For the greater part of his life as a poet, J.H. Prynne – who turns 88 next month – seemed to work to a fairly consistent schedule. Every few years a new sequence would arrive, usually in oblique response to world events and social crises. Poems would track developments in scientific research, shred the language of the Financial Times, draw on everything from the English ballad tradition to classical Chinese poetry. Every so often would come a knight’s move, a sudden leap, some sacrificial act which rendered former tactics of composition no longer tenable. That might mean suppression of a recognisable speaking voice or writing in restrictive box-like stanzas. It might involve drastic interventions in syntax and word order, or unexpected shifts into lyricism. In this respect, Prynne’s work carried out modernism’s central tenet – make it new – in rigorously dialectical fashion.

Of course, it’s easy to say this kind of thing in long retrospect, discerning points of departure from the position of arrival. When the first Bloodaxe edition of Prynne’s Poems appeared, twenty-five years ago, Barry MacSweeney wrote: ‘What I say to the dorked-up academics is: Blank. It is all there in the complete writing. And much more to go.’ For MacSweeney – fellow poet, trade unionist, and Prynne’s lifelong friend – the work was in the same league as Shelley, De Kooning, and the Beach Boys, and was political to the core. He signed off with typical flair: ‘Miss it at your total discredit and peril.’

While MacSweeney sensed the emergence of academic interest in Prynne’s work, which has steadily grown in the twenty-first century, he couldn’t have predicted just how much more writing was still to come. After two further expanded editions of Poems (2005, 2015), we now have Poems 2016-2024 to contend with. These 36 sequences, running to more than 700 pages, effectively double the size of his oeuvre. It is a wild gesture, with few precedents, and throws any conclusions we might have started to draw into disarray.

These sequences, like almost everything Prynne has ever written, were first published by small presses in pamphlet format. I read each of them as they came out. Some of them made me giddy; some left me indifferent; one or two I’m not sure if I ever quite finished. During the lockdown phase of the pandemic they would arrive in clusters and bursts, sometimes two or even three at a time. A new book would be announced before the last one had arrived, the relation between them unclear. It was disorderly, frantic. It was appropriate, too. As Adorno puts it in a much-quoted passage about late style: ‘Process, but not as development’, a ‘catching fire between the extremes, which no longer allow for any secure middle ground’.

Faced with this, many ardent Prynne readers of my acquaintance simply couldn’t keep up. The pamphlets were expensive, made with all the bells and whistles, multiple formats and exotic paperstock, a risograph palette at once garish and pastel soft. Tastes vary, but I found these ornaments fussy and irritating. To see all the work in a standard format, meticulously and uniformly typeset, is a relief. Handled this way it starts to make a different kind of sense: maybe it’s just one big poem, a massive achievement of stubbornness and strangeness. But it would be foolish to pretend that I’m not bewildered by it, even after reading it cover-to-cover more than once.

I wrote at some length about Prynne’s late work back in 2019, including four of the opening books gathered here. It seemed to me that in Of Better Scrap (2019), Prynne had established a taut musical exuberance which allowed him to find new exploratory pathways in the holding space of language. The poems had no stable subject matter, but grappled painfully and playfully with fundamental precepts of composition: what happens when one word is placed next to another. These poems are ‘difficult’, sure, but they’re not puzzles to solve, or locks waiting for keys. They’re more like acoustic arguments, mute frenzies of thought, tonal games of hide-and-seek with grammar.     

This mode, which I still can’t put my finger on exactly, becomes an important feature – one of the ‘extremes’ – of the late work. Many of the collected pamphlets operate in this way, including Each to Each (2017), Or Scissel (2018), None Yet More Willing Told (2019), Bitter Honey (2020), Squeezed White Noise (2020), and Enchanter’s Nightshade (2020), maybe 200 pages altogether. It sounds a bit like this:

Butter up oligarch, orchard in-flight credit speck

attar infarct indicated loosened contrition, slate

parchment flattery spread to latch warden; interim

hen latent occupy, to brood.

