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 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.

Practical criticism, as the document explained, was invented by a Cambridge professor named I. A. Richards in the 1920s, when English literature was trying to gain space for itself in the university as a discrete object of study. Richards believed that English was not just something you could pick up on the side; you really needed to pursue it. Unfortunately, as Richards lamented, “The technique of the approach to poetry has not yet received half so much serious systematic study as the technique of pole-jumping.” So he decided to produce such a systematic study himself.

He began his analysis with his Cambridge undergraduates, the “products of the most expensive kind of education.” Each week, he distributed printed poems from different historical eras with the authors’ names redacted. He told the students to read the poems over the next seven days, to tally the number of times they sat down to study the poem (usually at least four sessions), and then to return to him their written opinions. In 1929 he published excerpts of the students’ responses in a book, Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgment. The idea was to clarify once and for all precisely what was wrong with responding to a poem as student #4.61 did:

(1) I am only 19.
(2) I have never been in love.
(3) I do not know what a dog-rose is.
(4) I consider that spring has no rapture.
(5) ————- the alliteration is bad and unnecessary.
(6) ————- this symbolism utterly worthless.
I will declare the whole poem to be sentimental rubbish.

Or student #13.72:

At times, also, the banality of the wording is ludicrous, reminiscent of an elderly maiden lady shaking a mittened hand in remonstration.

Using the students’ examples, Richards compiled a typology of the “chief difficulties” that students encounter when producing criticism. These included:

mnemonic irrelevancies
stock responses
technical presuppositions (“We have to avoid judging pianists by their hair.”)

At Cambridge and later also at Harvard, Richards worked to institutionalize Practical Criticism as a more exacting and objective approach. In America, the practice of Practical Criticism came to be known as “close reading,” the fundamental building block of what eventually came to be known as New Criticism.

The direction Practical Criticism took in America toward science was not necessarily what its founders had intended. Richards felt that the parts of life “about which civilized man cares most,” in which poetry was part of “the vast corpus of problems, assumptions, adumbrations, fictions, prejudices, tenets,” were rarely explicable in neatly objective ways. Practical Criticism at Cambridge, in other words, tried to methodize a system of analysis to address those questions that had no answers, and to do so in a manner that looked beyond personal experience and quick judgment. “As the other vehicles of tradition, the family and the community, for example, are dissolved, we are forced more and more to rely upon language,” wrote Richards. “The mind that can shift its view-point and still keep its orientation,” he wrote, “is the mind of the future.”

At Cambridge Practical Criticism remains a discipline and a skill to be cultivated. Students take classes and are examined in it, and the ability to do a really good Practical Criticism of a piece of prose or a poem is highly valued in terms of grades given and prestige earned. As Prynne wrote in the twenty-eight-point “Tips on Practical Criticism, for Students of English,” the idea is to cultivate the ability to develop “what might be termed ‘evidence-based’ critical argument” — a somewhat standardized approach to evaluating literature, or at least to explaining literature, if such a thing is possible.

Prynne gives an example of how the mind of the future might work in point 25, itself something of a close reading of the word “good”:

A work may be good of its kind, or good for a purpose, or good to me but less so to you, or as good to me as to you but for different reasons; or even, your reasons for thinking it good may be very close to mine for thinking it less so; or we may recall that a ticket can be good for one journey, a fruit good to eat, just as a book may be good to read, or a good read; or a work may have seemed thrillingly good to me when I was younger; or if the word good is used in some more absolute sense, then will it have an ethical or moral character, and is that the region in which ultimate critical disagreements may reside?

There were some people who were better at Practical Criticism than others, and when you encountered these people in class discussion it could be a particularly enjoyable experience. At other times it felt like a contest in who could provide the most minutiae. For example, in a monograph Prynne wrote on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94 (“They that have power to hurt and will do none”), he devotes almost three pages to the first pronoun, “They.” Later I came to think that what I found at Cambridge to be a more enthusiastic culture of poetry than I had ever before encountered among people my age had something to do with the university’s emphasis on Practical Criticism. Practical Criticism may or may not be as useful a skill for prose as it is for poetry (the proponents of Prac. Crit. insist that it is), but in its privileging of ambiguity over definite meaning it is in analysis of poetry, particularly really difficult poetry, that Practical Criticism shines. To do a proper Prac. Crit. of a poem also required extensive knowledge of prosody, versification, meter, and the vocabulary of classical rhetorical forms.

