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This review is taken from PN Review 270, Volume 49 Number 4, March - April 2023.

Cover of The Letters of Douglas Oliver and J.H. Prynne, 1967–2000
Alex LatterThe Letters of Douglas Oliver and J.H. Prynne, 1967–2000, edited by Joe Luna (Amsterdam and Sofia: The Last Books) €25
Prynne and Oliver

The correspondence collected together in this volume represents almost all of the letters exchanged between Douglas Oliver and J.H. Prynne. Oliver first made contact with Prynne in 1967, when he was working as a journalist at a local newspaper, asking to discuss some poems that he had recently written; the final letter here, from Prynne to Oliver, was sent a month before Oliver’s death in April 2000, at the age of sixty-two.

It was not a steady correspondence. Bursts of exchange were often followed by months or years of near-silence. At its heart is a principled disagreement about the relationship between ethics, knowledge and poetic voice. As the correspondence continues, these issues come more clearly into focus. Some of the material, particularly early on, is pretty recondite. Scholarly references abound; the letters are thick with advanced mathematical and scientific lexicons, pace Prynne’s description of Oliver’s The Harmless Building as ‘a three-dimensional endocrine hypersurface forming the world tube of the “novel”’.

Luna’s glosses on the scholarly material – presented as marginal annotations rather than footnotes, and supported by a thorough introduction and well-chosen appendices – are assiduous, consistently enlightening and deployed with a lightness of touch that prevents them overwhelming the text. The difficult style is allowed to speak for itself. His introduction also acknowledges the additional difficulty presented by the ‘capacity for unreflective, or indeed reflective, offensiveness’ that is present in the ‘scornful asides [and] casual stereotyping’ found in both men’s letters.

There is a lot here to be enjoyed though. ...

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