Vance Maverick: Partial Reading

J. H. Prynne's "On the Matter of Thermal Packing"

When we call a poem "difficult", we often intend blame, or, perhaps less often, an unsatisfactory sort of praise. In these facile senses, it means the poem seems to be intended for an elite; and depending on whether one approves of the elite, that can be taken as good or bad, without really saying much about the poem. I would like to rescue the word "difficult" for a more useful meaning, one that suggests specific kinds of pleasure and value, as do more straightforward descriptive terms like narrative, satiric, lyric, strophic. There are real, "legitimate" reasons, as a poet, to choose to write a difficult poem, even one too difficult to be completely understood; and real reasons, as a reader, to choose to read it, even if one knows oneself imperfectly qualified for the effort.

One common objection is that a poem is written to communicate something; and that if the reader can't resolve all the meanings of the text, its communication has failed. The problem with this view, though, is that hardly any worthwhile poem is ever completely understood. Even the seemingly transparent "Lucy" poems of Wordsworth, for instance, have exercised readers so long that there are now thick critical histories devoted to their reception, with no end in sight. And later in this essay, we will touch briefly on Herbert's "Virtue", short, tidy, and bottomlessly interpretable. Yet clearly these poems communicate: evidently, for centuries now, readers have been pleased, if not satisfied, by an incomplete understanding.

I would like to illustrate, in this short essay, the kind of pleasure and value that can be derived from a difficult poem. My example is "On the Matter of Thermal Packing," by J. H. Prynne, perhaps the official difficult poet of modern Britain. This is a poem from The White Stones (1969), his second major collection [8, 9]. It is a formidable book, still a challenge to the reader (and the critic) thirty years later. And yet by the standards of Prynne's later work (or even the next collection, Brass) it is relatively clear, offering good purchase for the beginning of an exploration. One foothold is the use of themes and images from the other poems of the collection; another is the very careful placement of allusions to other poems and to scientific work. A final advantage of this poem is that it has been discussed several times in print; I will refer here to critical pieces by Nigel Wheale and James Keery.

As for my own qualifications, I am an amateur in poetry. My training is in computer engineering (I work for a software company in San Francisco), and I have only briefly seen the inside of a university literature class. I won't try to make the case, obviously, that it doesn't take work to read a difficult poem; but I do hope to show that the work is interesting, and open (and rewarding) to non-specialists like me.

I will begin with an overview, and then approach closer in successive passes of detail. If you don't know the poem, perhaps it would be best to stop and read it now, before proceeding. J.H.Prynne: "On the Matter of Thermal Packing".

This is a discursive, meditative poem of nearly 100 lines, much concerned with melting and with memory. Two specific childhood memories are clearly evoked: one of a wartime evacuation to a school set up in a country house, and one of skating in New England. The poem appears to be set in a present moment where a new connection with these childhood memories has been established; whether they have in some way been repeated, perhaps by a visit to the same country spot, or whether the recapture is a more purely internal event, is not clear.

The connection between melting and memory may be taken fairly straightforwardly as metaphor. Melting, in this light, is the recovery, in one's mind, of something fluid, that is, accessible in the present, from the frozen deposits of the past. It is not just remembering what was forgotten; rather it is the development of the meaning of memories which may never have been lost. For example, the young Prynne didn't really understand the evacuation, or what it had to do with the larger reality of the War. But the adult Prynne merges the childhood memory with his present understanding of the war, and "hears the guns for the first time." Similarly, his childhood memories of skating are enriched by his adult understanding of the physics of ice: today, he knows that the ice briefly melts under the pressure of the blade, passing locally from its solid to its liquid phase, but then he could throw himself into a "total passion for skating" despite "not knowing the flicker / that joins" the molecules. And the remark that the "warm grass and shrubbery / ... should have been ancestral / or still" (8-10) suggests that for him, the landscape only came to acquire its conventional literary properties with age--and presumably with reading. This steady yield of meaning is what makes our mind more than just a register of experiences: it is one of the sources of our mental life.

