John Kerrigan Interviews Peter Robinson
Photo credit: © Jemimah Kuhfeld
Readers of your poetry who know something of your critical prose are likely to be conscious of the philosophical sources that have encouraged you to write as you do: J. L. Austin and John Searle on speech acts, for example, Bernard Williams on moral luck. These are the sorts of influence that don’t stick out of poems as big ideas—perhaps you’re against a poetry of ideas in that sense—but they can be permeating. I wonder how you’d characterize the relationship between your poetry and philosophy?
Some ideas stick out of the poems, just under the titles, in an epigraph: Wallace Stevens, poet of ideas, in ‘Their Inventory’; T. S. Eliot on poetry and religion in ‘472 Claremont Road’; William Blake and Wittgenstein on self and world in ‘As We Found It’; and recently, in The Returning Sky, an F. H. Bradley aphorism about returning home in ‘Owning the Problem’ and Bernard Williams himself on the priority of experience to philosophizing about it in ‘True Blank’. Occasionally a poem will be prompted by the confluence of the thought in a potential epigraph and some material burdening my head, as was the case with ‘472 Claremont Road’. At other times the poem is in progress and understanding of what it might be about is helped by the thought in a quotation, so I acknowledge that, and hope it helps others.
Are such epigraphs aimed at known or hypothetical ‘others’?
It would probably be fair to say that these others are never hypothetical, but they’re not all personally known to me. My model of address might be ‘friendly to strangers’. I’m in the habit of having, from time to time, known interlocutors and dedicatees as intermediaries to carry poems from the familial and familiar to further degrees of the known, less known, or all but unknown. Even as an undergraduate I was puzzled by why poets seemed rarely able, or reluctant, to address poems to living people (it was reading Ben Jonson’s civic poems started this) and my line of thought on speech acts, partly prompted by an intuition that Geoffrey Hill’s ‘Our Word is our Bond’ might not be the final or most helpful word on the matter, was driven by youthful ponderings on saying something, and saying something in a poem. In this sense the dedications and second person pronouns are permeated with thought and idea. Though life, or poetry and life, issues almost always come first, philosophical reading and thinking around can’t help but feed into and permeate poems I’m working on at the time …
… right into the minutiae of verse technique?
My poems often touch on interpersonal relations or selves in the world, and those are locations for ethical reflection that can’t be overt in a poem (because claiming to be good means you are not), while showing unstated goodness is exempt from that negative feedback—so technique is a way of showing and not, as they say, telling. I admit that mine are not the kind of poems, currently at least, that articulate sustained meditations on ideas; but I’m by no means against such poems in principle—just haven’t found my few attempts convincing. Still, they do build to occasioned statements, and are made with the hope that reading them will allow others to have beneficial thoughts and feelings. There may be a technical-ethical issue here, for instance, about who has the thoughts in a poem. To my mind the poem is likely to be weakened if its poet-speaker appears to be monopolizing the thought.
Let’s take up that point right away. It’s one of the great achievements of English poetry between Wyatt and Milton—Jonson is part of the same story—to have constructed the sort of poet-speaker who seems to take responsibility for ‘the thoughts in a poem’, even when, as in Shakespeare’s sonnets, such thoughts knowingly involve self-deception. You could not say that ‘When I consider how my light is spent …’ is technically or ethically weakened by its first-person drive. Is there not, by the same token, a danger of poems becoming cloudy for the reader if the relationship between the thoughts in a poem and the agent inferred as having them is left under-articulated? How do you, technically and if you like ethically, deal with that in composition?
The experience-thought being presented in a lyric poem is the entire expression of the agent, and that is taken responsibility for by the compositional attention to the language, its rhythms, rhymes, enjambments … that’s to say, the entire focus of poetic art. Technique is the test of integrity. However, if this complex is not attributed with a limited subjectivity it may well swallow the world, solipsist-fashion. So I try to take responsibility for my thoughts by tagging them to an ‘I’ that, while necessary, is kept near the edge of the frame—like those self-portraits in the crowd of some old master paintings. This makes room for other pronouns, a represented world that does not appear swallowed or monopolized by the lyric subjectivity, and which, I hope, allows an interpersonal space within which readers can track what’s going on in the poem and have their own thoughts and feelings in relation to it.
How elastic, how loaded or fictionalized, do you take the relationship to be between the I that writes and the ‘I’ that is just inside the edge of these poems?
Evidently, there do seem to be two agents—the inscribed ‘I’ and the composing writer; but the quality of responsibility is demonstrated in the coordination of the two. This is not a Chaucerian narrator, or a Dante personaggio, because the inscribed lyric ‘I’ really does represent the poet deictically (as in Petrarch’s sonnets), but there is inevitable doubling in writing and consciousness. The ethics are engaged in attempting not to be self-serving through the inescapable differences between the inscribed agent and the writing one. Shakespeare’s sonnets are fraught with such doubling and its consequences, as in his making himself the subject of knowing self-deception: ‘When my love swears that she is made of truth …’, and perhaps some of their ‘difficulty’ may come from the under-articulation of the inferred agent too. This ‘under-articulation’, compensated for as far possible at the level of technique, is, I believe, one price that lyric poetry must be expected to pay in opening itself to readers. Too much information, and the reader is entitled and likely to say ‘not my problem’. Doubtless, some of mine with information overload will have suffered such a fate at the hands of readers too.
Perhaps being misunderstood has its uses. Poets like to say that they learn from perceptive reviewers, but that’s learning the easy way, and it might entrench rather than develop a style. Can’t the wrong-headed responses of readers be informative? What can be learned—what does your poetry now show you to have learned—from readers who had difficulty with your version of the lyric complex?
One of my private aphorisms is that you mustn’t believe positive reviews because they’ll spoil you, and you mustn’t believe negative ones because they’ll stymie you. But this is said by somebody tempted to believe both, and more able to bank and draw on failures than successes. When poets say ‘perceptive reviewers’ the question is whether the reviewers have perceived something that the poet put there, as it were, or something about which they weren’t aware but which can be attributed to their skill—an addition to it. As you say, that’s the easy way, and the former of these assumptions about a reviewer’s perceptiveness risks that same problem I was mentioning earlier, because such a reviewer seems to reinforce your sense that things are as you say they are (on the blue guitar). What does a wrong-headed response look like? Perhaps the problem is, especially when you are starting out, that any review may have a point, and possibly even decisively so. Montale said that the only bad reviews are mediocre ones; being hated or loved is fine. I think that’s said by someone who was the recipient of a very large number of reviews. Probably the art is in learning from as much as you possibly can—good, bad and ugly.
Including the poems themselves, good, bad and ugly?
I’ll have learned something, not always cheering, from all my poems, and like to think I wouldn’t publish the ones I have if I didn’t—and didn’t expect to learn from their reception as well. Experience has taught that you can’t write the kinds of lyric poem I need to (because nothing else properly returns an echo) without risking seeming self-absorbed and, simultaneously, of offending others—including readers, who you may seem to be ignoring, by, for instance, addressing your poem to someone you know and they don’t. So make sure address is transparently a device for talking to them as well. And you can’t assume that because you are speaking a poem to someone with what you think is a well-intentioned impulse that they will enjoy the experience of being represented on a printed page. So try and make sure if you are writing about a personal matter that you cast it in publicly accessible terms. See if you can’t access what it is about its burden that has communal relevance, so yours is a sample of experience with nothing necessarily unique about it. Yet what is common to personal experience (and key to lyric poetry) is the feeling that it is individually undergone.