At the time that I read Prynne’s document, however, I was not yet thinking about poetry. 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 handholding 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!

In point 7 of his “Tips on Practical Criticism,” Prynne wrote: “There will come a time, perhaps quite early on, when you are brought to realize a more or less profound ignorance of the formal structures of English versification, in their variety and historical development. Don’t fall into dismay, as such ignorance is very widespread.”

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.

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 Practical 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 subway. 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. By way of introduction they instead provided some history.

Britain saw a retrenchment away from experimentalism in the arts following World War II. Maybe it was because the radicalism that had emerged in European politics in the previous decade had proven so extremely scary, or because austerity Britain demanded a plain sort of poetry to confront the meanness of the times on their own terms, but there was a turning away from the heady manifestos, little magazines, and volatile, eccentric, nervous breakdown — suffering faux aristocrats. The most recent generation of British poets Americans do tend to know are the Movement poets of postwar Britain, people such as Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, and Ted Hughes. Brooding, masculine, and fond of putting unpoetic material in traditional poetic structures, they exhibited what Prynne in 1962 called “the deliberately small aims and overdeveloped musculature of most English writers of verse, sheltering with provincial timidity behind the irony inherited from Eliot.” In this view, Larkin’s “They fuck you up, your mum and dad” or John Betjeman’s “Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough!” mistakenly confused a condition of chronic grumpiness with the more noble-sounding cause of unsentimental realism.

At the end of the 1950s, when Prynne was an undergraduate at Cambridge, an older scholar named Elaine Feinstein started a magazine called Prospect at least in part to counter these tendencies. The magazine’s founding purpose was to bring new American poetry to the English scene. It was in Prospect, in 1961, that Prynne published an early essay called “Resistance and Difficulty,” where he laid out a theory of the two qualities that would later become the dominant characteristics of his poetry. And while Prynne’s influences are too many to attempt to catalogue effectively, it was likely through Prospect that he and many other British poets came in contact with the poets of the New York School and the Black Mountain School — people like Charles Olson, Ed Dorn, George Oppen, and Robert Creeley — and there Prynne and other British poets discovered a living movement to which they could correspond.

I hadn’t heard of Olson before. A classmate mentioned him once, when we were having coffee in a multicolored German bakery, and I had to admit that was the first time I’d heard of Black Mountain College. I’d been feeling really stupid lately. I ended up arriving at Olson through Moby-Dick, or really through this Canadian guy on my course named Steve Coughlin. Steve was doing his dissertation on Moby-Dick. As he immersed himself in his subject, he began sending near-daily Moby-Dick-themed text messages. “Which harpooner do you think you would be?” Steve would write. He eventually decided I wouldn’t be a harpooner at all. “I think you would be Flask.” In a text message to our friend Ollie, who had read Moby-Dick four times, Steve addressed him as “Thou bespectacled squiddish man.” Sometimes the messages would merely repeat whatever bit of Moby-Dick Steve happened to be reading at the time. My phone would vibrate — there would be a text: “The whale can only handle us with mittens,” it would say; or “Hurrah! Unbuttoned.” I really wanted to be friends with Steve and I was secretly in love with Ollie, who had extensive collections of snowflake sweaters and colorful socks, and chain-smoked hand-rolled cigarettes. So I read Moby-Dick in Berlin.

As for how we got to Charles Olson, it turned out that in 1945 Olson had written a book about Moby-Dick called Call Me Ishmael. In it Olson sees Melville’s Pacific Ocean as a metaphor for American expansionism. “The Pacific is, for an American, the Plains repeated, a 20th century Great West,” wrote Olson. “Melville understood the relation of the two geographies.” Some scholars believe that it was through his study of Melville that Olson came to think of poetry as an open field, perhaps like Melville’s Pacific. In 1950, Olson wrote a manifesto about what he called “Projective Verse.” It advocated for a breath-centric poetry freed of rhyme and meter, “a change beyond, and larger than, the technical.”

Prynne was not the only one who took this call for poetic advancement very seriously. Perhaps the inaugural event of what is now known as the British Poetry Revival took place in 1967, when the geographically and stylistically diverse group of poets known more for their rejection of the Movement than their uniform poetic intentions gathered in four rented cottages in the northeastern English village of Sparty Lea for a sort of convention. Accounts differ about the readings, discussion, and writing that took place. Apparently there were feuds. Apparently someone drove his Land Rover into J. H. Prynne’s Morris Oxford.

