There are perhaps no other British poets whose monumental reputation eclipses attention to their work quite like J. H. Prynne. He has written over thirty books and chapbooks across six decades, as well as publishing various prose writings but remains a mystery figure in North America. This newly collected works contains all of the published poetry (and some unpublished) since Bloodaxe released the second edition in 2005. Seen as somewhat of an avant-gardist mandarin, a relic of the Poundian era, in this reception Prynne is believed to be a poet to whom the work is secondary to the erudition and scholarly attention it demands. Accordingly, Charles Olson described him as the greatest researcher. However, like Pound’s, for all the challenges of Prynne’s work it is often incredibly beautiful in its innovative command of language. Unlike the great maker, Prynne is absolutely committed not just to ‘making it new’ but also getting it right. A well-known polymath, his poetry engages with various different poetical works. This poetry is like the top layer of a palimpsest, written over and through the submerged histories of literary meaning. It therefore asks us to engage with various ways of looking at the world.
It’s a bromide within commentary on Prynne’s poetry that it is ‘difficult’. However, referring to the vast array of work contained within the ‘yellow brick’ as merely ‘difficult’ does not quite get at the variegated intensity and distinctions across his oeuvre. Whilst highly challenging, the differences between books across his whole career have yet to be fully articulated (the best effort perhaps made by Kevin Nolan in his essay ‘Capital Calves’). It is Prynne’s earliest work Kitchen Poems (1968), written in the poet Ed Dorn’s kitchen, and The White Stones (1969) that are best known by North American readers. This early work is in a lyric mode, containing a declarative urgency. It is familiar to the geo -logic and -graphic poetry of Dorn and Charles Olson, where all three poets share an anti-Cartesian stress of the body’s dependency on its non-human environs.
Frustrated with the limited ambitions of British poetry, the great significance of Dorn and Olson to Prynne was that they wanted the reader to understand ‘where we are’. He located various scholarly sources for Olson’s Maximus in the mid to late sixties, sending them through the post. In the The White Stones he aimed for poetry to sing a possible communion of hope, ‘We live here | and must mean it, the last person we are.’ One of Prynne’s most famous poems from the post-‘68 period, ‘The Ideal Star-Fighter’, laments the seeming impossibility of hope ‘how can we dream of | the hope to continue’. In the aftermath of the revolutionary movements of the late sixties, in the poetry of Brass (1971) and Wound Response (1974), ‘where we are’ seems to be broken down and diffracted. Rather than proclaiming ‘here’ as our true place, the work increasingly utilises a syntax that points towards the denotation of objects that it simultaneously works to disrupt. The reader is challenged to think through distinction.
In the introduction to a reading at the University of Sussex in December 2006, Prynne stated that after some brief flirtations with an organizing principle of meaning, his work has mostly tried to attend to the sites of major contradiction, of violence, of trauma and wounding in the world. He has tried to excoriate the poetic ego from the work because the attention the language demands is more important than ‘The Poet’. Whilst the early work has its moments of comparison to the grand schemas of Pound or Olson, Prynne increasingly works away from them. Where Olson claimed that ‘the universe is one’, or Pound aimed at ‘direct treatment of the thing’, by contrast Prynne’s post-sixties work operates through the seeming willed incoherence of the textual surface. However, this incoherence is not ‘fragmentation’ in the typical modernist sense, but a demand for renewed attention, especially to that which cannot be made to fit together; there is no return to a lost union demanded by this work. In the introduction from Sussex, Prynne also stated that his work aims to challenge the received habits of reader’s cognition to bring about new ways of understanding the world, the elements of its non-identity. Personhood, rather than operating through pronouns, is often imputed through the use of directives, suspended verbs, ambiguous nouns, possessives and Prynne’s love of experimentation with prepositions. Against the didacticism of Pound or Olson, closer attention to the initial incoherence of the textual surface draws new meanings in language through the reader’s active participation with the text.