There’s a subtlety in those links and distinctions between the communal, the common and the personal that has always been a feature of your work, but I detect a deepening complication around this in the poems that you have written since your return from Japan—now published in The Returning Sky. It’s not just that being back now in Britain has reconnected you with events, relationships and identities that were cut across by time and distance, but that—with the passage of life, and writing—collective and individual pasts now seem to intertwine and converge, even as they hang empty or replay like bits of old film. As you’ll have gathered, I have in mind, among other fine poems, ‘Gasometers’. It’s a lyric, or sequence, worth pausing over, given its unforced, philosophical difficulty, and the scrupulous, off-centre placing of its ‘I’ and ‘you’, not figures in the poem designed to lead us straight to its meanings. How would you advise a willing reader to proceed?
Reading it again, I’m struck by just how ‘off-centre’ it may seem; and I wonder if that’s what makes me fond of it. Should I mention some of its back-story? As you say, it’s about attempting to reconnect with remote moments. I put the start of these themes down to the fact that in 2007 I hadn’t experienced the light during the months of April, May and June in England since 1993 (the year I came back to await and have my brain tumour operation), and I hadn’t experienced the light and seasonal change of October since 1988. Being in England now that April’s here, in spring a middle-aged man’s fancy lightly turned to thoughts of love. But while you can think you’re back now in place, you can’t, in the same way, be back then in time. The five sections of ‘Gasometers’ were prompted by a dream, and a memory of something somebody I was briefly involved with said about my undergraduate poetry. It was a very happy dream: she emerged from a crowd at a railways station and kissed me. I’d published a poem in a student magazine that mentioned Garston gasworks (gasholders on their massive rollers moving them up and down are part of my early memory traces). This friend said that in effect my poetry was
Draft of 'Gasometers'
very distinctive—it had its own smell. One of the things I like about living in Reading is its splash of remnant industrialism in the green of the Thames valley. That’s why it’s much maligned, I suspect. It shouldn’t be there in all that Berkshire beauty (but that’s what I like). The obliqueness of this poem’s pronouns is complicated by the inevitable ambiguity of ‘you’: which in the second section sounds like ‘not me’, while the last section’s ‘you’ in ‘emerging from the crowd to kiss you’ might be construed as a self-addressed ‘me’ or ‘someone like me’ or again ‘not me’. Even in the dream it was ‘me asleep’ and not exactly ‘me awake’. The ‘I liked them too’ in the third section suggests someone else who likes gasometers as well, and that’s a private nod at another source, the paintings of Parisian outskirts, e.g. Les Gazomètres. Clichy, March-April 1886, by Paul Signac.
That does sound rather arty for Reading …
Well, Signac was painting when the town too was rapidly expanding (I like to think the Impressionists’ Seine locations bear a resemblance to bits of Thames-side Reading). Hence too the dream-like allusion to a ‘belle epoque’, an imagined point where pasts divided and went their separate ways only to be re-entwined in a sort of lyrical ‘temps retrouvé’. So there’s an aspiration that, coming back to Britain, I might be able to take up threads from twenty years before and recompose them into a texture from which to go forward. Mentioning these things might give ‘Gasometers’ a slightly different meaning for you, and other readers; but I hope what you understood from it without these comments is compatible with things it means to me.
That greatly illuminates the poem, but there must be more to your gasometers. In Signac, the fascination is with the spread of light across the shape and structure of gasometers that are grouped behind some houses, but yours are privatized, public utilities that also seem to gauge the aspirations and energy levels of the poet.
More back-story … The first attempt to do something with that happy dream was a rejected poem called ‘Oubliettes’ in which I tried to picture the past as locked away underground; and I notice in the finished ‘Gasometers’ that its first section has mysterious pipes coming out of the ground (observable from the Paddington train as you cross Brunel’s bridge on the approach to Reading station). Jemimah Kuhfeld came to photograph me for her ‘Portraits of Poets’ project, and one of the things she attempted was some head shots in the empty gasholder’s iron structures crossed with clouds. We were standing on a bridge over the Kennet above the biscuit factory’s terrace houses and a passerby asked: ‘Are you a politician?’ You’d think only such a person would be photographed in such a public place. So the poems aren’t straightforward reports on experience, but interpretations of sometimes multiple happenings, angled to build a poem, in which the subject to whom the incidents occur might be the least important issue. Symbolically, the inspiring memories might be like natural gas (or Blake’s ‘Inflammable Gass’, perhaps) rising from the ground and ending up in those structured mental spaces of the sky. In my experience, anyway, there’s next to no guarantee that a memory, especially a fond one, will make a poem. The symbolic gasometer may be full of memories, but empty of inspiration (the poet in danger of ‘gassing on’). Again, if ‘Gasometers’ is a suggestively effective poem, then my fondness for it will be connected with its having been able felicitously to transform some mental gas into poetic warmth.
'Gasometers' draft 2
You mentioned epigraphs earlier. ‘Gasometers’ is headed by a quotation from Raymond Roussel, a writer that one would associate with a more advanced, modernist aesthetic than Signac …
It would be hard to think of a writer less like me than Raymond Roussel, starting from his bank account; and let me admit I find him more interesting to read about than to read—but I have tried, and I pounced on those lines from the end of La Vue because they seemed to encapsulate what you might call the starting point of ‘Gasometers’, which goes from the ‘déjà mort’ of its epigraph to the ‘still alive’ of its final line. However, it does rather depend what you mean by ‘advanced’—Signac and Camille Pissarro (who prompted another poem in the book) were both anarchists. That’s why Pissarro was in South London around the time of the Paris commune.
But does Roussel’s interest in making readers see how words, sentences and poems can be put together have anything to tell us about the ‘angled’ quality of ‘Gasometers’, a text which, like others in the book, is sectionalized and somewhat discontinuous?
Well, as people are probably aware, I’ve been reading your ‘advanced, modernist’ writers since the end of the 1960s and those little asterisks between the paired quatrains of ‘Gasometers’, and other poems in The Returning Sky too, could have been suggested by Bill Manhire’s work, except that Manhire probably got the device from Robert Creeley, and I started reading him in 1973. Such writing offers the sense of possibility for a poem’s design. If you have something forming as bits of phrases and fragments of lines that turn over an imaginary enjambment, or pause at a caesura with nothing on the other side of it, the permission offered by more scattered poems can be a great help. But the issue about the ‘discontinuous’ for me is: how discontinuous? If readers can think or jump their way from one part to another, then it’s providing prompts for the imagination, and, just as with stanza breaks, you can get varying degrees of continuity and disjunction by, for instance, stringing the syntax across the gap, whether it has an asterisk or not. What I need perpetually to refresh is an evolving repertoire of ways to build a poem from the material that arises in the course of life.
