Letters from Peter Robinson

Adam Clarke-Williams


To turn the pages of letters written by Peter Robinson between mid 1977 and early 1981 is to trespass in a different, perhaps a lost, world. Almost all are hand-written – this was not just the age before e-mail, many people didn’t even have a typewriter at home. That Peter did means he preferred to write letters by hand. Some are written on the backs of posters for poetry readings, flyers for small press magazines and pamphlets, and drafts of poems. To read them is to be granted the privilege of watching a highly intelligent, articulate, and dogged young man trying to set off in the right direction. To do that he felt he had to have some understanding of the landscape in front of him.

The literary past seems full of little gangs. Writers starting out look to each other for, at least, a response. They can exchange their ideas, develop them – borrow what they lack, pass on what stands the test of discussion. Together they can pin down those features of the writers they admire that they think worthy of emulation or extension. And together they can reject what they dislike, and counter or attack those who seem determined to go off in a different or contrary direction. At some point in their progress, most writers leave their little gangs behind them – though often the old sentimental attachments will show through, in their reviews, their critical comments, their ‘books of the year’.

You could say I was part of one of Peter’s little gangs – at Cambridge, from the autumn of 1975.  Around us, and a little bit older than me, were some formidable groupuscles – such as the circle we thought of as including John Wilkinson, Geoff Ward, Rod Mengham, David Trotter, Charles Lambert.  And far beyond were ranged what seemed the peaks – more long lasting alliances than gangs – the Cambridge School, the Eric Mottram circle, and so on, each the focus of their own loyalties, friendships, influences and disputes.  There were the intermediate features of the landscape, too – Iain Sinclair, Chris Torrance, Brian Catling; Nick Totton, Martin Thom and Ian Patterson – and the odd independent outcrop, usually described as rugged: Tom Raworth, Roy Fisher, Jim Burns, Michael Haslam. And there we were, looking to establish a base camp from which to start.

An excuse can be seen as a derogatory way of referring to a reason. Perhaps, in the late 1970s, we lived in an Age of Excuses.  For most forms of misbehaviour – real and imaginary – we had reasons. But above all, we had anxieties. We felt we ought to be able to justify what we thought, what we did. That pressure may, in part, explain the intellectual tenor of the time. Those who are required – by their jobs – to have and hold opinions, are liable to professional deformation.  They need a supply of opinion, and, worse, they need those opinions to serve for long enough to support the judgments they base on them. Their freedom to remain diffident is curtailed and they can find themselves constrained to go on repeating statements they no longer feel worthy but have to – for the sake of consistency, and to explain why they are where they are. They create an opportunity for dissent – but they soon feel they have been placed, by their own manoeuvrings, on ground they might not wish to occupy or defend.

Before that happens, young writers are less trammelled – but surprisingly eager to enter a bondage they can soon come to regret. There is showing off, but also an irrecoverable freshness – the earnest desire to take their first steps into the world they wish to enter. Behind their various assertions lurk questions that will never be answered. The approaches that others have found to satisfy their needs – or simply could not avoid – would they work for me? What would they do to me, and to my work? What do they tell me about myself, and what I suppose myself to be about? Do I know the way to the bubbling spring of phrase-making? Do I have the patience, attention, and good luck to improve my technique?  The curiosity to go on finding out, the energy and appetite to keep at it?

What we find here is a young poet trying to make sense of the things that might help him become a better writer – trying to get a fix on his relation to his language, the relation of language to the world – people, and things; and the more general implications of different modes and approaches to writing. And, just like the rest of life, in talking about one thing, we often find ourselves talking about something else – ourselves, our poetry.

I graduated from Cambridge in June 1977. Peter would co-edit Perfect Bound for another two years. Our letters began once I had moved away but continued contributing to the magazine. The correspondence was to continue into Peter’s eighteen-year period in Japan, and beyond, but I end these selections at the time of his fifteen-month sojourn as a temporary lecturer at the       University of Wales, Aberystwyth. Aside from the excision of passages for various discretionary reasons including length, editorial interventions have been kept to a minimum, but spelling and punctuation have been silently adjusted where necessary. Here, then, are some of the thoughts Peter Robinson felt the need to express as he set out:


5b Herschel Road, Cambridge

1st August 1977

[On the private prosecution for blasphemous libel of Gay Times, which had published a poem by James Kirkup]

