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Jeremy Prynne Bibliography Meaning


Smaller than the Radius of the Planet

There is a patch like ice in the sky this
evening & the wind tacks about, we are
both stopped/fingered by it. I lay out my
unrest like white lines on the slope, so that
something out of broken sleep will land
there. Look up, a vale of sorrow opened by
eyes anywhere above us, the child spread out
in his memory of darkness. And so, then, the
magnetic influence of Venus sweeps its
shiver into the heart/brain or hypothalamus,
we are still here, I look steadily at nothing.
"The gradient of the decrease may be de-
termined by the spread in intrinsic lumin-
osities" —the ethereal language of love in
brilliant suspense between us and the
hesitant arc. Yet I need it too and keep
one hand in my pocket & one in yours,
waiting for the first snow of the year.


J.H. Prynne
New York Review of Books 2016


 J.H. Prynne


This brief contribution in form of an improvised personal memoir, with a contribution also by Keston Sutherland, is concerned with experience and poetics of translation, preparation for Selected Poems (in English and Chinese) by J. H. Prynne, also acquaintance with major figures in Cambridge-Chinese historical relations: Joseph Needham, Ivor Richards, Lawrence Picken.

JHP: This somewhat improvised talk is going to be rather a brief gallop, because of course we are all urgently in need of lunch, and so I will not prolong the proceedings unduly. I also have to make at least two apologies to start with: the first is this is not at all a formal paper, more like a kind of chat (xiantan), I might say, quite informal, and it doesn't have a written script. Secondly, it's somewhat unashamedly autobiographical, which is not my usual practice; but since the story that we have been reconstructing over the period of this colloquium has a certain biographical momentum of its own, in order to fit part of the story into this final phase I have with apologies to speak about myself. Not being Wordsworth I don't exactly relish this project, but none the less I think it's made necessary by the inner momentum of our proceedings. So, what I will speak about is chiefly the work of translation, about the experience of more than one language in various kinds of interactive relationship. And for me the earliest biography of this question goes back indeed to my school days, and I will describe to you a recurrent situation which I vividly remember from my schooldays because, in common with many other school boys and girls of that era, we were subject to a series of intensive disciplines involving literary and linguistic studies and translation work. As a teenager and even earlier I was put to learn Latin, to learn French and to learn German, and to make endless homework translations in both directions, from Latin into English, from French into English, from English into French and Latin, and the rest. It was the most ardent and intricate point of my serious encounter with the nature of language.

In my English language studies, as part of the school English course, language work was basically very rudimentary, not much more than old-style grammar. But the experience of translation was to my own mentality profoundly formative, and one of the reasons for this–and I remember the sensation very vividly–was the construction of an inner world-space mediating between separate and different languages. I'd be assigned a difficult translation from, say, German into English, or English into Latin, and I'd hunt up all the necessary vocabulary in the dictionaries around me, I'd hunt up all the syntax and grammar constructions, in my reference grammar and all the rest of it, and there'd come a point in doing this work when I'd have all this linguistic information in my head somewhere, or at my fingertips. And at that point the text I was working on was not in German or Latin and not in English, it was in some kind of phantasmal intermediary language which I couldn't describe, and the linguistic rules for which I couldn't recognise; it was a kind of meta-language experience, like being in an area of language as a theoretical structure or mental state that didn't actually have a specific vocabulary. If it's a modern European language like French or German, or Italian which I learned later, then of course it's a kind of European phantasm that presides as the linguistic structure of consciousness. If it's an ancient language like Latin that's still basically European, but nonetheless it's a heavily inflected language with a very different kind of structural integrity; and being somewhere in the experience-space between English and Latin was one of the most amazingly exhilarating experiences I had as a schoolboy. It made me feel what it was like to be in the zone of language as itself a place, indeed almost as a place of awareness, almost in a sense as a place to be: se trouver, sich befinden; ‘mi ritrovai’, as Dante wrote at the start of the Inferno. So that's a very early form of my encounter with language through the experience of the acts and operation of translation. This remained with me for a long time.

