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Poems by JH Prynne review – ‘the ultimate poet of “anti-pathos”’

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Distance and difficulty, yes. But there’s also pleasure in the Stockhausen of modern poetry

In The Making of the Reader, David Trotter proposes a useful distinction between “pathos” and what he terms “anti-pathos”. In any poem the voice of the self and the voice of the text are subtly different. For a Romantic poet their clash results in pathos: the pathos of origins, sincerity and feeling. In modernist poetry, what we frequently get instead is “anti-pathos”, which rejects appeals to origins and insists on dissonance, not harmony, as the defining condition of art.

JH Prynne is the ultimate poet of anti-pathos. Everything about him spells distance and difficulty. He does not give poetry readings; he does not appear in anthologies and is never nominated for prizes; his books have Captain Beefheart-like titles such as Her Weasels Wild Returning and Streak~~~Willing~~~Entourage~~~Artesian; he attracts acolytes and execrators, rather than run-of-the-mill readers, and, most important, no one knows what any of it means. Such are the familiar assumptions where this poet is concerned. Passions run deep: when The Oxford English Literary History had the temerity to suggest that Prynne was more deserving of notice than Larkin, the brouhaha ended up on the Today programme. Now consider the following lines, from “The Glacial Question, Unsolved”:

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