Some interesting reflections from it, like the judge ruling that evidence of intent was not relevant.  He must have heard of the “intentional fallacy” or was it the deliberate mistake. There is also a deal of waffle about the “mystical level” upon which it must be interpreted by Kirkup and also that he was trying to make the experience of religious passion “real” for homosexuals. I wonder if Bernini had the same trouble with the orgasmic St Teresa. The judge, of course, “interpreted” the poem literally, so it said in the papers. So, between realism and literalism we have the beginning of a new movement. Must patent it!  […]  Presumably this is literalism: that the literal statement in the poem is the proper statement of whatever feelings can be assumed and that it is not a metaphor for anything else, hanky-panky or otherwise. It seems a very inartistic defence to say that your literal statements are the co-relatives of mystical feelings.

As for evidence of intent being ruled out, it seems that on the front of his intentions the poet loses out every way. He is freed of the problem of having any by the critic who wants to clear the field for his intentions to reign supreme, “perhaps,” while on the other hand he is guilty in court of whatever scandalous effects may be adduced from a reading of his poem.  It is undoubtedly correct that the poet cannot “know” the full extent of his poem’s effects, but he has to have a certain propulsion to write it at all and this propulsion, even if it is imperfectly converted into “well I had this idea for a poem,” all the same, that idea has a marked effect on the way the poem turns out I should imagine. […]  It seems to me that it is not only the courts and Mary Whitehouse that appear in a bad light from this case. The poet in his latest manifestation does as well.

5b Herschel Road, Cambridge

15 August 1977

The difference being my abnormally developed, or I think so, doubt about the effective power and the worth of art, and yet the contradictory obsession with it. It becomes clear to me that I cannot do anything else and can’t think of very much else with any sustained interest – except the impingements of life, politics, landscape, “the other,” upon the space of art. I think I understand, to the extent that I understand anything, in the terms of art. Not necessarily, or at all, a satisfactory situation, but it does mean that I rely on other people to protect me from fascism, or income tax, or the harmful effects of nuclear fall-out. That too is not altogether satisfactory […]

[…] but that too [Summer Weather Variations] is one that slipped out by accident. I begin to think that the poems I do write which I continue to like are written in these conditions, often when I’m obsessed with writing something else entirely. As I think you said these are the lumps of trash that are fiddled about with just to keep your eye in. I think Ezra Pound’s advice to translate to keep the mechanism working is probably good.

5b Herschel Road, Cambridge

7 September 1977

If the original and Coleridgean Romantic self – “I am therefore I affirm myself to be, I affirm myself to be, therefore I am” – is a form of full presence, then what remains to us as we read in these mutated forms of the Romantic self is the lament, or revenge, of the victim as hero. Hence the interest in the criminal, etc. So you are right when you say that Wilko [John Wilkinson] writes himself out of his texts by “destroying,” abandoning, the hierarchy of discourse and filling his text full of holes so that an observer or a self is not singularly predicated. But I think that it works on a double level, for this trick of writing one’s self out would not be taken if we did not have vestigial traces of an ordering self throughout the text. This has to be there to force the reader to recognize that something is escaping him. The self in the poem then is an infinite regress of chimeras, and yet the desire that motivates reading […] is the desire to “capture” this disappearing self or to discover it, “out in the open.”  […] The thing that most alarms me, then […] is that because [the author] doesn’t “come clean,” sticky phrase, the “desire” to read the books is ultimately never satisfied at all, in any way.  We reach nowhere, neither do we receive a recognition from the text that there is nowhere to go, on the contrary we rush headlong off to the end of the next work ever in search of this phantom ordering presence.  Again, [the author] cannot talk to us as equals or confide in us as friends or speak plainly on anything at all for this world, either predicate a position for himself with regard to other things, or refer us to some exterior reality of “shared” experience that a reader and a writer can shake hands on.  Being so outside of anything, it is notable that [the] ostensible concern [of these kinds of work] is the becoming of meaning and that this is dramatized by means of concepts of the speaking body, the mouth, throat, lungs, as presence from which linguistic affirmatives might arise.  For myself, I think that it is […] an elaborate study in the projection of a poetic self which will “stand for” [the author] and yet which, because of the strategies we well know, is inviolable.  This is the resource of the romantic individual who is so disallowed in life, own fault or others, what matter?  The poem is threaded with anxiety because there is a threat, imagined or real, to the self but the poem is also bolstered up with occulted knowledge, references to friends, self-references, and so on, so as to function as the field of a revenge, taken on the reader, that embodiment of the threatening.  Lament and revenge meet.

