’, ‘A figure of Mercy, of Speech’, ‘The Stranger, Instantly’, ‘Living in History’, ‘On the Anvil’, ‘The Holy City’, ‘How It’s Done’, ‘If There is a Stationmaster at Stamford S.D. Hardly So’, ‘Lashed to the Mast’ and ‘Song in Sight of the World’ are published in The Wivenhoe Park Review 1, pp. 39-49.
[20] Keston Sutherland, ‘XL Prynne’, in A Manner of Utterance: the Poetry of J.H. Prynne, ed. by Ian Brinton (Exeter: Shearsman, 2009), pp. 104–132 (p. 110).
[21] The other poems are ‘BREAK IT’, ‘LOVE IN THE AIR’, ‘JUST SO’, ‘SHADOW SONGS’, ‘FROM END TO END’, ‘FROST AND SNOW, FALLING’, ‘A GOLD RING CALLED RELUCTANCE’ and ‘FOR THIS, FOR THIS’, all of which are reprinted in the first half of The White Stones, apart from ‘A GOLD RING CALLED RELUCTANCE’, which is collected in Kitchen Poems.
[22] Subsequent collections of Prynne ((London: Allardyce and Barnett, 1982); (Tarset: Bloodaxe, 1999, 2005)) have split this poem across two pages.
[23] J.H. Prynne, ‘IN CIMMERIAN DARKNESS’, in The English Intelligencer (Series 1, Issue 12), p. 134.
[24] Ezra Pound, ‘Canto I’, The Cantos of Ezra Pound (New York: New Directions Books, 1996), p. 3.
[25] J.H. Prynne, ‘Lectures on Maximus IV, V, VI’, http://www.scribd.com/doc/8670354/jeremy-prynne-lectures-on-maximus [accessed 13.08.09]. In 1971, space was believed to be curved; since the turn of the millennium, scientific consensus has shifted in favour of a flat, infinitely expanding model of the universe.
[26] Andrew Crozier, ‘Correspondence: 15.11.66’, in The English Intelligencer (Series 1, Issue 13), p. 165.
[27] Peter Riley, in an email to the author, 16.06.2009.
[28] J.H. Prynne, ‘A Letter’, in The English Intelligencer, p.189.
[29] J.H. Prynne, ‘A Letter’, in The English Intelligencer, p. 189.
[30] J.H. Prynne, ‘A Letter’, in The English Intelligencer, p. 190.
[31] J.H. Prynne, ‘DIAMONDS IN THE AIR’, in The English Intelligencer (Series 1, Issue 8), 71–73 (p. 71).
[32] J.H. Prynne, ‘QUESTIONS FOR THE TIME BEING’, in The English Intelligencer (Series 3, Issue 5), 637–638 (p. 638).
[33] Louis Althusser, ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus’, in Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. by Ben Brewster (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001) 127-186 (p. 180).
[34] Anthony Mellors, Late Modernist Poetics, p. 124.
[35] Anthony Mellors, Late Modernist Poetics, p. 125. An ‘Olsonian ethic’ also describes the first half of The White Stones.
[36] J.H. Prynne to Drew Milne, 21.03.1993, ‘J.H. Prynne/ Drew Milne: some letters’, Parataxis, 5 (1993–1994), 56–62 (p. 58).
[37] Keston Sutherland, ‘The Trade in Bathos’, www.jacketmagazine.com/sutherland-bathod.html, [accessed 18.03.2010].
[38] Alexander Pope, ‘Peri Bathos: or Martin Scriberlus, His Treatise on The Art of Sinking in Poetry’, The Major Works (Great Clarendon: Oxford University Press, 1996) p. 196
[39] Keston Sutherland, ‘The Trade in Bathos’, www.jacketmagazine.com/sutherland-bathos.html.
[40] J.H. Prynne, ‘L’Extase de M. Poher’, Brass (London: Ferry Press, 1971), pp. 22–23 (p. 23).
[41] Keston Sutherland, ‘The Trade in Bathos’
[42] Keston Sutherland, ‘The Trade in Bathos’
[43] Rod Mengham, ‘A Free Hand to Refuse Everything: Politics and Intricacy in the Work of J.H. Prynne’, in A Manner of Utterance: the Poetry of J.H. Prynne, ed. by Ian Brinton (Exeter: Shearsman, 2009), pp. 69–82 (p. 73).

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