The Chicago Review editors seemed baffled as to why anyone thought the Cambridge poets elitist and self-serving and obscurantist, then followed up with this:

The difficulties this poetry poses for readers are potentially daunting. Complex hierarchies of syntactical dependence have to be followed and retraced, highly condensed and thoroughly dislocated references to the social world and its myriad discursive fields have to be followed up — and all the while readers’ efforts are sabotaged by bathetic collapses, pratfalls, and aggression.

They made reading this poetry sound like an episode of American Gladiators. Nonetheless it seemed worthwhile, in the end, to give the stuff a chance. Fortunately, in coincidence with my newfound interest, Cambridge happened to be offering a graduate seminar called “Reading Difficult Poems.”

“Reading difficult poems” took place in a large-windowed modern seminar room on the top floor of a building in Queens’ College that looked out on a wooded area. As we met from the end of winter into spring, this wooded grove went from snowy and dead to a pale green that filled the room with calming spring-tinged light. It was a very quiet space, and the grave but friendly demeanor of the professor, Ian Patterson, made it feel somehow hallowed, perhaps even hut-like.

I was scared of this kind of poetry, I realized, as I set out to read the first assignment, a fragment of Louis Zukofsky’s epic poem “A”. Scared of looking stupid, and scared of misunderstanding. Zukofsky’s “A” is a particularly terrifying prospect, a twenty-four-section poem around eight hundred pages long that touches upon Marx’s Capital, Zukofsky’s relationship with his father, the music of Bach, Greek philosophy, and many other subjects. Zukofsky began writing it in 1928; the last section, a five-part score composed by his wife, Celia, which sets fragments of his writing to Handel’s “Pieces for Harpsichord,” was completed in 1974.

The part we read for class was “A”-9, where Zukofsky considered Marx’s view of the fetish-character of the commodity. To do this Zukofsky dissected Marx’s words and put them into the rhyme scheme of a 13th-century poem, “Donna mi priegha,” by the Italian poet Cavalcanti, Dante’s best friend. Putting the words of Marx into the meter, stanza, and rhyme scheme of Cavalcanti is exceptionally difficult: English words rhyme far less frequently than Italian words and, as Ezra Pound pointed out when he translated “Donna mi priegha” into English, approximately one third of all the syllables in the poem are incorporated into its pattern. According to Zukofsky’s biographer, Mark Scroggins, the poem also drew upon Herbert Stanley Allen’s Electrons and Waves: An Introduction to Atomic Physics and followed a mathematical equation, what Zukofsky called “the poetic analog of a conic section,” that changed the relative numbers of ns and rs every seven lines. This is the first strophe:

An impulse to action sings of a semblance
Of things related as equated values,
The measure all use is time congealed labor
In which abstraction things keep no resemblance
To goods created; integrated all hues
Hide their natural use to one or one’s neighbor.
So that were the things words they could say: Light is
Like night is like us when we meet our mentors
Use hardly enters into their exchanges,
Bought to be sold things, our value arranges;
We flee people who made us as a right is
Whose sight is quick to choose us as frequenters,
But see our centers do not show the changes
Of human labor our value estranges.

Zukofsky published First Half of “A”-9 in 1940. When he wrote the second half, which he published ten years later, he went back to the first half to incorporate terminology from Spinoza’s Ethics. The first strophe of the second half, then, shares most of the rhyme words with the first strophe of the first half, but adds to it a lyric quality that was missing before:

An eye to action sees love bear the semblance
Of things, related is equated, — values
The measure all use who conceive love, labor
Men see, abstraction they feel, the resemblance
(Part, self-created, integrated) all hues
Show to natural use, like Benedict’s neighbor
Crying his hall’s flown into the bird: Light is
The night isolated by stars (poled mentors)
Blossom eyelet enters pealing with such changes
As sweet alyssum, that not-madness, (ranges
In itself, there tho acting without right) is —
Whose sight is rays, “I shall go; the frequenters
That search our centers, love; Elysium exchanges
No desires; its thought loves what hope estranges.”

We went around the room and read “A” aloud. The poem cycles within itself, mutating just as repetition is rendering its patterns recognizable. The effect is of something half-grasped and yet surprisingly moving. The idea, Zukofsky said, was that the poem should “fluoresce as it were in the light of seven centuries of interrelated thought.” And it does.