I don’t doubt that everyone has some of it, I’m sure I have, but the question is, do we want it? Also, what the alternative might be I only glimpse, I suppose, intermittently.  Though there is this in my own work: — the words of others which are, as far as I can manage it, allowed to stand as functioning elements in the run of the text, of equal validity, part of a various poetic presence.  Also there is the hope that though embodying feelings of hurt, threat, loss, etc, these are not conditions of being as a continuous thing, but are feelings which will arise in certain situations which are presented.  Also, as the text continuously displaces the self, I, you, he, she, it, and one statement or position inevitably pushes away the previous one, the dialectic of oppositions and syntheses is as likely to produce a good as a bad, and that these feelings are part of the microcosm of the texts, not the macrocosm, which, I hope, works these changes together as being, poetic being, but also with clearly marked relations to “life as it may have been lived.”  Of course, these are pious hopes.  I’d be interested to see how much you think you can find of what I outline in Four Things, especially.

36a Thompsons Lane, Cambridge

after 22 September and before 28 October 1977

[…] I wonder if maybe the intent that generates the sort of status of the poem, what you are doing, is “always” a little off what you want to write, whatever that “want” would be – as though there were a kind of latent poem which is being allowed some light by occurring by accident around an intended poem, but that you aren’t confident of letting the latent poem out to stand on its own, because it would have no programmatic status?

36a Thompsons Lane, Cambridge

28 October 1977

[…] despite the misprint I’m glad to have your poem in the magazine and re-reading it I don’t feel you should worry over-much. What interests me about it is the apparent prose syntax of it, which is not exactly fractured, more elided, with rather reticent discontinuities which provide a far more subtle sense of personal disorientation and of there being a genuine gap between consciousness and the world, and of an exploratoriness in the descriptive writing which is founded upon a lack of security and knowledge. All these things are to me positive qualities of writing which produce a sort of necessity in the writing’s occasion, which is only to do with writing. I’m able to get in what I’ve been reading recently here – Robbe-Grillet’s “Towards a New Novel.” – I quote, “Before the work there is nothing: no certainty, no purpose, no message. To believe that the novelist has ‘something to say,’ and that he then tries to discover how to say it, is the great misconception. For it precisely this ‘how,’ this way of saying things that constitutes the whole, obscure, project of the writer, and that later becomes the dubious content of his book. And in the final analysis it may well be that this dubious content of an obscure formal project that best serves the cause of freedom.” Well, that’s not very helpful with regard to what occasion should I allow for my obscure formal project. I mean Robbe-Grillet himself always has some “subject” – a murder, a jealous man’s description of his wife and supposed lover’s comings and goings or whatever. However, it allows me to feel that a dedication to certain writing problems which might be very personal can lead to writing works which have a “tendency” in spite of my “bourgeois” or “anarchic” or “individualist” intentions.

It is of course a cliché to indicate that there is nothing to say.  But that doesn’t make it any less the case. Recently I had the problem of reading that line: “but I don’t know what to say” from the first of The Benefit Forms, which is all that they wanted me to read. As you thought too it was not the right way for it to happen. Jon Silkin will be introducing the various poems [on BBC Radio 3’s Poetry Now] so I guess it will be under the banner of “committed individual.” Still, not so hopeless, as the other poet who was reading at the time, […] who had a poem called “Terrorist” built on the fox and chicken metaphor. He said afterwards – “the Terrorist has been good to me.” He had won a few competitions or something with it. Isn’t that what happens with the stuff every time? Literature winning something from the impossible paradox by merely existing. That is regarded as a virtue in some fields – “redeeming the time.”  The trouble with literature and revolution for me is that it seems that the revolution is doomed to be mere stage-revolution in art. Couldn’t you say this of Brecht as well? The dissociations, by stoppage, that are supposed, by disrupting the bourgeois naturalist spectacle, don’t they just reveal the author? I think his Rise of Arturo Ui or whatever are good plays, but they don’t tell me much I don’t already know, and generally recognise as needing to be known. Again, the mistake seems to me to be to assume that disrupting the naturalist fiction of the world releases the “real.” It can only present another model of understanding, can’t it? The Marxist one? – as Brecht took that. I don’t feel that I can avoid this by taking that model, “the naturalist ruptured,” at all. There needs to be some other way of regarding the process of writing. Maybe, as Robbe-Grillet might have it, a sort of feeling forward with your “eyes closed” and doing whatever you can to disallow thinking, your own idea of what the poem should be.

