J.H.Prynne | The Oval Window ed. N.H.Reeve & Richard Kerridge | Bloodaxe £12.00

This new edition of The Oval Window contains both Prynne’s original poem and also an annotated version of the same text. The book also contains drawing and photographs which Prynne made and took around the time of the composition of the poem. In particular, the book provides Prynne’s black and white photos of ruined huts on Tinkler Crags in Northumberland. As Neil Reeve comments in the essay which finishes this new edition, Tinkler Crags was to have been close to the site of a silo for Blue Streak missiles constructed in the 1950s, a silo which was abandoned, defeated by the geology of the area. Thus, the site is both ancient and devastatingly modern, which Prynne, himself, has written about in an essay on huts and poetry in Textual Practice, and which Reeve calls ‘both pastoral-ceremonious and military-aggressive’. In the ‘Huts’ essay, Prynne, himself, comments, ‘there may be a thus far unexplained closeness of huts to language borders and edges’. So this new edition of The Oval Window tends to situate Prynne’s own edgy, liminal writing within a landscape which appears natural and yet is clearly not.

The book is fronted by an essay on The Oval Window written by Richard Kerridge. For Kerridge, The Oval Window is a text for the Google age, replete with reference. Kerridge demands a reader who is willing to investigate ‘unfamiliar terms and the fields that lie behind them, an activity that may be so prolonged and open-ended that it cannot go on uninterrupted.’ Kerridge writes that ‘[The Oval Window] cannot be read quickly and uninterruptedly, except as a beautiful but enigmatic surface, until a great deal of preparation has taken place – so much, that the idea of the eventual, uninterrupted reading turns into a mirage, always ahead.’ The rather obvious response to this kind of reading has two parts. The first suggests that, before Google, or getting hold of a lot of Prynne’s own supporting material, The Oval Window and much else of Prynne’s poetry would have ‘only’ been ‘a beautiful but enigmatic surface’. It is, surely, the sheer beauty of so much of Prynne’s writing which places it so ‘head and shoulders’ above almost any other British language-oriented poetry; and it is this beautiful surface which attracts any reader in the first place. The second part of this response is to suggest, somewhat cynically, that sourcing writing is a game which academics like to play.

Kerridge is rather better when he gets away from source spotting. In particular, he comments on the moral dimensions of Prynne’s work, the way in which Prynne is fascinated ‘with the role of lyric poetry in Christian and subsequent secular traditions of stoicism and consolation in the face of mortality and mutability.’ And Kerridge is surely right to point up the contrast between ‘the personal lyric voice, Prynne’s poem and the ‘impersonal material’, which Prynne pulls into the text, so that there a contrast in register and address. It is perhaps here that the moral and the technical are joined. That Prynne’s lyric voice registers a range of attitudes to the impersonal in which the moral ‘reasserts itself’, in Kerridge’s terms, against the material and impersonal.

Such a moment occurs eleven pages into the text, and here I’ll quote at length.

Do be serious they say, all the time
in the world mounts a deficit
of choice moments fluffed and spilled.
Is misery worse than not knowing its cause,
the wrong fuel in a spirit lamp? The case
rests on tarmac already crumbled
in a pre-recorded dawn chorus:
               when the furniture was removed
he pulled down the window frames, threw down
the roof, and pushed in the walls.

The element of lyric address, which Kerridge suggests Prynne moves in and out of, seems quite clear from the opening five lines, where the emphasis is on the moments in life which we ‘fluff and spill’. Apart from the sense of the word ‘deficit’. Does that word mean that there are fewer choice moment spilled, and is that interpretation emphasised by the word ‘mounts’? Is that an abbreviation of ‘amounts to’ or does ‘mounts’ here mean ‘overcome’? Are the negative connotations of the words run against each other to create a set of positives? What does seem clear is that these permutations offer a ‘reflection on the world’, which could emerge from the authorising consciousness of the poem. And that address is then reinforced in the next two lines, ‘Is misery worse than not knowing its cause,/ the wrong fuel in a spirit lamp?’. Here, the sense of metaphor in the second line reinforces the pitting of ‘misery’ against ‘lack of knowledge’. The line does not run ‘Is misery worse for not knowing its cause,’ although that might be part of the meaning of the line. What, again, seems clear is that the lines portray a larger negative view of ‘all the time in the world’.

I have printed the final three lines here in bold as they are in Reeve and Kerridge’s annotated version of the poem. These lines they have traced back to A History of the Highland Clearances published by Eric Richards in 1982. Thus, this horrendous event in British history becomes part of the tenor of this section of the text.

Reeve and Kerridge’s edition of The Oval Window is clearly an important addition to explaining how J.H. Prynne’s writing has made him the pre-eminent ‘language’ poet in the UK. By presenting the range of sources for some of the writing, they show how Prynne was working ‘intertextually’ before that term was even a twinkle in an academia’s eye. But they also show some of the impulses behind the direction of the poetry. They show, as if it needed showing, that Prynne’s writing is never the random surface which it sometimes appears, but springs from a deep concern with reality in all its forms.

by Ian Pople

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