And now I introduce a few other Cambridge figures into our discourse here, because we have been speaking chiefly about literature and not so much about language and the effort to understand the nature of language and the differences between languages. We have spoken briefly of the great polymaths in the Cambridge tradition of Sinology and I want to expand a bit on this. Firstly to put Joseph Needham into the picture, who has been mentioned only marginally. Secondly to put a name not yet mentioned at all into the picture, which is Laurence Picken. And then thirdly just to point out that this tradition continues alive and well in the form of someone like Geoffrey Lloyd and Robert Wardy. These are all major Western scholars who about halfway through their working careers have converted from a Western intellectual operation with all the professionalism that goes with it, into a profound interest in Sinology and an understanding of the relations between Western thought and its Sinological parallels.

Joseph Needham started off as a medical man, as a doctor, was trained as a doctor before he made his great shift into Sinology. Laurence Picken was trained as a biologist, as a biochemist, before he switched into the history of oriental musicology, and Geoffrey Lloyd was a scholar of Greek and Latin before he made his switch into learning Chinese and studying the contrasts in thought practice between the traditional forms of the West and their Chinese counterparts. I have been very privileged in my friendships: I was very briefly acquainted with Geoffrey Lloyd and by proxy he guided my first steps in learning basic Chinese for myself, but I knew Joseph Needham intimately well. I can tell you a little anecdote about Joseph, which may be amusing. Just before his eightieth birthday I thought I would get for him a little present; and knowing his fondness for honey I thought that some Chinese honey might make a good impression. So I went to one of the very large shops in London's chinatown, and asked the assistant for some Chinese honey. She produced an attractive-looking pot, with a label saying it was produced in Taiwan. “Oh no,” I said, “it must be honey from mainland China.” She gave me a look: “All tastes the same!” she said. There is of course a moral in that little tale. Laurence Picken I knew even more closely and I will say a little more about him in a moment. To complete this round-up, I knew William Empson only slightly but I enjoyed a free and easy friendship with Ivor Richards over many years, and we had many conversations. I was even quite well acquainted with F.R. Leavis and his wife Queenie, though I don't think either of them ever went to China or made any move to become interested in the orient.

In fact, one of the amusing things to me about this lively colloquium is that I have known almost everybody about whom you have been learnedly speaking. I'm a kind of ancient buffer, a sort of fossil survivor. That's why I've put on this historical uniform [an ancient-style black silk Chinese surcoat], to seem like some kind of historical throw-back from the world about which you know only from books and which I knew because I was acquainted with these people directly. I will mention now a little about Picken, because he's not been referred to at all so far. He was as I say trained as a biologist and he wrote an extremely learned and very extensive and exceptionally thorough study of the history and structure of the cell, in the attempt to construct a synoptic knowledge of organic structure and life; he published this work (The Organisation of Cells and Other Organisms) with the Oxford Press in 1960. But by then he was well aware that the decisive paper composed together with James Watson by Francis Crick (whom I also knew very well), published in the journal Nature in 1953 and announcing the structure of DNA, had changed the whole landscape of biochemistry as he had known it. As he told me, this discovery foretold the end of his career as a research scientist, and his big book was also his farewell to biology; “I decided that from then on I was going to devote myself to my other serious interest, which was oriental musicology.”

