Your latest collection of poems, ‘Exemplary Damages’, has just been published by the Anvil Press, whereas your first collection, ‘Kist’, was published by The Dolmen Press 20 years ago. How have you changed as a poet over that period?
The first book had two essential styles: one a very short, crystalline, imagistic style and the other a more discursive style. The style that has won out is the discursive, which surprises me because I am more sympathetic to the former. That is where I feel most at home and I have been trying to make my way back there ever since, though largely failing. There are moments in all the collections when I revert to that style, but it has eluded me to some extent. ‘Kist’ is my least favourite book, but I do still value its approach to writing. It had an underlying notion of poetry as something very concise and almost visual. I love the idea of a poem that you can take in at a single glance.
What do you mean by a discursive style?
When I say discursive I am talking about the rather digressive nature of the subject-matter; also, the language used is those poems is much more conversational and contemporary. It is standard, in thinking and talking about poetry nowadays, to suggest that one should always write in the language of one’s time. I am sympathetic to that idea, to some extent, but I wonder if it doesn’t risk a sort of built-in obsolescence which will date very quickly, with its contemporary modish phrases, brand names and allusions to TV shows. At the same time, language – properly handled – acts as a kind of time capsule. If you look at a piece of old news footage, what is often interesting is not the foreground where the main story features, but the fuzzy background where you notice people’s hair styles, or cars, or clothes, or whatever. If you are using discursive language carefully, and not manipulating it in such a way as to seem self-consciously streetwise or up-to-the-second, it should faithfully preserve the period. It remains interesting because it allows the reader to recreate a sense of what that time was really like. A poem must have a time element, but also a timeless element. It has to be eternal and yet contain a contemporary dimension as well. The objects to which the language refers may be transitory and ephemeral; but underlying them – if the poem is to have any durability – should be something much more lasting, more timeless.
Why do you write poetry?
What I like most about poetry is that it is always doing something more than just using the language to transmit information. The fact that it uses imagery and rhythm so much gives it another dimension altogether. A poem might appear to be about some banal topic, such as walking along a road, but the real poem might lie concealed in its music and rhythm, or in its imagery. The combination of the narrative, musical and imagistic elements of the poem should, ideally, transform it from being simply a poem about something which you could paraphrase into something which is beyond paraphrasing. For me, poetry is probably the most difficult of the arts and the one in which it is most difficult to succeed. It is also one in which I myself normally fail. The stakes are so high, because they amount to nothing less than an aspiration to absolute truth; so there is a constant drive to return again and again to see if you can bring all of these dimensions into some kind of unison, in which you transform the material into something immaterial.
Do you consider the poems that you are writing now to fall within a continuity of concerns, or have you re-evaluated and altered your focus of interest?
Everybody has certain preoccupations that they return to. To be a poet is to almost invariably fail, and perhaps always to fail. You might find that, book after book, not even one poem has achieved what, in your deepest aspirations, you felt that it should achieve. As the critic Helen Vendler says, it is such an improbable thing to write a poem. What might look sometimes like an obsession is often something more modest, namely a return to the fray, in order to revisit a particular preoccupation, though from a somewhat different angle of vision, or indeed from a different stage of your own experience of life and literature. Each time you return to a theme you return differently, because you are a different person. In doing so, you are actually trying to write that definitive but elusive poem. That said, my thematic field has undoubtedly widened over the years.
Does a poem like ‘Germ Warfare’, in the current collection, suggest that you are becoming harder and less tolerant as you grow older?
A poem like ‘Germ Warfare’ is intended to be nothing other than comic. The issue is one of tone, and my poems are often considered to be more serious than they actually are. When I read them aloud, people realise that there is a large comic element running through them, but this clownish vein isn’t always apparent on the page. Therefore, people take me to be more earnest and grim than I really am.
Do poems come to you by way of flashes of inspiration, or do you set out to write on given themes at pre-determined times?
I would never set out deliberately to write a poem. In fact, I stand accused of doing everything possible to deter myself from writing. I have held a busy civil service job since the age of sixteen and I also do a great deal of reviewing and radio work. I am convinced that inspiration is an absolutely essential element in any art form, and indeed it brings a welcome draught of spontaneity and imagination to every sphere of life.
The opening lines of ‘Couples’, from your ‘Long Story Short’ 1993 collection, talk of ‘The frail economies those cars contain/small hatchbacks bought on term loans’. In their simplicity, these words seem to sum up a central concern of much of your poetry, that of people’s uncertain existence between meaningful and meaningless lives, an existence that most people seem to teeter on in the Western world.
Behind that poem lies concern and compassion, but here again a tonal risk arises. The last thing I would ever wish to be is condescending; and I would want to immediately reconsider – even revise – any poems in which that appeared to be a danger. One of the fundamental emotions in my poetry is empathy. I have the deepest sense of compassion for the bewilderment that people feel when forced to face, on a daily basis, all of the daunting things that life throws at them.
The whole of Part 1 of the new collection, and especially the first six poems, might give readers new to your work a deep sense of depression. They might not feel ‘entertained’ by the experience of reading them.
I would like the poems to be enjoyable on some level, but not entertaining in the passive sense. I would be disappointed if the poems were not entertaining at the level of language and playfulness, and of rhythm and so on, or if people didn’t feel engaged with the work. I hope that they would find the poems cathartic in some way, because I am trying not to flinch from reality, though I am not trying to paint it any blacker than it is, either.
You seem to be profoundly in awe of nature, with many arresting moments described throughout all the collections. Where do you stand in the man v. nature debate?
Sometimes writers feel that their psyche is risked or threatened by toying with darker subjects, because they themselves are – as indeed many creative people famously are – vulnerable to darker moods; as poets, they may produce work that is over-sentimental or over-celebratory, which seems to me to be unconvincing or evasive. The flashes of inspiration that I spoke of earlier stimulate poems in which, ideally, you see the world momentarily lit with clarity. These are split-second truths, truths that say ‘Here is one way of looking at the world, one that provides you with some fundamental insights.’ Nature, as we know it, is full of cruelty and waste; but, through nature, we also paradoxically arrive at a momentary understanding of the redeeming aspects of the world. The compensatory elements that exist in the world are often represented in my work by the shorthand of natural phenomena.
Do you have faith in either God or progress? The poems ‘Exemplary Damages’ and ‘Missing God’ would suggest that if you ever had, you no longer do.
In these uncertain and secular times, I’m not sure what I believe; but I do suspect that there is some greater presence irradiating the universe. I feel a profound sense of mystery; and the more science reveals, the more of that mystery is revealed. Vaclav Havel talks about an ultimate horizon, a force larger than ourselves, something that would equip us with a basis for ethical living. I would tend to agree with Havel that, when human beings banish God from the world, they make gods of themselves. This is the foul rag-and-bone shop where many contemporary problems start.
Published in The Event Guide, 4-17 December 2002