“These days it’s the Cambridge don J H Prynne who waves the flag of obscurity in Britain. Here’s a sample, from the book Not-You: ‘lank laces ready numb / or to touch at a cute burr segment, able / grains prevail in their bonus tear-off coupon.’
London editor Robert Potts has said that Prynne’s poetry is regarded as ‘hermetic, baffling, difficult of access, uncertain of interpretation,’ and admits that for years he found Prynne’s poetry repellent, until ‘the work itself changed my mind.’ The critic John Sutherland suggested that ‘only four people… can understand him’. Yet he does have readers: when his selected poems were published a few years ago thousands of copies were sold, and the book was nominated for a New Yorker magazine book prize. And in China, a translation of his oblique booklet Pearls That Were has sold more than 50,000 copies.
I found Mr Prynne’s poetry baffling until I came across his book of poems The Oval Window some twenty years ago. It deals with hearing (the ‘oval window’ is part of the inner ear, and other organs in the inner ear give us our sense of balance) and offers complex vistas of history, culture, economics and society, viewed from a variety of conceptual windows.
A few years ago I heard Mr Prynne deliver a series of lectures on poetry in Cambridge, and I was impressed by his wide reading and the depth and clarity of his thinking. His poems have an even greater range of reference and are more concentrated and multi-layered than his lectures. I have to confess that most of them go right over my head. But what’s wrong with that? ‘A man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what’s a heaven for?’ The notoriously obscure Robert Browning wrote that, in his poem ‘Andrea del Sarto’.”