Even on a first reading, one striking feature of the text is a small group of words that are carefully highlighted, elevated a little, perhaps ironically, from their ordinary prose sense and repeated in various forms. One of these is "competent/competence", which I take to refer, at least, by a financial figure, to the support of mental life by the steady paying out of memory's yield. Three more, also introduced in the first stanza, are "gentle/gentility", "eloquent/eloquence", and "glory". Another may be "nuclear", introduced in the second half. One of the challenges the poem presents to interpretation is to determine just how these words are intended.

A clue to the word "glory" is given by the poem's relationship to Wordsworth. James Keery [6] finds several points of connection to episodes of The Prelude. But the large themes of aging and memory here strongly suggest some of the familiar shorter poems as well. In the "Ode: Intimations of Immortality," for example, Wordsworth expresses again and again the idea that the divine "glory" of childish innocence fades with maturity. And in "Tintern Abbey," he returns to a landscape (of water) after the lapse of five years, and reads his growth from youth to manhood in the difference between his experiences before and after. There is some effort, in both poems, to show there may be "abundant recompense" for the loss of youth's freshness; but many readers may find that "dizzy raptures" and "splendor in the grass" are more memorably presented than the "thoughts that.lie too deep for tears", or the mystical "something far more deeply interfused." Without correcting Wordsworth, Prynne aims, I think, to restore the balance, showing with greater conviction and detail how adulthood may recover and even improve on childhood's glory.

The texture of the poem, like much of this collection, is a curious intermediate between prose and verse. Nigel Wheale, in his somewhat unsympathetic comments [10], allows it to be poetry only because of what it says, not because of its language: "...The White Stones does not concern itself with what is ordinarily understood to be craftsmanship." But I believe Prynne's language is carefully tuned, to a pitch quite different from his prose. He has published a fair amount of "real" prose, in a variety of styles. The suave formality of his afterword to Anne Birrell's translation of the ancient Chinese New Songs from a Jade Terrace; the arch pedantry, verging on camp, of his lecture "Stars, Tigers, and the Shape of Words;" and the elegantly and viciously wielded critical-political jargon of his semi-public letter to the Canadian poet Steve McCaffery, are all equally far from the language of this poem. Perhaps the most striking difference is that the poem lacks assertiveness. If this is prose, it is the only kind of prose in which he permits himself uncertainty, fragmentation, and awkwardness.

Also, the texture of the poem does bear some resemblance to traditional free-verse technique. There are a few noticeably exploited line breaks, such as the last one, "with so little / more," where the break withholds the last word long enough that we can hear distinctly the difference it makes to the sense. But more striking than the lineation is the grouping of the text into blocks. As Wheale notes, these are not only separated by vertical space, but distinguished by their modes of indentation. In the first mode, the blocks are set flush left, broken at about the width of blank verse. In the second, blocks of similar width are indented one stop to the right. The third is a much more irregular flow, like a Wordsworthian ode, with widely varying line length and indentation, set well out to the right. Prynne alternates between these three groupings (with one notable exception) until they merge towards the end.

It seems to me that Prynne uses these blocks of text very much as traditional free verse uses lines: not necessarily as self-contained units of meaning, but as a means of modulating the linear flow of prose. In other words, the prosodic events in this mode of composition are the breaks between blocks. Consider the opening: the first block, flush left, speaks in dry metaphoric terms, about some process to whose interpretation we have not yet been given enough clues. The second block, indented, seems to draw back, as if to illustrate, with more vivid images, soon crystallizing into a direct account of a memory. The third block is flush left again, and one might expect it to resume the address of the first; but in fact it continues a sentence of "illustration" that began in the second block. The blocks are thus counterpointed against the rhetorical groupings in the text, as lines may be counterpointed against syntax.