It was through this seminar on Zukofsky that I first read the prose of Keston Sutherland. One of the younger Cambridge School poets and now a professor at the University of Sussex, he had titled his dissertation “J. H. Prynne and Philology.” We read his essay on commodity fetishism called “Marx in Jargon.” In the essay, Sutherland says that the extent to which Marx was writing satire at the expense of his bourgeois reader is underestimated. He meant, I think, that Marx was lampooning the futility of his consciousness-raising even as he went about describing capitalism’s vampires. In promising again and again to unveil the secret workings of the capitalist machine, but deferring the final conclusion further and further along into his monumental lifework Capital, Marx ultimately led his readers into a trap, wasting the best portion of their productive lives trying to follow his unfollowable argument. “Bourgeois reader,” Sutherland gleefully concluded, “this dead end is intended for you.”

Thinking about all this put me in something of a frenzied state. Prose suddenly felt inadequate. I thought of all the first-person essays I had written, using the lowest common denominator of literary communication. Writing something facile that people wanted to read was failing to further literature. It pretended to ignore the banality of any one person’s experience in life. It reveled in the oxymoronic artifice of “My Unique Experience That Everyone Else Will Relate To.” There was no math to it, no evidence of resistance or endeavor. I too should be creating a Frankenstein version of Marx’s Capital in the form of a medieval Italian sonnet, even if I knew that the only people who were going to read it were bourgeois readers complicit in the very practices they wished to change. But I didn’t know Marx, or anything about the medieval Italian sonnet, or how to write poems. (Was there a gendered aspect to the view that to write great things demanded cold mastery, while, in the words of Oscar Wilde, bad poetry stems from genuine feeling? There probably was. A lot of feminists, both men and women, certainly saw Prynne and the Cambridge School as emblematic of calcified patriarchy. I had chosen to suspend disbelief — first, because to think of male writing as unemotional and female writing as emotional is to succumb to a very boring view of the world. Second, because if I start thinking about that stuff my head explodes.)

The next week we read a fragment of the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid’s “In Memoriam James Joyce.” I had to present on the supplementary reading, Walter Benjamin’s “On Language as Such and on the Language of Man” and “The Task of the Translator,” and I was a nervous wreck. Someone told me later that when I took my seat next to the professor (whom I adored), I noticeably moved my chair away from him.

In both essays, Benjamin claims language is not a transparent medium of ideas, but rather the mental being of things. There is no “factual subject-matter” that language conveys. “All language communicates itself in itself,” he insisted. In his essay on translation he therefore confronted a problem: translation could be said to replicate the bourgeois conception of transparent language. In any translation, what Benjamin called “information” could be compared to what he calls the “factual subject-matter” in the earlier essay. Just as a philosophy of language that sees the word as a mere medium is flawed, a translation that attempts to transmit information is a bad translation because there is no information.

As Benjamin wrote, “In all language and linguistic creations there remains in addition to what can be conveyed something that cannot be communicated; depending on the context in which it appears, it is something that symbolizes or something symbolized.” Trembling before my classmates, I worried aloud that the problem was that we could explode and refract language but not free ourselves from always wanting, in the end, “factual subject-matter” or “information,” no matter how illusory such comforts might be.

When I finished my talk, Ian Patterson made a noise like a horse exhaling. Had I embarrassed myself? A classmate presented an essay by Derrida that compared poetry to a hedgehog, “the animal thrown onto the road, absolute, solitary, rolled up in a ball, next to (it)self.” The discussion turned to Ezra Pound, I think, but I couldn’t pay attention. I felt distraught.

Prynne’s own most extensive treatment of how his poetry should be read was delivered as a lecture in China in 2008, and it contained hints of Benjamin’s ideas. The title of the talk was “Difficulties in the Translation of ‘Difficult’ Poems,” and since translating one of Prynne’s poems involves committing to particular definitions of words that are intentionally polysemic, his talk was really about the experience of difficult poetry itself. He differentiated between prose, where “there is generally a quite closely defined channel or corridor of sense-making,” and certain types of difficult poetry, where “this corridor of sense is much wider and more open, more like a network across the whole expanse of the text, with many loops and cross-links of semantic and referring activity which extend the boundaries of relevance, and of control by context, in many directions at once.” He said that when text is delinked and incoherent, when “extreme ambiguity displaces recognizable topic-focus” and references abruptly shift with no warning, “these features may begin to comprise a second-order strategy of pattern-making in a new way.” He compared this form of pattern-making to traditional rhyme forms — how a poem in which the words themselves do not link into a recognizable statement can be experienced as a unity through lines that end in rhyme. In the end the poetry forms a process of “pattern and pattern-violation generating their own tendencies of meaning — or perhaps we should call this ‘meaning,’ in some second-order sense.”

