An Introduction to the Poetry of J.H. Prynne

by Rod Mengham and John Kinsella

Long respected as a teacher at Cambridge University and librarian at Gonville and Caius College, J.H. Prynne is possibly the most significant English poet of the late twentieth century. A lyrical experimentalist, his work has mesmerised and attracted readers from around the world for three decades. It has brought some to Cambridge in pursuit of new and unread texts, it has inspired students to develop their own ways of investigating the processes of poetry, to question the prescribed ways of reading, and led translators such as the late and brilliant Bernard Dubourg to dedicate themselves to exploring the nuances and variations in language and potentials of "meaning" that lie in its structures.

Prynne's is a unique poetry. While being of a tradition that stretches back through Wordsworth, it is linguistically innovative and strongly in?uenced by poetic languages outside the traditional English poem - be they those of Ed Dorn or Charles Olson, contemporary Chinese poetry, or the theories of Martin Heidegger. Prynne's work is often referred to in semi-mystical terms as a result of its being difficult to get hold of. As Prynne has avoided mainstream publishing it has been assumed that he rejects the "general" readership, that his is a language of an informed and "alternative" clique. But it is the indifference of the mainstream publisher to "the work" itself that has been a problem for Prynne, and not the idea of availability. Actually, quite to the contrary, the affordable volume that can be read by anyone with an interest in what is going on in the poem would appeal to Prynne. What Prynne would reject is the easy path to comprehension.

A poem requires work, and it is the reading process that preserves the poem's integrity. N.H. Reeve and Richard Kerridge, in their lively study of the poetry of J.H. Prynne, Nearly Too Much (Liverpool University Press, 1995), write of the 'indeterminacy' and the 'avoidance of totality and closure' in Prynne's poetry and we might cite this as reason for the poet's rejection of his earlier, more "traditional"/linear material (not included in Poems).

J.H. Prynne is an intensely private person. The immediate assumption is that he is also an extremely private poet. This often comes of a poet whose explorations of the minute are so focussed. But these minute observations explode into something large and substantial and prone to exponential growth. This collection of poems has been a long time in coming. At its core is the Poems volume published in 1982 by Agneau 2, long since out of print. But there have been over half-a-dozen other works since then published by small presses in small print runs. This new volume is entirely up-to-date, taking in the pun-rich and highly codified For the Monogram, published in 1997 by Equipage. Rightly particular about the presentation of poetry - the integrity of text, the frame and field of the page, the context in which presentation and consequently reception take place - Prynne has been patient in collating another “collected” volume.


Prynne's work has shifted key several times in the last three and a half decades, but one of the advantages of the new Poems is the opportunity it allows for gauging continuities of theme and method. Prynne's is a poetry that has always been concerned with much more than the way the individual self understands its relation to the social and natural environments; right at the centre of the reading experience it offers is an encounter with the languages and findings of various disciplines that coincide in demonstrating how the self is formed by processes that often lie beyond the grasp of individual perception and cognition. These might locate humankind in relation to geological time scales or to the infinitesimal events of neurochemistry, to the migration patterns of other species or to the systems logic of information technology. Such an array of different kinds of knowledge and discourse could never be reduced to the scope of the familiar, speaking voice without submitting to an illusion of control and conscious orientation.

Prynne's poetry rather prompts a critical awareness of how the impulse to translate the strange into familiar terms can be seen as a form of denial, as a refusal to face up to the moral and political impasse of contemporary selfhood. In the social reality of our own era, translations like this can often be ethically disastrous, when they co-opt the terms of one special language and set of relations into another; one clear example, which is extremely prominent in Prynne's writing, involves the contamination of social politics by the criteria of economic transactions. Syntactically and semantically, the language of the poems reaches beyond the grasp of conventional modes and measures, in order to register the lateral pressures and sometimes buckling impact of incongruous vocabularies, competing idioms and conflicting programmes. There is no point of view being transcribed here, rather the constant inscribing of conditions which both generate and limit the individual point of view.


The curve of Prynne's career has seen a steady intensifying of this kind of challenge to the reader. After the rationalistic meditations of a first volume that he has decided not to reprint, the Ōuvre has been marked by strongly motivated deflections of established reading methods. In The White Stones and Kitchen Poems, the fluency and balance of the philosophical monologist are belied by crowding intimations of a whole series of relativising contexts for the occasion of utterance. The English landscape is seen in relation to the withdrawal of the glaciers, its patterns of settlement judged in relation to the customs of nomadic tribes. In Brass, the reader is jolted, more rudely and exhilaratingly, from one unruly format to another, and is forced to cope with constant adjustments of tempo and tone, stretching from invective to elegy, not simply within the volume as a whole, but often within each text. Linearity and narrative, if not dispensed with altogether, become increasingly redundant, and in the adoption of the poetic sequence as the most frequent vehicle for Prynne's concerns, the emphasis on recurrent figures and sound patterns begins to tip the balance in favour of "vertical" rather than "horizontal" priorities in interpretation. This tendency is established in the "diurnal" sequences of the 1970s (Fire Lizard, A Night Square, Into the Day) and developed and complicated throughout the following two decades.