Talking of Roussel’s bank account, there’s an awful lot about money, loans, debt, pensions, mortgages in The Returning Sky. It’s a book for the credit crunch! There’s some political satire going on, but your interest in life as ‘Mortgaged Time’, in the future as a ‘double-edged ledger’ evidently goes further and deeper.
Coming back to Britain in 2007 was bizarre, and full of economic ironies for the person who had written ‘The Benefit Forms’ in the mid-1970s and ‘Plain Money’ in 1985. I had already seen what it turned out was coming. The property bubble burst in Japan during the first years I was there, so I spent some fifteen years watching what happens in a flat-lined economy with debt-crippled banks and compromised politicians. I came back with the house prices at their height and credit still flowing like flood water, but couldn’t get a credit card for three months because without a ‘credit rating’. My management of a Sumitomo Visa card over a decade and a half had taken place in a foreign country. So much for the global economy! Apart from such occasional sideswipes, there may be little political satire in the book, actually, because I’m not sure you can have satire when there’s nothing to expose and what’s gone wrong is blinkingly obvious: the big bang, the trickle down theory, the ERM-related assault on Sterling, the big short, futures markets, light touch regulation, derivatives … I remember asking a graduate economics student back in the 1980s if money generated in what’s now called casino banking was real—a naïve question, perhaps, since however money is got it can be laundered into material wealth, and whether it is legal or illegal money being so laundered has revealed itself to depend rather on what’s criminalized, condoned, or found out, and what isn’t. Some of the poems in The Returning Sky were already about finances some time before the banks were ‘nationalized’ by Labour over that weekend in October 2008—in a manner that Michael Foot’s 1983 ‘suicide note’ manifesto had not foreseen.
A better economist than Ezra Pound!
Well, I don’t know about that, and I do have his example to give me pause. The heart of the problem with his economics may be there in T. S. Eliot’s remark that to Pound’s way of thinking ‘Hell is for other people’. Reading The Cantos you hardly get the sense that its poet might be compromised (constrained, yes, but not compromised) by the economics against which he rails. That’s what drew me to the epigraph for ‘Tulip Mania’—Eliot’s ‘I seem to be a petty usurer in a world manipulated largely by big usurers’. Lyric poets, any poets, have to include themselves in: that’s my view. So there are a number of poems in the book exploring the feeling of shame that comes from our inescapably economic relations with others and ourselves. I’m glad you think the reverberations in those poems go further and deeper—and it may be that the sense of ‘here we go again’ in the poems, their allusively long memory, as it were, gives that impression. But it’s not for me to say how far or deep they go.
By reach and depth I don’t mean so much the astuteness of your economic forecasting—though you were ahead of H. M. Treasury—as the way your latest poetry finds insight as well as reasons for anger in our growing, collective awareness of how the human condition is bound up with ideas of debt, speculation, risk and the actuarial calculations of life-chances that we are constantly, half consciously, making, especially as we push into late mid-life. A poem such as ‘Pension Scheme’ turns affectingly on that.
That was among the first of these recent ones I wrote along economic lines, prompted by the sad conjunction of its dedicatee’s death and the invitation to buy back years so as to improve my newly opened British university pension (which the expense of repatriation had rendered not possible). Some of the thoughts behind it, though, had begun a few years before on the death of an Italian woman living in Sendai, married to a professor of German there, whose children were friends with ours. They had been saving for an eventual retirement near Genoa, but then she died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage. There are poems dedicated to her in The Look of Goodbye. It also took me such a long time to realize that I would have to try and behave more like a squirrel in autumn than a lily of the field. The insurance business doesn’t tend to use ‘carpe diem’ poems in its advertising, yet in a world where life expectancy has more than doubled since the Roman poets wrote, exclusively seizing the day today will probably mean that you won’t have the means to seize it tomorrow. Finding myself at a point of contradictory considerations and needing to continue with all of them in mind has frequently been the spur to poems, and, in this sense, money has probably been a more frequent inspiration than might appear likely at first sight.
Where would you say that this inspiration has been most obscurely but actively at work in your verse?
What I meant there was: a source of inspiration to more poetry than a reader might initially think, rather than to my poetry only (‘Worry about Money’ by Kathleen Raine, for instance, or ‘Behaviour of Money’ by Bernard Spencer). But to give examples from mine, I opened The Returning Sky at ‘Trouble Knows’ and my eye alighted on ‘But a stopped heart of summer / calls on hardly touched / deposits, assets of sorrow’; or there in ‘Reading Goal’ Pound’s economics get compacted into a phrase about Oscar Wilde’s standing in 1895 with ‘his social credit spent’, while the cut scene from The Importance of Being Earnest, in which Algernon is threatened with imprisonment for debt, flits across the set in ‘Costume Drama’; or there’s the pun in getting ‘tradesmen to quote’ at the end of ‘Owning the Problem’; or the ‘tuppence coloured mandarins’ in ‘English Nettles’ … Those are a few of the places where money peeps above the surface of a poem, and, to adapt a phrase from Roy Fisher, the more I looked the more I saw. There’s barely a thing you can see or emotion feel that hasn’t been penetrated one way or another by economic evaluation, possession, loss and gain.
True, but what are the grounds or vectors of its particular relationship with poetry? For you, does this centre in how poems are circulated and consumed, how they are given to or purchased by the intellectual labour of the reader, how they traditionally have a pay-off or constitute ‘profitable reading’?
I mentioned in my piece for the Poetry Book Society Bulletin that Wallace Stevens’ aphorism ‘Money is a kind of poetry’ might be hanging over the whole book. That’s probably a copula that can’t be reversed—or let’s say I’m not so convinced by ‘Poetry is a kind of money’—and its not being reversible helps think about what Stevens may have had in mind. Money is a circulating medium that serves to attribute value to life, rendering parts of the world in exchangeable terms, and in doing that it performs a function not unlike what Stevens sees poetry as doing—granting imaginative value to experience. But poetry isn’t a kind of money, not least because it is, in itself, hardly exchangeable for goods and services. And that seeming paradox is doubtless one of the reasons why poets might be interested in money (other than the way we’re all interested in it, and in the interest paid it by economists or bankers).
But there’s a distinction between being interested in money and being interested in making metaphors out of money, and why a poet might be interested in that …
Economic metaphors are everywhere, and start early in my poetry with ‘The Benefit Forms’ and Overdrawn Account—which one or two reviewers at the time noted was, if anything, under-drawn. I’m as likely as the next person to deploy those metaphors, but it’s also important to remember that metaphors must, in their nature, break down (because they depend upon a larger unlikeness in the specified likeness). Disgust at a rampantly and unsustainably individualist consumerism might lead you to eschew any form of exchange at all (because fatally compromised in our society). Similarly, nothing could be allowed to ‘pay out’—as both a piece of rope and a cash machine can—or be ‘profitable’. No ‘speculation’, even intellectual, dare be allowed. So, going back to Stevens, the human need to have one thing ‘stand for’ another so as to take part in communication and exchange is something money and poetry do share, and share with other activities. Acknowledging this might be a reminder that there’s nothing ‘pure’, in the sense of ‘untainted’, about even poésie pure (whose rise in France coincided with the onset of economic modernity). For such reasons, too, I have paid attention to the anthropology and economics of publishing poetry—how reputation is brokered and positioned to maximize market visibility and penetration—but, equally, how poetry has thrived for centuries in manuscript circulation, near invisibility, and in patterns of coterie gift exchange …
Let’s go back to ‘Pension Scheme’. As befits an elegy, it passes the test set by one of the 354 aphorisms that make up the bulk of Untitled Deeds (2004)—an aphorism that reappears in the enlarged Spirits of the Stair (2009): ‘Good poems resolve emotions; bad ones provoke them.’ I dare say we agree about the second part of that, but don’t lots of your own good poems draw together or imply or recall and unleash more images, trains of thoughts and feelings than they can be said to resolve?