It’s hard for me to shake an image of the poet reading the newspaper while having his morning egg and toast, though that won’t get us very far. But the links are fairly obvious and undisguised: oligarch gets us to orchard, and maybe also points to oil, which is where ‘attar’ comes in. To ‘butter up’ is a form of ‘flattery’, but butter is also something you ‘spread’ on a surface (and too much butter might eventually cause an infarction). A slate and a parchment are both things you write on. A ‘credit speck’ sounds like a credit check, ‘slate’ shares a rhyme with ‘latent’ and ‘indicated’, and I’m not sure I like the sound of a ‘latch warden’, whatever that is.

With a flourish perhaps we could marshal these thoughts into some coherent interpretation. Yet I think it would be a mistake to assume that the poems in this category are vehicles for an overarching meaning or the site of hidden referential schema which the dutiful reader should unearth. If there is a political critique, it’s less at the level of content (like the corruption of the body politic by oligarchic interests) than volleyed in form. The sheer fuck you audacity that runs through Prynne’s late work is testament to the truth of poetry itself, the folly of it, flung out beyond the author’s say-so.

But Poems 2016-2024 is full of surprises. One such is Parkland (2019), a long poem in prose which forms a two-part narrative in the manner of a pastoral romance. The plot, if it makes sense to call it that, involves two brothers – possibly soldiers? – called Peter and Tom, who compete in a singing match for the favour of the Queen of Sheba. The poem explicitly addresses the Civil War in Yemen, and Britain’s role in arming Saudi Arabia and thus complicity with war crimes and mass starvation. This is one of the dazzling highpoints of the book, and has already attracted notable critical attention in the form of a pamphlet-length dialogue between the American critics Jeff Dolven and Josh Kotin, The Parkland Mysteries.

The writing in Parkland is almost scandalously beautiful, with sensuous phrases shimmering off the page: ‘all ears inquisitive and forgiven, smell of fresh earth by daylight’. It’s hard to excerpt, because the effect involves a cumulative musical phrasing – quite different to the disruptive sound-world of what comes before. It is at once piercingly familiar and totally weird, treading the line between trance and trap. As the voices join together the work becomes ‘a song of harm’, and the fervour builds: ‘singing grind your teeth, to ash cone and gnash relented open view front to back in pitch, in dark’. It is the colonial devastation and dispossession that underpins the entire history of English poetry, in cadence and image and tune.

Prynne’s moral outrage has erupted several times in the twenty-first century. To Pollen (2006) was a ferocious and precise commentary on the invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan; Kazoo Dreamboats (2011) was an ecstatic dream-vision written in the tumult of the global uprisings of that era; Of the Abyss (2017) – included in Poems 2016-2024 – is about the murderous migrant policies of both post-Brexit Britain and the EU. In the end this is the work that I’m most grateful for, the moments where the poet has to face all the contradictions, to reckon with the unfolding catastrophes of our era.

If part of what Parkland wrestles with is the entanglement of song with war, perhaps this throws light on the tendency to abstraction in much of the other work. In At Raucous Purposeful (2022/23) we encounter heap upon heap of lines like ‘palpation monstrous mortal barricade / parakeet cite alpinist pianist guesswork’, ‘sieve foxglove wolfhound fraught apricot flirt’, ‘munificent ankylose interminable waspish broidery’. Prynne suppresses ‘voice’ as such, and avoids syntactical linkages. The effect is disorientating, because the parts of speech refuse to come to a subject agreement. It is as far from a rousing anthem or an instigation to sentiment as you can imagine, and it can be exhausting to read. As my eyes twitch, I’m reminded of something Peter Schjeldahl said about how Mondrian’s asymmetries ‘may trigger slight bodily crises’ if we look hard enough for long enough.

