Books: Not a recluse in the pub

Poems by J H Prynne Bloodaxe pounds 12
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Jeremy "J H" Prynne has spent his academic life teaching in the English Department of Cambridge University and, year on year, has been producing increasingly gnomic collections of poems through the smaller poetry presses. Now, at last, he has published what amounts to a Collected Poems, with a major publisher, and his work has even been discussed on Nightwaves.

A glittering opera-cloak of mystery has been thrown about his shoulders. He is said to be "obscure", "reclusive", and "difficult", a man who has "kept his distance from the world of publicity". All these attributes are feathers in his cap, of course, proof of a kind of inner purity. All these reasons for praise also beg questions. Did he really never try to get his work published by the larger publishers? Was it really splendidly contemptuous isolation? And, if so, why has he caved in now?

My own memory of him, surrounded by friends and acolytes in congenial pubs, is that he was far from reclusive. I first came across his work in 1968, when he published a slim collection called Kitchen Poems with Cape Goliard Press, one of the most exciting avant garde presses of the times - or so it seemed then. These were the years when such American poets as Ed Dorn, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, John Ashbery and Ted Berrigan were making a huge impact upon younger British poets. Prynne's work seemed to be an extension - or even an amalgam - of Olson's, Dorn's and Creeley's perhaps, charting a territory alien to British readers at the time, a grown-up poetry unafraid of incorporating difficult facts about economics, geology and palaeontology; a poetry which seemed to be living out in the world in ways in which Larkin, that nostalgia-soaked, hide-bound elderly Englishman, had never had the courage to do.

Prynne's early work is a poetry of abstracted argumentativeness, whose language is so often reminiscent of many left publications of the late 1960s - all those Penguin Education Specials, for example, or the Marxist theorising of Louis Althusser. Not that Prynne was a Marxist himself, of course. But the use of such words as "exchange", "supply", "bond", "value", for example, suggests that this poetry is which is on a par with the most demanding and analytical "facts" about the real nature of the world.

But this is just one part of Prynne, the rather intimidating, fact-vaunting exterior. He was also something akin to Robert Creeley, a poet with an essentially soft centre, a poet of Elizabethan sweetness. A poet of great emotional hesitation. A poet not so much of utterance as stutterance. We detect this in so many of his turns of phase, which sound almost like a kind of goofy, courtly pastiche now: "who is the Lady / of wherever we / may go..."

And these two elements of himself have been held in a precarious kind of balance throughout his poetry. It seems to strive after two things simultaneously: the need to define, and to pin down, the nature of the relationship between language and actuality and the need to let some thwarted inner sweetness flow, which might have flowed all the more easily had he not followed the road of experimentation with quite such ruthless single-mindedness. He might have had many more lovers had he not hankered after the adoration of acolytes.