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JH Prynne, The Oval Window

For a couple of years I have dared to teach Prynne to my undergraduate students and am surprised how a poet reputed by critics to be so impenetrable and elitist is handled by them with the same mixture of insouciance, confusion and excitement as Carol Anne Duffy or John Ashbery.

One thing that can be said is that each time I teach The Oval Window more comes to light, as if each reading clears another layer of grime from the glass so to speak. Yet I have never conceded to an actual conclusive reading, the allegorical/political readings of his work he encourages and some of his disciples insist on. For me Prynne is not a crossword puzzle to be solved. Treat him like a jigsaw you have thrown away the box to so you have no final picture to pursue.

Below is the seminar plan I have been working from based on my selections from the poem. Note I don't begin at the beginning and I end before the end as the poem makes more coherent sense for my students that way. I think this is a good way to get into one of the most cohesive and beautiful English poems of recent times although it is only a beginning of course.


How to Read JH Prynne’s “The Oval Window”:

“In a recursive procedure, the method / of solution is defined in terms of itself.

Stanzas on 317, 321, 322, 323
Cycles: look for different uses of the word cycle, think associatively about cycles (things that turn around, high and low, circles, linear vs cycle, capitalism vs nature)
Capitalism: underline references to money and capitalism, what is his take on capitalism, what effects does it have in the poem, how does he use terms from finance in other, perhaps poetic ways?
Disjuncture: Prynne regularly interrupts a sentence either by a line break or sudden shift of direction. Identify three examples of this and the effects it has on your reading experience?
Stanzas on 330, 331, 332,
Cohesion: Prynne regularly uses the same kind of imagery or symbols, identify an example of such imagery recurring three or more times, what effect does this have on your reading experience?

Stanza on 339: The Happy Ending: “Calm is all nature as a resting wheel”

Standing by the window I heard it,
While waiting for the turn. In hot light
And chill air it was the crossing flow
Of even life, hurt in the mouth but
Exhausted by passion and joy. Free
To leave at either side, at the fold line…
Beyond help it is joy at death itself:
a toy harder to bear, laughing all night

· The window looks out onto the sounds of nature, the turn both the cycle and pun on the tern who arrives earlier
· Heat and cold now work in harmony, bridging the flow or life, money and time
· Life here is even, well balanced
· The mouth of poetry is wounded but because it has worn itself out with joy
· Having been cooped up in the claustrophobia of the poem we can go whichever way we want
· We are at the fold line, between poem and world, interior and exterior, nature and commerce, line and stanza, window and world
· What does it mean to pursue meaning in this way?
1. This is what poetry is, singular language
2. Meaning is performed going against instrumental view of language
3. Undermines the linguistic values of dominant culture
4. While seemingly closed, actually radically open-ended, empowers reader
5. It speaks for freedom, in language away from dictates of everyday discourse
6. Reinvigorates the language
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