Portrait by VIC (Cristina Ioana Vianu)
Portrait by VIC (Cristina Ioana Vianu)
LIDIA VIANU -- ALAN BROWNJOHN
A monograph on ALAN BROWNJOHN:
Alan Brownjohn and the Desperado Age, Bucharest University Press, 2003;
http://editura.liternet.ro/ebooks/lvianualan/lvianualan.pdf , revised in 2005
Essays on ALAN BROWNJOHN in
British Literary Desperadoes at the Turn of the Millennium, ALL Publishing House, Bucharest, 1999;
The Desperado Age: British Literature at the Start of the Third Millennium,
Bucharest University Press, 2004;
Three interviews with ALAN BROWNJOHN (born 28 July 1931), British poet, novelist and critic
Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006
Alan Brownjohn and the Desperado Age, Bucharest University Press, 2003;
http://editura.liternet.ro/ebooks/lvianualan/lvianualan.pdf , revised in 2005
When they clearly understand what I am saying I am happy – whether they like the poetry or not
LIDIA VIANU: I believe you, Alan Brownjohn, to be one of the chivalrous Desperadoes of poetry at the turn of this millennium. Your poems are at the same time entreating and baffling. You are the patron of the North and of the South Pole of sensibility, with the Equator of scorching feeling in between. When did it first occur to you to breathe into poetry?
ALAN BROWNJOHN: At the age of five, the poems my mother read and/or sang to me (Edward Lear’s ‘The Owl and the Pussy-cat’ remains my favourite poem) and the poems one schoolmistress read to us – these seemed to me to have sharper, clearer, more beautiful images of the world, real or unreal, than the actual world. Mrs. Palmer (the schoolmistress) made the dog in Walter de la Mare’s poem ‘Silver’ sound better than a real dog, a perfect representation of a dog. How wonderful it was that you could hear and see a dog in words and did not have to go out into the street and look for a dog.
Shortly after those experiences I began to realise that it might be possible for me to make the words which would preserve those pictures – and stories – for me, and provide them for other people. That is how ‘breathing’ in poetry began for me. Anything ‘baffling’ comes much later. At the beginning, everything was simple. Not easy, but simple and clear.
LV. Your poems abound in words synonymous with ‘blank.’ It is obvious that, against Eliot and Eliotians, you try to pretend emotion is dumb, although your lines are in fact extremely eloquent, dressed as they are in everyday words. How do you think you reconcile the apparent silence of your poems and the inner turmoil which they betray? Do you imagine that whoever reads you will be fooled by this veil of shy blankness?
AB. I feel sure that I derive some of my understatement (which sometimes borders on the negativity of early Eliot) from Eliot, the poet of our time I first read when I discovered modern poetry. I have always tried, or felt I have done best when I tried, to let the strength of a poem (if it has any strength) emerge at a second or third reading, not a first. I do not believe in violently direct, or shocking, poetry (or prose for that matter). I hope that the inner turmoil – which is indeed there – will be apparent when readers think carefully about what I am saying. So, if you like, what you cite as a ‘shy blankness’ is a veil which I hope the readers will feel persuaded to lift. The idea of a veil irresistibly brings to mind Keats’ great passage about the goddess in The Fall of Hyperion. Veils are used to conceal interesting mysteries which should be clear when they are lifted.
LV. You are a novelist as well as a poet. Do you admit that contemporary literature mixes genres, discovering a kind of fictionalized poetry, which tells a story in terms of small, shy emotions, which build guidelines? When you say you do not believe in ‘shocking poetry,’ is it an admission that you prefer it filtered by fiction?
AB. I am not sure that fiction and poetry have come closer in recent years. There have been superficial changes in the form of fiction, although fundamentally the task of a novel, or a fiction – call it what you like! – is to tell a story; or that’s one of the main tasks which writers ignore at their peril. Poetry must be primarily about catching the essence of something, not necessarily via narrative.
By implication a ‘poetic’ novel has less of a story to tell, is more like an extended poem. I don’t find the fully poetic novel very interesting. I don’t find the indulgence of formal ‘originality’ in fiction very fruitful, unless those basic elements – story, character, place – are still indubitably there (as they were in Joyce’s Ulysses, or even Nabokov, and certainly in Anthony Powell – and Proust! – Saul Bellow and John Updike).
