This interview, with questions put by William Oxley, first appeared in Acumen (No. 83, September 2015). Thanks to William and the editor, Patricia Oxley, for permission to reproduce it here.
Where was your beginning in poetry? Did you come from a literary background?
It was actually through pop music that I began to be interested in how words could be put together. This was the 1970s, the time of over-blown prog-rock but listening to the lyrics of Jon Anderson of Yes and especially the gothic, mythopoeic psychodramas of Peter Hammill of Van der Graaf Generator is where I began to think about making word patterns myself. I wrote lyrics, sang songs for several years. What I thought of as poems appeared in school exercise books. But besides school I had no context for this activity. My father left education as soon as he could in the 1930s, then joined the RAF just before the war to get away from a fairly unhappy home environment. My mother continued school until 16 years old and might have gone further but also left to earn a living. Reading has never been important to either of them. I remember being read to by an aunt. The house had very few books but we would visit Trowbridge Town Library most weeks, though it was usually books on fishing that I brought home, no novels, certainly no poetry. I got hooked for a while on Enid Blyton adventures, read Jack London’s White Fang– all unpromising, common stuff.
During the year I spent in London trying to study Medicine, personal unhappiness continued to spawn plenty of derivative songs and a few poems but it was only then that I began to read what I would regard as proper books. One day I stole an Everyman edition of Wordsworth’s selected poems from Foyle’s and read it pretty uncomprehendingly (though it reminded me of home, rural Wiltshire). I read Sartre (on a friend’s recommendation) and wholly identified with Antoine Roquentin in Nausea. Then by chance I picked up a second-hand copy of The Manifold and the One (John Murray, 1957), a philosophical/literary book by the biologist Agnes Arber. It appealed to my sense of personal alienation but actually sparked a real interest in studying Philosophy which, having abandoned Medicine, I pursued at Lancaster University, diverting once more, and finally, to a more literary degree. Later, at Oxford, I wrote a D.Phil. on Percy Bysshe Shelley. But it was at Lancaster I began to take my writing seriously.
It seems to me yours is a forensic poetry. You are a master of forensic poetry: a poetry strong on evidence. Hence your admiration for the empiricism of John Locke. In your poems there is always very close attention to physical objects. You set physical things together and, at times, against each other like a good cook who mixes foodstuffs to produce a flavourful synchronicity. How do you feel about this way of describing your poetry?
‘Forensic’ is good – I’d not thought of it in that way – but I’d be happy to accept I am committed to the empirical. As a child, though very quiet and reserved, I don’t remember living in any kind of fantasy world: I would be observing things going on around me. I used to find objects when I was a kid – coloured stones, shells, lost coins – and I remember the pleasure when my mother would say, ‘You’re always on the look-out. You never miss anything’. To this day, I like poems that focus on small things and, in effect, make arguments for the ways in which they communicate the bigger issues. I’m firmly with Thomas Hardy in believing that “he used to notice such things” is one of the greatest of compliments anyone could give me.
Of course, the empiricism of Locke is something Shelley also wrestled with (he was something of a scientist and caused explosions in his rooms in Oxford), but he found it too limiting. Locke is buried at High Laver, Essex, and my poem ‘Midsummer at High Laver’ traces a similar growing disenchantment with mere rationalism, with my own early empiricism: “those thumb-nail steps carved / in the solid encyclopaedia I homeworked from, perched at a desk on the edge of my bed”. Such knowledge, such facts, I thought of as laying “instalments on a life of smart logic”. But the poem becomes more obsessed with mortality and abandons its logical thought processes (or types of discourse) towards the end to articulate grief through imagery alone. The field irrigation sprays you see in those flat parts of Essex are described as “drenching some different sector of the field, / this drained, tearful, flowering place”. So your description of ingredients put together, or set off against each other, is quite right. I think the juxtaposition of elements is a way of articulating those things that remain beyond our grasp. The statement a poem makes is derived from the whole process and experience of reading it, not from any discrete moral statement located like some crock of gold near the end.
Another way of characterising your poetry is to describe it as realist work, even anti-romantic. Look at, for instance, the farting soprano in ‘Rehearsal for a Requiem’ (Beneath Tremendous Rain, 1990). Odd, considering you wrote a doctoral thesis on Shelley – that supreme Romantic. Maybe your poetry is a reaction against that school?