In the 1980s, much of Prynne's work seemed to be organised chiefly around the monitoring of thresholds, of the lines that mark the limit of personal agency, beyond which a more extensive condition of being might be intimated or subliminally glimpsed (for example in The Oval Window). Often these thresholds are located around the body, at the various points of entry and exit where the processes of absorbing information from the world or of sending it out into the world, must start and finish. The crucial question, of where and when personal agency can truly be said to come to life, is posed most revealingly in situations where the body is in trouble, in circumstances of estrangement or pain, and consequently much of the research encoded in the poems focuses on the extremities of what one text refers to as 'wound response'. This strand in Prynne's writing is most evident in volumes like Down Where Changed and Word Order.


In the three most recent texts, published during the 1990s (Not-You, Her Weasels Wild Returning, For the Monogram) Prynne's experimentalism has reached the point where even the most seemingly innocuous parts of speech (e.g. prepositions) are prevented from carrying out their usual functions. In this, he is a writer who has carefully denied himself the comfort of an avant-garde house-style, despite the readiness of critics to identify him with the techniques of the so-called 'Cambridge School'. The ghettoizing of Prynne's reputation has resulted from his decision to publish only with small presses and to engage in public debate almost entirely through the pages of little magazines. Prynne's rather singular involvement with small avant-garde groupings is also an historical choice of artistic traditions, an antithetical gesture of defiance in a culture whose endorsements of the anti-modernist establishment have alienated many of the most serious practitioners of innovative writing.

Unsurprisingly, some of Prynne's most significant affiliations are with American and continental writers and thinkers; Charles Olson, Frank O'Hara, Martin Heidegger and Paul Celan must be included in the list of those who make their presence felt at different stages of his work. And most recently, a commitment to exploring the signifying systems of Chinese poetry has introduced the most profound implications for contemporary reading practices.

from the 1998 Bloodaxe catalogue



J.H. Prynne is Britain's leading late Modernist poet. His austere yet playful poetry challenges our sense of the world, not by any direct address to the reader but by showing everything in a different light, enacting slips and changes of meaning through shifting language.

Not since the late work of Ezra Pound and the Maximus series of Charles Olson have the possibilities of poetry been so fundamentally questioned and extended as they are in the life work of J.H. Prynne. This new selection - his first full-length book for fifteen years - is a landmark in modern poetry.

'Prynne's poetry has maintained an utterly singular development, paying no regard whatsoever to the recognised currency of contemporary English verse' - Nigel Wheale.

'The most comprehensively gifted of living English poets' - Bryan Appleyard.

'His perception of metaphor and of the world it reveals recalls the Medieval and Renaissance theory of correspondences… Language inhabits, does not just comment upon, the universe. Prynne uses words as exploratory instruments…This poetry traces the lineaments of desire, before and after they are identified as such, with an imagination directed by an exacting moral intelligence. It is very demanding, and it is worth the trouble' - Elizabeth Cook, London Review of Books.

August 1998 234 x 156mm 432 pages
1 85224 492 5 £25.00 cloth
1 85224 491 7 £12.00 paper
Bloodaxe/Folio (Salt) co-publication
Australia: Fremantle Arts Centre Press

further critics on J.H. Prynne

'Without doubt the most formidable and accomplished poet in England today, a writer who has single-handedly changed the vocabulary of expression' - Peter Ackroyd, The Times.

'The radicalism of these works is in the extraordinary amount they contain; their sheer range of vocabulary and reference, the scope of the connections they make. With this, their precision as intense, emotional lyric poems forms a combination of urgency and openness, unlike anything offered by either Modernist or realist traditions' - N.H. Reeve & Richard Kerridge: Nearly Too Much: The Poetry of J.H. Prynne

Rich in Vitamin C
by J.H. Prynne

Under her brow the snowy wing-case
delivers truly the surprise
of days which slide under sunlight
past loose glass in the door
into the reflection of honour spread
through the incomplete, the trusted. So
darkly the stain skips as a livery
of your pause like an apple pip,
the baltic loved one who sleeps.

Or as syrup in a cloud, down below in
the cup, you excuse each folded
cry of the finch's wit, this flush
scattered over our slant of the
day rocked in water, you say
this much. A waver of attention at
the surface, shews the arch there and
the purpose we really cut;
an ounce down by the water, which

in cross-fire from injustice too large
to hold he lets slither
                             from starry fingers
noting the herbal jolt of cordite
and its echo: is this our screen, on some
street we hardly guessed could mark
an idea bred to idiocy by the clear
sight-lines ahead. You come in
by the same door, you carry

what cannot be left for its own
sweet shimmer of reason, its false blood;
the same tint I hear with the pulse it touches
and will not melt. Such shading
of the rose to its stock tips the bolt
from the sky, rising in its effect of what
motto we call peace talks. And yes the
quiet turn of your page is the day
tilting so, faded in the light.