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This review is taken from PN Review 244, Volume 45 Number 2, November - December 2018.

Cover of The Collected Letters of Charles Olson and J.H. Prynne
Lewis WynnThe spell wore off
Ryan Dobran (ed.), The Collected Letters of Charles Olson and J.H. Prynne (Uni. of New Mexico Press), $75
The Beatles were the first to burlesque him. In the 1968 film Yellow Submarine, John Lennon asks Jeremy Hillary Boob (PhD) whether he must ‘always talk in rhyme?’ The clownish cartoon replies ‘if I spoke prose you’d all find out, I don’t know what I talk about! Ad hoc, ad loc, and quid pro quo: so little time, so much to know!’ Whether he was really based on J.H. Prynne or not, Dr Boob rehearses a complaint that has dogged the poet’s reception: there’s just so much to know. (Mr) Prynne’s work is notoriously dense, and its ‘difficulty’ has been located in a gap between what he knows and his readers don’t, between the breadth of allusion occasioned by his poems and the amount of labour requisite for ‘getting’ them. Specialised or technical vocabulary; a wide array of reference; ‘contorted’ syntax – the damages are listed and the charge arrives on cue: ‘how can a reader be expected to know so much?’ It’s a gripe that used to hang around Charles Olson, too. In both cases, the apparently innocent question fronts for a demand: show us only what we know. But the difficulty of their poetry is really a formal analogue for the belief that alienation won’t be overcome by being thematised, no matter how wittily; a resistance to (modern) poets depicting their lot in various shades of pathos, ‘only what we know’ refracted under the sun of personality – quid pro quo, ad infinitum. But engaging with the parody at all can hinder thinking: these heuristics match the poets ...


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