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How to read Jeremy Prynne

I approach this with some trepidation because I am not yet anywhere near the peak of Mount Prynne but thought a few words may encourage others to undertake the climb.

1. The first thing you will need is regular access to the OED. It isn’t so much that the poems are packed with hard and difficult meanings but Prynne likes to use secondary definitions that you may not be aware of.

2. Wikipedia is your friend because it often gives a useful overview of terms or concepts that may be new to you and frequently gives links to more in-depth information. Google (unless you are very careful with search terms) can sometimes lead you astray- you should always try to make use of the advanced search feature.

3. Know that early on you will decide either that the poems are just  a bunch of words which you don’t have either the time of the inclination to decipher or you will be intrigued and want to know more. Both decisions are entirely valid.

4. Start with one of the Bloodaxe editions. A lot of people start with the earlier stuff in the hope of following a chronological progression. This is a mistake. You should start with the poems that interest you most.

5. Prynne has no interest in making things easy for his readers. There is no single ‘key’ to any of the poems after ‘White Stones’. The perspective of each poem moves about and there are often multiple things going on in the same line.

6. Learn to think laterally, to consider what language can do rather than what it does. Know that Prynne is deeply distrustful of the western consensus view of reality and the role that language plays in that view.

7. At first try not to read too much of what others say about Prynne. This is often a case of academics trying to impress other academics with their erudition and doesn’t provide any kind of help for us readers. It is best to try and make some progress in terms of your own personal response to the poems first.

8. Read as much prose by Prynne as you can find. The latest piece on ‘The Solitary Reaper’ is available from Barque Press and it is an invaluable indication of the way that he thinks about poetry. The AAAARG site has ‘Resistance and Difficulty’ and ‘Tintern Abbey Once Again’- registration required but all their stuff is free.

9.  It will soon become clear from the poems that Prynne’s politics are based on a Marxist analysis and that he’s against most of the things that most of us class warriors are (any form of capitalism, imperialist adventures in far flung places and the fraudulence of bourgeois culture).  This stuff won’t hit you like a sledgehammer but it will crop up from time to time. You may find some of Prynne’s comments on the workings of capital markets to be quite quaint.

10. It is eminently possible to over-read Prynne. I’m currently reading to Pollen and am almost convinced that it refers to his readers as ‘the resilient brotherhood’ and asks whether he is the one ‘inclined’ which I am currently taking to be a reference to Celan’s Meridian Address. I see this as extraordinary but am also well aware that I may be barking up the wrong tree. The word ‘ultramont’ from the opening of the first section I’m taking to be a reference to CERN’s particle accelerator because it is  the only way that the rest of the sentence can ‘work’. Early on, I spent a lot of time worrying about “gross epacts” but have now happily given up.

Prynne likes ambiguity and is careful with his word choice so that nouns could also be verbs and vice versa. He also is prone to Latinity which is about constructing phrases according to Latin rather than English grammar. Great poets have been doing this for centuries- Milton was a major culprit.

You’re either up for these kind of skirmishes or you’re not. I find that I am and my admiration for Prynne has grown as I have gone further in. If you choose to participate you are likely to find that engagement with this body of work will force you to question not only language but also the way in which you experience the world. You will also begin to find that the vast majority of contemporary poetry is intensely mundane and ordinary. If you write poetry then you may find that your voice will be radically altered, this is a good thing providing it’s not just a pale imitation of the man himself.

Somewhere on the web there’s Prynne on “Harmony in Architecture” which is a speech given in China a few years ago. It says nothing about architecture but is a scathing attack on China’s rush for growth. It doesn’t address poetry but it is very witty and completely correct.

Be aware that there will be some days or weeks when the stuff becomes just words. At this point you need to take a break but you will come back for more.