If you look at Volume 1 of The New Oxford History of Music, published in 1957, you discover that Picken wrote two major contributions: the first on the music of China; and the second on the earliest Asian musics of what were quaintly called ‘Other Countries’: including Mongolia, Chinese Turkestan, Tibet, Korea, Japan, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, Java, Sumatra, and Bali. Quite a formidable range for an ex-biochemist, based on direct knowledge of these many linked but separate cultures. Without doubt, Picken was an extraordinary polymath, an astonishingly learned and original scholar, very modest, very retiring, and virtually not much known about in the outside world. His great accomplishment–yes, why don't I tell you this tale–his great accomplishment was to recognise that nowhere in China did there seem to be any surviving record of the court music of the Tang Dynasty. Everybody knew that the Tang Dynasty had a brilliant ceremonial and musical life, with ensembles and singers and all sorts of elaborate ceremonial practices that expressed the vitality of the court. But no documents, or virtually no documents, survive. Thus it was an unknown territory, much to the great regret of both the Chinese and the Western musicologists.

So Picken set himself this task, to ascertain whether this complete blank really was the blank that it looked to be. He consulted all the great archives and all the great scholars and all the surviving records in China, and it seemed to be true that apart from a few fragments there was nothing left. So his next step–brilliant intuitive lateral thinking–was to reason to himself, maybe some relic of this musical culture survives outside China. Once you ask that question you then start to think, well it's certainly not going to be in Mongolia, thank you very much, and it's certainly not going to be in Manchuria, thank you very much again. But it might, just possibly, be in Japan. Partly because Japan adopted so much of early Chinese civilisation as the foundation of its own cultural development, partly because Japan's culture is profoundly conservative and preserves features, over long periods of time, in a way that is pretty much immune from outside influence and the erosions of historical change. So Picken said to himself, alright, maybe there are some traces in Japan. If there were, where would they be? The most stable and long-enduring repositories of recorded culture are found in the serious temple life in Japan, with all its ancient traditions. And so in 1972, Picken made a year-long research visit to Japan, to investigate manuscript survivals of classical Togaku music.

He had to go to the major surviving ancient temples to ask them what they had in the way of their musical records. Since he was able to to read and speak Japanese it was no great impediment to him. He found a rich trove of, to the West, unknown music in these Japanese temples. But–but but but–he well knew that the court music of the Tang Dynasty was lively, fast-moving entertainment music, and he discovered that the oldest music in Japanese temples, probably deriving from Chinese originals, was extremely slow and solemn and ponderous and moved at a kind of speed to which it would be virtually impossible to dance [said very slowly]. So his thought was, well this is a dead end. But then, then he made some tape recordings of the performance of some of this Japanese temple music, and played it back at increased speed. He took it up to half-speed again. He took it to double-speed. And eventually what came out were lively, spirited, dance rhythms. So he asked himself, could this be it, and he looked at the few surviving fragments that there are of Tang music in the Chinese archival record, and they match pretty well. It is the lost music of the Tang Dynasty, discovered slowed down but none the less preserved and recorded in the temple culture of Japan. It was the most astonishing piece of transcultural discovery, all done by lateral thinking. There is now a flourishing area of research into Tang musical records (Music from the Tang Court, OUP/CUP 1981- ), and indeed much of this music has been performed by historical ensembles in China and it's all due to Picken's work. And it was Picken (who by great good fortune was my College Tutor) who taught me my first beginnings of Chinese and encouraged me to help him with translations of some poetic texts, of which he was making a scholarly study in order to reconstruct some of the ancient songs of Chinese culture. So I have a great personal debt to Picken, as I do to Needham and Richards and to others.

From these beginnings has come my own involvement with China, which onwards from 1986 has taken me on many teaching visits to various universities there, class-work with eager Chinese students and therefore a lot of language work with them, literary of course, and cultural of course, but language work all the time. These continuing interests give me a particular reason to speak here a little about the question of formal translation between Chinese and English of literary compositions. And this for me has had two phases; firstly the translation from Chinese into English of the so-called Original poets, who include Che Qian-zi and Zhou Ya-ping and others, which was done mostly in Suzhou in collaboration with a fine American scholar, Jeff Twitchell, when I was there in 1991 and 1993. The next phase of oriental translation work, which was from English into Chinese, was even more extraordinary: the English of my poems translated into Chinese poems by a consortium of extremely gifted and exceptionally ardent translators, who assisted in the production of this newly-published collection, Selected Poems by J.H. Prynne (Guangzhou, 2010, ISBN 978-7-306-03799-2), in Chinese and English side by side. The poems in this book were selected from my oeuvre overall, not by me but by Dr Keston Sutherland, who is here with us and who can tell us in his own inimitable words why he chose the ones that he did.