For the final meeting of “Reading Difficult Poems,” I finally read some of Prynne’s poetry. The poem we read was called “Unanswering Rational Shore,” and it had been published in 2001. My coursemate Ian was sitting to my right again. He was presenting the poem that week. Speculation had been rife for days about what he might say, for it was not an easy read. Ian called “Unanswering Rational Shore” a sequence of “lettrist sonnets” — each page has two enjambed text blocks of seven lines each, broken by what Ian called a “band of silence.” Here are the first seven lines:

Profuse reclaim from a scrape or belt, funnel do
axial parenthood block the mustard dots briefly
act forward, their age layer for layer in this
tied-off accession. Appellate at dictum at
its debit resonance fixing prolusion, optic rage
performs even dots right now. This is the top
passion play and counted out for a renewal patch

I felt relief when Ian began his presentation and it became clear that there was not some hidden reference here that I had missed, that to “successfully” read the poem did not require extensive knowledge of the history of English poetry, that it was indeed difficult, and not just for someone as ignorant of poetry as I was. In fact, Ian said, the poem seemed to deal in the very difficulty of difficulty. He said it was as if it were a Practical Criticism limbo contest with the text. “How low can you go?” he wondered.

I was trying to familiarize myself with the entire canon of English poetry, but I was also starting to feel I had embarked on some kind of intense friend project that was equally rigorous. We gathered every single day to eat lunch or go to the pub. I felt an affection that I had rarely felt before with friends. Given that they were all so young, I worried that this meant that I was very immature, and hoped it meant that they were very mature. We drank heavily, pint after pint of beer in low-ceilinged carpeted rooms hung with ugly fireproof curtains. For spring break we planned a ten-day trip together and rented a stone cottage in Scotland. We had costume parties amongst ourselves and took long walks through the fens. One Saturday we walked twenty miles to see the 11th-century Norman cathedral in the village of Ely.

We talked about poetry, and we talked about Moby-Dick. I thought of Veronica Forrest-Thomson, perhaps the most geographically Cambridge-centric of the Cambridge poets, who wrote in the foreword to her 1971 book Language-Games that “Most of these poems are obviously about the experience of being engaged in a certain activity, in a certain place, at a certain time: the activity, research in English literature, the place, Cambridge, the time 1968 –1969.” In forty years I gathered that not a lot had changed — the experience she described in her poem “Strike” neatly summed up my own:

I set off on the long road south
Which was to take me to so many strange places,
That room in Cambridge, that room in Cambridge, that room in Cambridge
That room in Cambridge, this room in Cambridge

(VFT, as she is known, died when she was 27, I guess of suicide, although this was one of those areas where British discretion and politeness made the answers to certain questions hard to come by. She is the most famous woman associated with the Cambridge School, but also is so obviously in contrast to Prynne that she is now more famous for having influenced the Language poets in America. Prynne and VFT were friends, and her affection for him is apparent every time he appears in her poems. Prynne liked her too, but acknowledged their differences; he wrote in 1976, in strongly gendered language, that “She wore perfume which would give the most hardened logician the staggers.” Forrest-Thomson grappled with the very problem of autobiography I had begun to grapple with. In her theoretical writing, as an heiress to Richards, Empson, et al, she resented the sloppy reader who sought to see personal experience in every piece of writing. Yet, as Keston Sutherland pointed out in an essay, she wrote unabashedly autobiographical poems.)

For our trip to Scotland we had decided to give each other poetry assignments, which we did one night at a pub after an overwhelming dinner of Indian food. I was secretary, and recorded these assignments in my calendar. I remember that I was drinking red wine, and sitting by the radiator, and that the pub felt very warm.

This is what I wrote:

Marcela: Villanelle on [one of our classmates]
Coughlin: Cento inspired by Cormac McCarthy’s The Road
Ollie: “In Memoriam Michael Jackson,” thirty-six lines in dactylic hexameter. (I also wrote, “ending on a rhyme.”)
Elliot: A short story where every word begins with “C.” (Here I wrote “allegorical.”)
Dadds: Five stanzas in rhyme royal on the classical Olympic games
Carrie: An ekphrastic pantoum on Venus(es)
Emily: Sestina on Heidegger’s “The Origin of the Work of Art”

I’m not sure how I ended up with Heidegger, although his repetitious terminology would have served me well in the composition of a sestina, but I never wrote it. None of this was ever written. While our friendship certainly affected what we were reading (within six months everyone who had not read Moby-Dick did) we did not, in the tradition of Cambridge, inspire each other toward poetry.

