J.H.Prynne has been presenting us with an extraordinary flow of late materials ever since his 4th ed Poems (2015) from Bloodaxe. The dust, as they say, may take a while to settle. Most of this material has been in the shape of small press pamphlets from the likes of Face Press, Critical Documents and Broken Sleep. Probably the largest and most substantive of these issuings is Of Better Scrap from Face Press (2019), in large format, in an original as well as a later revised and updated edition.
This as I’d be aware is a very unusual circumstance of late period lucidity and I cannot think of too many parallels, certainly it is not the Four Quartets. Geoffrey Hill gave us his late Book of Baruch, posthumously.
We have two further entries in this large seam of productivity, although for Prynne 2020 was quite a momentous year. If he is trying to remind us that he is the ‘leading late Modernist poet’ he has no doubt reinforced and accomplished this in these late efforts. On the downside, many of these almost fugitive publications aren’t greatly easy to obtain; but we have the 5th edition of the Poems doubtless to look forward to. I think they may find it difficult to keep that to one volume, and where the bridge!
An immediate conclusion might be that Prynne is now surely the formalist, more so say than The White Stones, but rigorous in approach and making remarkable changes in style between different volumes. The two meeting comment here are quite different. Profusion has a much looser, almost prosaic line; Athwart takes on a brief lyrical surmise of six liners. Given that I think Profusion might be the more given and thoughtful read of the two.
Grasping Prynne has a lot to with process, I’d say. An exceeding grasp of vocabulary and attention to a compact astringency mean that all that might be comprehended may certainly not yield on a first reading. Here for instance is a very tight insistence of expression in Profusion:
Done over verified in
flame, nest weft pinnate ascended cloud open
unfold pride, lionise. (p13)
This I need hardly belabour is quite remarkably expressed, and, no, pinnate I had to look up, it means feathered or having branches. Not a word goes to waste. Equally Prynne is focused on his material, ie what is done in flame and how it is lionised. Beyond difficulty seems to beckon efflorescense or exuberance, but that exactly is a key point of contention in Prynne’s various writings. And here and there a certain humour shows through.
As an epigraph to Profusion we have ‘sweet sprites, the burthen bear’, the old use of burden and of course who refers to sprites these days. Might Prynne be trying to lead by example? Is he off the track or lost the plot, as some protest? No sign in evidence of a how to, Prynne just seems unutterably tuned in and we are a little mystified by how he got there or manages it. At least we have the implication of wishing to follow, or inspiration, and to come and go with verse form, no one of these necessarily any better than the other. Perhaps the injunction might be to steep oneself in language and the expression of it, but of course in these visual oriented and social media days the climate is changing forcefully and rapidly. However, there is every evidence that Prynne is foremost among the poets of his generation, give or take a Geoffrey Hill or a Peter Riley.
Clark Allison 12th May 2021