36a Thomson’s Lane, Cambridge

13 November 197

[On Adrian Stokes]

Yes he was very influential for me. The most striking insight that stays with me is the one about coherence and the self, and related to that the necessity of dividing the material as a prerequisite of getting that coherence. The other point I like is that the resulting artistic coherence is most valuable when the elements to be brought together, reintegrated, are extremely diverse, or split off. It seems to me that in this Stokes is close to the French, with the theory of gaps and differences, but that he adds to this a need to reconstitute the homogeneity that is lost after the prior attack has been made on the material, through a secondary homogeneity. In this his politics, though he has influenced Berger, are traditionalist. The secondary homogeneity is like a Christian redemption and the homogeneity is found to be linked to a stable, integrated culture.  He also has a Ruskinian dislike of modern architecture for its inhumanity. But I think he can be read as a useful correction to a crude anarchism in the thwarting of the reader’s expectations […] I suppose there might be a useful distinction there on the lines of playing on a reader’s expectations so as to work him in a careful way, as opposed to punching him in the face […] where the reader’s response is not to read the work.

36a Thompsons Lane, Cambridge

3 December 1977

Marcus [Perryman] wrote me a very interesting letter that arrived yesterday in which he talked about a number of things that bear on this disorientated or unrelated or valueless perception of reality. He was talking about latency, which I suppose is his philosophical word for the pre-systematized. Preconceived is a useful paradoxical word there, maybe, because it is essential to be “realistic,” to recognize that the very status of the disorientated or valueless regard of the world occurs in the presence of its being thoroughly written with values that are read, marked, learned and inwardly digested. It seems to me that this [is] where we, all three of us, agree in our different practices – we agree in the area of the joke or the pun or the textual reading “crisis.”  Take for example Mr [C. W.] Laxton’s joke about a sign he saw near the exit of the Stroud public library – BOOKS MUST BE STAMPED OUT. It’s a bit like the one Rosie [Laxton] saw, CAR WASH IN – CAR WASH OUT. The doubleness of the library example is clear. The utile level of the sign is almost totally shattered by the “other” (but they are the same sign,) the anarchic reading, which is also “valued” not because it is not agreed with, not because it is in any way exemplary or wanted or useful, but because it offers itself as a potential significance that ridicules the fixing of value, that in the doubleness which is disorientation is the possible valueless sign. (Also, because one meaning is credited straight, the intended, then the silence of latency, the other meaning is present in the over-present, too-easily received sign.) I think there is this flagrant doubleness in the “my vegetable” in Pressure Cooker Noise with both the translation of the French “mon petit chou” and the other more direct ‘my cabbage’ – no, it’s not so good, but there is a blatantly contradictory sense there I think. Again, I think it is possible not to bother with what is the intentionally obscure, of the disorientated as a grammatical dislocation […] to bother with it at all needs a massive dose of special pleading, the syntactic disturbance and substitutions of “unexpected,” that’s a joke, nouns and verbs are all there just because “I” will submit to it, the experience of reading is not a radical displacement, but a fetishized indulgence of technique. So in a simple sense I do not need to bother again, because it is I who have to bother. I’m not seduced. Is that it? Yes, the work does not enlist my connivance as a game that I do not need to be theoretically or politically ‘correct’ to play. My submission to it, my effort, is all just that feeling of being ‘correct.’  […] The ‘correct’ reading of the Stroud public library sign has its implication for the poetry as well, I think. It’s perhaps that question of literalism that came up when I was annoyed about the James Kirkup poem in the summer.  The “dumbness” is the way I think that to allow for the doubleness of the sign, you have to take its ‘correct’ sense seriously which I suppose means that you have to read it for what it intends to say, but that what it intends to say has to be regarded as information, as it was intended before it was familiarized to a code, like road signs. Driving a car I imagine they are read as formal tokens, keep left, give way, that is, they are converted into the terms of specific behaviour, going down through the gears, applying the brakes or whatever, so that keep left is not what you read but you do the acts that keep left signifies and demands. But there are no acts as such with literature so that reading keep left is either to be taken seriously in a “dumb” way – “you’re right, I’m left, she’s gone.” (Not clear is it!) So you try and work out what it “means” or can “mean,” as a polyvalent image. But the “dumbness” needs to be there so as to connect the sign which operates in one sphere, of car driving, into another, of the poem. I don’t mean so dumb as the “naïf” objectivists and field poets of the sixties who would put in road signs or whatever because they were really there, and so signify – the thing itself. No, an example I can think of is in A Thing to Live With where “Rosemary, that’s for remembrance” is adopted from a highly “valued” and significant moment in the play, where Ophelia’s madness produces that pathetic poetry, so you might in “crazy” workshop style bring in all sorts of relations – “what this reminds me of” – and these do work to some extent, “pity the child” etc – but what I mean is that the more immediate, the set-up, readable meaning is “dumb” – the name of the person, or the name of the herbs, is to remember them. […] All the same, it is a difficult thing for me at the moment. I want to attack a metaphoric thickness and the use of symbolic systems for organising the work into a pre-conceived relationship, so as to get to the blankness, and also to be able to work with clichés, famous quotes, road signs, bits and pieces of talk, in the “dumb” way I described.             