Isn’t the answer simple? Poetry comes in a small, concentrated bottle, fiction is a much larger one, to be drunk more slowly – but drunk completely to obtain the full effect. I make both items sound like medicines. I don’t mind that. The world can be a sick and strange place, and the arts, as well as giving pleasure, can be medicinal. I won’t get deeply into matters like catharsis...
LV. Would you subscribe to any literary label out of your own free will? I have called contemporary writers Desperadoes because everyone is trying to be their own trend. Can you look in your poetic – and intellectual, on the whole – mirror, in order to say what you see? You are your own trend. Would you venture to give it a name? Or is it like the ‘naming of cats,’ a heresy?
AB. One does not get a chance to dispute literary labels (or one does, but one disputes them in vain!). But I cannot complain about any that have been applied to me, for example ‘post-Movement,’ to describe poets who followed the 1950s ‘Movement’ in British poetry, were influenced by its attitudes and forms and yet were crucially different. When I look in my mirror – or look over past work and try to understand what I was doing and, more significantly, whether I understood what I was doing, I see (or I think I see) a label like ‘moral concern’ stuck to it, and under that heading, ‘attention to detail’ and ‘striving for truth’ and ‘irony’ and ‘comedy’ appearing in the smaller print of the list of contents/ingredients. I don’t think giving a name to trends is a heresy – it’s inevitable, anyway. Of course we more and more need the labels so as to gain a grip on the volume and variety of what is being written – with the labels in our minds we can then start to read, and think, and differentiate for ourselves.
LV. What is your relationship to T.S. Eliot’s poetry? You quote him here and there. On the other hand, your concealing (though apparently candid) verses seem determined to push him away. You reject, I think, Eliot’s encoded concentration of emotions. You choose to deal with emotion in what looks like everyday words. Yet, whoever reads you carefully realizes that you do have your own tricks. Are you the generation that inaugurated the reaction against Eliot? Have you made your peace with him? Do you still read him? Do you think he would enjoy reading you? Or approve of what you do? Do you care?
AB. T.S. Eliot provided my own introduction to modern poetry – I read the first cheap edition of his poems while on holiday with my parents in summer 1948 or 49 (whenever it was, it was my last full holiday by the sea with them). Eliot made an immediately overwhelming impression, an excellent illustration of his own dictum (only found much later) that ‘true poetry can communicate before it is understood’ (quoting from memory). His rhythms and images (diluted versions of them) were in my own early verse, only gradually yielding to influences like Dylan Thomas and William Empson (very little) and Philip Larkin (much more). I took up Eliot’s diffidence, and have never wholly lost that, in poetry or fiction. My ‘everyday’ words are my own kind of code, I suppose – Eliot’s reticence but not much of his tone. I never consciously rebelled against Eliot, and I don’t feel many later poets have (as they did against Yeats, for example). Probably most poets just left Eliot aside and listened harder to other great poets of their period. I’ve never felt I had to ‘make peace’ with Eliot – I’d never had his politics or religion, so there was no intense acceptance followed by a rejection. He is just always there as a magnificent, exemplary poet (I do still read him and would like to think he would have time for my work if he were still alive). I still find – unfashionable view, increasingly, his criticism valuable also, the rather puritanical drift of it!
LV. Do you think you belong to any group at all, or are you alone in the world of literary trends?
AB. I feel I am ‘post-Group’ (the London ‘Group’ of the 50s and 60s) and post-Movement.
LV. What present poets do you relate to? Whom do you value, whom do you feel akin to?
AB. As an older writer I look mostly to my own seniors – but get pleasure from the work of younger contemporaries in England/Britain like (some are fairly new names) Paul Farley, Douglas Dunn and Seamus Heaney (both ‘of course’), Ian Duhig (a wonderful and serious intellectual joker), Conor O’Callaghan, Paul Summers – some are very new poets I’ve been reading recently.
LV. How far from Eliot have you travelled? Can he be said to be the skeleton in the closet of your poetry?
AB. We don’t revere Eliot enough nowadays!
LV. What is the future of poetry, in your opinion as a poet at the turn of the century?
AB. Poetry has a future as long as it retains a tough core of imagination and honesty and doesn’t surrender to either ideology or populism (populism is now the greater danger).
