J. H. Prynne is often pointed to as the British paragon of late Modernist poets. Voluminous in folds as well as in fullness, his body of work was influenced early on by Pound’s Cantos and The Maximus Poems of Olson, expanding to absorb far-left sociopolitical concerns and to engage with the vocabularies of botany, geology, topography, Eastern and Western philosophies, history, and commercialism, to name a fraction. These weighty concerns and wide engagements are epitomized in the present publication, The Oval Window—a book-length poem possessed by distance, vantage, metonymy, elasticity, and displacement first appearing in 1983, now reissued, fully annotated, with further elucidating commentaries by editors N. H. Reeve and Richard Kerridge; the poet’s portfolio of news references and sources; and landscape photos taken by Prynne at the site of composition.
The Oval Window is an exacting poem, to be sure, but only insofar as it’s an inclusive one. There’s a technicality, an intellectualism chary of impersonality borne by the tidy parceling of stanzas across pages. Too, the dialectical qualities and myriad literary allusions readers might expect from a (now emeritus) Director of English Studies, lecturer, and librarian at Cambridge. Intimacy, playfulness on one end; on the other: a nose for accountability, for culpability. Prynne’s foci are both global and local, as a popular dictum recommends. He traffics in diction urban and pastoral, economic and anatomic when writing here of the zeitgeist. He quotes from it. Reconstitutes it. Lives in the heart of it yet incubates all the while a pulsing antiquity, an archival naturalism.
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 out the window frames, threw down
the roof, and pushed in the walls. Yet short-
winded the pay-bed recycles a bad debt
as if nothing else counted, as if there are
two distinct and mutually exclusive actions
depending on one test.
Prynne is a poet of poles, dichotomies, inequalities. A poet of the ether and the shale. Of airwaves and of tremors. And The Oval Window is, by my eye, Prynne’s sweet-and-sour epistle to the (in)elegancies of our human era. May it not go unread.