The first of the new works in this updated third edition is To Pollen (2006), a series of twenty-two untitled, thirteen line lyric works. The earlier poems in this chapbook, originally published by Andrea Brady and Keston Sutherland’s Barque Press, utilise a familiar late-Prynnian diction, with the first poem opening ‘So were intern attach herded for sound particle | did affix scan ultramont, for no matter broke | could level cell tropic.’ There is no clear location but there are allusions to scientific analysis. As nouns appear like verbs, this poetry exploits grammatical ambiguity. This ambiguity is the active signification of antagonism in language. We are prompted to interrogate how allusion renders meaning.
In the later poems of To Pollen there is the peak of an enraged invective, possibly against British atrocities in Iraq–
The ground is hot with vanity, task force possession
promotes fear of loss to the head prime their song for
our family outing, fresh terrors stashed in the basket.
Whilst the reading of both sets of lines drawn from the same collection may be ‘difficult’, the phrasing of each is entirely distinct. The first set suppresses the use of pronouns attached to clear objects to draw attention to different kinds of processes labouring in the relation between the human and non-human world and its interpretation. The second is much more familiarly lyric, a remonstrance of Western consumer-complicity with distant wars and atrocities. The phrase ‘task force possession’ flags capitalism’s dependency on national military conquest. The possessive ‘our family outing’ is dependent on the fear of loss used to justify ‘fresh terrors’. The barbs of language grip the reader into an awareness of complicity with the larger world.
Just as influences on Prynne such as Wordsworth or Dorn aimed to be vigilant in their representation of a suffering other, the Western nation’s dependency on distant violence that is then consumed at great distance is a common theme across his work. In ‘Attending Her Aggregate, Detour’ from Her Weasels Wild Returning (1994) the reader is asked to attend to ‘The thing put on there’–
steadily shocked by the glass screen, the detriment agrees
all such novel flows on impulse.
Pound famously quipped that ‘Literature is news that STAYS news.’ For Prynne the ever-unfolding catastrophe of ‘news’ works against human understanding of violent events. At the time of the book’s composition violence raged through Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Rwanda. For Prynne, the television, as a means by which this violence is received, makes it ‘even’ and steady on a glass. It reaches the viewer smoothed of its geographic distinctions and causes.
Rather than operating as a flat-Derridean interplay of meaning, the linguistic difficulty of this poetry demands its reader to be vigilant to the world’s political distinctions. For Prynne, whilst our imaginative engagement with art objects is fundamental—as he was keen to divulge to the sound poet Steve McCaffery—there is no ‘free play’. Specific contexts of the world’s traumas are not directly identified but brought into view through what the text does not explicitly say; the language refracts the coterminous world enveloping the poem. The poetry darts beyond its limits through the imagination’s participation in the work’s meaning. This polyvalence of meaning folds the world of continual violence back into the frame. In a phrase as simple as ‘my soft convergence, mine only, only mine’ from ‘That Now She Knows’ from Her Weasels… the possessives that aim to denote a personal simplicity echo with the known use of landmines in the Bosnian conflict; our everyday language is drenched with explosive terror.
Even in the most recent work Prynne does not only attend to the extremities of political violence in human society. In Al-Dente (2014), the small particles of language are arranged into beautiful songs, aria-like in their play of sounds and reminiscent of the stress on the meaning of prepositions used by Shakespeare. The poem ‘For Tom’, presumably for Raworth contains the following lines–
Swift heart so to be reached, hand back sewn
by its near cleft firstly implored relict, on over
ours by still water so to rent, fabric agitate by
There is a lyric yearning for union with an absent friend present here. Amongst that Romantic desire for human communion, such possibility is intersected and obstructed by a world ‘to rent’, premised on ownership and dispossession. It is attention to all of the moments of beauty, violence and the contradictory understanding of ‘where we are’ that this work asks the reader to take up, although they may have to be prepared to upgrade their reading-kit.
Ed Luker is a poet and a writer. He is the author of Peak Return (Shit Valley Press, 2014), Headlost (RIVET. Press, 2014) and The Sea Together (Materials Press, 2016). He is currently working on a long prose-poem on the non-citizen, detainment, attainment and the ideology of the British state and its taxpayer called Universal Attainment Centre.