We may not have become poets, but we had clearly become an insular mini-society. This quality of insularity was the source of much of the annoyance inspired by the Cambridge poets. A British poet named Andrew Duncan wrote my favorite annoyed study of the Cambridge School in 1992. In what was something akin to an anthropological portrait of the Cambridge poets, sarcastically titled, “The Cambridge Leisure Centre: Traits,” he accused them of having internalized the style of rational argument embodied by the essay, and, in consequence, of draining all subjectivity from their poems. He also claimed the poets had been assimilated to their audience, thereby limiting the content of their poetry. “It’s rather like the plot of The Fly, actually,” he wrote. “Throwing away the inherited rules, one creates something new which is disproportionately influenced by trace elements present in the room at its creation.”

Engrossed as I was with my now Moby-Dick-quoting friends, I could understand how such things happened. We went to Scotland, to a rented stone cottage on the Isle of Skye. In the morning Elliot would make us porridge. Then we would take a taxi to the Cuillin and hike in the mountains until nightfall. Then we would return to the cottage. Steve Dadds would cook Italian food, and we would eat it in front of the fire in our long underwear. One night we committed to a project of drunkenness that lasted until dawn, involving a lot of whiskey and boxes of a white wine called Namaqua. I woke up pressed against Ollie in a tiny bed. On the next day’s hike, sweating scotch, we reached the snowline. From the icy peak we saw the sun hanging low over the mountains and the sea, and on our descent through the heather we saw a newborn lamb in the dusk. At the base of a mountain, Ollie took a picture of a sign that said “cryptosporidium sample unit.” It reminded him of Prynne.

That spring felt strange. There was an unprecedented two weeks of uninterrupted sunshine that coincided with the eerie silence of volcanic dust-filled skies. We no longer had classes and life became more solitary. We spent our days in libraries and study centers, reading for our dissertations. It stayed light past eight and everything seemed to be green and blossoming, bathed in England’s particularly pale afternoon sun. We watched the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on the news, and Steve sent text messages: “There is an undeniably Melvillean aura to this oil spill. Sorry to bother brunch,” he wrote one day, as I ate brunch. I waited, and my phone vibrated again. “I just feel it: the oil, drawing its silk toxic scarf over the skin of the sea. Rorschach; Rothko. It’s all mixed with Ahab’s hot blood. Floating Ishmael: a pelican in a peacoat of petroleum. Crude.”

All that was on the news was the oil spill, the volcano, and the impending British election. On voting day, May 6, BBC Radio 4 broadcast only apolitical coverage, and I awoke to a program about infrared light and stars. “Planets are byproducts of the formation of a star,” someone on the radio said. “In the galaxy there are glowing clouds of hydrogen; this hydrogen gets polluted from stars that have exploded.” At lunch, we discussed this program on stars instead of the election. Elliot summarized the program as being about how “space is made of sand” and Ollie, who hadn’t heard it, looked disgusted. “But space is a vacuum,” he said.

When I got home that night I turned on the radio again. It was a show called “Saving Species” that included an apocalyptic account of the Gulf Oil spill and a report on the dwindling bird species of the British Isles. The commentators spoke of an era within living memory when England had many more insects than it does today. Then the star program aired again. I felt very strange, until the sound of Big Ben striking the hour, followed by the news: there was a hung parliament, but David Cameron, a Tory, would be the next prime minister of Britain.

Our idyllic year of study ended in late July, after a month of heavy drinking. The sun never seemed to set — it was light until ten o’clock, and light again in the early hours, which we were too often awake for. We picnicked on impossibly green lawns with sparkling wine and strawberries. We lamented our impending separation. We started a blog, named for Pynchon’s hydrogen airship, “The Inconvenience,” that would only be accessible by password. We determined to maintain our obsessive intellectual circle in digital space. We knew, however, how these things go — that friendships are based on small everyday interactions, that it is in this way that they develop a secret language of references and inside jokes, and that distance is fatal. One by one, my classmates departed for full scholarships at other universities, jobs in teaching and publishing, subsidized life in France. They were so full of promise, their young adulthood and success still ahead of them. I stayed in Cambridge, like a loser. I felt like I was watching something very important recede into the distance, and kept thinking of that moment at the end of Moby-Dick when a bird steals Ahab’s hat: “The wild hawk flew on and on with it; far in advance of the prow: and at last disappeared; while from the point of that disappearance, a minute black spot was dimly discerned, falling from that vast height into the sea.”