KS: Yes, I shall try to be sufficiently inimitable. I think there is no relation to Jeremy Prynne's poetry which is not challenging or perhaps even formidable. Certainly the relation of reader to text, as anyone who has tried to read these poems knows, is a very formidable relation. I found also the relation of publisher and particularly teacher pretty challenging too, and my chance to act as curator of this work, if that's not to dignify my role in a rather grand term, was to me similarly challenging for any number of reasons. First of all because I have no internal knowledge at all of the Chinese language, and so could only fantasise–was in a sense bound only to fantasise–about what might be the possible consequences of the introduction of this body of work into a language culture entirely and altogether remote from my own competence. Another reason is also because Jeremy Prynne's poetry which has been very close to my heart, very important to my own life for many years, has I think in English culture at least, and possibly also in some other cultures including contemporary American culture, has now achieved almost the status of a curriculum, certainly for younger poets; and younger poets will read through Jeremy's oeuvre from beginning to end, and then from end to beginning and crosswise many many times, and will develop their achieved thinking about what poetry might be and do, from a close and intense study of this work.

And so I suppose I felt a certain anxiety in trying to reproduce some version at least of a curriculum in Jeremy's work, rather than simply offering a kind of scattering or selection of poems which I might happen to have some affection for. So then arose the question, well, what might be transferable, into this distant language culture of which I am entirely ignorant, of some form of curriculum which I'm still very provisionally trying to understand for myself and put together. And it seemed to me that one important or trustworthy principle should be that there should not be a preponderance of Jeremy's early work, in this selection, but that it should run from the early work right through up to the most intractable and most recent poetry that Jeremy had then written when I made this selection; so I chose to include the poem ‘Réfuse Collection’ or ‘Refúse Collection’, depending on how you like to interpret or vocalise that deliberately ambiguous word in the title of the last poem in this book.

This principle of selection seemed to be important for a number of reasons. First of all because I think that a lot of readers of Jeremy's in the UK have historically tended to get stuck, I might even say, with the earlier work, and to imagine that they can in some way extract from The White Stones and from Kitchen Poems a curriculum–to persist in the use of that word for a moment–and that then later on the work of the 1990s and of the last decade can remain kind of shrouded in mystery, but none the less can assume some kind of inviolable moral authority. I wanted Chinese readers who had not yet encountered Jeremy's work to see it all at once and to figure out for themselves what might be the relationships between these two very different ends of it. I wanted not to presume that either end might be more easily transferred into a Chinese language culture, and so I wanted specifically not to presume that the earlier poems, which are more essayistic and recognisably discursive to an English reader, would for that reason be also more recognisable to a Chinese reader.

