Portrait by VIC (Cristina Ioana Vianu)
LIDIA VIANU -- LAWRENCE SAIL
Perhaps we live in the aftermath of Romanticism
Interview with LAWRENCE SAIL (born 29 October 1942), British poet
LIDIA VIANU: Reading your poetry makes the reader feel like a peeping Tom. For a long time it struck me dumb. I could not ask questions. Every line was like a very personal confession. I felt I could not talk about it. Taking the reader into your confidence to such an extent makes you differ significantly from your contemporaries. You swim against the current. Do you feel different from your contemporary poetry?
LAWRENCE SAIL: Not really, given that contemporary poetry has such variety (though I do think that we live in the aftermath of Romanticism more than we would like to admit, and maybe that is part of the answer). You characterize my work as ‘personal confession’, but while many of the poems take off from personal experience, I certainly don’t see them in this way, at least insofar as the phrase suggests a rather self-indulgent outpouring. I hope that they are better than this.
LV. Who are your literary friends? Do you think you belong to a trend? Would you venture a name for the group you may belong to? Any common features with other poets?
LS. I certainly don’t think of myself as belonging to a group. I enjoy poems which operate at least within sight of the craft of the art. Among my contemporaries I much admire the work of Douglas Dunn, Carolyn Forché, Seamus Heaney, Ted Hughes (for the sheer energy of his work), Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, Derek Walcott, as well as that of David Constantine, Elizabeth Garrett, Jane Griffiths, John Mole, Peter Porter, Peter Scupham, Pauline Stainer and George Szirtes. The trouble with roll calls of names is that they are usually incomplete, and a rather inadequate kind of shorthand. Tomorrow I shall think of other names I want to include. Amongst much younger poets, Jacob Polley and Sally Read are writers whose work I have encountered and found interesting.
LV. Who were your masters? Whom do you read most? Do you read your contemporaries? I guess you do. Is contemporary poetry to your liking?
LS. More roll-calling ! Masters and mistresses – among these would certainly be W.H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Blake, Emily Dickinson, John Donne, T.S. Eliot, Goethe, George Herbert, Louis MacNeice, Mandelstam, Rilke, Rimbaud and Yeats. I read some of my contemporaries, but it seems to be a feature of time passing that it is harder and harder to keep up properly. The position is hardly helped by the marked decrease in the reviewing of poetry. Is contemporary poetry to my liking ? Well, again, I think that it is really too various for the question to be answered simply. What I find interesting in much of it is the dominance of the image and of narrative, as well as its sheer cleverness. Cleverness (and the irony or knowingness which often goes with it) is one facet of the business and pleasure of poems, but does not preclude other angles of approach, and in some instances it seems also to involve a loss of something more open, as well as to sacrifice something of the memorability which has traditionally been one of poetry’s central qualities. It’s true that images can have their own memorability, but that is distinct from the nexus of rhythms, associations and sounds which have also been important elements in poetry.
LV. You have something of the tragic composure of Michael Hamburger, but you hide it much better. Is he a friend? Any connection between your poetry and his?
LS. I have reviewed Michael Hamburger’s work, and some time ago invited him to read at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature. I have therefore met him, but do not know him well. Of course I admire the quality as well as the quantity of his translations: the most recent one I have read is of Enzensberger’s collection Kiosk. I suppose an obvious biographical connection, at least, is that both his family and my father came to Britain from Germany in the 1930s. But I would think that his work is that of a more melancholy temperament than mine. It’s interesting that you light upon the notion of ‘hiding’. Words do conceal as well as reveal, and there is pleasure to be had – for the reader, I hope, as much as the writer – from ambiguities, hidden meanings and exploiting the playfulness which poems can accommodate.
LV. The voices you imagine – and your poems teem with heroes and their words – are not stories, as Matthew Sweeney’s, but pure oases of lyricism. You ignore the contemporary refuge of many poets into narrative. I have the feeling that you introduce British poetry to a new age, to what is coming after what I call Desperado (a desperate word, which attempts to avoid Postmodernism, its inexpressivity, its dullness). Do you ever feel you are not really part of a trend, but just on your own in something that is not at all in the tradition of poetry?
LS. It seems to me that you are describing a central element in my work, but not the only one. And ‘heroes ?’ – I don’t see that. There are, as I said in answering the last question, poems which are playful – and others which are philosophical or which build on a hidden narrative (a poem such as ‘In Outline Only’, for instance, in The World Returning). About new ages, others must judge. Few words date as quickly as ‘new’ and ‘modern’. I think that in one sense every writer works on his or her own, though as Eliot suggested the individual also absorbs what has gone before in the tradition. Even the most obvious rebels rely on tradition for their definition: they say that atheists know the bible best. Again, I could cite individual poems (‘Driving Westward’ in Out of Land, ‘Cutting the Bay Hedge’ in The World Returning) modelled explicitly on well known poems of the past. Others allude specifically and in detail to the work of artists, notably the paintings of Paul Klee: these may constitute another form of hidden narrative. And, like many contemporary poets, I have worked within or on the borders of such traditional forms as the sonnet, the villanelle, the sestina.