I had hoped to stay in Cambridge and do a PhD, but the funding I was offered was insufficient, so I turned my place down. Taking out another loan would have been reckless. But I didn’t leave. I had moved to five cities on three continents in only six years and suddenly moving felt like the most horrible prospect imaginable. Also there was nowhere to go. So I moved in with an Italian Dante scholar named Ambrogio and a Spanish intellectual historian named David, subletting an attic in a sloping 17th-century building we called “The Tower.” I started freelancing. I wrote some articles. I realized I would make more money doing just about anything but writing articles. I fact-checked a book about how to chit-chat about food. I ate massive four-course dinners cooked by Ambrogio. I did research for a professor about black economic empowerment in South Africa. I wrote a film treatment for someone’s documentary about medical marijuana. I reapplied to do a PhD at Cambridge. January, when my British visa would expire and my loans would come due, loomed ominously.

Debt was on everyone’s mind. Britain’s deficit was too big, said the Conservatives. They announced a new age of austerity. Budget cuts would hit almost every sector of public funding, including higher education. In October, an independent commission charged by the previous government to review higher education funding announced its recommendation. The commission consisted of two university vice-chancellors, the chief executive of Standard Bank, the head of McKinsey’s education division, a consultant from a company called Enlightenment Economics, and a board member from the UK Lottery Fund. It did not include any educators or students. At its head was the new government’s “efficiency expert,” Lord John Browne. Lord Browne had been CEO of British Petroleum for almost a decade. He resigned in disgrace in 2007, not because BP had falsified fuel tank inspections in California, nor because an oil refinery in Texas had blown up and killed fifteen workers under his leadership, nor because BP had spilled 267,000 gallons of oil in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, but because of a far more appalling scandal: Browne had lied in court about how he had met his ex-boyfriend while trying to prevent him from selling the story of their relationship to the newspapers. (Browne claimed they had met jogging in Battersea Park; really they had met when Browne hired his future partner from an escort service called Suited and Booted.)

As a BP oil well spewed petroleum into the Gulf of Mexico, and the corpse of a sperm whale was discovered floating seventy-seven miles from the epicenter of the spill, Browne went about determining how to solve the problem of funding higher education in Britain. As of 2010, British students paid fees of under $5,000 a year to attend college. To cover the shortfall in funding provided by fees, the government provided block grants to universities, which determined how to allocate the money.

Browne recommended something different. Instead of funding higher education, the government would only subsidize “priority subjects” such as science and engineering. Government funding for the humanities and social sciences would cease. Instead, students would pay higher fees. If the students had wealthy families they would pay their fees at the outset. If they were not rich they would get loans from the government. In this way, instead of the government accruing debt, students would accrue debt.

When the new government announced its comprehensive spending review in October 2010, it adopted most of Browne’s recommendations. Government funding for undergraduate teaching at universities would be cut by 45 percent overall and by 100 percent in subjects that do not use laboratories (namely the humanities and social sciences). To compensate for the loss in funding, university fees would be tripled to more than $14,000 a year. Before dismissing this as cheap compared to the US, consider that we are talking about state, not private schools. Consider also the possibility that the American higher education system is a fucked-up, privatized, toxic economic bubble that rewards the most privileged and is likely to burst when millions of twentysomethings realize that the $200,000 they spent to go to NYU or wherever is a massive financial liability. It was not just British higher education that would be cut, however. Pretty much everything would be cut, including an estimated 490,000 government jobs.

On October 21, the day the government announced its spending review, and the anticipated rise in tuition fees, and the hundreds of thousands of jobs that would be lost, I went to a poetry seminar entitled “‘I am in the place of equivalence’: Subjects and their Objects in the Poetry of Denise Riley and John Wilkinson.” It was a presentation by the poet Andrea Brady, one of the younger of the established Cambridge School poets. The seminar was held in a well-appointed room in St. John’s College. Wine was served. The usual suspects were present: Keston Sutherland, Justin Katko, my former classmates Ian, Ollie, and Laura. And there, in a long blue raincoat, tall with silver hair and an elegant lisp, was J. H. Prynne.

