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The Collected Letters of Charles Olson & J.H. Prynne Edited by Ryan Dobran University of New Mexico Press

The Collected Letters of Charles Olson & J.H. Prynne Edited by Ryan Dobran University of New Mexico Press

As if echoing agreement with the British poet’s injunction from the 1983 sequence The Oval Window (“In darkness by day we must press on”) the clear and helpful introduction by Ryan Dobran to this long-awaited publication of a major correspondence is already a shade out of date!

“Prynne’s private collection of correspondence and manuscripts is scarcely known at all, and does not yet exist as an archive available to a scholarly public, although several letters to others besides Olson have been published in small magazines such as The English Intelligencer, Grosseteste Review, Parataxis and Quid.”

Well, the University Library in Cambridge does now hold the entire Prynne archive and work is already under way to have it catalogued and made available for research.
That said, in terms of the whole process of permitting the public to see Jeremy Prynne’s enormous output of papers and correspondence, drafts and teaching notes from the late 1950s to the very present this new publication of the Olson/Prynne letters will stand as a remarkably effective foundation stone. Dobran writes with modesty about his intention “to produce a readable book” and he has succeeded in this aim beyond all doubt. With an interest alerted by the introduction one can trace through the remarkable sequence of letters and recognise the importance of their argument in terms of what was happening in post-WW2 British poetry:

“Often loosely assembled via Eric Mottram’s term the ‘British Poetry Revival’, Prynne and his contemporaries were eager to renovate the stagnant ironies of the Movement poets prominently on display in postwar England. One instrument of breaking the hegemony of official verse culture was reading, discussing, teaching, publishing, and distributing postwar American poetry and prose.”

The awakening of infectious interest in poetry and language rears off the page in this collection of letters and Dobran notes that what makes the correspondence so vital is “not what these letters offer in terms of personal details, but rather the way they bind knowledge and writing, information and composition, feeling and articulation, history and poetry”.
The book opens in November 1961 as Prynne writes from Gonville and Caius College to ask if Charles Olson might send something for publication in the magazine Prospect of which he had just become editor. Prynne refers to reading Olson’s IN COLD HELL, IN THICKET which “speaks for me out of the fast centre”. Reading Olson’s work was for Prynne “like reading for the first time the back of my own hand.” Probably in response to Olson’s ‘Letter to Elaine Feinstein’ (the founding editor of Prospect) in which the American poet had suggested a need for some book of etymological roots, Prynne writes with exuberance about Julius Pokorny’s etymological dictionary:

“Pokorny has drawn on all the Celtic tongues, Tokharin and Hittite and a whole range of little-known Romance dialects: Phrygian, Thracian, Messapian, Venetian, Illyrian, Ligurian &c; it makes tremendously exciting reading. In the section given to KAR-, for example, with a root signification of ‘hard’ or ‘rough’, he shows an astonishing range of derived cognates embracing European words for ‘rock’, ‘crab’, ‘shell, peel, nut’, ‘strong, bold, heavy, difficult, firm’, perhaps also ‘cliff, crag, crevice’, ‘stone, scarp’, ‘cairn, burial-mound, temple’. And it merely confirms my own feeling to find ‘keel, hull, ship’ also included here; part 6 of the first Max. letter reveals the rationale behind this. Pokorny’s whole book sits on my shelf like a bomb, ready to explode at a touch with the most intricately powerful forces caged up inside, a storehouse of vectors.”

On November 24 Olson sent through a poem which he liked very much – “and hope you will”. The poem ‘GOING RIGHT OUT OF THE CENTURY’ was published in Prospect 6 and later became part of Maximus IV, V, VI.

This is an astonishing book of letters and I recommend that it should stand on the shelf of anyone interested in the world of post-war poetry.

Ian Brinton 18th June 2017

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