The placement of the quotation "It is difficult to say..." makes it look like a turning point, a key to the argument. It comes a little before the midpoint, in a distinct style of indentation, introducing a parenthesis which continues to the end without closing. Keery calls it "suspiciously unattributed:" but in fact it is better attributed than most quotations in poetry (short of Marianne Moore), and proves to be quite genuine. Theory of the Earth, by James Hutton, is one of the foundational works of modern geology, first read before the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1788 [4] and then expanded to two volumes in 1795 [5]. Its great contribution to science is the demonstration that the earth we see is the result of a long process of destruction and regeneration, reaching so far back that (in Prynne's phrase) "the start is buried in light," or (in Hutton's) we see "no vestige of a beginning, and no prospect of an end." I take Prynne to intend a sustained comparison of Hutton's vision of a self-recycling earth with the mind, which feeds itself on the yield of its own slowly unlocked history.

The great peculiarity of Hutton's work, for a reader with modern notions of science, is his approach. Since his model is apparently at odds with the Biblical story of creation (still taken quite seriously, of course, by scientists of his day), one might expect him to draw it out only cautiously, after a long defensive consideration of the evidence. But in fact he argues it a priori, from religious principles. God made the world, he says, to be a habitation for man; what man most needs to live in a country is arable soil; thus, He must have made the world so that the supply of soil is guaranteed. But the soil, as we can see today, is forever destroyed by wind and rain, and can only be regenerated by the slow disintegration of rock; therefore God must have built the earth in such a way that eroded soil is converted back into rock, to be raised one day and crumbled into soil again. Only having finished this argument does Hutton turn to physical evidence--and to the relief of our modern reader, he marshals it compellingly to show that the earth does work like a soil machine, and shows every sign of having done so forever.

Now, Prynne quotes Hutton at a particularly telling point. The phrase he chooses is buried deep in the second volume of the expanded edition; it is in effect Hutton's concession of the weakness of his a priori argument. For if it is difficult to say what constitutes a habitable country, then God's intention to build the world for man can't really tell us what the world is like. Evidently Prynne is concerned less with the purely scientific truth of Hutton's geology than with its relation to great philosophical questions--specifically with an attempt to understand the world in terms of (divine) purpose. For Prynne too is treating such ultimate questions here, in connection with the processes of memory he compares to Hutton's cyclic earth. One sign is his deliberate evocation of Wordsworth's famous "glory", the clouds of divinity we trail behind us at our birth. The connection of the "start" of things with "light", in the opening, suggests not only birth but the divine Fiat Lux. And the passage toward the end on the "prince of life" has suggested the Prince of Peace to more than one reader.

In light of his comparison of mind and earth, Prynne may be seen to be asking important questions about the kind of mental life we are made for. Much of the poem shows how we are sustained by the soil-like "competence" paid out by the deposition and erosion of memory. Are we made like that, he asks, in order to live like that? Well, no, we can't say so, because perhaps a mind with a different geology would sustain a mental life we can't imagine. It is difficult to say precisely what constitutes a habitable mind.

Two other allusions in the poem also give depth to Prynne's project. Toward the end, he writes "sweet day so calm" (86), an echo of the opening line of Herbert's "Virtue". This is another poem that encompasses final things through an understanding of the cycles of time. The range of each stanza expands in time, from a single day, to the lifespan of a rose, to the season of spring, until in the fourth stanza we face the end of the world, in that last great fire which, we are told, only a virtuous soul may survive. Herbert adds one of the bizarre touches that readers of seventeenth-century poetry must learn to love: the durable soul is likened to "seasoned timber," wood that has been liberated from the cycle of life and death, paradoxically, by careful exposure to the cycle of the seasons. Herbert, like Shakespeare (and perhaps like Prynne), follows a quibble at all adventures.

And in Prynne's last stanza, "the eloquence of melt / is however upon me" (89-90) more distantly recalls "the glamour / Of childish days is upon me", from Lawrence's "Piano", another memory poem in which the depth of time is exposed by an unexpected resonance of past and present experience. The poem shows the adult Lawrence at a concert, suddenly "unmanned" by memories of the music of his childhood; the drama of the poem is in his acceptance of this sentimentality. Perhaps Prynne is doing something similar here, reconciling himself to the embarrassing force of an involuntary emotion, alien to his adult style.

