Portrait by VIC (Cristina Ioana Vianu)
-- JOHN FULLER
-- JOHN FULLER
The idea is the great hull that gets you launched
Interview with JOHN FULLER (born 1 January 1937), British poet
Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006
LIDIA VIANU: You have one faith in poetry, and that is irony. Would you say that connects or separates you from your contemporaries? Most critics talk about Postmodernism when they deal with poetry after the 1950s. I prefer to state that irony is the major mood of the Desperado, who can be a poet or a novelist, equally. I shall soon define my idea of a Desperado. To begin with, do you subscribe to irony as the essential attitude?
JOHN FULLER: It is only Europeans who find English poetry ironic. To the British, the manner feels much more like common decency, ie. not shouting in public. It informs our whole tradition from Dryden to Auden (and after). But the poem itself as an artefact is also by nature ‘reserved’ in its turn: if the ordinary discourse of feeling is like the cash in your pocket, then literature is like double-entry book-keeping. Poets are the financiers and swindlers of literature, and the poem is only an invention. The great creative idea is nothing like the wage packet of common experience.
But perhaps for me the ‘essential attitude’ is something more basic even than irony. It is the conviction that a good poem takes some irresolvable complication, worries it to death like a dog with a bone, and leaves it still unresolved. The pleasure of the poem lies entirely in the worrying, the verbal growling and play. Life itself stubbornly remains entirely like a bone.
LV. Your poems are, all in all, a demonstration in earnest of how to take everything lightly, experience of life and poetry included. Your mask is that of comedy, but it hides so much psychological insight and so many stories that cling to life. Is poetry a game for you? Is rhyme a challenge or just a teasing device?
JF. Games are as serious as poems are unserious. Nobody quite believes either of these propositions, but the activities are really very close. I have had heart-thumping dreams in which my emotional life was played out as a kind of abstract drama with pieces, like a de Chirico, indeed like chess. The imagery of much modern art implicitly requires its own rules of interpretation. Some of the best computer games are moving inexorably towards the state of interinvolving fiction, where the notions ‘reader’ and ‘player’ are blurred (e.g. The moral choice at the end of Myst, where the player, who is already in the story, plays a crucial part in his or her own ending). We need this imagined secondary activity. We know it works for us. We mustn’t pretend that it serves us directly in life itself.
The question about rhyme is a red-herring: all poetry needs a metric of some kind, and rhyme may be (as one wishes or not) an aspect of the metric. Milton fought against it in epic poetry over 300 years ago. I have written whole collections of poetry without rhyme. But the sort of thing that rhyme does can still be done afresh. It doesn’t have to tease. It is functional. And it can be beautiful.
LV. Most poets wail or grin. You do neither. You debunk. Whenever a mood is in sight and menaces the poem to take hold of the lines, you debunk it. This is, to my mind, a very Desperado feature, and one which you illustrate in perfect form, which is really rare. You are a consistent debunker. Which would you say your favourite poetic mood was?
JF. The commonest poetic moods for many English poets is the philosophical. But it is a great danger. It was crucially a fatal temptation in the 19th century in this country. Its danger obsessed Keats. Hallam warned Tennyson against it. In some ways it ground Arnold to a halt. Auden fell into it when he was being (as he called it) ‘woozy’. But some lyric poets exploit it wonderfully: Wordsworth, Hardy, Housman. I would like to think that the philosophical mood was still possible without being either obvious or sententious, and in more recent collections like The Grey among the Green or Stones and Fires I am aware of attempting this. ‘Debunking’ sounds very cynical. I think maybe one sub-mode of the philosophical for me is something to do with wistful acceptance.
LV. History is your major refuge. Whenever you need action, you sink into earlier centuries, and there, surprise, you find contemporary vices. The trick is not new, yet your mood is. Shakespeare did not mock at his sources. You are a Desperado, so you take more liberties. You cherish a good subject for poetic gossip, you worship mockery, you flirt with sympathy all along. Conflictual creation is another Desperado feature. Do you recognize yourself in this description or am I putting words in your mouth?
JF. I’m at a loss here. I don’t know what ‘conflictual creation’ means. I really don’t believe that I mock my sources. Nor do I shirk contemporary vices. To kill both these points with one statement: the longest poem I have written, The Illusionists, is an admiring tribute to the Russian poet whose invented stanza I borrowed (Pushkin), and also has a contemporary setting (involving Middle-Eastern oil crooks, art-forgery, transvestism, etc).
LV. A Desperado means to look tough. Or, in other words, ironical. A poem like Alex at the Barber’s betrays you, showing us how tenderness can peep from behind the grin or just smile. Do you see yourself as a sensitive or biting poet?
JF. I hope that I am a writer of many moods, many of them invented or ventriloquised in poems that are fictions (or in my novels and stories, for that matter). I have certainly never thought of appearing to be tough in my own voice.
Now look, I am having trouble with your idea of the ‘Desperado’, since I understand the word to mean the reckless outlaw in Westerns, the renegado who (usually with a small team of unshaven cronies) has to be defeated at the end of the film by the lonely or abandoned lawman in the vacated streets of the town. It seems to me that the writer in this symbolic scenario is much more like the mildly drunk newspaper proprietor or bar-tender of the town, a shrewd commentator perhaps, but someone who keeps his head down when the shooting starts.