LV. If you were to start all over again, would you still be the writer you are, or do you have new strategies in mind?
AB. I would simply try to write more, and better, and concentrate on creating. There have been too many distractions!
LV. What is your major expectation from your audience? Have your readers ever made you feel happy you are a poet?
AB. When they clearly understand what I am saying I am happy – whether they like the poetry or not.
LV. Has your attitude to language changed, as compared to Eliot’s or Joyce’s?
AB. I don’t see language as a vehicle or opportunity for experiment – but as a means of understanding the world and the things in it. Heaney has a good sentence about poetry ‘as a representative of things in the world’ – very simple, terribly true.
LV. Is reading still popular or do you feel drowning in a world of screens and scripts?
AB. I don’t let myself be drowned by screens and scripts. I know very few poets who do that. In the end, you are alone with the words and ideas, however you put them down on paper or screen, and however you transmit them to an audience. (I believe the book will always be with us.)
I’d like critics to understand the aim a little better
LIDIA VIANU: Could you list a few features of the Post-Movement, which you feel you illustrate in your poetry, fiction, criticism?
ALAN BROWNJOHN: ‘Post-Movement’ was a term coined by the poet and anthologist Edward Lucie-Smith to describe poetry subsequent to 1950s ‘Movement’ verse but partly deriving from it. Precise definition is difficult. But Lucie-Smith appears to have been thinking of qualities like care, precision, formal tidiness and a pragmatic,
non-rhetorical, non-mystical approach to writing poetry. He is a friend, but later reviewed some work of mine very negatively so I’m glad he invented that useful category before that happened.
LV. What exactly did you mean by the title The Way You Tell Them?
AB. The novel revolves round the idea of joke-telling. It is said that the effectiveness of a joke depends on the way the teller delivers it: ‘It’s the way you tell them’ is an
often-heard dictum. In using that title I also hoped to suggest that the ‘hero’ of the novel had not found the right way to tell his enemies what he thought of them, had in fact been corrupted and assimilated by them. Critics who disliked the novel still thought the way I told the jokes in it was acceptable.
LV. Does the title To Clear the River mean anything special to you? What is its symbolic value?
AB. When I wrote the words which provide the title I was making an ‘environmental’, ‘ecological’ point about clearing away waste and pollution so that genuine ‘life’ could flow freely.
LV. Who are the authors you think have influenced your poetry and fiction? Do you still see yourself as Post-Movement, in what you write now (year 2001)?
AB. Almost too many to name. I like to think that all of the great names have helped me, but it seems over-dignified (or just foolish) to start citing Shakespeare, Donne, etc, etc. Writers working in one’s own time are likely to be the most influential, including persons of my own generation; though Philip Larkin was ten years my senior, as was a personal friend, Martin Bell, met in the mid-1950s.
LV. What authors would you name as your literary friends?
AB. Bell was one, then Oxford contemporaries (in 1950-53) like Anthony Thwaite and George MacBeth, and people met a little later than that: Peter Porter, Dannie Abse, other poets working in the London of my early manhood. Too many names, and I apologise to anyone who is a close friend that I’ve overlooked him/her.
LV. How much of your private life is included in what you write? You are not at all autobiographical, but you certainly rely on your experiences. Could you name a few, and the way they became poems or characters?
AB. Not a lot. It’s all altered, modified, improved. Certainly ‘observation’ experiences – things seen and heard and noted down – are important. I am a diligent carrier of notebooks. Any ordinary experience may be improved and transmuted in this way if I feel inclined to write about it, in poetry or fiction.
LV. What are your expectations as far as the future of mankind is concerned? Are they dystopic? Are you an optimist? Your work is not serene. Are you?
AB. I am not an optimist, but not dystopic. I believe that effort, and common sense, and – not easy to say in an indulgent ‘consumerist’ age – contentment with less, in the material sense, will be necessary to save mankind, and that these energies and qualities are still possible to summon up. Not that enough people are trying very hard. No, I don’t feel serene – I find most of life an effortful matter.
LV. What Romanian writers do you know and possibly appreciate? Has Romania been an essential experience or just a picturesque escape from western routine?