At the time, I Believed I chose to study Shelley for political reasons (Paul Foot’s Red Shelley from 1980 gives a flavour of those times). As it turned out, my thesis was largely philosophical, concerned with theories of language rather than with the nature and quality of his poetry. In a distracted moment in the Bodleian Library, I remember reading David Constantine’s A Brightness to Cast Shadows (1980) and something there set off the train of thought that led to my ‘Drowned Shelley’ poem which also begins with empiricism but again reaches towards something more “rich and strange”. At the same time, it was probably expressing a frustration with the dry academic work I was doing (wishing Shelley at the bottom of an ocean). Since you mention it (I wouldn’t in polite company, of course) the farting poem does, in its clumsy way, want to argue that the “sound of stars” and the “thundering” fart are inextricably bound up as part of our whole experience of life. I want an art able to encompass both the Romantic and the empirical, in Arber’s terms the Manifold and the One.
You’ve always been, mainly, what I would call a free verse poet. Tell me something of your attitude to formal prosody.
My attitude is that I don’t think I’m good at it, or very knowledgeable! I have my copy of John Hollander’s brilliant Rhyme’s Reason (1981) but it tends to get thumbed only when I want to find out what other people are up to with curious forms. So I guess I agree with you: I largely play without the net.
Having said that, my experience has been that for years now, I have been edging towards greater freedom on the page. So I must feel confined in various ways. I certainly have a strong desire for patterning (though not that of formal prosody) and I am not averse to rhyme where it feels appropriate. I really do tend to approach form organically. Often, first drafts are barely distinguishable from prose, chucked down into notebooks to swiftly catch the thought or feeling or observation. They tend to lie there for a while (one advantage of not being a full time writer). Only with the re-reading of these scribbles (and I tend to do this several times before I ever start deleting or adding) do I begin to see where the ‘poem’ may be. And with that begins the long wrestling towards a final form, involving much reading (very) loud, consciousness of breath, work-shopping, discussion and the slow passing of time. My lack of skill (or let’s call it my improvisatory approach) means poems often lurch from couplets to quatrains, regular to uneven line lengths, during this process. I prefer internal rhyme to end-rhyme; my image of rhyme is that it sews the text together rather than hanging like a cherry at the branch end.
In the poem ‘Mystery Dance’ (Beneath Tremendous Rain, 1990) you speak of the steps over a period of time to your first ‘bungled affair’ and near-bungled sex act: ‘Hot and sore all night long/ I had to leave early – a holiday job – / and floated to work…’ This is very personal, confessional poetry, not distanced from the ‘I’ at all. Unlike, say, the poem ‘Water Music’ in the same early volume, where you don the skin and personality of another: a potter in love with water, like Chagall. Do you see any sort of problem with writing intimately of the self or, indeed, of another? ‘Sometimes nothing of my own seems new’, you say in another poem – is this the problem with the too personal poem?
My line when I teach poetry in a literature class is that the voice we hear is not the author, but a narrator. I don’t see it very differently as a writer. Writers are always sly, changing and manipulating even what seems the most personal of experiences. ‘Mystery Dance’ is confessional to a point but the relationship/s involved in it are several, re-calibrated, re-located, re-chronologised. The artist will shift a tree 10 metres to the left to suit his aesthetic needs; poets do the same tree-moving. So when I read work aloud I have no sense of reading a personal diary entry. It’s a poem with its own internal dynamics and demands; a little environment in which I can control most of the factors and therefore have a reasonable chance of controlling how it is received. ‘That’s just how it happened’ is a very poor defence of anything in a poem. The sequence ‘Water Music’ has as much ‘personal’ material in it as ‘Mystery Dance’ does but it is not couched in such directly personal terms. Which is the more confessional? It’s more important to say the former is the better poem and it contains elements that I am still wrestling with: making, imagination, language, beauty, time, mortality, what we can and cannot know.
Occasionally, I come across a poem and wish its author was there to cast light on it by explaining its genesis. A poem like ‘Mikhael at Viksjön, for example?
