Listening in to Prynne

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J. H. Prynne is probably the most significant poet writing in Britain today. But he might as well have penned the complete weasel trapper’s manual as far as most people are concerned. This isn’t because we don’t care about poetry.We have pencil-marked favourite passages of Eliot and Auden. We have kept up with the output of Heaney and Hughes . We are perfectly accustomed to the complexities of Modernism. And who says we are snooty about contemporary stuff? We read the reviews and occasionally invest in the volume. We stay vaguely conversant with avant-garde tastes.

And yet when, not so long ago, Prynne’s collected works we re brought out by Bloodaxe, an imprint which, compared to those he had previously chosen, seemed positively mainstream, their publication went all but unmarked by the press. And is this not surprising for a writer of importance? Prynne, after all, is admired in the sort of elect circles that tend usually to matter. He is a poet who elicits superlatives from his peers. Peter Ackroyd considers him ‘without doubt the most formidable and accomplished poet in Britain today’. Donald Davie describes him as the ‘the most intelligent man in Cambridge’. Iain Sinclair fictionalizes him as an astounding, prophetic character. And John Kinsella hails him as his guiding star.

So why, then, does he remain so little known?

It is Prynne himself who is largely to blame. Though respected as a lecturer and librarian at the Cambridge college of Gonville and Caius, he has kept himself private to the point of invisibility. He won’t be photographed for the press. He refuses to give readings. His work tends to be published in tiny, arcane editions.

Poets may be meant to be solitary and introverted. But Prynne carries the trait to almost eremitic extremes. Certainly, on the one occasion when it was suggested that I, having studied his work in some depth for a doctoral thesis, might like to be introduced to him, I turned down the offer, a

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About the contributor

Rachel Campbell-Johnston is the art critic and the poetry critic of The Times. The more she tries to come to terms with the complexities of J. H. Prynne, the more she suspects that her completion of a Ph.D on contemporary poetry was only a Prynnic victory.

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