36a Thompsons Lane, Cambridge

16 February 1978

It seems to me that the breakthrough that you have made is in managing to become discursive and to use your extended, more extended than mine, vocabulary to rearticulate phenomena into an experience which is still dislocated but in a wonderfully unemphatic way.  None, or less of the, “look no hands” kind of air. 

The thing about discursive-ness is that it enables the production of a representation which does not necessarily rely upon the fixities of the “given reality in grammar” which I think, paradoxically, showily dislocative work does – it implies that some extraordinary avoidances need to be made to avoid the “difficulties that surround us on all sides.” The forms of a particular style are reified as the forms of an imprisoning experience, when they are style. As I keep repeating, I guess, the oppositions which dramatize themselves as such, produce a binary opposition which merely confirms – certainly hardly provokes – the opposite “partner.”

I must say I think your desire for a synthesis is quite right, though I’m a little down on theory at the moment, partly blaming it, incorrectly probably, for causing my writing problems of the moment.  I’m worried about the formulation of the desired in an abstract way which pre-empts the dynamic of the writing itself – over-determination to produce “correct”, no matter how defined, practice, whereby attitude is the admired quality – “I never think of women as objects,” “I never laugh at racial jokes” – and the manifesto is elevated to the status of a masterwork, a masterwork of rectitude.

No, we do need a theory but let it be circumspect and useful, and disposable. Fucking pen!

36a Thompsons Lane, Cambridge

8 April 1978

I feel strangely free of the worry about articulation now, I mean the articulation of the self to another, or the world, or the intended object of one’s actions. “In medias res,” is that the old phrase?

So what I seem to be saying is  “If the notion of being rise,” then don’t let it because if you do, and try to make exemplary the terms of “how we attest ourselves” – then the desire to be exemplary will, I think, render the attesting a methodological hesitation before being at all.

If I’m stuck with that, maybe it’s because I don’t see myself as anything more or less than the acts I perform (including speaking and writing, of course) and those that are performed on or via me. The poem or the life can’t be exemplary, because they are so necessarily open to misinterpretation, and to be reaffirmed by that misinterpretation seems to me the gift of art and life – to live beyond your meaning. Coleridge conversation piece, here I come.