You mean cast light in the sense that the poem needs a key (not yet provided) to unlock its meaning and significance? I’d be disappointed if that were the case as I don’t want to be any more obscure than the poem requires. Mikhael was a visitor from Sweden, a student, when I was also a student in the early 1980s. Viksjon is a lake where he used to fish as a boy which, by that time, had been killed by acid rain and the wisdom was that this pollution derived from “the British unfurling filthy flags” from chimney stacks to blacken the water and destroy all in it. I remember him bitterly, carefully describing the lake as “unnaturally dark” because no living things thickened the water, coloured it. This appealed to my environmental feelings as well as to my youthful memories of angling. I particularly liked (not the right word – found profoundly disturbing) the image of helicopters coming to “bomb” the lake with dry lime in vain efforts to neutralise the acidic water. I wanted to record his (and my) seeming futile sense of anger, imagining it reflecting, bouncing off the water’s weird surfaces, “louder and clearer, / louder and clearer!”
Another thing one gleans from your poems is their narrative potential. It shows in two ways, Either in a poem like ‘The Three Rioters’ – with its nod to Chaucer; or in the stylistic flow that carries a reader along in a poem like ‘At the National Gallery’; even in the excellent pseudo-Whitmanesque series ‘More Than It Comes To’ (Hurt, 2010). You have written several longer sequences like ‘At The Mountjoy Hotel’ and ‘On Whistler Mountain’ in the collection On Whistler Mountain (1994), ‘On Princelet Street’ in A Madder Ghost (1998) and ‘Essays in Island Logic’ in Hurt. How do you tackle the longer poem?
Your earlier description of ingredients set together or leant up against each other again lies at the root of my interest in narrative poems or more recently longer sequences with something of a buried or implied narrative. Most of these sequences fold several characters or stories together: a young virginal girl getting married in a Midlands town alongside a cynical, defensive older male figure (‘At The Mountjoy Hotel’); implied versions of myself alongside an imagined Huguenot ancestor (‘On Princelet Street’) or an imagined brother working for the American military at the time of the First Gulf War (‘On Whistler Mountain’). The looser ‘Essays in Island Logic’ follows modern day versions of Odysseus, Penelope and Telemachus as they make their separate ways around a modern resort island that might be Ithaca. The narrative is partly there, as always, as a hook to hold the reader’s attention but it also enables the writer to range beyond the limits of the lyric ‘I’ and – in several of these cases – to engage with broader issues of gender, technology, war, tourism, immigration.
As to how narrative poems develop – they tend to creep up on me with fragments coalescing together until I begin to think there may be a whole. ‘Essays in Island Logic’ took several years to complete because I could not work out how it ought to be narrated. I think the problem was that I was demanding too much control over the three lives I was representing. I made more progress, ironically, once I’d decided to regard the poem as close to meaningless – merely three souls engaged at differing points on the common work of the creation of their own selves. It did not need to be pushed towards a unitary meaning. And so, more generally, to write a poem is a slow uncovering (rather than the imposition) of connections in our own minds. It begins, unbidden often and the process of recovery, with the intention of bringing it into the public sphere so that it can be taken up and experienced by others, is a process towards self-knowledge and is never (should never be) a representation of the already familiarly known. So writing a poem resembles the process of self-justification, but is not that. It is a process of analysis, discovery, comprehension of the negotiated ground between self and other.
There is a poem of yours which I’d like to show in full:
VIEWING A ROOM
Where blue-blown roses are printed
across the purple ground of each bedspread
and green-blue leaves are prostrate between.
Where two divans support rolls of bedding
stiff as sleeping figures.
Where curtains fence out the light
behind a vegetation of bruised plum and grass.
Where the carpets are the colour of slate.
Where the sole relief rises
stalked and too tall between the beds –
white and glossy, a puritan lamp.
Its dusty bulb, a clouded, weary eye,
urging part-plea, part-prohibition:
don’t stop here, don’t stay in the blue-rose room.
I feel this poem (from On Whistler Mountain) shows another aspect of you, viz, to intrigue through description alone – at least until the last line. What do you think, Martyn?
