LIDIA VIANU -- SEAN O'BRIEN
Criticism needs to be readable
Interview with SEAN O’BRIEN (born 19 December 1952), British poet and critic
Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006
LIDIA VIANU: I cannot help beginning with your Deregulated Muse, which is the best label for this ‘particularly interesting poetic moment’, and for fiction no less. You talk about ‘deregulation’, and it seems to me the concept applies to every field. I called these writers desperately fighting to differ from others (before and after) and from themselves, Desperadoes. Do you feel you belong to a large, stream-like trend of poets, all eager to un-belong? What main features would you ascribe to it?
SEAN O’BRIEN: The title The Deregulated Muse is ironic. In a British context ‘deregulation’ means the selling-off of public utilities (gas, electricity, water) – and services (the railways, parts of education, refuse collection,) into private hands, ultimately for private profit. This was the gospel according to Margaret Thatcher. As a Socialist I am opposed to this practice, which has resulted in some disasters (the railways in particular) and scandals (profiteering by executives). In poetry, though, ‘deregulation’ might be a liberation from the modernism/tradition dualism, or the breaking of Oxbridge/ middle class dominance in literature, or the greater role of women poets, or of poets from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, etc. So the title indicates a paradox.
LV. Your second point in the preface to The Deregulated Muse, which is of utmost importance to me and most readers of criticism, I should say, is that ‘criticism had better be readable.’ You argue: ‘People may be interested in books, but most of them are most interested in people’. I come very close to my question here. Although you call poetry ‘an art made of language’, what do you make of this new production of poetry that deals with words more than it does with biographies? Women are emotional and autobiographical, but in the last few decades men have stuck to words as if they were a tight rope that must absolutely be walked. Don’t you think this bravery might make them break their necks in the long run? Your own poems have so much reality, after all...
SO. You conflate two quite separate points. Criticism needs to be readable in the sense of being as well written as the literature it deals with. The point about people being more interested in people really expresses an anxiety about the present cultural dominance of personality over art, with the attendant problems of laziness and trivialization.
LV. Eliot was fond of using rhyme as a weapon of irony (‘the women come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo...’). You, and many others, use it as fireworks. The more unusual and unexpected (prepositions, half-words, foreign pronunciation, everything is thrown in), the more fun. Have you ever been afraid that this game of words might scare away the common reader (the term pays homage to Virginia Woolf, the writer who never conformed to her theory in her own practice)? That a difficult poem, with complicated architectures of words, might end up hiding the soul behind the page? Or is that unimportant right now?
SO. You seem to assume that ‘the common reader’ has no obligation to equip him/herself to understand what s/he reads. Literature is not the same as effort-free consumerism. The ‘common reader’ has to bring his/her own seriousness to the activity of reading. If this is too much effort, then s/he has many other choices of activity. In Britain there is a long and honourable working-class tradition of self-education through organizations like the Mechanics’ institute. Sadly, this has proved vulnerable to the distractions of the tabloid press, television and consumer capitalism.
LV. Your poems are vigorous yet full of ghosts. Sadness haunts you, and you look back while in the middle of a demonstration for more present. You put nothing aside of what is human and contemporary, from politics to inner life. How do you see yourself? A public bard or a poet of intimacy, or maybe both – and in that case how do the two mix?
SO. I don’t accept that there is a separation of roles. The whole person contributes to the work.
LV. One line is haunting: ‘The world is guilty of itself.’ This is meant as a very concrete statement, and all your poems are burdened with a sense of wrong. This unexplained guilt is part of your strength. Is it in your nature, in your intellectual awareness, your emotional being? Guilty because of what?
SO. ‘The world is guilty of itself’ is not intended as a direct authorial statement of belief or feeling. The phrase is trying to identify what seems to be a basic belief of the police. Any resemblance to Catholic guilt is an interesting overtone. This poem is normally understood as comic, by the way.
LV. Reading most of what you have written, I have come across ‘Vlad the Impaler’ and also ‘Dracula’. He was a Romanian, so I just wonder what you know about him and about Romania. This may be a dead end, but I was just curious.