AB. An essential experience. I didn’t expect that when I first visited the country, but it has become unexpectedly important. I’m reluctant to name very many individual Romanian writers, and perhaps won’t cite living ones. Among modern writers, Nichita Stănescu, whom I just missed meeting, and Marin Sorescu, whom I knew, awed and impressed me. My own country is not and ‘escape’, so nor is Romania; emphatically not. There is ‘stimulation’ in seeing a different set of problems in a foreign country, and interest in that, but certainly not the tourist pleasure which the word ‘picturesque’ suggests.
LV. What is your favourite activity?
AB. Observing. As with ‘thinking’ (Iris Murdoch says this somewhere) it’s important not to let it turn into mere daydreaming.
LV. Do you write easily? Do you write much at once?
AB. No. Nice to think I could write a lot at once, but it’s not so. It’s a long, laborious process. I don’t enjoy it – unless I’ve really ‘got going’ and feel things are going well.
LV. When you look back at your work, are you satisfied you have expressed what you wanted to? Is the result of creation what you expect before you begin writing? Are you at peace with your achievement as a writer?
AB. Not easily. And not really satisfied. I think I get the result I intended (I don’t suffer from thinking ‘Oh, that doesn’t achieve what I wanted to’, which is more common when one is younger.) But is it a good enough result? and then ideas for better things occur... Being ‘at peace’ with what one writes would sound like complacency.
LV. I feel you are an essential pillar of Desperado literature, one on whom many features rest. Do you feel representative for your age? In what way?
AB. My father’s family was ‘upper working class.’ I represent a generation that was enabled to go to the university for the first time in its family history, so I’m representative in that sense: working-class boy that went to Oxford but maintained the political tradition of his family (democratic socialist), — though with a strong sense of the importance of ‘high’ culture, which I had before setting foot in Oxford. I don’t know what I would have been if I’d never been there. Possibly some sort of writer anyway, but perhaps not a poet.
LV. What do you value most in your work? Are you more of a poet or a novelist? What is your secret literary ambition to be?
AB. I like to feel it might be seen as ‘positive’, ‘humanistic’, ‘perceptive’ – it would be wonderful if critics saw all these things in it and also thought it was ‘profound’, ‘illuminating.’ But critics always fall crucially short in understanding these matters!
LV. Why are you so discreet in everything you write? Is it a mask or an impossibility of uttering directly what can be guessed?
AB. Because I prefer not to be crudely forthright. It’s easy to win attention by being simplistic, in language, or in subject, or conclusions. I don’t wish to be that. I would prefer not to have that kind of ignorant attention.
LV. Do you have a favourite critical approach? Your criticism is mainly thematic, I think. What do you think of the complicated dissection of a work? Does it make you angry or would you put up with anything, once the work is published?
AB. My approach is a somewhat ‘watered-down’ practical criticism (the only kind possible in literary journalism, and even then it’s hard to keep it up in an increasingly insensitive atmosphere). I was a product of the 1950s, an age in which, in Britain and the US, the practitioners of literary criticism made large claims for its intellectual weight. Matthew Arnold wrote of poetry as ‘a criticism of life’ and critics like I.A. Richards and F.R. Leavis made literature a criticism of modern mass civilisation. I still can’t apply some of their rules, which people like Orwell developed and diversified. I like ‘complicated dissections’ as long as they say something; they are more likely to say something than ‘theory’. Personally, I put up with anything once a work is published – except actual inaccuracies and misinterpretations which determine a critic’s judgements.
LV. What is your political orientation? What do you expect of politics? What do you think of the ex-communist countries? What is the future power that will order the world?
AB. ‘Democratic socialist’ in the British Labour Party tradition (which is different from the ‘New Labour’ formulations of Tony Blair. That man has been a tragic disappointment – tepid ideology, vacuous rhetoric.) I don’t know how else society can be organised except through politics, so I’m not an anarchist. Won’t the future struggle in the
ex-Communist countries be the same as in non-ex-Communist countries? Against a world order (imposed by the World Trade Organisation, or the EU. or the American Treasury) based on a ‘freedom’ which is really self-interest, rapacity, and a determination to sweep all opposition from its path?
LV. Are your very private experiences present in your poems in an encoded way? Could you point out a few significant instances?
AB. Sometimes, yes. But I’d rather they were decoded by others and then ‘generalised’, if they are sufficiently interesting for that treatment. What I experience privately will not be of interest because it happens to me, but because it can be experienced, or at least perceived, by others.