That remark attempts to compound a number of thoughts: it’s widely believed that poetry is written to make readers feel something they wouldn’t have otherwise done; at the heart of sentimentality and emotional coercion is the idea that we will all feel the same thing about the same described event; bad poems provoke emotions in that they attempt to make the reader feel the same as the writer about the reported experience; they also provoke them in that I can get annoyed reading them; good poems touch on the complexes of feelings that might or could arise in relation to an experience (without definitively excluding the thought of others) and attempt to produce what Frost called ‘a stay against confusion’ from their interrelation.
Actually—and less resolvingly—Frost said that a true poem is ‘a momentary stay against confusion’.
If the poem is only ‘momentary’ in its stay, there’s a suggestion that when you finish reading it, or very soon after, you go back to your usual confusion (a word that can refer to both your thought and the object of that thought). So does the poem for Frost momentarily make the world less confused or confusing, or does it make the poet’s thoughts less confused or confusing? Whichever it might be, I’d be inclined to assert that if the poem’s affect doesn’t persist, then reading it isn’t actually educative of perception or emotion. ‘The Road Not Taken’ is always there, or thereabouts, for me. Just as the verb ‘provoke’ can be differently inflected, so too there are thoughts to have about ‘resolve’: the resolution of conflicting emotions might mean you acknowledge that you feel conflicted things about something, but have been able to achieve a ‘resolve’ without necessarily setting them all at one. I would be inclined to agree with you that my poems don’t take the entire situation of feeling about something in life and then unify it. How could they? The concluding line of a poem (‘My love, this is the dirty thing’, for instance) might shape a point that both combines a lot of conflicted feelings into a single statement, and, simultaneously, allows them to be released for thought and reflection. But one point of the aphorism is that I don’t think poems are trying to ‘force’—a verb beloved of reviewers—the reader to feel. They are inviting readers to experience a meaningfulness in experience and feeling, and to increase their own self-knowledge from the poem without having to undergo raw suffering, and to take pleasure in that possible development.
The impulse to apothegm or epigram is still felt in The Returning Sky. How do you square your liking for the well-made phrase with your frequently uninsistent syntax, your refusal to adopt a posture of magisterial control—you’re not late Yeats—at the level of sentence and stanza.
As can be seen from my last answer, the ‘well-made phrase’ may be composed, in the case of epigrams and aphorisms, to start thoughts, not to close them down—and I’ve believed for decades that the clinching line at the poem’s end has, similarly, to open it up: as in that one from the first of ‘The Benefit Forms’, which, sometime in 1976, I stumbled upon as having at least two implications (‘some say it degrades, / but I don’t know what to say’). Your phrase ‘posture of magisterial control’ rather slants it my way in that it wouldn’t strike me as much of a plus for a poem if its writer adopted a ‘posture’, and ‘magisterial’ sounds pretty off-putting too. After all, ‘control’ is only a virtue when there is a risk of losing it, and good reasons for why maintaining it might have its difficulties and benefits. If your poem is going to make discoveries (for the poet too) then ‘a posture of magisterial control’ is likely to banish that possibility before you’ve given it a chance.
By making discoveries you mean in the thick of drafting and revision?
Both during work and after … Listening and revising so as to attune the lines of a poem, however uninsistent the syntax, would suggest an aspiration to levels of tacit and subliminal control which can benefit the experience of reading it, can act as prompts to discovery, which postures of control in the syntax or sonic contour might weaken through shows of strength. Being uninsistent doesn’t prevent it being ‘well-made’ either, and while a sense of exploratory or improvised syntax can invite a reader to feel forward through a poem, encountering epigrammatic statements can open the poem to revealed possibilities of sense. If something sounds like the last word, it must surely prompt the next one: as in an aphoristic esprit d’escalier.
The title of The Returning Sky draws our attention to what recurs in the lives of those who stay put as well as those who move about the world. But no one could be in any doubt that this is a book about the exile’s return, or the expat’s if you want to be less Ovidian …
I was neither an exile nor an expatriate—neither Ovid nor one of the innumerable British poets who settle outside their country of birth (because I could not ‘settle’ in Japan, never having more than an annually renewable contract until a year before I was offered the job at Reading). I was an economic migrant. With the sudden employability of poets in UK academia (to teach creative writing) after 2002, and the research assessment transfer window created by the fact that universities could buy in the recent back catalogues of productive researchers, the economic conditions for the likes of me had suddenly changed in the nation state for which I’m a passport holder, so I was able to economically migrate back.
Complications do crowd in, I see. You start the new book with a set of poems about LA and Chicago, and your new base, Reading, is partly a place to be explored—it isn’t like returning to Liverpool (as you do in ‘Otterspool Prom’), the home town of your youth. Nor is home space sentimentalized or cosily ‘made strange’, in the manner of well-known recent English poets. The question put by your daughter in ‘Recovered Memory’, ‘Dad, is there anywhere you feel’s home?’ can be jazzily heard in Paul Muldoon, but, again, you do it differently.
‘Home is the view I appropriate’, as I wrote in early 1976 in ‘The Interrupted Views’. But it is only too possible to appropriate inappropriately. That phrase was a response to crossing the Runcorn rail bridge and being taken through the estuarial scenery of south Liverpool. It’s as near as I get to ‘home’ (hence ‘Otterspool Prom’) because my mother still lives there, but as you know I wasn’t born in the city and am careful not to claim to be unequivocally a Liverpudlian. I only lived there full-time, as it were, for five teenage years. I was three times that long in Sendai, but local kindergarten children could have pointed at me and called out ‘gaijin’ (foreigner) on the day I left. My poetry has ‘grass roots’—quick to seed and ground itself, but not impossible to uproot by hand.
So what do you see as distinctive in your own sense of home, that great big theme of contemporary poetry?
My contribution to the big theme might be to offer explorations of what may be involved in fostering a relationship with a place, in making a home somewhere: taking an interest in its history and culture, walking about and responding to its spaces, not needing to ‘make it strange’ because if you’re honest about being a stranger here yourself it will be odd already. As you’ll have seen, in ‘Recovered Memory’ I don’t answer my younger daughter’s question, though that poem and others in The Returning Sky offer something of an answer—in that the sky’s whirligig can also bring in its revenges.