LV. What made you write poetry when you began? Have you always dreamt of becoming a poet or did it happen when you had no idea you could be one?
LS. I remember a moment (I must have been about ten years old) when, alone in the sitting room at home, I was suddenly overwhelmed by a realisation of the power which words have: the freedom to explore that they offer. This naïve insight, however modified, survived and grew, helped by the encouragement of my mother, who regularly read to me and my twin sister and developed our interest in books. She herself especially liked Keats. Later, Auden’s line at the end of his poem in memory of Yeats became a touchstone: ‘In the prison of his days / Teach the free man how to praise’.
LV. I understand you taught in Kenya for nearly five years. I cannot help thinking of Doris Lessing and her African experience. What did Africa mean to you? Did its poetry influence you in any way?
LS. While I was at university I travelled outside Europe a bit (to the Near East, and to Morocco): teaching in Africa confirmed for me the value of getting outside one’s own culture. It also brought home to me how provisional our settlements are, as well as how much Africa has to teach us, for example by way of generosity and the kind of trust expressed in hospitality. Of course I read anthologies of African poems in English, but I cannot define particular influences in addition to the powerful ones I’ve mentioned. Being in Africa certainly made me look a bit differently at England, when I came back. And Kenyan memories and perspectives have certainly continued to surface in some of my poems, or to lie just under the surface.
LV. You are on many committees, you award prizes and review poetry, which means you must have a sense of what poetry is doing today – and of your own difference from it. What does it feel like to be part of English literary life these days?
LS. It’s an intensely interesting time at which to be involved in the ways you describe, though I do perhaps less than you suggest. Living in a small city in the south west of England, I don’t feel caught up in any particular dynamic: but I do feel very glad and grateful to be a part of a world so central to me. Often it is, simply, great fun.
One of the most interesting developments is that we now talk not just of English poetry, but rather poetry in English, taking into account the way in which the lake has been fed by rivers from, for instance, Africa, America, the Caribbean and India. There is greater awareness, too, of regional and local sources and roots. Of course, like any age this one has its preferences and its blind spots: that doesn’t make it any less interesting.
LV. You have often travelled with the British Council, promoting English letters. Have you ever been to Romania? You have visited India, Egypt, Bosnia, Ukraine. Do ex-communist countries have any mystery left for the western European after the fall of communism?
LS. Yes, my wife Helen and I drove to Romania in 1994, and spent part of a summer there. We stayed a week in Bucharest, and also travelled quite a lot to the west and north, marvelling at the wonderful painted churches and monasteries (we stayed at Agapia and Sucevita, as well as visiting Voronet and other churches), while learning that this was a complex moment in Romania’s history and evolution. The teachers for whom I read in Sibiu were a highly intelligent and invigorating audience. As far as the British Council is concerned, I have been very fortunate in travelling under its aegis to so many fascinating places where there was much to learn – Bosnia in the immediate wake of the war was one of the most daunting, India for a month (with 28 readings or lectures in as many days) unforgettable, as was Colombia (the poetry festival at Medellín) a year and a half ago. The question you raise about the western European and any mystery remaining in ex-communist countries is a large one involving a whole range of issues, from the west’s need for moral exemplars, to the way in which history offers from time to time simple and dramatic definitions of itself which, however, are soon overlaid by the mysteries of everyday complexities, to the impact of the great boom in the translation into English of the work of writers from eastern Europe and elsewhere. Maybe, for islanders like the British, it is also a time of realising with new force that Europe extends far beyond the corner of western Europe which we habitually call ‘Europe’; that the continent has an almost African scale.
LV. My MA students are in the process of translating your poems into Romanian. What would you advise them to pay attention to?
LS. Rhythm, word games, the ambiguities of individual words – those elements of translation which are always less accommodating than the image when it comes to crossing frontiers. Some of my work has been translated into French, some into Spanish: it surprised me that in a number of instances the latter seemed to come closer to the tone of the originals than the former.
LV. The themes of your poems are generous. They allow all readers to subscribe. You appeal to an amazingly large audience. You do what Alan Brownjohn does, in many ways. You approach poetry so shyly that you almost invite the reader to step in and change the text to suit himself. I have written a whole book on Alan Brownjohn and still do not feel I have caught his meaning. He is as private as you are. Do you feel akin to him in any way?
LS. I enjoy Alan’s work a great deal, though I would have thought we work in different idioms. I’m pleased by your sense that the reader can ‘step in’ – the effectiveness of any given poem and indeed its meaning do depend on that.
LV. What do you think is the direction of poetry today? Will it be swallowed by the screen-culture? Will the book as an object of art survive?