It is very different – though I suppose one interest for the reader may be the implied story behind the moment. It has echoes of Larkin’s ‘Mr Bleaney (I now see) though I won’t have thought that when I wrote it. What strikes me about the poem today is its focus on infertility and stasis. The colours are bruised, or blown, all the details slightly out of kilter. The grammar repeats inconclusively, unproductively until the ending. I remember reading about Neruda’s work from the 1930’s. It was described as a startling contrast to the later (perhaps more familiar) orphic celebrations of the Odas Elementales (1954/5). So in Residencia en la terra (1933/5) there is a disordering of the world: objects, sense and nature offer glimpses only, fleeting, in a procession towards death. In them, the human signifies little, all is transient, the world works by laws not of our understanding, excluding us. It’s like Eliot’s Prufrock where “the evening is spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table” and in such a deracinated state, objects are strangers and the “I” becomes a shadow. In its small way, this is what ‘Viewing a Room’ is about: the death in life of deracinated being, up-rooted, detached, loveless – hence that scary, clinical “puritan lamp”. I emulated Larkin’s work a great deal in my early writing and perhaps this poem was unconsciously engaging (or disengaging) with his example: don’t stay in the Philip Larkin room. I don’t think I have done. I’m sure Rilke is partly to be thanked for that.
In On Whistler Mountain (1994) there are a considerable variety of approaches to life. I was especially taken with the brief sequence ‘Shoes’. These read very much like occasional or, even, exercise poems. But, somehow, they draw one in as all good poems do. Could you respond to these comments?
Humour is marvellous in poems when it works and I did set about this contrasting ‘pair’ partly with that in mind. So they are exercise poems to some extent. But I knew at the time of writing that these two represented important poles of my work, even my life. In recent years, I’ve come to think of them in terms of Raphael’s painting ‘The School of Athens’ (1509-10). There, Plato points a finger heavenwards to suggest his theory of Ideas and the value of abstraction while Aristotle walks beside him, his hand reaching out through the plane of the picture, palm downwards, as if he is about to lay hold of an object, a thing. Empirical Aristotle’s my man really – as we discussed earlier – but the tension between these two modes of being, of understanding is always unresolved. So the sandals represent winged flight along the locus of Plato’s finger: “how can I not love them / for the whorls and weather-systems / on which I walk?” The counter-balancing force is a pair of muddy walking boots which evoke Aristotle’s, Antaeus-like, link to the earth, to the thinginess of our lives: “what do they talk about? / ‘Look around – there is plenty to love!’”
Last year you produced a pamphlet The Time We Turned (Shearsman). I think I perceive a definite development from what I termed earlier ‘the forensic’, to the more decidedly contemplative. I was intrigued, too, by the sonnets inspired by a Spanish writer. Who is, or was, Rosalia de Castro?
She published Gallician Songs in 1863. A woman, writing in her native Galician (as against the dominant Castilian of Madrid), she drew on folk tales and people and places she knew and it was this radical decision to focus on locality, the ordinary, the little things (and in part that meant women’s experiences) that drew me to her work. I wanted to write some poems in a ‘conversation’ with her, describing her own landscapes of North West Spain in my language, a modest tribute to her: “if it’s true something eludes / that grace in singing’s not within your reach // then love of small things must see you through— / what else can you do”.
These poems – actually all my poems – are also obsessed with time and the Shearsman pamphlet contains three longer narrative pieces too. I was lucky enough to publish a chapbook with Worple around the same time. A Hatfield Mass is also really a dialogue of sorts, this time with the work of Henry Moore with which I found my thoughts and lines rhyming in the fluidity and physicality of his pieces set in an English landscape. I eventually arrived at the idea of a Mass (a secular Mass) because I found myself praising both the body (most of Moore’s pieces are large reclining female figures) and their interaction with the details of the external world. I have abandoned most forms of punctuation in recent work and these poems benefitted from that, moving (I hope) seamlessly from inner to outer, past to present, from acute observation of the many (what the Daodejing calls the ‘ten thousand things’ of this world) to an awareness (however uncertain and fleeting) of the One.
It is very interesting that your forensic probing of being and the material things of being led you to become a translator of Rilke. Could you say something about that particular development?