I suppose it’s part my belief in “the event” that it must be made to appear to work as best as possible, and so it is possible to skip the question of whether it is actually an enjoyment, but the weekend was; and I prefer the anxiety to make things work, or appear to, as against people coming round and sitting there and expecting to be entertained – or splurging out the problems of their lives and expecting me to be the great ear-trumpet. On the whole, I tend to prefer emotions mediated, though I argue against the too devious manoeuvring of them in criticism that you get in [Donald] Davie (essay to follow!) – and I think you get it in [Raymond] Williams […]

1 Queensway, Trumpington Road, Cambridge

26 September 1978

I have tended to find that going home was very stimulating of ideas and poems in that so much water was pumped back from under the bridge and thrown in my face, but not that I could write it there […]

I think that question of yours in the last letter is a real short-circuiting high voltage: “would Roy Fisher’s notion that a text lead a hand-to-mouth existence (and revel in it!) reward study?”  Well, presumably it wouldn’t, for just the reason that if you were to study it then its hand-to-mouth existence would be blown apart. Its great virtue seems to me to be an inclusiveness which is not homogenizing; while its great disadvantage is that it promotes “loose change” – switches which have no integrity, significant to the poem and to the bits themselves – as you can see, I’ve studied it!

1 Queensway, Trumpington Street, Cambridge

20 January 1979

It may feel ‘presumptuous’ now, but if you don’t believe in your own talent then it’s all toe clippings and marginalia, and if things turn out then the intellectual/personal biography becomes a “fascinating document” and if it doesn’t work out what’s the loss – especially if you happened to enjoy doing it […]

My visit home between Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve was interesting for the way that it pricked the bubble of nostalgic provincialism. I came away very conscious of the fact that the one real friend I had left from my school days lives in London and hates Liverpool, and that in the eyes of my old Liverpool contemporaries I am a dead letter, or a pointy-headed intellectual, or obsessed with my own ambition: I made the mistake of using the word “etymology” in a pub one evening. It’s such a bloody joke – I think Cambridge is about as interesting as a place as anywhere else now; the way that it is locally interesting is different from Liverpool obviously, not of the same order. It’s just the stinking perpetuation of assumptions that we’re forced to live with – ‘Liverbirds’ v. ‘Glittering Prizes’ or some such thing.  We’re still only at the stage in this country (the world?) where if provincial ways are valued or pointed to in the general media arena, they are treated as a backdrop or contrast to London; old empty clichés for supporting ways of selling things like sophistication v. honesty; corruption v. gritty integrity (that’s a laugh!) And so on […] As you can see the Interrupted Views rack has been oiled and I feel truly stretched […]

62 Searle Street, Cambridge

5 October 1979

I think there’s a familiar problem about an attack which doesn’t take the material through enough of the personal material to give the landscape etc a sounding board to resonate against […]

62 Searle Street, Cambridge

7 November 1979

I suppose the rule is always to risk looking a fool rather than not risking anything: to learn anything you have to try your arm, and take your ignorance as the route […]

Laforgue is the sort of writer whose successes are all achieved by going along with the curiosities of his sensibility and passion – and in this sense I find him a great relief and an encouragement. His work seems to suggest that the chaoses of the most confused and passionate, even repressed of characters can still come up with excellent stuff – full of the right sort of curiosity and awkwardness  […]

I’m beginning to think that one thing which would help us in what are beginning to really seem like doldrums before something new (hopefully!) would be a revised set of idées reçues with which to write – there were a set of them which fired the 1960s (one of which was how much better Pound was for poets than Eliot.) Just for the sake of staying alive these ideas (sic) have to be reformulated. Not that I’m the person to do it lock-stock-and-barrel.

[J. H.] Prynne seemed to be saying something like this when I saw him about my thesis – he suggested that I would be mistaken if I even used the terms of description that Davie etc [Charles Tomlinson and Roy Fisher] used to define their situation; and that the occasion of my re-write might give me the chance to distance myself from those descriptions and take new bearings: I hope he didn’t think I might take them from what he and the boys have been doing though. They have nothing to say to me about the subject matter that I really am drawn to […] As for landscape – if it isn’t an abstract epistemological problem or a parodic emotional comedy, ‘puffy white clouds’, it doesn’t exist either. Notice how this set of distances, both from Davie, Fisher, etc and from the local boys made good, leaves me with no tutors. This is uncomfortable – but probably the way to a freer existence as a writer. All I need to get over now is an immense dislike of the mere appearance of most poems as they lie on the page – bits of cold spaghetti. 

as from 62 Searle Street, Cambridge

[Undated: early 1980]

[…] whereas I once thought that you should be protected from the possibility that you might not write (vain, eh?) I see that it truly is a matter of personal economy. I have to, as if my life depended on it – as in a way it does; I would feel empty if I weren’t producing some form of the written. Also, I wish you the best for your autobiographical sketch (I look forward to reading a draft) which I hope you have no psychological difficulties with. Prose might well prove a release from the page-fright that I remember Eric [Griffiths] so aptly saying about even your first poems. I rather had the vision of them like some comic sketch where our hero backs away from his assailant and stumbles on to the theatre stage, looks round, sees the audience and to escape tries to improvise a routine. Looking back on them, they are so full of good linguistic awareness, turned against themselves.