Your echo of Twelfth Night cues me to press you on ‘Otterspool Prom’, which is headed by a quotation from a more darkly revengeful play—‘O cursed spite’ (Hamlet)—and which returns to Hamlet in its closing words. The whole thing is a remarkable, precise but informal version of an Elizabethan sonnet. It turns on a contrast, you could say, between the grateful outlook of middle age, pleased by sunlight on the Mersey, and the impatience of ‘a student’s words … her going “England’s shite!” / and I’m like “Please / yourself” in sunshine born as if to set it right.’ The teenage you can’t be ‘her’, not least because you pastiche her like twentieth-first century demotic, but would it be fair to see this as a poem in which returning to one of your homes prompts you to stage a couple of the life-stages?
This is another in the book I’m fond of—not least because the sonnet rhymes found themselves. I noticed it coming out that way on the notebook page and encouraged it to go there. The combination of short and long lines was pleasing to finesse without insistence too. Then it was accepted for publication in the TLS on its first being offered to anyone. When The Reader, based in Liverpool, asked me to write something about one of my poems for their series, I picked ‘Otterspool Prom’ because of its local connection, but also because it came out of the coincidence of two events: revisiting my parents for a first extended period after the repatriation, and, just before then, a moment in a creative writing class (only the second term I’d ever taught it). I was trying to persuade a student to set her story about gun crime in high school in a British context, one that she might understand and convincingly imitate the accents for, rather than LA where she wanted to stage it. As I was explaining my reasons for the change of location, I could see myself losing her and the whole class as I spoke, until finally she came out with: ‘I can’t do that, England’s shite!’ I couldn’t help laughing: to have spent seventeen years hoping I would one day be able to return, only to find myself hearing the youth of then tell me what the place was like (this being before October 2008, since when it might be thought to have got worse).
But how did you get from there to Hamlet?
Probably the poet’s mental rhyming dictionary suggested the short version of his soliloquy: ‘O cursed spite / Denmark’s shite’. And, after all, he is sent to England because, since they’re all mad there, he won’t stick out. I like your idea that, to bring Yeats back in, this seeming quarrel with someone else (out of which we are supposed by WBY to make rhetoric) might be construed as a staged quarrel with a version of my younger self (out of which we make poetry). But as I’ve said elsewhere, the others we quarrel with are necessarily figured within us, and the self we might quarrel with in poetry has to be constituted of publicly recognizable elements—so it’s not that his distinction collapses, but it can get complicated all but out of existence. And, as you know, unlike Yeats I’m of the opinion that the poet is the one who sits down at the breakfast table. So England’s not shite: because the sun does sometimes shine on what my dad liked to call the ‘costa del Merseyside’.
Among your poems about home, ‘Abroad Thoughts’—with apologies to Robert Browning—is one of the more oblique and allusive: Bill Manhire, Edith Cavell and all. Yet you give it a conspicuous position at the start of the final section of The Returning Sky, and it does, evidently, reflect the mobile, comparative scepticism about belonging that would come to an economic migrant. What’s going on in there?
It’s an epigram about poets and national self-esteem, war, patriotism … In a relatively new country with a small population, being made the first poet laureate (of NZ), as Bill Manhire was, has quite different implications and consequences to what it means in the UK. We had been talking about that a little over lunch and parted in St Martin’s Lane beside the statue of Nurse Cavell. Since writing the poem and sending it to Bill, I’ve discovered that the German poet Gottfried Benn was present at her execution in 1915 and wrote defending it in 1928. The most common OE (overseas experience) that people have undergone down the centuries has been in the military, and being a returnee to Britain in those years it was impossible not to have been repeatedly reminded of the haemorrhage of casualty repatriations occurring at the same time. An epigram can’t go into the intricacies of the Cavell case, of course, but it can compact together conflicted reflections on relations between the love of country and national or national-military interest, and how religion might both mitigate and aggravate those relations. Such poems come to me thanks to the burdens of thought and feeling which, even in a liberal democracy with a more or less uncensored press, cannot, it seems, be directly expressed—or not expressed as compacted and conflicted experiences, but as singular newsworthy opinions (here today and gone tomorrow).
‘Recovered Memory’ is a longer, more relaxed affair—seven sections over four-and-a-half pages. For the most part it’s a poem of everyday observation, home made up of geese, swans and ducks on the rivers, ‘wrought-iron railings’, ‘red admirals in a breeze’. As it becomes more reflective, though, there are (dare I say it) religious intimations, until you move through the fallen world like Milton’s Adam (‘with all this world before us, / in the shadow of St Paul’s’), a man with the hope of something beyond (‘glimpsed roofs on a far shore’). Is this just how long lyric poems get shaped by the residual Christian heritage? Is it the Peter Robinson brought up in a vicarage? Or should we hope for a growing faith?
Interesting. I hadn’t pondered its residual Christianity, but am not surprised. Standing on the Millennium bridge for the first time and gazing off downriver, the towers of the City just beyond the cathedral dome, I might be making a joke: leaving Japan’s gilded cage, we’ve been expelled from Paradise and must now wend our solitary way through the London crowds. I would go for the Christian heritage explanation, I think. My consciousness of the virtues in Christian ethical teaching and the impossibility of believing in the dogma and teleology don’t appear to have changed since returning. ‘Recovered Memory’ does, though, turn upon the feeling that everything around me was like a cup of tea and toast for Proust. Times out of mind were coming back now in a flood of things I wasn’t even aware of having forgotten. Doubtless one of those would be the greater presence in the immediate environment of churches, vicarages, parishes, and of that embedded Christianity you notice.
Home, at its most domestic, is where the ‘loved ones’ are, and ‘others’ loved ones’, even those that are ‘lately dead’. I’m quoting from the book’s title-poem, which is ambitious, touching, I’d say majestic, though it starts from that most banal of home-troubles, a blocked drain in the street. The final stanza, about incorporating the dead, ‘part and whole— / synapse, nerve-end, heart brimful, / as any body knows’, gives us a more inward, likely account of human afterlife than I would find in organized religion. Less Christian heritage here than supple maturity of technique …
Proust-fashion, again, one effect of returning to Britain may be that the thematic materials of the poems became even more layered and condensed, because everything around seemed to be yelling its implications. Quite ordinary things could seem loaded with possible meaning. The Englishman’s home is his castle, as we say, and our blocked drain formed a kind of moat out front, at just the time a politician was getting into difficulties for claiming expenses for actual moat-cleaning. Being drenched by passing vans as you set out for work is one of the unforeseen risks of privatizing the utilities and under-funding local councils, while lopping branches across the street reminded me of Charlotte Mew’s ‘The Trees are Down’, written in response to felling during the Great War, I believe, so there’s a suggestive link between the returning sky of less leaves around and the coming back home of loved ones, whether as casualties or in one piece. I tried to write a poem about a church hall just down the road with a plaque indicating that it was used as a clearing station for those with a Blighty one during the 1914-1918 bloodbath. Though it didn’t come off sufficiently to be kept, something of its associations do get into this title-poem. I’ve often had luck with poems that come back now to the same rhyme sound at the end of each stanza: another one is ‘On Van Gogh’s La Crau’, the original of which it was a pleasure to see in his Amsterdam museum a couple of weeks ago.
‘I’ve often had luck’ might just be a modest way of shrugging off your formal skill, but it’s striking to hear ‘luck’ used of a template-like feature of design—the use of ‘the same rhyme sound at the end of each stanza’. You are presumably talking about more than the free gift the language gives the poet when ‘glove’ turns out to rhyme with ‘love’. How and why do luck and rhyme go together in your poems?