But then what to make of Snooty Tipoffs (2021), a collection of almost 300 nonsense poems, mostly in rhymed quatrains? It’s a hoot, slapstick humming with mortal dread and absurdity, a riposte to just about everyone:

Swing low you kiddiwinks, all for vroom and groom,

    going for a run now, off to Montana soon,

just whenever get there going to be immune,

    going to as able be a dental floss tycoon.

Cruising for a snap-chat, joking in the snow,

    quicker with a back-pack, ever on the go.

Beyond the obvious precedents in Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, there’s a healthy dose of Edward Dorn’s Gunslinger here, along with the music-hall routines – the kind that surface in The Waste Land – that were still in the air in Prynne’s youth.

When Prynne writes lines like ‘The bear was addicted to chocolate, / he’d roar for a bar every day’, it is as if he’s reminding us that this is what nonsense really sounds like. But there’s deep feeling here, too. The melancholy and difficulty of lockdown, marked by so much separation and loss, is burlesqued by the poet facing his own mortality: ‘When the heart stops, its business concluded / there’s not much to do, however deluded; / immortal longings, like belongings, / abandon their fate at the turnstile’s gate’. What I love about Snooty Tipoffs – and Poems 2016-2024 in general – is that Prynne resists the grave reverie of silence, the late whispers we encounter in Ezra Pound or Samuel Beckett. Instead, the poet blows raspberries, laughs his head off.

Nor does the sound of these poems level out into metrical smoothness. It’s like Dr Seuss by way of Alban Berg, ungainly, even ugly. But the poem ends on a note of totally achieved sentiment and resolve: ‘For you I’d do / the whole thing through / below, above / for now, for love’. Of course, to get here we’ve had to elbow through all the detritus and trash that makes up an individual’s repertoire of available tunes, everything from long-forgotten Cornetto adverts to the slogans and headlines of the daily news. In one of his greatest poems, ‘L’Extase de M. Poher’, from Brass (1971), Prynne called this the ‘unwitty circus’ that ‘poetic gabble’ has to ‘collide head on with’. Snooty Tipoffs stands as the cherry on top of the wreckage.

Although I’ve focused here on some of the most brash and forthright of what’s collected in Poems 2016-2024, there’s also plenty of delicacy and gentleness and doubt. The prose of Memory Working: Impromptus (2020) flips some of the tactics of Parkland inwards, beautifully and oddly unravelling. The compressed poems in Each to Each (2017) carry what Roman Jakobson would call the ‘semantic aura’ of sonnets. There are sequences which duet with Shakespeare and Milton, and outliers like the short well-ventilated lines of See by So (2020), or Dune Quail Eggs (2021), a total of eighty words long, which is presented in such a way that makes me think it was written on a phone. There is so much flora and fauna, so much mineral life, an environmental unconscious underpinning the whole thing. Some sequences – like Orchard (2020) and Not Ice Novice (2022) – fall flat to my ears, but maybe in time they’ll settle.

In place of any secure middle ground, perhaps there’s a risk of eclecticism. Prose romances, rhyming quatrains, intransigent abstraction and sweet song: maybe this abundance betrays an unresolved aesthetic dilemma. But as the epigraph to Passing Grass Parnassus (2020) reminds us: sing different songs on different mountains. The phrase is a Chinese proverb, which Prynne undoubtedly encountered in Mao’s 1942 speech ‘Oppose Stereotyped Party Writing’. So the work here is various by necessity and practice, running at last in every direction at once.

By any measure, the period Poems 2016-2024 covers has been brutal and unforgiving, marked by social misery, stasis, waves of sickness and mortality unleashed by Covid, warfare and genocide. Although I think this book is destined to be the lesser-loved of Prynne’s collected works, the outpouring it contains affirms the necessity of writing through it. In correspondence and conversation I often find myself flailing, trying to find an image to sum up what it is we’ve been living though. The best I can come up with is from Looney Tunes: Wile E. Coyote off the edge of the mountain but not yet looking down. Maybe these are the songs we start to sing as we face the drop.

Read on: Lola Seaton, ‘Good Mistakes’, NLR 146.