Saturday, 23 February 2008


Could you introduce 'Dancing out of the Dark Side'?

The obvious question is why, after a good start, and involvement in the poetry world, did I stop after my third book and haven't done another until now, 26 years later? I felt that I had lost my sense of direction with my second book. (Though on looking back, the future was there in those poems really, but overlooked.) I was also seduced by prose. Philip Hobsbaum warned me again and again that I was making a mistake. But I wanted to be a 'full time', totally occupied writer and not have to do another job. Now everything looks different. Two to five years on a novel seems to have been such a toil, for one thing. Lately, too, it has seemed clearer to me what I truly want to do, when focussed. I made lots of false starts with poems again - lots of sending out a premature collection and thereby spoiling the pitch as it were - you are lucky these days to get a publisher to look at a collection once, let alone twice, no matter how much altered. Besides which, after my quarter of a century's absence, so many had never heard of me, and so many of my peers have died. I am fortunate to be here and still doing it. Quite a few of the poems are 'love' poems by the way, either overtly as this term is usually understood, or in a more hidden way, and I think they express a love of life that I feel - so I feel good at having that streak at seventy. The poems have been coming at an increasing rate in the last few years.

Could you introduce 'The Summer the Dictators Fell'?

A few years ago there was an exceptionally beautiful summer - global warming having made West Yorkshire where I live almost like a Mediterranean country. I was getting up at dawn, and was inspired to go back to notes that I'd made in 1974-5 when I was living in Greece during the chaotic years of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus and subsequent collapse of the Greek Junta. I had been married to a Greek then, so I was involved at family level. My notes were as chaotic as the times, but with perspective a series of stories now emerged. They are mostly about living in a family, or wandering the countryside, encountering people, - with the political events as the context, rather than the subject of the stories. The publisher made a very fine production of it but failed in sending out review copies, or in distribution in any effective sense, so the book was hardly noticed, but I think there is much of the best writing of my career in it.

Robert Graves has influenced a lot of poets, especially with 'The White Goddess'. A lot of the scholarship behind 'The White Goddess' has long been questioned. Has your assessment of Graves changed over the years? I'm assuming that he was an influence on your first novel, 'Where I Used to Play on the Green'.

You could also add as "influences" such sceptics and realists as E.P.Thompson, and other radical historians. Whether his scholarship is right or wrong, Graves had meaningful insights. Even if fanciful, it led to a stimulating definition of poetry and art, and of our general relationship to what we call 'nature'.
I also bear in mind what Henry Moore said about the danger of an artist 'knowing' too much, about his art, and perhaps about himself in the psychological way. If an artist knows too much, what needs to be inspired discovery that thrills the viewer or reader, becomes mannered according to a pre-ordained scheme.

Picking up on our general relationship to what we call 'nature', you described a rural landscape in the Yorksghire of 'Millstone Grit' that was as derelict as the adjacent industrial landscape. Thirty years later do you see it differently - i.e. have you changed, has it changed, or both? Are there any signs of anything positive growing out of the dereliction?

'Millstone Grit' was written in the early 1970s and the Pennine hills were as derelict and polluted then as the industrial towns. There has been a transformation since. The soot that coated even the highest places has largely been washed away, and everywhere Nature has shown its capacity to heal itself. Farming as it used to be has almost disappeared though. Dairy cattle have been replaced by the horse-riding business. I am told for instance that there are now more horses in the Calder Valley (where I live) than at any time in the past! This is a well-heeled commuter district for Leeds, Manchester etc. now. There are horrors that come with this which I won't go into, but generally speaking the Calder Valley has probably never looked better since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Nor been, perhaps, a happier place. Ironically, while the erstwhile 'rural districts' of England have been desecrated by industrial-scale farming, here where hardly any pesticides and herbicides are used (with the exception of on the lanesides by the local Council!) the flowers and bird-life have flourished. I too have changed with it all.For the time being, I've had most (not all) of my say about its material and spiritual history, I think, at any rate in the manner of the earlier books. That doesn't mean I won't ever get back to it - I had a 'dead central theme' as Ted Hughes told me - and I've left it unfinished.