LV. Do you read much? What do you prefer to read, contemporary or earlier works, English or world literature? Are you a fast or slow reader?
AB. I am a slow reader of as much as I have time for, reading and re-reading classics and keeping up with as much recent writing as I can (too little).
LV. What do you expect from a novel? Do you like happy endings? Do you like endings at all? Should all novels be open, inconclusive? How did you mean yours to be?
AB. Representation of ‘life’ (that is being very ‘Leavisite’, but the notion governs my reading). I am not sure what a happy ending really is. Is it about lives appearing to be resolved, and stable, and secure? Not only about a kind of radiant, ongoing happiness (thus unreal)? If so, I like a great novel which can provide me with that. But which one can? My own novels (well, there are just three, or four if To Clear the River is included) all end ambivalently.
LV. Of what you have written, what book is the dearest to you? Why?
AB. I can’t choose easily. Or at all. My first book of poems, The Railings, is such an agreeable memory – and its production was so good – that I’d probably put that one first.
LV. Do you feel criticism has done justice to your work?
AB. Sometimes I’m gratified by the tenacity and perception critics give my writing, but I’d like them to catch the general drift a bit more: the social criticism, the things I’m trying to do in the love poetry, the exact nature of the humour and irony I attempt. I don’t say I succeed in doing any of this well, but I’d like critics to understand the aim a little better.
LV. Is poetry writing a matter of mood or systematic work?
AB. Systematic work. Mood is only important to me in starting a poem.
LV. You knew Philip Larkin. How well? What could you say about him as a man? As a poet? As a friend?
AB. Few people knew Philip very well (his women friends probably knew him best). Some knew him well, others fairly well. Others ‘fairly’. I put myself in that last group. We would always speak, gossip, joke if we met, but we didn’t have many arranged personal meetings. I was in awe of Philip, knew he had a frightening wit and pertinacity and rather feared that if we were serving (as we sometimes were) on literary committees together. I value the letters we exchanged; though those were brief in my case I could see what Robert Conquest meant when he referred to Philip as ‘a prince among letter-writers.’
LV. Do you write by hand, type or use a computer? Is it important to you how you put down your thoughts? Does creation have a ritual for you?
AB. By hand, in notebooks, or large writing pads for prose fiction. A third draft of any prose goes onto a typewriter or word-processor, but with poems that stage isn’t reached until near the end (tenth draft or thereabouts). We mustn’t be bullied (this is an age of awful techno-bullies) into writing by methods which persons marketing the new technology prefer. I was delighted to learn recently that some well-known literary journalists were still sending in their ‘copy’ in handwriting. I think W.H. Auden never learned to type? Some research into all this would be fascinating. Did Pasternak type?
LV. Why exactly did you become a writer? How did you write your first poem? Was that astonishing in any way? Are you happy you have followed this path?
AB. Growing up in a family (my father’s) of printers, I wanted to see my name on the spines of the kind of books they produced, or heading the articles in their magazines. Such imagination as I have probably came from my mother’s more chaotic (Irish) family, though my mother herself was one of its better-organised members. I started writing serious poems one night to leave something behind if I died of flu in my first winter at Oxford. That seemed likely to my nervous freshman imagination because I had literally the oldest (and what on that occasion seemed the coldest) room in Oxford.
LV. What are you working on now? What are your plans?
AB. I have ideas for a new novel, and the poems slowly go on. It’s all very usual.
LV. What is literature to you, as a poet, novelist, critic, and reader?
AB. Essential, nothing less.
January 17, 2001
I do not enjoy specialised academic criticism
LIDIA VIANU: What are your earliest memories? Your family? Your first book? The time and times you first became aware of?
ALAN BROWNJOHN: I shall write about my earliest memories in a fairly factual way, seeking to be accurate rather than imaginative. I’m aware, from often in the past requiring students (men and women training to be teachers) to recall their own childhood and
re-enter the experience, that it is possible to believe things one’s parents said to be incidents that are actually experience; for example, mother saying, ‘When you were two years old you were very fond of the friendly black cat that lived next door – thus I create a memory of stroking a black cat almost as large as myself when I have no genuine recollection of that.
