Douglas Clark: Jeremy Prynne


J.H.Prynne is the major alternative voice in contemporary English poetry. Love him or loathe him he cannot be ignored. He stands out from his mainstream contemporaries by his treatment of language. He learnt early from Olson to eschew the lyric `I'. He learnt from Bunting's `Briggflats' the importance of surface texture in poetry.

He commonly combines several discourses in his text at the same time, entwining them together. These threads may be biological, geological, economic, or claimed from Shakespeare. It is hard work for the reader to make sense of it all. The reader has, in fact, to construct his own poem from the text prepared before him. This would be the view of the traditional reader of poetry but what Prynne is trying to do is to engulf the reader with information he cannot totally absorb and thus disorientate him from the natural world. Not many people can handle heteroglossial discourse. It is to make the reader a passive spectator before the poem. And the poem itself is passive in the traditional sense with no apparent tale to extract.

My personal complaint about Prynne is that, although I find his surface texture initially invigorating, he provides no emotional sustenance to me as a reader. Which is part of what I consider to be a poet's duty. It is a bleak comfortless landscape. The remorseless words pile up on top of each other. Higgledy-piggledy.

This ties in with Olson's desire, shared with Heidegger, to return to the world of the Pre-Socratic Greeks prior to the rational humanism of Socrates and write down the words of experience direct. Without the intellectualisation. Whether this was because Olson himself found it very difficult to write the well-made poem is a moot point. Certainly his poetic idea of Gloucester, which is worthy, exemplifies his thinking. What is amusing is that nowadays it is intellectuals who write this non-intellectual poetry (eg L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E and Prynne's imitators). Poetry as no more than Wittgenstein's language games.

If Prynne is a postmodern living without myths then we have to look to his poem `Aristeas, In Seven Years' (1968) which is discussed in N.H.Reeve and Richard Kerridge's `Nearly Too Much: The Poetry of J.H.Prynne' (Liverpool University Press, 1995). This fine poem articulates the Greek myth of Aristeas and in its effects would seem to place Prynne firmly in the Modernist camp.

Basil Bunting's `Briggflats' was published by Stuart Montgomery at Fulcrum in 1965 and received a rave review in the Sunday Times from Cyril Connolly so Prynne must have been well aware of it in his passage from writing Movement verse to absorbing the Olson influence. It is the pure quality of the language that sparkles so in `Briggflats'. The words for their own sake. This must have appealled to Prynne. Setting up a surface texture and letting the poem work away beneath. Wordsworth is also supposed to be a strong influence on Prynne but I cant really see it in the texts. Perhaps he affects the direction of Prynne's poetry.


Neil Astley at Bloodaxe Books is now to be congratulated for bringing out Prynne's `Poems' (1998), a book of 432 pages, to replace the Allardyce, Barnett `Poems' (1982) of 319 pages. This is a co-publication with John Kinsella's Folio (Salt) and Fremantle Arts Centre and is published in Australia by Fremantle Arts Centre Press. Rod Mengham and John Kinsella's Introduction is available on the Web thanks to John Kinsella.