The other poems of The White Stones suggest several themes which may inform a reading of this poem, even if they are not made explicit here. For example, ice and geology, important in this poem and throughout the book, converge in the figure of the glacier. This figure is used directly elsewhere in the book, most notably in "The Glacial Question, Unsolved," and it may underlie this poem as well. At about the time Prynne was writing, glaciologists were beginning to demonstrate that glaciers could be used to investigate history. A glacier is built up of the snows of successive winters, each layer packed down by the next: so the ice below one point is young near the surface, and older and older with increasing depth. In 1967, Oeschger et al. demonstrated the use of radiodating to measure the age of glacier ice [7], by drilling down to a given depth, melting some of the ice in situ, and applying standard carbon-dating techniques to the CO2 in the air that escaped. Even more interestingly, Dansgaard suggested as long ago as 1954 [1] that it would be possible to recover information about ancient climates by measuring the relative abundance of isotopes of oxygen in different glacial layers. He demonstrated the technique in 1969 [2]--the year of The White Stones. This paper is probably too late to have influenced Prynne directly; but it is striking that his images of history in meltwater should so closely parallel contemporary developments in science. (Striking, but not really surprising--"The Glacial Question, Unsolved" carries a bibliography of papers on the geography of the last ice age, making it clear Prynne was well-read in the field.)

Another theme in the background of the poem is music, the art that makes most of cycles and recurrences. In "Virtue", Herbert says to the spring, "my music shows ye have your closes;" in The White Stones too, the cycles of music touch on the cycles of life. This is most explicit in "Thoughts on the Esterházy Court Uniform," evidently referring to form in Haydn. The keyword is "again":

            With such
patience maybe we can listen to the rain
without always thinking about rain, we
trifle with rhyme and again is the sound
of immortality.

Or later in the book, in "As It Were an Attendant," this time as farce:

        ...we can begin with the warmup
about the politics of melody / that one, and
please you say at once, not again.

Music is not directly mentioned in "Thermal Packing," but it may color our readings of such phrases as "the air plays" (76), or "the flow / so eloquently stopped" (36-7)--stopped, perhaps, like a flute (what other stopping is eloquent?), suggesting that memory's yield flows like a melody.

This partial reading leaves many details of the poem still obscure. For example, in trying to interpret the lines "light in the field / was frozen / by wire / ploughed up" (56-59), I have two responses, not yet reconciled. First, I think of skating rinks artificially frozen by cooling pipes under the surface (while the pond of Prynne's memory was presumably frozen by cold weather); second, I think of the fields full of barbed wire and mortar shells, left from the Great War to be ploughed up by the farmers of Belgium. Each of these partial interpretations connects closely to the network of themes we have sketched. Up till now, my understanding of the poem has grown steadily, through repeated reading, research, and reflection. If I have not yet fused these two images into a clear reading of the passage, experience suggests that time will bring this about.

Another "partially read" passage is the second quotation, "one critical axis of the crystal / structure of ice remains dominant after / the melt" (68-70). This passage is indeed unattributed, and its significance is unclear. Prynne casts doubt on it ("believe that?"), but it is also doubtful in scientific terms. Eisenberg and Kauzmann's contemporary monograph on the properties of water [3] discusses a number of competing models of the liquid phase. In some of these (the "mixture" models), water is considered as a flow of free molecules sprinkled with "clusters", small groups bound together in the same crystalline pattern as in ice. These models might answer to Prynne's quotation, if we read it freely (it is not an "axis" that is considered to remain, but the whole three-dimensional pattern, in fragments). But Eisenberg and Kauzmann point out that, while the models account well for some properties of water, other considerations (the ease with which water may be supercooled, and the absence of certain spectroscopic features), suggest that nothing of the structure of ice actually remains in water. So is Prynne's doubt a reflection of the uncertainty of contemporary scientific knowledge? It is impossible to be sure. Considering his use of Hutton, I suspect the odd phrasing of the quotation is a sign of a particular "spin" or tendency in its account of ice, intended to reflect back on the figurative matter of thermal packing. Without knowing the source of the quotation, the contemporary scientific context is our only guide.