At this seminar I saw for the first time that at least some of the Cambridge poets were questioning the idea that the only way for language to resist commodification was to make it practically unreadable. As Brady gave her presentation, she seemed troubled by the failure of intellectuals to mount any kind of effective resistance to the dismantling of European social democracy. I wrote down the words “solidarity in isolation.” Brady’s ennui sparked some concerned debate, and then Prynne began to speak, and the room fell silent.

Prynne spoke of the problem of trying to write poetry in the face of these urgent developments. Should we believe the government’s account of the financial crisis, that it was so dire that it necessitated a veritable social restructuring? Did cuts need to go so deep and extend so far? He recalled The Spiral Ascent, by the poet Edward Upward, a close friend of Christopher Isherwood’s, a trilogy of autobiographical novels whose theme is reconciling poetry and politics. “You must read it” said Prynne. Then he discussed the poems from John Wilkinson’s Down to Earth that had been analyzed by Brady. The poems directly address exploitation, particularly of migrant workers in the American Southwest. They were, said Prynne, “hateful poems.” And yet, he repeated, “You must read them.”

And that was that: J. H. Prynne, with more reading assignments. In this seminar I saw, for a moment, a hint of the conceit of Practical Criticism’s founders. That, in the words of I. A. Richards, “As the finer parts of our emotional tradition relax in the expansion and dissolution of our communities, and as we discover how far out of our intellectual depth the flood-tide of science is carrying us — so far that not even the giants can still feel bottom — we shall increasingly need every strengthening discipline that can be devised.” Richards saw the study of poetry as such a strengthening discipline, and when I considered what might be elitist about Cambridge poetry it was the notion that they were keeping the flame of some greater truth alive against the perceived onslaught of popular culture. But to see the poets this way was to pit some concept of exclusive British culture practiced by wealthy dilettantes against more inclusive cultural practices. That would have been elitist, or at least haughty. But the poets were not doing that. What they were doing, together or as individuals, was merely a search, to try to use language in a way that did not remind us of someone trying to sell us something, that made words seem new, that gave us a way to describe the things we aspired to that did not echo the vocabulary that we could no longer trust. This did not feel elitist, just hopeless.

The students of Britain expressed their discontent. A march was planned in London to protest the increases in tuition fees. Twenty thousand people were expected to attend. More than fifty thousand showed up. Other marches and rallies followed. A group of students occupied the Old Schools site — Cambridge’s administrative headquarters — for twelve days. They played soccer on the normally untouchable lawn out front, cheering whenever the ball fell into the faux-Roman bronze urn that is the lawn’s centerpiece. Sympathetic faculty came and gave the students lectures. Live feeds of The Ashes, England’s major cricket tournament against Australia, were projected on the wall. The students hung a banner from the window of the ornate white building. “Some cuts don’t heal,” it said.

During the occupation, Keston Sutherland gave a reading of some of his new work. He recited from a somewhat autobiographical new series of poems called Odes to TL61P. The title, he said, referred to the serial number of a defunct model of Hotpoint tumble dryers. He also recited a poem he wrote on the night of the November 10 protest, “10/11/10.” In one verse it refers to an unfinished poem by Wordsworth, “Incipient Madness,” that Prynne quotes at length in his essay on huts. In “Incipient Madness,” Wordsworth writes about crossing a “dreary moor” and reaching a ruined hut, where he finds “A broken pane which glitter’d in the moon / And seemed akin to life.” For Keston Sutherland,

The wall of glass smashed in, looks like what
Wordsworth saw; in the flint windbreaker, lying on the
empty floor; to be a shard of broken glass, shining like
life; psychosis as the mirror of your dreams, or justice;

Perhaps, as the world turned its back on poetry, it was better to think of difficult writing as a strategy of noncompliance. There would be small groups, and we would write for each other, and we would have to find other ways to earn money. And even these friendships would, in the end, refuse narrativization. They would become accounted for as Prynne has accounted for his poems. (I am back in the States, trying to pay off my loans, and an ocean away from Ollie and his sweaters. The corridor of sense-making has been lost.) Prynne wrote: “If two words are placed together that are not normally associated as from the same field of reference or meaning, a kind of semantic spark or jump may be created that is intensely localised within the continuity of the text process: it may be a kind of ‘hot spot’ that burns very bright but which the reader can quite quickly assimilate within the larger patterns of composition. Sometimes these sparks can follow in quick succession, many of them, producing disturbance patterns of their own, extended trains of unfamiliar words and phrase which break the rules for local sense.”

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