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Reading J H Prynne

Readers will find that giving very close attention to words and phrases needs to go hand in hand with this context in the poem. There are often several of these which makes things more absorbing / tricky. It is important to recognise that Prynne is working within the poetic tradition. The work takes poetry very seriously and incorporates how words sound as well as how they read on the page.

The reader also needs to ignore the factional strife that divides British poetry. It is possible to enjoy 'mainstream' verse and still be addicted to Prynne, it is also possible to disagree profoundly with Prynne's views on politics (well to the left of centre) and poetry and still enjoy the work.

As with most 'difficult' work, the key here is to pay real attention to the words on the page and, especially with Prynne, the punctuation. You'll need to get used to the idea that there are usually a numbers of ways of reading the same words so you need to be able to tolerate ambiguity. I've just been re-reading the remarably austere Sreak~Willing~Entourage~Artesian and have identified eight different definitions for the word 'pitch' which seem to be relevant in some specific way to the work.

The problem that I have with this quest for 'context' is that it often requires an overall or panoptic idea of what the poem might be saying. With some poems and sequences this is possibly the most challenging task as it requires great concentration and complete familiarity with the words on the page.

How to read Prynne

Readers who do start to engage with Prynne's work will find themselves thoroughly absorbed by and immersed in the most important work currently being produced. This importance is due to the fact that Prynne is about transforming the way poetry is produced and received. The reaction against him is probably an indication that he has succeeded.

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.

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.

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