And of course, there are more difficult passages still. As Keery writes, "it would be a wilful piece of 'bad naturalism' to offer a confident reading of a passage such as" the one on the "nuclear stream" and the "prince of life" (73-81). But even here, the intent relation of the words to the network of themes is evident. So although the poem does not easily afford the satisfaction of a reading that feels complete, it cannot be said to resist reading. On the contrary, its difficulties encourage a special effort of reading, and repay it by a continual increase of understanding. (It is also rewarding in itself--my knowledge of the history of geology, for instance, has grown considerably in the course of this project.)

Perhaps the chief requirement, in reading "difficult" poetry of this order, is a willingness to be wrong. Keery sharply corrects Wheale, for example, for overreaching in his interpretation of "competence". In turn, I confess I take satisfaction in showing what Keery missed by ignoring the reference to Hutton. But at least in that case, undistracted by the special meaning of "habitable country" in the original, Keery read through to an important secondary reference, to that especially habitable cultural and geographical country known as England. Perhaps the way to approach a work like this is in a sort of study circle, of the kind sometimes arranged for Finnegans Wake, in which a group of readers can combine forces to cover more of the possible meanings. If the "difficulty" of a poem like this is greater than that of the familiar classics (and there is reason to wonder whether this is so), it is of a sort that breeds meaning--and pleasure.


I owe my acquaintance with Prynne's work to Douglas Clark, who sent me a copy of the 1982 Poems three years ago. But I would never have read Prynne carefully without Nate Dorward, who responded to a superficial review I posted to USENET, and has been a patient and instructive correspondent since. I owe all my knowledge of the secondary literature (including Wheale and Keery) to him; it should go without saying, though, that he is responsible for none of my errors. Thanks are also due to my mother, Emily Maverick, for crystallographic advice.

Finally, and most particularly, I thank J. H. Prynne for generously permitting us to reprint his poem here.


1. Dansgaard, Willi. "The O18-abundance in fresh water." Geochimica et cosmochimica acta 6 (1954), p. 241-260.

2. Dansgaard, W., S. J. Johnsen, J. Møller, and C. C. Langway, Jr. "One thousand centuries of climatic record from Camp Century on the Greenland ice sheet." Science 166 (1969), p. 377-381.

3. Eisenberg, David, and Walter Kauzmann. The Structure and Properties of Water. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969. See p. 264 for a weighing of the merits of many models of the structure of liquid water.

4. Hutton, James. "Theory of the Earth, or, An investigation of the laws observable in the composition, dissolution and restoration of land upon the globe." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1788), v. 1. Reprinted as Contributions to the History of Geology, v. 5. Darien, Connecticut: Hafner Publications, 1970.

5. ________. Theory of the Earth, with proofs and illustrations. Edinburgh: W. Creech, 1795. Prynne's quotation is on p. 93 of volume II.

6. Keery, James. "Strictly English: A Romantic Reading of 'On the Matter of Thermal Packing' by J. H. Prynne." fragmente 3 (1991), p. 42-50.

7. Oeschger, H., B. Alder, and C. C. Langway, Jr. "An in situ gas-extraction system to radiocarbon date glacier ice." Journal of Glaciology 6, no. 48 (1967), p. 939-942.

8. Prynne, J. H. The White Stones. Lincoln: Grosseteste Press, 1969.

9. ________. Poems. Edinburgh and London: Agneau 2, 1982. Includes The White Stones.

10. Wheale, Nigel. "Expense: J. H. Prynne's The White Stones." Grosseteste Review 12 (1979), p. 103-118.