Those two recent pamphlets seem (to me at least) to have Rilke’s fingerprints all over them. And yet I knew shamefully little of Rilke before the mid-1990s when I was asked to read aloud the ninth of the Duino Elegies for an event celebrating his work. Your question implies it was surprising that I was drawn to Rilke, but the ninth Elegy is the great paean to “being here” in this world, surrounded by these objects. In my translation, Rilke urges: “Praise this world to the angel, not some / inexpressible other”. So the Rilke I stumbled on first of all was not the quasi-mystical one that so many people admire, it was the poet of this world, of “die Dinge”, of things. Even the grief-stricken opening of the whole sequence with its astonishing existential angst, only takes 14 lines to reach “a specific tree on a hillside”.
Here’s the opening of ‘The Duino Elegies’: ‘Wer, wenn Ich schriee, hörte mich den aus der Engel/ Ordnungen? Und gesetz selbst, es nähme/ einer mich plötzlich ans Herz: ich vergringe von seinem/ stärkeren Dasein.’ In the Leishman-Spender translation of these lines we get:
‘Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic
orders? And even if one of them suddenly
pressed me against his heart, I should fade in the strength of his
In your translation we get:
‘Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the ranks
of the angels? Even if one of them clasped me
suddenly to his heart, I’d wither in the face
of his more fierce existence.’
The difference that most strikes me is your verse is less musical but closer to the contemporary demotic: the insertion of the word ‘out’ and the expanding of’ the angelic orders’ to ‘the ranks of the angels’. Similarly the immediate following ‘Denn das Schöne ist nichts/ als des Schrecklichen Anfang’ in the Leishman-Spender translation is ‘For Beauty’s nothing but the beginning of Terror’, where your version is padded out in a more prose direction: ‘For their beauty/ is really nothing but the first stirring of a terror’. What do you think?
It’s less conventionally musical perhaps. But I hear an appropriate music in those lines as I give them. William Gass, in his book Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation (Basic Books, 1999), considers no fewer than 15 versions of Rilke’s 11 opening words. Is he merely crying or crying out? How are the angels deployed? Are they in “angelic orders”, “amid the host of the angels”, “among the hierarchy of angels”, “the order of the angels”, “among the ranked Angels”, or “among the Dominions of Angels”? In such company, my own version runs the risk of a watery plainness but it has the advantage of clarity, it echoes the rhythm, syntax and line break of the original closely, and (remembering my first encounter with Rilke demanded oral performance) the line has a satisfying sonic quality. I hear in the first phrases high, thin vowels that contrast the second half’s weightier, assonantal ‘a’ sounds: the cry of alienated humanity contrasts the solid, seemingly impregnable powers that lie beyond our reach. I later moved on to translate Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, an even greater test given the formal constraints. But even there, I worked hard to allow the poems in English to sing, using rhyme and half-rhyme, though not always in the precise patterns of Rilke’s originals.
The BBC, like to have a few names of poets whom they can always consult as ‘experts’ when anything to do with poetry comes up. A development of this practice has been the promotion of a chosen number of poets, by the Poetry Book Society and the Poetry Society, to be the representatives of a decade or generation. Thus restricting the public perception of poetry to a chosen few means not only the application of something approaching a closed shop but, also, the ignoring of any question of value: the ignoring of the matter of critical assessment of the poetry of the chosen few and, by extension, ignoring the need for evaluation of the work of poets on the scene in general. Do you think this is a correct view of the way things are in the U.K poetry world today?
It’s too easy to feel neglected in the world of poetry. Most people feel that way as far as I can see. The more one’s life is shaped by the need to write poems, the more one longs for a responsive audience for them. None of us want to look too foolish when it comes to last things. But I started writing out of an unhappy place and most of us write out of wounds and inadequacies of some kind (do the truly well-adjusted spend their lives doing this?). For myself, the activity of writing is one of the things that has made my life so much happier, whether or not the end results get reviewed. Yes, there are cabals, there is back-stabbing, there is injustice and there are prize-givings at which one looks askance. The years are the best panel of evaluating judges.
Finally, here’s a question I have never asked an interviewee before. Which of your volumes of poetry would you most recommend?
Always the most recent – which logically means the one I am now engaged on, even the one I plan to write next year. In lieu of those rather hard-to-get volumes, I’d suggest the two chapbooks from Worple and Shearsman and looking to Spring 2016, I’m delighted that Enitharmon are bringing out my new version of the 81 poems in ancient Chinese called the Daodejing, usually attributed to Laozi.