Having a final rhyme word in a stanza to which you return produces a vaguely sestina-like effect. But it needn’t be as template-like as that form, and can serve as a semi-conscious prompt for where the syntax of another verse needs to arrive. It’s an effect faintly like the hook line in a song. Just yesterday I was pausing to cross the road and thinking how odd it is for critics to say ‘the poet rhymes “dog” with “log”’—when the language rhymes them, as it were. And to pick up your example, it’s possible to feel English is offering too much of a free gift in the case of ‘love’ and ‘glove’, ‘breath’ and ‘death’, ‘womb’ and tomb’, and the like. So there’s no such thing as a free rhyme either. Obvious rhymes can be saved from obvious thoughts, but only with attention and skill. There’s a similar problem with the words ‘amour’ and ‘toujours’ for French poets, I don’t doubt. It’s intriguing too that ‘love’ and ‘death’ are the two great subjects for lyric poets, but there are so few good rhymes in English for those words: ‘breath’ may come round as it does at the end of Keats’s ‘Bright Star’ sonnet because there doesn’t seem to be another rhyme, while ‘love’ rhymes are by turns namby-pamby, trivial, or inappropriate (I’m glad to have rhymed ‘love’ with ‘shove’ non-negatively—in the last part of Via Sauro Variations). As Wittgenstein, if I recall, noted: it is a matter of luck that ‘Hast’ rhymes with ‘Rast’ (in the German of Goethe’s motto ‘Ohne Hast aber ohne Rast’), but the poet does have to notice and finesse such luck. This is presumably why the critic can say that Goethe’s translator might try to rhyme ‘haste’ with ‘rest’: using the verb ‘to rhyme’ actively and transitively, which the language can’t do because it can’t intend things in quite that way. Such contingent facts about language map directly over the relationships in life between constraining circumstances and the space in life for judgment, decision and action, so rhyme for me is a way of being in, and doing something with, human situated-ness.
Your sallies into French and German rhymes there prompt me to note that coming home to England has meant, in any case, bringing bits of the world back with you. Your wife, Ornella, is Italian, and your daughters speak Japanese. That’s a full-on ‘globalized’ household! A good place for a prolific translator, as you are, to be, and not a place likely to encourage you to paint false, nostalgic pictures of family life in the Home Counties. ‘Untidy Bedroom’, which is dedicated to Matty and Giulia, gives us the rich, intense disorder of home-life with teenagers, who are developing a sense of justice if not an impulse to pick things up. How did you set about harnessing the drama of all that into what is a relatively formal, shapely poem, five sets of two quatrains, from ‘Uncurtained sill clutter …’ to ‘the end of those days’—quite a distance to travel.
There may be a buried Alice in Wonderland connection in this one—in that it’s about ‘floods of tears’, or anyway ‘floods’: the first summer we were back whole areas around the colleges in Oxford were underwater, and that image of the pavilion comes from visiting the places where Lewis Carroll lived and wrote. So that got me onto the untidiness inside and outside theme. It took some time to bring together the elements, and the asterisks again helped with the related topic switches. It began, if I remember rightly, as maybe three different attempted poems. We live on the corner of a crossroads with a couple of mini-roundabouts, and the first sixteen lines are responses to feelings of exposure when you first move into a house and haven’t yet got any curtains up, so external lights from streetlamps or cars can provide spookily internal, scrutinizing or reassuring illumination. There’s a central eight-line section prompted by my younger daughter’s hand-written notice announcing that she was angrily crying and should not be disturbed. That then leads into the tears and floods association, comparing and contrasting the wet disorders of inside and out, and the growing understandings of why those disorders might be as they are, how we might respond to them or not, and what consequences this might have if we do or don’t. That’s the sort of thing that could be in the ‘sense of justice’ ending. It’s perhaps a tacitly environmentalist poem without being a particularly green one.
Speaking of the green environment, another of my favourites, ‘English Nettles’, starts with a small, significant slippage between languages, a given in how you live, into its dedication ‘for Ornella’. At the heart of your family matrix there is a mismatch in relation to England. What is home for you is an estrangement of sorts for your wife. I feel this working away in the poem, in that what the scene ‘brings home’ to you is partly how ‘alien’ and ‘unsettling’ is the environment for her in which she plucks nettles to make soup. Yet there is as much resolved in her soup as there would be in a good poem.
One of the reviewers of the limited illustrated edition, English Nettles and Other Poems, noted that we don’t use that adjective to characterize them here: they’re just called ‘nettles’. But they are English ones too, with their own distinctive (metaphorical) stings. I found a recipe for cream of nettle soup in the biography of Edvard Munch by Sue Prideaux, so there’s a time-honoured link between expressionism and foraged food. That’s a poem driven by anxiety for my wife’s wellbeing in England—which was proved right, and it concludes with a resolve that hopes for an easier passage than turned out to be the case. It has been instructive to see how difficult it can be to settle here when it’s not your home country, and also to see how many people are in equivalent situations to my wife’s in Reading and environs—in the whole country, for that matter. Indeed, I was reflecting just the other day on whether it is possible to be entirely at home if your nearest and dearest are not. So, in this respect too, my affective attachment to this place is doubtless energized by an effective detachment from it.
I mentioned earlier that The Returning Sky starts with a group of poems about America, before you take us, via ‘Enigmas of Departure’ and ‘Peripheral Visions’, without any section break, into ‘Huntley & Palmers’ and ‘Whiteknights Park’—your new fiefdom in Reading. Did you include the American poems to give the reader an impression of a journey, an itinerary followed, or to put Reading, Parma and Liverpool into the frame of the larger world, or what?
The brief visit to America, my first, came up unexpectedly just a few months before we were due to leave Japan. So as we were packing to disorient ourselves, I was writing ‘Westwood Dusk’ set in LA, starting the ‘South Shore Line’ sequence and also composing ‘World Enough’, the last poem written before returning. The other American poems were started, but weren’t completed until during those first years in Reading. It was helpfully perceptive of Roy Fisher to see me as someone going round with a listening device inclined to make poems not far from the encounters of everyday life when the tectonic plates of mental experience shift. One of the perennial issues for me, coming out of those creative conditions, is that I’m always in a dilemma about whether to publish the poems in the order that the occasions occur, or in the order they’re completed, or in a thematic or a contrastive ordering retrospectively imposed. What I do is bear all three or four possibilities in mind and allow the different logics to apply when they feel appropriate. The effect of placing those American poems at the front of the book—the only place they could have gone, I felt—is to give a very wide establishing shot before the reader focuses down on the streets of East Reading and the Thames valley. I was mildly concerned that the book would give an impression caught by a fellow poet and friend of mine who said I’d gone from being a global to a local poet (though the Italian ‘elsewhere’ is still underwriting things intermittently, as you’ve noted). He was exaggerating for effect, of course: the poems have always been both less global and less local than they might appear.