LS. ‘Image’ is, of course, not only the legacy of the Surrealists but the word common to the word and the screen. There can surely be no doubt that the influence of the screen, the computer and the mobile phone is becoming ever more dominant. Yet the book and the Gutenberg galaxy have shown a stubborn ability to survive – both as an object of beauty, as you say, but also as commanding our attention in a way still distinct. Whether in terms of reading or writing, the page is quite other than the screen, as is our relationship to it. In an age of increasing busyness and speed, it is still the book in which we can enclose our sense of, and need for, something slower and more reflective. I find it interesting that successful combinations of word and image are relatively rare: given their differing speeds, so to speak, it nearly always seems to be the case that one illustrates the other, rather than both elements co-existing with something approaching equivalence. Recent work such as Tony Harrison’s verse for television films, makes for interesting comparisons with earlier instances such as Auden’s verse written for the GPO Film Unit’s Night Mail.
LV. What do you think of internet publishing houses? There is a very good one here (www.liternet.ro), where I have published two of my books of criticism (one on Alan Brownjohn and another on contemporary British writers), as it seemed to be my only chance of being read abroad. Would you publish your poems on the net?
LS. My answer to the previous question notwithstanding, who would not welcome any means by which poetry may be more widely read and appreciated? I would still maintain, though, that the experience of reading on screen is quite different from reading on the page. A case for downloading …
LV. I am translating into Romanian an anthology of British poets and am putting it on the net – mainly because no publisher is willing to pay for its publication, and, besides, it is 600 pages long, so no student will ever have enough money to buy it. Is that an acceptable solution from your point of view?
LS. Why not ?
LV. Do you type your poems or do you write them on paper? I remember Eliot liked to type – he did so with the plays, I think. But most poets today are in love with the feeling of putting pen to paper. It is becoming a very rare pleasure, with e-mail and all kinds of computer programmes around.
LS. Well, for me there is a difference between the experience of the poem typed and the poem handwritten. I never type my poems until they have reached something close to their final version (‘final’ brings forth the echo of Valéry’s remark that a poem is never completed, only abandoned). A fountain pen, ink, the nib biting into the nap of unlined paper: for me this is one point of departure, the pen as the outermost muscle of the mind. An equally important one is the hatching which goes on not on paper or screen but in the mind. But each poem is its own particularity: some are landed more or less in their final form, others evolve, some never make it.
LV. Your poems are very much like music: you convey a lot, but the words are misleading. You have a kind of indirectness that is both soothing and intriguing. After reading three volumes by you, I cannot say I know you, the real man. I know your halo: your feelings and the way you think. Yet, what are the data of your real life? Who are you in civilian clothes, so to say, not just in poems?
LS. ‘Civilian clothes’– that reminds me of a question from a member of the audience in Banja Luka, when I was reading there. Why were there some soldiers in uniform in the audience, the questioner wanted to know, since the business of soldiers was not poetry but killing. It didn’t seem to have occurred to him that poems might be, on one level, a way of shedding uniforms and getting to the human beneath … As to the data of my life: my mother came from a quite well-to-do London family, my father was a German painter who left Germany in the 1930s. He was opposed to the Nazis and failed to keep his mouth shut. His father, an architect with Bayer, advised him to leave the country. Having been born in Bromborough, where his father was working at the time, my father was able to have a British passport. He came to Britain via Switzerland in, I believe, 1934.
After their marriage my parents travelled a great deal, and had settled in Spain when the Civil War broke out. You could say that I owe my birth to Hitler and my English education to Franco. I studied French and German at Oxford and, after Kenya, taught in a variety of secondary schools in England before becoming a freelance writer in 1991. I have had two children with my first wife Teresa, Matthew (now 33) and Erica (now 31), and consider it one of the best things in my life that the three of us remain so close. My second marriage, to Helen, has brought the delight of twin daughters, Grace and Rose, now two and a half (I am a twin, and so was my mother). Among my interests are sailing, classical music and cooking. We are lucky enough to live in Devon, a really beautiful part of England, with a wonderful coastline and an inland landscape of great variety, from Dartmoor to farmland to plunging valleys whose secrecy much appeals to me.
LV. Do you see the next generation continuing to read and write poetry? It started with music and the first incantations of primitive man. It refined so much that it has become an art. Can it simply vanish?
LS. Your linking of ‘reading’ and ‘writing’, though obvious, is important. It amazes me that among would-be writers (and there are more and more of them, with the burgeoning of creative writing courses) there are some who do not see the need to be actual readers. In the context of the nuclear age and threats to the environment, it’s only too clear that more might vanish than we dare ignore. But short of those endpoints, I think that poetry, as memorable utterance, as Coleridge’s ‘the best words in the best order’, as one manifestation of the human need to commute between experience and meaning, as one version of the desire to sing and dance, will persist in a variety of guises. It remains an art form requiring no implements other than the imagination and persistence. And for the individual writer, it’s surely and quite simply being able to work on the next, the still hidden poem which is the important thing.