Poetry wrecks lives. It breaks up relationships, makes people ill or mad, wastes intelligence and talent, ruins careers, often keeps people poor and lonely and is completely ignored by most people on the planet. It would be a lot easier to write advertising jingles or relatively unchallenging pop lyrics, and there might even be money in it. What keeps people under the influence of poetry?

I wish I knew. At bottom no artists have ever been able to explain why they become absorbed and make sacrifices for art. If you say 'sense of duty to a gift' even that doesn't get you very far. I've wriggled so much in the net of poetry, done so many other things, but it seems I've failed to escape in the end! The alternatives you mention, incidentally, are not that 'easy' to indulge in, because to do them you have to be absorbed in and find congenial a particular metier and profession. I skirted away from what bit of film scripting I dallied with as soon as I realised it wasn't at all a writer's medium: as radio drama, for instance, is. (By the way, I think radio drama is very close to writing poetry, and I love it. It's condensed, its aural, it relies on the spaces between words, and so on.) Ted Hughes blamed the bowel cancer that killed him on his having deserted his poetic muse for so many years in order to write his great prose book on Shakespeare. Bearing that in mind, I guess I'm lucky to find it in me to be writing quite a lot of poetry, even though I don't find my life at all easy these years. But that's not because of poetry. I don't think by the way that poetry 'wastes intelligence and talent' - that seems a strange statement to make, and quite untrue - nor that 'poetry wrecks lives, etc etc'. Such lives would occur anyway, and do, without poetry. Poetry helps one NOT to be wrecked. Poetry is about sanity. Hopefully.

How did it all start? You've described your background in 'Millstone Grit' – council estate next to Cheshire countryside, the radio programmes, 'Out with Romany', bookish working class dad who was a trade unionist, Mr Murdoch who was your guide to country lore, etc. What is it about poetry that gets through to some people at a critical and perhaps vulnerable age - like a religious experience?

These are some of the questions I am trying to tackle and articulate in The Anima Octet - the poem (now reached 150 pages) that I am writing at the moment. The natural world was a mysterious enlargement to that cramped misery that I associated with council-house life, and art was the only satisfying way of containing it, of exploring it. Art paralleled that reach into a larger existence. Some felt it, or felt it through different channels, and some didn't.
I wish that the lure to the countryside could be as easily satisfied by children today. It was a very Lawrentian way, which we shared with many, but it was very male too - not exclusively so, but on balance.

What do you think of 'the poetry scene' at present in the UK?

I don't think about it very much. It's huge. One of the easiest ways of making money today is to hold a poetry competition, because thousands will post in their multi-fivers, using their verses like lottery tickets to fame. On the other hand, my present poetry publisher tells me that according to the Poetry Society 70 copies is now an average sale for a new poetry book! It seems that the 'scene' consists largely of millions of solipsistic egos, but much less actual interest in the art. Perhaps the difference to the past is that large numbers write it rather than read it. A sociologist might be more illuminating on 'the poetry scene' than a poet.
One thing I observe is that few will turn to current poetry for spiritual nourishment, for there is little of it (there is some), in the way they might turn to some painting or music, say to that of Arvo Part. What counts most in the 'scene' seems to be versified journalism, a versified opinion-piece, or a personal complaint of some kind, or at best, something 'radically' political. This is ok - there is room for everything - but popular reputations for poets and therefore the notion of what poetry is, are made from that, not from the spiritual element which is ultimately satisfying. Poetry should be an antidote to journalism. Unlike journalism, poetry crucially goes beyond what it overtly or obviously 'says'. To expect only the latter of poetry is to degrade it - though some big reputations are made by doing so.
One should write so as to reach through the form, into a mystery. I think we live in a bad age for poetry when, as in other bad ages, while the commonplaces are distributed ad nauseam, much of the enduring survives, if it can do so, in the shadows somewhere else. Think of G.M.Hopkins. John Clare. So who knows … actually … what is going on, and where it is?


leeeli said...

Love the new updated website! And very much looking forward to the start of your blogging on 28th. Will read with interest your thoughts and comments.

David Caddy said...

I shall certainly be reading your blog with interest and pleasure. Good to see you here.