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 oeuvre 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.
You can read "Rich in Vitamin C" by J.H. Prynne in Issue # 6 of Jacket, with a commentary by John Kinsella.
You can visit Bloodaxe Books at http://www.bloodaxebooks.demon.co.uk/ and order the book.
Collected Poems of J.H.Prynne, 432 pages,
ISBN 1852244925 £25.00 cloth
ISBN 1852244917 £12.00 paper
Bloodaxe/Folio (Salt) co-publication in Australia: Fremantle Arts Centre Press