None of us can escape America, I suppose, as the only, fading superpower. We’re reminded of that in your poem ‘At the Institute’. You’re looking at the ‘precisionist’ artwork of Charles Sheeler at the Art Institute in Chicago, and you hear a worker’s radio playing George Bush II’s undertaking to ‘get the job done’ in Iraq. I can see why Sheeler interests you, but the opening and closing line of your poem—‘He was touching the hard edge where life and art met’—points to an aesthetic very different from your own. The Sheeler canvas that you mention, The Artist Looks at Nature, was, I see, painted in wartime, in 1943. Is some connection implied between inhuman aspects of American modernism and the hard-edged military-industrial complex, or are other issues in play?
My sense of the reader’s role in a poem’s implications would suggest that if you notice such a connection it can’t be excluded, especially by my saying that I hadn’t seen or consciously finessed it. You could say it’s inescapably implied by the line that begins and ends the poem—which was one of its ‘given’ parts that made it feel able to be written—that and the near rhyme of ‘radio’ and ‘studio’, linking the political context introduced into the gallery with the painter at work. I’m attracted to that ‘hard-edged’ Franco-American modernist style, imported by Marcel Duchamp and Picabia and differently taken up by, for instance, Sheeler, Demuth, and O’Keefe. But there is something slightly scary about its mechanical aesthetic—especially when applied to organic forms and sexuality. However much I might be intrigued and impressed by the look of ‘The Bride Stripped Bare’, I can also be quite put off by what might be the sexual politics of its inspiration. This does get us into the degree to which some strands of vanguard art are avidly complicit with the culture in which they find themselves obliged to operate. One of Duchamp’s inventions might be the treated readymades of Damien Hirst. The Sheeler strand, with its poetic flank in William Carlos Williams, was by no means avidly complicit, but, because it actively embraced the look of industrial America, it wasn’t wholly able to inoculate itself against such implications of its aesthetic as you outline—future implications beyond their 1930s too.
Does the connection between modernist aesthetics and military-industrial power also run, for you, into the economics of making and collecting art? You write of the Institute’s ‘peace / and silence secured at some price’.
Inevitably it does. A part of me would have liked to be more involved with the visual arts than has been the case. But another part is pretty rapidly put off by the fetish-making and ubiquitous smell of money. One of the things that allowed me to concentrate on poetry is that it can be done with a nearly nil initial investment, and on the move. As you say, ‘At the Institute’ contains a counter-thread noting how artworks do need to be protected. There’s a John Frankenheimer film I like called The Train, with Paul Scofield as a German officer trying to ship artworks from Paris into Germany in 1944. Burt Lancaster is the resistance leader attempting to prevent this from happening. The film underlines the human cost of protecting the art. The balance sheet on costs and what constitutes reasonable force in its protection isn’t a simple one—as the previous American president’s career did serve to underline.
You’ve talked a lot about artists in this interview, from to Signac to Duchamp and Hirst. One that we haven’t mentioned is Peter Robinson. An accomplished painting of yours, The Clothes Chair, is on the cover of The Returning Sky. It’s appropriate to the book, because it shows a folding chair on the balcony of a flat piled up with a domestic tangle of clothes, a view of other apartments and everyone’s sky beyond. It dates from 1982-3, so I suppose that it comes out of a different phase, a time when you were doing more painting. Does it represent for you something persistent in your work, in both poetry and the visual arts?
Elizabeth Bishop’s the poet I think of as giving me permission to put my old pictures on the covers of poetry books, though, strictly speaking, this may not have happened to hers until after her death. Derek Walcott’s publisher in the USA tends to put his paintings on covers as well. Tony Frazer at Shearsman seems happy to go with the idea: there’s a landscape of mine showing Sendai’s outskirts from our old balcony on The Look of Goodbye.
So I asked Philip Horne to photograph the painting (it’s hanging in his and Judith Hawley’s bedroom). For me the image is also appropriate in that it’s a picture of a chair that belonged to my first wife, and coming back to England meant also recalling the years we spent together in this country under this sky, the shared one above the other flats in Forest Hill, South London. What stopped me painting was the brain tumour. My right eye still doesn’t produce tears and the blinking reflex is pretty weak. In the first years after 1993 I had great difficulty preventing it from becoming enflamed and infected. Staring for long periods of time at something, so as to represent it, and then at the representation so as to improve it, was no longer possible, because I would forget to blink and the eye would become sore. Painting’s extremely labour and time intensive. There were so many unfinished writing and translating projects on hand as well. I’ve only been able to complete three small watercolours since then. One appears on the jacket of the limited edition, Anywhere You Like; one, of the yellow water tank on the rooftop opposite our flat (about which I’d written a poem), was done for the cover of the 2003 Selected Poems but not used; and a third was completed one summer afternoon in the hills outside Parma using my sister-in-law’s paints (she’s an art teacher in Italian high schools). So, as I say, I wish it had literally persisted more; but, along the lines of ut pictura poesis and poetry as speaking painting, I hope and think something has continued to carry forward. There’s a responsiveness to the visual surroundings in me which is almost like a mood barometer (if I’m noticing things then I must be feeling alright); there’s the sense of located-ness that comes from correlating perspective shifts and intersecting visual planes; and there’s the endlessly challenging problem of rendering visual experience in inevitably selective, selected words which, as when making a translation, need to compensate for losses with their naturally collocating textures.
Should we think of you, then, as a painter-poet like Blake, Rossetti or Charles Tomlinson—Tom Raworth, even, one of whose collages is on the cover of your book of interviews, Talk about Poetry (2006)?
I was a childhood painter long before starting to try and write poetry. Coming across a colour facsimile of The Songs of Innocence and Experience in 1969 was an inspiration, and I did try to combine poems and paintings when at school and university, though not to any great effect … The last time I tried that was in 1977 when I carefully wrote out my prose poem ‘A Woman, A Poem, and a Picture’ on a large piece of art paper, and then did a pencil drawing to accompany it. I wonder if David Inshaw still has that? The limited edition I mentioned earlier, English Nettles and Other Poems, has wonderfully appropriate collage-paintings paired with the poems (by Sally Castle, a local artist connected with Two Rivers Press). That was an enjoyable collaboration: I had already written the poems that were to go in the book; we walked around the streets and places that had inspired them, places adjacent to where Sally was born, with her taking notes and photographs, from which she then produced the artworks (ones she modestly insisted on calling illustrations). If the opportunity arises to do such a book again, I think perhaps I would like to have a go at the pictures myself.
So what sort of relationship do you think there is between your painting and writing?
There’s a drawing that I gave to Alison Rimmer, as she then was, around the time we organized that 1979 Cambridge Poetry Festival together: it shows a 1950s Penguin paperback copy of The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford lying surrounded by blades of long grass. There’s a strong suggestion of symbolic framing in the choice of image: more ‘poetic meaning’ than their technique alone delivers, but the imagery is all derived from the immediate environment and, though often complexly distorted—as in The Clothes Chair—it looks on the surface realistically representational. Something similar is likely to be true about the poetry, though the differences in medium and delivery of experience mean that the interplay between symbolic meaning, expressionist distortion and representational realism work themselves out with different economies of exchange.
