F T PRINCE
a very brief memoir
F T Prince was my tutor both as an undergraduate and as a masters student. I first met him when he interviewed me for an undergraduate place. I had dropped out of school at the age of sixteen and through correspondence during national service and between jobs as a rep stage manager, unqualified teacher, deck hand, and so on had managed to get to teacher’s college, and so presented myself with rather vague credentials. I cringe a little now when I remember that with my application to Southampton I included some ‘notes’ I’d been making about poetry. I recall Prince being struck, he said, that no Romantics figured in my contemplations. He seemed to think that a good sign.
As a student I met him for tutorials, and although I didn't take to him personally (and I think he thought me rather vulgar in my, alas, overconfidence then, now lost) I was impressed to meet a ‘real poet’ but never got onto anything like intimate terms with him. Except perhaps once, discussing the scansion of a Wyatt poem. I find that, without having made any effort to do so, I remember verbatim and can hear things he said. As I’ve come to think about my father, I have been much more influenced by him that I’ve acknowledged to myself.
I’m now, looking over his work, surprised that so much of his verse is not ‘free’. He’d been interested in my interest in Pound and shared my admiration, although there was much he thought just rambled about. He opened his Cantos to show me number XXXVI, the Donna me Prega translation which he found wonderful.
A Lady asks me
I speak in season
She seeks reason for an affect, wild often
That is so proud he have Love for a name
Why denys it can hear the truth now
Once when we were looking at a piece of free verse – I don’t recall what it was - he was puzzled as to the underlying rhythm. When I said that perhaps there wasn’t one he was very firm that “there damned well ought to be”. Eliot’s vers libre. Though he felt that Eliot’s writings about poetry shouldn’t be taken too earnestly, that they were useful to Eliot himself to get himself going to write more poetry.
He always came back to Yeats as the great poet of the twentieth century.
Although it didn’t strike me particularly at the time, one remark of his about free verse , that it was,” something to do with the syntax,” he said, that counted, has stayed in my head and I’ve found myself coming back and back to, especially when I got interested in African traditional poetry (in translation) and the principle of parallelism which Jacobson writes about so well. I realize now, too, how I was taken with his discussion of Milton’s treatment of the ten syllable (rather than pentameter) line in Paradise Lost, and I find looking through his own poetry how well Prince uses the long sentence, with its greater potential for intonational rhythm and ‘tune’. *
I never dared ask him to read my verses after a first gentle discouragement when he said that I’d probably be disappointed with his response and anyway did I think anyone can teach anyone else how to write poetry? One of those ‘questions expecting the answer No.’
But he was pleased when I got some poems in London Magazine, quite recently then having been taken over by Alan Ross. He had copies of this magazine and others on a stand in his room. He thought my first batch very ‘assured’, and the next batch to appear pleased him because he the poems were in different ‘manners’ as he put it - ‘personae’, perhaps. Naturally he was being kind in all this but it showed a little of the very hidden real man, I feel. After that he would invite me round to his house for drinks if there were every any poets coming to read or lecture.
He could be gently down-putting of the visiting poets we sometimes had. Three poets came once, and in his introduction he quoted a remarked (I don’t recall the source) to the effect that modern poets disobey the laws of perspective. As they come nearer they get smaller. He didn’t quite share my enthusiasm for the speech rhythms one of the readers, the then ‘new’ John Fuller. But we did sometimes agree about other poets. During questions at the end of a Charles Tomlinson reading, I asked Tomlinson whether he felt any affinity to the imagists. No, said Tomlinson, he thought he
had more passion than them, but Prince smiled later, saying to me, “He doesn’t see it!”
I was enthusiastic about Sylvia Plath and asked what he thought of Berck Plage. He read it and the next time we met asked me what I thought was so good about it. I said something about the imagery. He replied, “Yes, it hits you between the eyes, doesn’t it?”
His Doors of Stone came out while I was still an undergraduate and I did a review for Second Wessex, the university literary magazine at the time. I think still I was right to pick out the theme of ‘love’ as the unifying one, though it needs more qualification than I had eyes for then. In the letter he wrote to thank me, he was very kind, saying he was writing before he had too much time to change in his own mind what I’d written, a way perhaps of avoiding too critical a response. I was very moved by the end of his letter, and of course flattered. He wrote:
“Isn’t ours a somewhat awkward relationship, seeing that I have to give you carefully calculated marks for examination scripts, while you are giving me something of inestimable value – an intelligent reading.”
This shows not only a marvellous generosity and indeed humility on his part, but also a disjunction in his mind between the creative and the academic. Though not at a psychological level: I once asked him whether academic work interfered with his writing and his response was, no more than any other job might. For him, he said, anyway a little experience goes a long way.
He started the above letter, as he did later when he wrote me a couple of times when I was in Nigeria, ‘Dear Haynes.’ We were never close, still less intimate, except in a way he would have respected, even welcomed, that I find his words coming back to me now, when I’m writing.
He gave me his pamphlet, Gravity and the Long Poem (1962) we’d been discussing my ambition to write one. He, then, was thinking of the epic poem in which “ideas go to war,” as he put it, while - I recall us walking from the university towards Portswood where I’d catch my bus - I was thinking more of the Chaucer-like tale. At this point, as a poet, he hadn’t found his natural comfort with the longish poem, as he would with his Dry Points and most later poems. I was interested in his Yuan Chen Variations both for themselves and for his interest in Arthur Waley, whom I raised with him once because my own interest. I recall his view that the Waley poems were a long way from the complex formalism of the Chinese originals, and didn’t then get a sense of the admiration he later showed.
Towards the end of our tutor-student relationship he lent me some John Ashbery whom he admired, or so it seemed to me then, but I’ve not, as yet, been able to tune in to Ashbery. Not surprising as FTP was always very many steps ahead of me and always kind enough never to make me feel it. And yet in a remark to Anthony Rudolf Prince confesses to finding Ashbery and others difficult to make sense of and says, for his part, “both my strength and my burden is that I have to make sense”. Indeed.
One great regret is that I didn’t published my first long poem, Letter to Patience, in time for him to see it. I was some three years too late. I would love to have been able to send him a copy with a note saying, Look, Prof, I did it!
*Perhaps to think a bit more about the role on 'tone' - in the sense of the particular kind of stress on which there is a change of pitch also, indicating the kind of continuity (particularly in the long sentence in which the reader may need to 'work out' the appropriate pitch movement), and linking rhythm and meaning music-like movement forward.