Also it was a special little decision of mine, kind of coded into my selection, that I wished to include some of Jeremy's earlier poems whose Wordsworthian complexion it seemed to me had been changed or perhaps even deformed by his later encounter with China and Chinese culture and Chinese poetry. So there are a number of poems in this volume, for example ‘An Evening Walk’ from Wound Response in 1974, which I think have a specifically Wordsworthian complexion. In that particular poem the clue is pretty obvious: it's in the title, which is also the title of an early poem by Wordsworth. Later poems or sequences like The Oval Window include direct quotations from Wordsworth, for instance ‘Calm is all nature as a resting wheel’, which I mention here because it seems to speak interestingly to the poem from Pearls That Were that Xie Ming produced for us this morning, with its image of the barely moving wheel at the end. There are lots of Wordsworthianisms or loans, borrowings from Wordsworth or allusions to Wordsworth in Jeremy's poems, which take on an entirely new complexion or aspect in the light of his later engagement with China, I think. So I tried to include those poems. I should also note that I was not the exclusive curator or arranger of this work and that there is in fact one poem in this book which was chosen not by me but by its author. Now I don't know whether Jeremy would enjoy it if I revealed which one of these poems he inserted into the book, and so possibly I'll leave that as an enigma which you can puzzle out for yourselves. In any case, on reviewing my selection Jeremy decided that there was a significant omission, and inserted one poem for himself. So I suppose that's really all I have to say about how I went about selecting these poems. Of course I also did choose poems which I had a special affection for, and which I thought might be especially significant for the development of the oeuvre, and I tried to put them together, without wishing to control or overdetermine what might be the experience of a Chinese reader of Jeremy's poems, but also pretty thoroughly confident that I couldn't possibly do that even if I wanted to, not knowing at all what might be their reception in China.

JHP: My Chinese translators accepted this selection and jointly prepared this volume. A team, a consortium, a committee almost of translators. I know them all personally and I've had extensive discussions with them about this whole task and about the background to it. They're all in some way or another connected with what's known, affectionately, as EPSI, that's to say the English Poetry Studies Institute based in Guangzhou, which is partly a library (of which Library I am actively the curator) and partly a seminar and study basis for doctoral students. Many of those involved in this particular group have much experience of reading English poetry and of high level linguistic preparation for advanced knowledge of English; two of the senior scholars associated with EPSI, one of them (Prof. Li Zhi-min) here at this Colloquium with us, studied with me at Cambridge while preparing their doctoral dissertations. Yet virtually none of these translators were poets and virtually none of them had any previous experience of either writing or translating demanding poetry of this kind. So they learnt how to do this on the job, more or less.

And I had extremely and unexpectedly interesting discussions with these groups. They had quite different kinds of questions to ask, quite different ways of approaching their task, and it was all very instructive to me. I tried to provide them with some hints and advice, and the website locations of some of these documents are listed at the end of this memoir. But what they above all wanted me to do was to assure them that they were on the right lines. So I had to tell them that there were no ‘right lines’, and there were only useful lines if the lines conflicted and failed to converge: then they might be right. But if they comprised a curriculum then they were probably wrong, because a curriculum is a regulated form of the presentation of a whole series of phenomena in terms of some over-presiding structure, and I didn't believe, I don't believe and I didn't believe, that anything written by me has a kind of curricular structure or indeed could function in any kind of accurate way in a curriculum role. So I had to give them my view–they wanted of course to know–that their task, their idea about the task of translation as working out the meaning of an English text, interpreting the text, establishing the meaning so as then to translate the meaning, was a wrong way of doing things. I had to debunk this idea quite strenuously and say, not only is it a wrong method but it's an unworkable method–certainly in relation to any text produced by me. What they needed to do was to completely re-orientate their sense of the task: to translate the words of these poems, their activity of language, rather than to resolve what might seem to be the question of meaning and then to render the meaning of the resulting interpretation.

I told them–indeed I trained them, or I attempted to train them–in a dialectic view of the curricular notion of the authority of an oeuvre. That is to say, in my case at least it is a contested and internally unstable and internally debated and debatable form of the relation of one structure to another. It is essentially a dialectical process. Doing literary translation is not resolving and closing a dialectic of uncertainty, but keeping this uncertainty open and active. And I didn't regard this word dialectical as just a vague abstraction: I have good reason for using this term, because it is not only a Marxist term but it's a Maoist term, too. And there's no doubt that my thinking about the question of dialectic in relation to a curriculum was strongly influenced by Mao Ze-dong's notions concerning the structure and programme for a revolutionary practice. And I read all of Mao Ze-dong's early essays about contradiction as directly instructive to my sense about the notion of a curriculum, and the notion of teaching and learning in a language to students whose language was not the one that I had myself. So we had these ardent discussions. I took them through Mao Ze-dong's essay Oppose the Party “Eight-Legged Essay” of 1942, for example, in great detail. My class-room students had never of course heard of the eight-legged essay. I had to explain to them what the eight-legged essay was, in order to explain to them why translating a poem is not like writing an eight-legged essay even though it might in some ways resemble the style. So we had many ardent discussions, and this book–I don't know how well this book has fulfilled the essentially contradictory nature of the exercise involved in translating these poems, though I certainly hope it's gone some way towards that.

