Smirk Host Panegyric

Robert Potts

  • Poems by J.H. Prynne
    Bloodaxe, 688 pp, £25.00, April 2015, ISBN 978 1 78037 154 2

‘It is the fate of some artists,’ John Ashbery once remarked, ‘and perhaps the best ones, to pass from unacceptability to acceptance without an intervening period of appreciation.’ For a long time – more than forty years in fact – there seemed no danger that this fate would befall J.H. Prynne: take him or leave him, it didn’t seem possible that he’d ever be acceptable. His name had become, as The Oxford Companion to 20th-Century Poetry put it in 1994, ‘synonymous with all that is most rebarbative in the work of the contemporary English avant-garde’. Considering his obscurity (limited edition pamphlets circulating among those in the know; no publicity, no interviews), it is remarkable how much fear and loathing the mere existence of his work once generated.

Something has changed. The number of admirers has grown, spreading far wider than the overlapping circles of avant-garde practitioners. The number of detractors has diminished, and the pitch of the denunciations has (mostly) lowered. Wholly and proudly conventional writers and critics, such as Ruth Padel, Fiona Sampson, Andrew Motion and Peter McDonald, have found positive things to say. Last year Prynne received a Society of Authors award.

The publication of the collected Poems in 1999, an ever fattening volume updated in 2005 and again last year, each time gathering in new collections and unpublished pieces, has done a great deal to effect this transformation. That these vast volumes – ‘yellow bricks’, as they have been described – were published by Bloodaxe, a successful, eclectic imprint, gave an unsought and immediate imprimatur to the outlaw. When Randall Stevenson’s Oxford English Literary History (2004) seemed to rate Prynne’s work above that of the ‘national monument’ Philip Larkin, John Carey reliably set up the easy symbolic row in the Sunday Times; the other papers, and the Today programme, pitched in predictably. Yet the result, interestingly and perversely, was to establish Prynne as the most significant alternative to Larkin, and thus to any mainstream English poet of the past few decades. (It’s notable that Don Paterson, for example, spends a significant amount of energy positioning his own practice in relation to Prynne’s.)

Acceptance, however unlikely it once seemed, has therefore arrived. (I’d like to think that a moment in 2013, when Prynne could be seen fleetingly on Celebrity Masterchef being served wood pigeon by Les Dennis, might be regarded as a serendipitous objective correlative for this phenomenon.) Appreciation, on the other hand, remains as tricky as ever. The easiest criticism of Prynne’s work has always been that it doesn’t make sense. Many accounts of his work get no further than discussions of this problem: the difficulty, the obscurity. For detractors this was all that needed to be said; for his admirers, it could sometimes be presented as a de facto virtue in itself. As Robin Purves noted as far back as 1999, ‘Critical consensus about the ethical centre of Prynne’s poetry flourishes without seeming to have understood anything he has written in the last 15 years.’ It’s a rare (and ironic) point of agreement by all parties, since even Prynne concurs.

I am rather frequently accused of having more or less altogether taken leave of discernible sense. In fact I believe this accusation to be more or less true, and not to me alarmingly so, because what for so long has seemed the arduous royal road into the domain of poetry (‘what does it mean?’) seems less and less an unavoidably necessary precondition for successful reading.

So we have a situation in which a major, award-winning poet, with a burgeoning following, has written hundreds of pages of poetry which doesn’t, in a conventional sense, mean anything. Of course, few good poems yield a short and interesting answer to the question ‘what does it mean?’; and most poets have at some point insisted that a poem’s meaning can’t be paraphrased, or that ‘a poem should not mean, but be,’ and so on. The more interesting questions are always ‘what does this poem do?’ and ‘how does it do it?’

Prynne, as well as being a poet, is a scholar; for many years he was librarian of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, and a much loved lecturer and tutor. His published lectures and works of criticism often help readers find some points of orientation when they turn to his poems. In Graft and Corruption, a commentary on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 15 published last year as a limited edition pamphlet, he notes an insoluble difficulty with the clinching couplet, and adds that, in any poem, ‘These moments of contradiction are experienced by the reader initially … as immobilising thought in favour of a vehement perplexity, strongly coloured by cross-reference of significance and emotion.’ That’s as nice a description of reading Prynne as I’ve found, though a rather different one has distinct merits too. In a recent seminar on Prynne’s late poetry, the poet Timothy Thornton spoke of reading one of Prynne’s sequences:

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