I SOMETIMES SAY that Jeremy Prynne taught me everything I know about poetry: which is why I know nothing about poetry. It's not a bad joke, given the received wisdom that Prynne's poetry is as impenetrable as granite, but it's a cheap and slightly shameful one. The truth is, I learned a lot from Jeremy Prynne, but mostly not about poetry.
My memory of first meeting Prynne is intense but full of holes. These lacunae are no doubt for my own protection. It was 1971 and Prynne was interviewing me for admission to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, to study English. It was the most thorough and scary intellectual roughing-up I've ever experienced.
For obvious reasons, being an 18 year old, working class, grammar school boy from Yorkshire I had never met anyone like Jeremy Prynne. He wasn't exactly the traditional idea of the tweedy academic — for one thing he favored black velvet jackets worn with primary colored ties — but he was certainly patrician and mannered. He had an inimitable voice (boy, how people tried to imitate it), high-pitched, fluting, with a slight but defining lisp. His tautly swept back hair made him appear both sleek and austere.
I was reckoned to be "good at English," and I wasn't shy about having or expressing opinions. The problem was that, for most of the interview, I honestly didn't know what Prynne was talking about. We were, at least initially, discussing D.H. Lawrence, and I knew, or thought I knew, something about the subject. Prynne would begin a long, wide-ranging and apparently free-associative monologue. There was a certain relief in this, because it meant I didn't have to do too much talking, but then suddenly Prynne would round on me, and with sickening horror I'd realize that this monologue was actually a very, very long question and I was now required to respond to it. My "technique," which is to say my only hope, was to pick out some random phrase of Prynne's, one of the few that made any sense to me, and then say the first thing that came into my head; something, anything.
I am as amazed today as I was then that this worked. I was accepted by the college, and word came back that I'd done well in the interview. My best guess is that I had been, or anyway had given the impression of being, as oblique and free-associative as Prynne himself. Perhaps he'd seen me as a kindred spirit, though that surely wore off very quickly.
Having Prynne as Director of Studies gave Caius English students a certain status around the university. He was an éminence grise but also a dissenter. He had no doctorate, for instance, and he seemed to find the idea of PhDs absurd. He once suggested that potential doctoral candidates should be locked in a room and given a very long document to copy out, and accepted or rejected solely on the basis of how many mistakes they made in the copying. His mystique was only increased by the fact that he had published no substantial academic work. At that time there was perhaps less pressure for academics constantly to publish, but even so most of the English faculty were working on books drawn from their lectures. Prynne didn't lecture much either.
But he did, of course, publish books of poetry. I have a few of them — High Pink on Chrome, Kitchen Poems, The Oval Window — unsigned alas. I still "read" them from time to time, when I feel in the mood for a little linguistic cage-fighti...