The famously obscure poetry of JH Prynne glitters with aphorisms and jokesby Jeremy Noel-Tod / May 19, 2016 / Leave a comment
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At the English Faculty in Cambridge, everyone has a story to tell about JH Prynne, poet and life fellow of Gonville and Caius College: his mind-expanding lectures, his nocturnal hours, his personal generosity, his pithy opinions, his unchanging dress code, and his vast scholarship. Latterly, the legend of Prynne—who will be 80 in June— has spread to the national press, with one broadsheet resorting to a telephoto lens to get a shot of a tall, suited, unsmiling man on a bicycle, and Private Eye inventing a shadow-Prynne, “AD Penumbra,” for their books pages (a descendant, perhaps, of the distinctly Prynne-like don “Simon Undark,” who appears in Iain Sinclair’s 1994 novel Radon Daughters, speaking “obliquely to make all things clear”).
Travellers’ tales, however, will tell you little about the single-minded devotion of this avant-gardist to his art. Prynne’s statements on poetry have been scattered to the winds as letters, lectures and notes in academic and samizdat publications. Private Eye scored a satirical hit when they informed readers that photocopies of AD Penumbra’s critical essay “Than With Whom What Other: A Challenge to Scansion” could only be obtained “by application to the British Library.”
A two-volume collected prose is at last in preparation. It will become a necessary complement to the massive third edition of his Poems (2015), which harvests half-a-century of small-press publications. To chew through Prynne’s oeuvre unaided would be a challenge to digestion—which may be why a recent, ineffectually angry hatchet-job in the magazine Areté concluded with the reviewer declaring that the book made him “literally” sick. Prynne’s most impatient detractors sound like Top Gear reviewing the International Space Station. This is not writing in a hurry to come down to earth. As the poet Michael Haslam once observed: “my own experience of Prynntexts is that, after an initial bafflement, they should be put on a shelf to mature for a couple of years, after which they become, mysteriously, more accessible.”
Haslam’s ripening analogy suggests the distinction that Prynne once proposed, in a 1961 essay, between unrewarding “difficulty” and satisfying “resistance”: “the palpable texture of human affairs,” from which “we derive our most powerful and sustaining sense of the world, in all its complex variousness.” As a young…