LV. I detect traces of Joyce (Dubliners and not only), Yeats, Byron in your poems. Not many influences can be pinpointed. What poets could be said to be your models? What contemporary poets do you feel you belong with?
JF. Eliot, Graves, Auden, Stevens were predictable early influences. Milton, Marvell, Pope, Byron, Browning, Clough rather later. Loads of others, of course. This is the sort of question that is hard to be particular about without simply being listy and boring. But very often for me it is a poem not a poet that becomes a ‘model’, like the Burns Stanza or the stanza that Wordsworth invented for Peter Bell.
LV. In my image of one, a Desperado is that writer who is similar to the other Desperado writers precisely by his obvious dissimilarity. A Desperado wants to be, or is involuntarily unlike everybody else, and hates being grouped, defined, questioned, understood theoretically. Most interviews so far have been rather grumbling. Do you like/ dislike/ hate interviews?
JF. A critic or a literary historian can always create a group for the most unclubbable of poets. It depends upon the critical or historical point being made. And I would guess that you are right in implying that most poets hate the idea of being so grouped. They would each like to believe that they are unique. Poetry isn’t a team game, where poets sit glumly on the reserve benches until the manager gives them a chance. Critics like to be managers. That’s what they do. But the poets are simply playing their own game all the time. I don’t mind interviews at all, because it isn’t like being interviewed for a job. My game will go on, whatever gets said.
LV. One of your lines asks, ‘unteach me language’. That is what you do to your readers: you unteach them poetry. You argue with all their expectations. You are the jester and the X-ray man at the same time. You see through both life and art. What is most dear to your soul, the one element you do not toy with?
JF. The toy is a model of reality that helps the child to learn how to deal with that reality. To a great extent, therefore, poetry acts in the same way by allowing one to play constructively, learning through pleasure. And there must be pleasure in reading about the most difficult or painful things. So ‘toying’ doesn’t contradict the compulsiveness of the eternal problems we all experience and have to face. Indeed, having to face the unfaceable is something that poets are particularly conscious of, I think. We must try to understand it. Though it would be absurd to imagine that we could or should ‘see through’ it. Our creaturely condition and all the physical and temporal constraints upon that condition are not things that can suddenly be exposed, like a conjuror’s trick. I suppose all this is at bottom a stoic philosophy.
LV. Some Desperado poets are either confessive (mostly women, and then they excel at being their sensuous, sensitive, captivating selves) or, quite the reverse, shut tight, rejecting shared emotion, hiding behind the game of words. It seems to me you are the only one so far who manages to do both. Your face is both smiling and affectionate. What do you expect from your reader, how would you like to be perceived?
JF. I don’t particularly have any ambition to be ‘perceived’ as a personality in my own work. The process that looks, in your terms, like ‘confessing’ or ‘hiding’ is a complex business of distilling and dramatising one’s experience of life. This process is much clearer in novels. Looking back on my own, I can see that there is at times a deliberate choice of an inactive hero, whose weaknesses are exposed by the painful things that happen to him (the Abbot in Flying to Nowhere, Hugh in Tell It Me Again, or Rudolf, Romuald and Radim in Look Twice) but equally I have been interested in the hero who simply endures in adversity (Burroughs in The Burning Boys, Grete in Look Twice, Mair in A Skin Diary, or Letty in The Memoirs of Laetitia Horsepole). I expect it is significant that most of these are women. Grete and Letty are positively feisty.
Now this is true of the poems as well. Contrast my chess-players in ‘The Most Difficult Position’ with Annie in ‘Annie Upside Down’ for example. Many of the voices in the poems are less obviously fictional or dramatic than this, but are not directly mine, nevertheless. I was very conscious of the example of Browning in the 1970s. And I have since then gone on writing poems that are more like fantastical short stories. Some of my short-stories (in The Worm and the Star) conversely have many of the characteristics of my poems.
Even the poems in my ‘own’ voice, like the Epistles or some of the longer meditations of the last fifteen years, are public in an 18th century sense or are dramatised (like ‘The College Ghost’). Some shorter lyrics here and there are in an intimate and personal voice, I grant. Usually these are written for the particular eye of another, person to person.
LV. You teach English literature, I think. What is the age you specialize in and does it bear any influence on your poems?
JF. I specialized in early 18th century literature as a graduate, and have written or lectured on poets of that period such as King, Pope, Gay, Philips and Prior. Prior was the dedicatee of The Illusionists and his influence can, I’m sure, be detected there. I wrote, but never published, a long Dunciad-like poem in the mid-1960s. For the last thirty years I have been much more concerned with teaching 19th and 20th century literature. I don’t think that the fact of teaching authors of this period (as opposed to simply reading them, I mean) has had much influence, though I was late coming to an extensive reading of Browning, and this was in response to the syllabus.