And I certainly hope too that when Chinese readers read this book they will be highly puzzled by it, because it will make them think. It will make them discover and exercise powers of thought, which is what poetry can do. And of course the problem with ‘Farewell to Cambridge’ by Xu Zhimo is that it's very tender and perfectly thoughtless, giving you no more than the tiniest tiniest fragment of an idea in your head, because he has no serious interest in the question of the contradictoriness of thought, East and West, as this conflict was stirring up his emotions at that time. And I actually think that this degree of indifference is also deeply part of the modern English concern with China; for instance, Empson has a wonderful interest in the contradictoriness of thought in separate fragments of ideas and images, but in the sense of the joined-up notion, of political thought and its dialectical structure, neither Empson nor Richards seems to me to have had any serious response to the ideological history of modern China. Most notorious in that regard is Ezra Pound, whose overall grasp of political thought in any complexion was close to infantile. And I think that this is my unusual commitment to the study of China, that I am interested in its ideological formation, its evolved political history, I'm interested in the contests and conflict which express that political history and in the structural thinking which underpins the attempt to define alternative viewpoints and positions and programmes for the history of China, ancient and modern. And that in this sense my interest is quite different from most other travellers to China, and it is an interest which comes from my interest in poetry and my own poetry, and that in turn comes from my interest in language as a dialectical process and it was so from my earliest school days.

And so at this point I will conclude, thank you very much. [Clapping].

JHP: I will tell you one more story, however, because I love telling stories, and this is a story about Picken and Arthur Waley. It's completely legendary and I think it's probably not true but I've heard it told to me from several different sources, and it's a very entertaining story even if it may not be factual. Waley came up to Cambridge with some friends. I don't remember quite when this was, quite early on in their relative histories. But I know the seasonal date. It was on the first of May in the particular year in which this visit took place. And Waley and his friends went to see Picken in his rooms at Jesus College and Picken was, as I say, a very modest man. And they said, Picken, we know that you're a virtuoso player of the Gu Qin, the most ancient and venerable Chinese literati instrument, and we wonder if you might be prepared to play us a tune on your qin. The qin was hanging on the wall right in front of them. And Picken said, oh, no I couldn't do that, I really couldn't do, I couldn't do it. And Waley says, come on, come on Picken, we've heard so much about your playing, we'd love to hear you play. [Grumbles] Just one little tune! they said. And then Picken said, well, he said, there is a problem. My qin–we are in the first of May, remember–my qin still has the winter tuning. Because there's a winter tuning and a summer tuning to the qin, the classical qin. So Waley said, oh, don't worry about that, play with the tuning you've got. So with a sigh Picken takes down the qin, lays it on the desk in front of him, and prepares to play and starts a very classical melody. The sky outside the window, previously in broad brilliant sunlight, begins to cloud over. [Laughter]. The clouds become darker. They become more congested. And within about three minutes, it is snowing. [Laughter]. That's the story. Anyway, let's stop there because we need some lunch.

Internet references:

Cambridge: 7th July 2011 / 1st November 2011, with grateful thanks to Keston Sutherland, who is currently editing my prose writings, for his contribution, to Colin Still for recording the occasion, and to Ian Heames for initial transcription of this text from audiofile.

© The Author, 2012. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of The Cambridge Quarterly. All rights reserved. For permissions please email: