Header overlay

Listening in to Prynne

Share this

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

Subscribe or sign in to read the full article

The full version of this article is only available to subscribers to Slightly Foxed: The Real Reader’s Quarterly. To continue reading, please sign in or take out a subscription to the quarterly magazine for yourself or as a gift for a fellow booklover. Both gift givers and gift recipients receive access to the full online archive of articles along with many other benefits, such as preferential prices for all books and goods in our online shop and offers from a number of like-minded organizations. Find out more on our subscriptions page.

Subscribe now or

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, alarmed by descriptions of a frowning black figure. I had already heard the (probably apocryphal) story of the student who had approached him to congratulate him on his recent marriage. ‘And what’s your wife’s name?’ the student had apparently inquired. ‘Mrs Prynne’ was all the reply he received. But such conscious attempts to keep a low profile should not deter the new reader from approaching the work, for they point to the integrity of a talent that, as exacting as it appears incorruptible , reaches not for applause but for a higher truth. Unconstrained by a need to maintain a reputation or earn a living from his writing, Prynne does not have to churn out cheap imitations of earlier poems in order to satisfy the expectations of his market. Rather, constantly straining to reach that beyond which he has grasped, he has, over the past three and a half decades, proved himself one of the most consistently inventive and intelligently experimental poets of the age. This, of course, means that his work is difficult. There is no key that, once discovered, will unlock its meanings. Austerely cerebral, the poems are informed by scrupulous cogitation. It is hard to ascertain even so little as who exactly is doing what. And this, in a culture when ‘so quick and easy’ or ‘simple to use’ have become our commonest catchphrases, can prove off-putting. Time is a precious commodity. And even poetry is often treated as a sort of labour-saving device, a means of refining our feelings down into a few memorable phrases that, hopefully, might make it a bit easier to cope. This is presumably the function of all those self-help style anthologies. But Prynne’s is not a name you will encounter in such collections. His poetry is demanding. It resists simple resolutions. ‘Why do we ask that’, he wonders in one of his pieces, ‘as if the wind in the / telegraph wires were nailed up in some / kind of answer’. His poetry offers no solutions to the problems it presents. Prynne is the writer for anyone who believes with Ortega that ‘Nothing so saps the profound resources of life as finding life too easy.’ When the American poet John Ashbery was asked why his work was so difficult he replied that he had noticed that if you keep talking to people they quickly lose interest, but if you start talking to yourself they want to listen in. And I suggest that, for the new reader, the best approach to Prynne is to do precisely that: to listen in. Prynne understands the simple appreciation of the pleasure of sound. Test his words against your tongue. ‘The ear spins / with sharp cries, there / is shear at the flowline’. Let the obscure and unexpected melodies of his shifting metrical patterns delight you. Then switch on the kettle before you move on. Prynne’s poems ask for coffee, a dictionary and an upright posture. Every word is measured with scientific precision. And if the ideas that each poem amasses are to be understood, the etymologies and associations of a sharply distinctive vocabulary must be studied. These will never be straightforward. Prynne employs the discourses of economics or science to evoke broader philosophical meanings. But structures are never fixed. Specialist systems may provide touchstones by which the essence of love, desire, linguistic purity or man’s relationship to nature or the eternal, can be tried, but there is no single, secure viewpoint, no definitive model. For Prynne’s skill is not to crystallize logical arguments out of the solution of language but to trace the diffuse ways in which the unedited mind assembles its ideas. His works are as diffuse and elusive as they are erudite. They lend themselves also to the dreamy meditations of semi-recumbency. And I suggest that finally, when the complexity defeats you, you should take to the sofa with a comfortable pillow. You will probably nod off mulling over enigmas. But waking, head pillowed on a crumpled page, you might find streams of new insights swimming through your mind: ‘a sweet cheat, newly torn’ maybe, or the product of ‘a level ceremony of diffusion’ perhaps. And, in the end, how do you know it will be worth it? At first you have simply to take Prynne on trust. But persist and you will find yourself in honourable hands. Few poets have questioned the possibilities of their form so scrupulously. Few have faced up to dilemmas with such uncompromising honesty and ethical rigour. And this is precisely why his work won’t offer solutions. ‘The idea of the end is a neat / but mostly dull falsity’ as he says. There is ‘no resolve about places, the latch key to / our drifting lives’. Prynne’s poems don’t get any easier the more you read them. They get more difficult. And that is precisely why they merit the effort. They know that the simple answer is only a cheap salve. So instead they probe life’s contradictions, reveal essential human truths.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 1 © Rachel Campbell-Johnston 2004


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.

Share this

Comments & Reviews

Leave a comment

Customise this page for easy reading

Sign up to our e-newsletter

Sign up for dispatches about new issues, books and podcast episodes, highlights from the archive, events, special offers and giveaways.