However, one always wants to recommend to the young the writers one particularly likes, and they in turn can communicate their own fresh enthusiasms, so that there may be a complex of reciprocal influences. Quite often one pursues some line of reading, either for teaching purposes or not, and it suggests some way of proceeding in one’s own writing. I might never have read Gautier without Eliot’s interest in him. A pupil of mine reminded me about Meredith. I was compelled to lecture on Shelley when a young lecturer at Manchester, and without that sort of basis I doubt that I would have been able to introduce him into Laetitia Horsepole and write those ‘missing’ bits of ‘The Witch of Atlas’. A fierce kind of ‘catching-up’ reading of Henry James clearly influenced me in Tell It Me Again, useful for the American setting. And so on, and so on.
LV. For the readers who do not know you, could you sketch your biography (birth date, education, profession)?
JF. I was born on 1 January 1937 in Kent, where my father was working as a solicitor. I largely lived with my mother at her own mother’s house in Blackpool during the war (some of my life there is used in The Burning Boys). My father achieved his first real reputation as a writer with his war poetry. I was, of course, aware of his literary life from early on, and when I started to write myself, contrived various ploys of self-protective independence. His attitude was perfect: no indulgence, but plenty of technical advice. He died in 1991, and I have much missed the typescripts of my books passing under his friendly but strict eye. He would always say if he disliked what I was up to (some of the weirder surrealist fantasies of my youth, or my sententiousness, for example). I did the same for him, and I believe that he found it useful.
I went to St. Paul’s School in London. Although I boarded it, it was largely a day-school, and for that reason relatively relaxed and civilized. I spent a lot of time making films as well as writing. Throughout my two years in the RAF I was still keen on making films, although I had a book of poems ready in the late 1950s. Luckily it didn’t get published until it (and I) had matured a bit. I read English under John Bayley at New College, Oxford, and edited the plays of John Gay as a graduate. I married in 1960 (and am very happily married still, with three daughters and two grandsons), published the collection of poems in 1961, and got my first job, as Visiting Lecturer at the State University of New York at Buffalo, in 1962. I helped Ian Hamilton to start The Review at that time (I had edited Isis at Oxford, and had long contemplated a magazine). Something of the entrepreneurial side of the literary life had always fascinated me: in 1968 my wife and I started a private press with an old treadle printing press that had been used for printing the cricket scores in the Oxford University Parks. The Sycamore Press lasted for 25 years, publishing the first work of young poets like James Fenton as well as interesting obscurities from older poets (including Auden’s ballad ‘Sue’ and Larkin’s rare version of Baudelaire).
By this time I had spent three years teaching in Frank Kermode’s department at Manchester, and had a fellowship at Magdalen College, Oxford, from 1966. I have been there ever since, and retire this year. As a tutor, I have always tried to encourage students who were writers. During these 35 years I have written poetry, novels, short stories, texts for music, children’s books, and academic books. I have also been active as an editor. I am a Fellow of the Royal Society for Literature. I have won, amongst others, the Whitbread Prize and the Forward Prize, and have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. The only other biographical circumstance that may be relevant is that since 1969 we have spent a good deal of time in our cottage near Llanaelhaearn in North Wales, and I have done much writing there. I am a keen, though very modest, player of correspondence chess, and as well as playing in the BCCA each year I have enjoyed games with other writers such as the novelists William Golding and David Benedictus, the journalist Anthony Curtis and the poet Harold Massingham. My longest struggles are with the retired Magdalen Physics Tutor, Dirk ter Haar. I play the piano persistently but badly, and consider music the senior and supreme art. One of my daughters is a lecturer in music at the University of Reading, the second is the first violinist of the Duke String Quartet, and the third is an artist and playwright, but all three play the instruments of their girlhood (flute, violin and violin) and we have sessions with friends at Christmas.
LV. How much of your family life leaks into your poems? Do you believe in showing the reader intimate feelings?
JF. I think I have really answered this question earlier. ‘Leaking’ is an interesting notion. You certainly can’t keep life in a water-tight compartment. The poems in Waiting for the Music are perhaps relevant examples. They are ‘about’ persistence; their occasions are musical; but family life certainly leaks into them. I trust that sogginess is, however, not detectable.
LV. Your novel, The Memoirs of Laetitia Horsepole, by Herself, is inhabited by the same mocking elf as your poems. You love masks. A poet got very angry with me when I said this. Fact is that for the Desperado poet each poem is a new mask. The Desperado needs to baffle his reader and you do that while charming him off his feet. If questioned by a novice in poetry, what would you point as a key to good writing?
JF. Masks: of course. We all still write in the shadow of Browning, Yeats, Pound and Eliot. But ‘mask’ is perhaps an unfortunate translation of the ‘persona’, because it suggests the evasive (the burglar) or the frivolous (the masquerade). It isn’t either of those. It is fruitful impersonation, a testing of the self by imagining another. The best masks are very close in some crucial respect to the writers wearing them. Choosing a mask is a difficult thing, because it is largely intuitive, and always a risk.
Charming, yes, as in casting spells. Baffling, perhaps, since as Mallarmé famously said, poetry is three-quarters puzzle. I always say to beginning poets that the thing is to have a good idea. The idea is the great hull that gets you launched: everything else (the cargo; the route; paint, sails and flags) comes next.