‘The White Stones’ by J. H. Prynne

  • PUBLISHED BY: New York Review of Books
  • REVIEW BY: Sam Selinger


“that we be / born at long last into the image”


CoverPrynne is something of a cult figure to a small community, yet thoroughly unknown to most American readers and poets. This is in part because of how little our poetry world tends to read contemporary poetry from other countries; while people often make excuses about the difficulty of reading poetry in translation, the fact is that few in the US poetry world even read English-language poets from Canada, Australia, the UK, several Caribbean countries, or South Africa. But not only was J. H. Prynne writing in England, he has also—over his 70-year career—published almost exclusively with small, local Cambridge presses. A mention of Prynne is as likely to be met with fervent praise for the greatest living poet in the English language as “who?”

This leaves a reviewer in somewhat of a strange position. Prynne is a foundational figure in contemporary British poetics, akin to a John Ashbery or W. S. Merwin in sheer stature and influence; books and dissertations have been written about his poetics, and several generations of British poets have worked to internalize his influence (for recent iterations, see Keston Sutherland and the Brighton poets, including Stuart Calton and Verity Spott). This NYRB release of The White Stones, a Sixties classic of British postmodern poetics, marks the first occasion his work has been readily available stateside.

The publisher bundles The White Stones with a small companion volume, Day Light Songs, each a powerful collection and an excellent entry point for Prynne first-timers. While later Prynne is something of an acquired taste, these works prominently feature his trademark gorgeous lyricism to match the effects he would come to be known for: wild, striking eclecticism, elliptical phrasing, and disjunctive syntax. The poems approach their subjects from a distance, a meditative abstraction, but the affect is palpable. “Moon Poem,” for instance, begins:


The night is already quiet and I am

bound in the rise and fall: learning

to wish always for more. This is the

means, the extension to keep very steady

so that the culmination

will be silent too and flow

with no trace of devoutness


The poem sustains focus on its subject, but also diffuses. I have come to believe that the best way to read these poems is to be, like the speaker, “bound in the rise and fall” of this thinking voice and its music without approaching it microanalytically or trying too hard to figure out what exactly is being referred to. The result is surprisingly deep and rewarding—when one stops trying to force the lines and phrases together into some kind of meaning, they begin to hint and sometimes arrive at meaning in undreamed-of and surprising ways.

Though famously difficult, Prynne (at least at this stage) is without guile. While the poems resist easy, essay-like summation, one still gets the distinctly un-postmodern sense of the writer communicating a straight and honest account of his mind and thoughts. There is also a sincerity of purpose and feeling that defies stereotypes about postmodern poetics. It is striking how often the word “love” is used throughout the poems, as in “Just So:”


The soil, tarmac, grass

remorse, the sea, love in the air

we breathe. Fire on the hearth. The life

in what I now have

and listen to, just so

long, as we are


or here, in the poem “The Wound, Day and Night:”


that it be too much with us, again as
beyond that enfeebled history: that we be
born at long last into the image     of love


Without belaboring the point, there is, amid the density and difficulty in these poems, a soaring, luminous, and strikingly direct appeal to something as utterly un-postmodern as the heart. In his poetics, Prynne is a master of reconciling seemingly impossible contradictions, and this is just one of them. His poems have the feeling of a spontaneous primary process—akin to so much of the automatic writing in vogue at the time—and yet by the same token, they also read as dense and thoughtful webs of allusion, as literary as Eliot. His poems often achieve both the projective verse of his friend and mentor Charles Olson (and the line breaks of Creeley) while simultaneously scanning at the level of the phrase in perfect iambic pentameter. Prynne truly is one of our greatest living poets, and The White Stones was as important a book of poetry as any other written in the 1960s. It’s about time we all get to read it.