That we might be coming towards a close prompts me to say how much I admire the final poem of The Returning Sky: ‘Wood Notes’. How a collection begins can matter hugely, but the last poem of a book is also sensitively placed, between the expectations of ending and establishing a threshold onto what’s beyond, since no book can be a circumscription. In ‘Wood Notes’ you draw on a lot of ongoing family history—not in a glibly autobiographical way, because the history so tactfully implied is the lot of many (‘long life’s decrepitudes … the scars of old loves’). You explore how the past persists yet becomes misplaced, how memory and forgetting affect us, in a book often preoccupied with those concerns. These are not the memories of ‘A sixty-year old smiling public man’ (Yeats, again), but they must owe something to how the past reappears at that age?
The first poem sees me running for my life across Wiltshire Boulevard before the stoplights change and the last one reflects on my wife hugging a tree trunk carved with love names in some Hampshire woodland. Among the reasons for needing to go back to Europe in the middle of the last decade was our parents coming to the end of their lives. We wanted to be nearer them than the other side of the Asian land mass. Thoughts naturally drift back to ancient quarrels and conflicts, and then turn upon whether they’ve been resolved, put behind us, or not, and the ways they can seem to matter intensely and be water under the bridge at the one time. We are lucky in that all four of our parents lived and have lived long and full lives. They all knew their grandchildren. It ought to be possible for them to die satisfied and for us not to be made too distraught by their loss. But it doesn’t follow that they or we will achieve that. The other family reason for wanting to return is that, as you noted, our children were approaching teenage. A Japanese education had been good for them when they were toddlers, infants, and young girls, but it would have become ever more focused on turning them into Japanese citizens, something they could never have other than technically become (if married to nationals). So we needed to provide them with the opportunity to achieve qualifications that could help them effectively fly the nest in future years. ‘Wood Notes’ is inflected with the thought of its protagonists being both children and parents (the nests in the family trees) and preparing to face losses on both fronts.
Its title comes from Milton: ‘sweetest Shakespeare, Fancy’s child, / Warble his native wood-notes wild.’ From what we’ve said about home, it’s easy to see why you’d want to leave ‘native’ to one side and in some sense in question. But what about ‘wild’, which so luckily rhymes with ‘child’? Fortuitously or not, that word asks to be left out because there is nothing untutored, inexperienced about the writing.
My poem takes place in the grounds of The Vyne, a National Trust property in Hampshire, and I just heard the possibility of making that allusion by so entitling my notes on a walk through a wood. Is the Lady of Christ’s being a tad of an education snob in ‘L’Allegro’, do you think? The idea of Shakespeare as the natural, uneducated, undisciplined, twittering offspring of imagination herself puts him faintly in his place at the same time as lauding him to the skies. But if ‘native’ were taken to mean ‘English’ (the language) I wouldn’t want to put it aside. And if I were to identify with Shakespeare for no more than a deluded moment, I’d be inclined to put aside both ‘child’ and ‘wild’ for the pair of us. The dark lady is said to pretend he’s not old to flatter him in the sonnet; so he doesn’t sound appropriately wild or child enough for her! Something similarly equivocal might be going on in Milton’s ‘On Shakespeare’, whose ‘easy numbers flow’ from ‘thy unvalued book’—which also gives a context for the strategy of his praise in those decades after the future Bard’s death.
Your ‘Wood Notes’ reminds me of the later Hardy, where there is no need to show virtuosity because the individuality is so seasoned.
Hardy also suffered from a version of that ‘untutored’ criticism, yet another prolific writer who didn’t go to university. But I like those moments of slightly ‘studied’ language in Hardy’s later poems, as in ‘After a Journey’ with its wonderfully straightforward last line ‘when our days were a joy and our paths through flowers’—which also has the weirdly suggestive ‘unseen waters’ ejaculations awe me’ (and I’ve no doubt he knew what ‘ejaculations’ can also name). Perhaps long practiced writers so develop their own ‘notes’ that they don’t, or don’t need to, show conventionally virtuosic technique. Yet the reasons for why something ‘comes off’ in a poem can’t be ‘exceptional’—otherwise there’d be no explicably shared grounds for the praise. What Yeats and Hardy have in common is their commitment to the communicable inner and outer dynamics of lyric technique. Don’t get me wrong: I’m very glad you like the poem and its style, and the comparison with Hardy (a way of showing shared ground) is only too gratifying. I just hope I can live up to it, and finally assemble a complete poetry that’s as inexhaustible as his.
You’ve hinted at some of the matter that ‘Wood Notes’ might be prefiguring. Although The Returning Sky is a shapely collection, there’s no sense of the trajectory being finished. You leave us in anticipation. What more do you expect will emerge in your writing, as you pick your way beyond 60?
‘Wood Notes’ was able to find a link between its occasion and implications with so little straining or searching that it was written almost before I’d time to live in it. Having so much busier a life since repatriation hasn’t meant that I’ve written less poetry, not as yet anyway; but I’ve not been able to dwell in and on it anything like as much as in previous years. That might be a good thing. One of the gifts generous readers can give to the poem’s writer is making it possible to read its lines again in a new light, as if through the eyes of others. The Returning Sky came to an effective pause, more or less, by the early summer of 2010. It collects about four years’ work. Over the last two years, illnesses and deaths have produced some seismic activity in earshot of the listening device. I have a chapbook called Like the Living End and Other Poems accepted for publication in autumn 2013 by Peter Carpenter’s Worple Press. It contains a selection of poems from the first section to a possible future book. I’ll have been writing re-publishable poems for four decades in my sixtieth year and there are plans afoot to bring out a gathering called New Selected Poems (1973-2013) in 2014.
So you are determined to keep Amazon busy, but what is the relationship between all this activity and the sources of your inspiration? Do you know what seam you are mining, where the next run of poems will come from?
I’m hoping any new retrospective selection will include uncollected pieces awaiting publication in magazines as well as work that I can barely glimpse as yet. Not being in earshot, to continue Roy Fisher’s analogy, means I can’t really predict it to tell you. It’s always likely, as a glance into my notebooks will show, that too much time is spent trying to complete poems that never make it, while others just turn up from, apparently, nowhere and come right in four or five drafts. Nevertheless, as might be expected, the intensive territory-marking in the Reading poems of those first years back in the country is no longer pressing to be done—though the place hasn’t stopped whispering to me altogether. From what’s been happening recently I would expect the space of inspiration to open out once more, for the ‘global’ emphasis to reassert itself now that the ‘re-location’ has been explored. However, you’re right that the last poems and the third section of The Returning Sky don’t have a finished-sounding trajectory. They couldn’t by any means exhaust the issues raised by coming back now, during this moment of great change in British and world history. So I’m likely to be as interested and surprised as you may be by where keeping my ear to the ground will take the poetry. Weeks go by when nothing appears to be happening; but writing poetry’s become such a focal point of my life, and such a happy one, that something always does seem to occur which gets me back to it—something touching on those ‘hardly touched / deposits’ and ‘assets of sorrow’ I fear.
[John Kerrigan is a Professor of English at Cambridge. Among his publications are Revenge Tragedy: Aeschylus to Armageddon (1996) and Archipelagic English: Literature, History, and Politics 1603-1707 (2008). In 2000 he co-edited with Peter Robinson a book of essays on Roy Fisher. He is currently writing books on British and Irish poetry since the 1960s and on Shakespeare's Binding Language.]
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