SO. I have read Dracula, and his original, Vlad, exercises something of the same fascination for people in Britain – Romania being seen as the abode of the un-dead and the supernatural, a folkloric enclave on the edge of modernity. This view may well be wrong, but it’s widespread.
LV. With Larkin or Hughes it is not very difficult to trace influences, but with your generation it becomes impossible. A faint Eliotian echo, a word or a rhyme, and the mention of some name here and there. You are one of the poets who go west (so Desperado may not be such a bad idea, if we think in these terms), who colonize a new poetic language and a new poetic vein. If you agree that novelty is essential to your art, how do you obtain it and what does it consist in?
SO. Here I’m not sure that ‘novelty’ is the right word, since it has overtones of ephemerality, to which poetry is – surely – always opposed.
LV. You create a new meaning for lyricism. You are both nostalgic (‘The afternoon is permanent’, ‘The amateur god of this garden is me’) and aggressive. Lyricism has most certainly changed its substance. We no longer expect what Byron’s or Tennyson’s readers expected (emotion well spread on the bread of the page). What would you advise your readers to expect from you? What are you willing to offer them?
SO. I’m not sure I understand this question. Lyric is not a separate category – it coexists with the dramatic, with satire and so on. The fact that emotion is not advertised doesn’t mean it isn’t there. I think readers must make their own minds up about the poems. I’m interested in history, politics, place and the workings of the imagination. The poems might appeal to readers who share some of those interests.
LV. A poem is entitled Hatred of Libraries. You do not approve of scholarship in everyday criticism, for everyone’s use. You say there is a tendency to ‘marginalise’ art. I take it from your lines, as from your criticism, that understanding comes first and you can tolerate in others, but will never yourself be a fan of specialized distortions of sense. Scholarly critics can be very bellicose and intolerant. Unless one shares their particular jargon, one is worthless. Is criticism literature (not science), for you? Which implies that it ought to share the clear language of a novel? How about the poem... then?
SO. Firstly, ‘Hatred of Libraries’ is a comic poem. Secondly, what makes you think I disapprove of scholarship? Far rather scholarship than the self-regarding machine-code found in second-rate literary theory. The tasks of criticism are to illuminate and evaluate. Criticism must be as well written as the literature it studies – but this is not to exclude difficulty, any more than poems and novels exclude difficulty.
LV. I notice echoes from Tennyson (Ulysses), Eliot (Prufrock, The Hollow Men, and more), Arnold (Dover Beach). The line, as I have already mentioned, is far from long, you are not a demonstrative erudite. Your poetry is anything but exhibitionistic intellectually. Indirectness is important to you, effects matter more than intentions. What exactly is your intention as a poet, and then as a critic? What effects do you hold dear?
SO. Allusions arise naturally in the course of writing. Poems stand open to other poems. I wouldn’t sue an allusion simply to point at the cleverness of its presence. That would be pointless.
LV. You like to play. Playful rhymes, playful changes of literary titles, quotes, all well known and easily recognized. Yet very subtle, and restricting your audience to those who read a lot. What kind of a poet do you wish to be?
SO. If any poet were to restrict him/herself to the range of guaranteed general public knowledge, poetry would be as dull as most present day cultural activity.
LV. Your latest volume emphasizes more than before your ironic view of the fantastic. Your poetic universe relies heavily on fantasy, while alluding, peeping at reality. You love to laugh, and you laugh at everyone who comes to your gates with intellectual prejudices. In the last pages of your latest volume you write, ‘We apologize for any delay and for the inconvenience history may have caused to your journey. On leaving the train please ensure you are completely possessed.’ Your book ends with, ‘TO BE CONTINUED’ (no full stop). My impression is that your take poetry as an adventure. Both intellectual and emotional, even though you are quite reticent to give readers a naked soul to feast on. Has poetry changed as much as the novel today (which, to my mind, escapes twenty centuries of story-telling)? Do you subscribe to the tradition of lyricism?
SO. I hope to write poetry that uses the full keyboard, claiming its full range of method and subject.