Part of it may be historical: in Cambridge we do or did have a poetry ‘scene’ which sharply differentiated between self-consciously written linguistic speciality and the innocent, and stupidly, transparent – never realizing, I now think, that if the transparent does not exist (as how can it?) then the language of writers who do produce a transparent style must be as potentially significant in the hot-house linguistic light, as the self-possessed and much advertised version of the written. I think what I’m saying is that it is a mistake, but an easy one to make, to assume that the stylized manner of a Prynne or Stein, even Empson, is any more “written” than the styleless style of an Orwell, of Davie, or even Larkin – whose use of the words “here” and “there” is subtle and even devious. I am beginning to think that difficulty of an evident kind in language is completely misconceived; ie complexity of response can be rendered in an evident simplicity that proves contextually rich, rather than the reverse, which is hopeless, or the complex matching the complex, which is true but should be rare – rather than a normal means of proceeding. My own experience suggests that what happens to us seems simple and proves complex. Things happen easily – why, how, where, and leading to and from what? is more difficult. The simple style that presents a surface over a mesh of difficulties – that speaks to me the apparent and the true features of our experience.

This is only to say that I hope prose liberates you from the vices of technique […]

The University College of Wales, Aberystwyth

1 March [1982]

There was a habit in Cambridge of late, focused on Eric, to treat me as the poet. This was good in that people would buy my book and say how much they liked it, and that Eric would both do that, and point out that he didn’t like this or that about a particular piece, or thought that so and so wasn’t as good as so and so; but he refused to give practical or technical advice because he said that it wasn’t his business. I was the poet.

Though this can be flattering and also disconsolating as far as working goes – flattering in that people seem to take what you do seriously, and disconsolating in that they are waiting to see what you do next: which of course I can’t keep too close a rein on either way. If I try to determine what I’m doing it’s preconceived – if I don’t, how do I ever get round to doing anything; how do I actually sit down and make a start? This paradox about judging the heat of my inner need to write (if I can grant it this over profound terminology) teases me to distraction day in day out. The reason why I translate so much, and so variably is just to circumvent this problem – translating I can approach as just work. Whenever I try to approach my own things in this light – unless it’s last stage revisions – I run the risk of turning the words into putty […]

* * *

As well as exchanging ideas, Peter and I would send each other poems in various stages of completion. In December 1977 I sent him ‘Livre de Poche’ including the dedication to him. He made some observations on a number of passages, and this general comment: ‘My own worry about this, and this is personal as the recipient, I can’t tell whether the “he” is me or you … I’m flattered by the end if it is me, but confused, or, better, interested in the ambivalence of “they irritate him to refuse”.  It doesn’t matter, does it, as it’s both predicament and the area of the possible effort.’


(for Peter Robinson)


In the notebook he will write

torn edges of an air or light

                 that streaked cloud

the tattered masthead

cuts and is cut out.

He eyes them warily,

a pale grey road and passers by

subtract their darker presence from

a structure opposite.

His target now, in pink and blue

she interrupts, attracts them too

like static, and disappears from sight

through the peopled space, an outline

more perfect, distant

from the population of herself, their hands

shuffling signs, he makes of them

his angular escape,

and in the distance they become

a pink line looping like a scarf

collected to a knot about the throat

which turns the borrowed

forms in that slow curve they are

slender segments to an ample fiction.

Circulating on that face

the various orders of a surface

rearrange their grains

until they grip the movement

to define their own dimensions.

They irritate him to refuse

these objects, whose presence

extends the axis he intends

to include the gallery, so

many natures mortes

evidence the hand.

No longer integral, he has no choice

but stand

               at arm’s length questioning

the ground, the programme notes his

understanding nature and his power.


[from Programme Notes (Cambridge: Lobby Press, 1978)]


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