My parents’ little London house, and the flat where my father’s parents lived, five minutes’ walk away, are both vivid. Simple, true memories occur: a small, child-size cup I dropped in my grandmother’s kitchen. Dropped twice, it broke the second time. I felt guilty about that and remember that as a personal feeling, not my grandmother’s scolding. In my parents’ scullery (as we called it) I hit our dog with a stick – it wailed, and slunk away. Again a (stronger) guilty feeling. No one around watching me, so I was responsible for that guilt.
Those two cases of guilt are my earliest memories. Soon after that there are far too many memories of both those households – all the rooms, and the gardens – to choose from. Innumerable memories of childhood sickness: eczema from about two years old, measles at three, asthma following on measles. Parents’ natural anxiety, mother’s
over-anxiety, probably. Difference between a protective mother and an energetic father eager to cure my ills with exercise – this conflict between hypochondria and vigorous action has been with me all my life, I believe. How crucial parental influence is, from minute to minute!
But also grandparental influence. Wiry, energetic grandmother and robust, choleric grandfather – he had been an athlete as a young man in the 1890s, was a craftsman printer, was also self-educated with passionate left-wing political beliefs. As there were periods when I was left in their care, they were to me – their only grandchild, my father being their only child – very powerful presences.
My mother had had piano lessons, and I seem to remember they were intended to occupy her while she was pregnant. I am surprised now, almost seventy years later, to think how efficiently she played – not well, but very capably, with a good sight-reading ability. I still possess, somewhere, her piano sheet-music; including simple songs for children which she played and sang to me – one or two are almost unbearably moving for me to recall. I hardly dare to look at them now.
My father was the only child of a father who had a ‘hidden’ sister – I believed she was a remote cousin, but she was a sister, and she was in a mental asylum for the last several decades of her life, and rarely mentioned. She died as late as 1957, a date I was unaware of until I investigated the life of her one son two years ago (when he died). My mother was one of a family of seven, perhaps eight, children, of Irish ancestry (name: Mulligan). But they had no Irish accent, no trace of Irish religion – they seem to me, in retrospect, to have been ‘assimilated’ working-class Londoners (so both sides of my family had deep roots in London). My uncles, and my aunts’ husbands worked on buses, or in similar humble but essential services. There developed an interest in café work – two or three of my cousins acquired cafés or restaurants and became very prosperous. My childhood was full of regular visits to the many relations on both sides of my family. As children will, I began to distinguish between those who welcomed and liked me and those who were merely indifferent – children of course know the uncle who always passes on a gift of money when they leave and those who never do that.
I shall abandon my ‘earliest memories’ at this point in case they turn into the first draft of a full-scale childhood autobiography. I have dealt with my family in the course of recovering those early memories, so will say no more about that except that I received constant encouragement, from my father in particular, about reading and writing, and remember being praised by teachers from the beginning – singled out for my precocity as a reader and writer from the age of five. This is not a boast, but a fact. It is also a fact that I was profoundly impractical, could never make anything or repair anything, understand anything that required mechanical or technical or technological knowledge. Hence I write these memoirs and send them by letter, instead of typing on a computer and transmitting by e-mail. I am not proud of these inabilities, just complacent about them.
My first ‘book’ was a (now rare) 20-page booklet, Travellers Alone, published in 1954 by the Heron Press in Liverpool (who brought out a small, short-lived poetry magazine called Artisan). I was very grateful to them, and regret very much that I completely lost contact with my editor, Robert Cooper, in later years. My first book in covers (hardback) came seven years after that, after rejections from several publishers. My friend Peter Digby Smith published it at the Digby Press. It was, as far as I know, the only book he ever published. He is now a teacher in France. It was probably the
best-looking of any of my books, a handsome volume designed by Peter and myself using an excellent printer and high quality paper. Despite the smallness of the publisher, this book, The Railings, was widely reviewed and well-received; and it led on to a large publisher issuing my second book, The Lions’ Mouth, six years later. How slowly I write – I am still painfully and guiltily slow.
‘The times I first became aware of’? I take this to mean ‘my world’ in childhood. It was, of course, the frightening world of 1930s Europe into the horrors of World War I, a presence in the conversation of parents and grandparents, even though no one in my immediate family did military service of any kind – a question of age (grandfather was 40 in 1914, and was rejected on health grounds although he had been a formidable athlete; father was 38 in 1939. I was rejected on health grounds, in 1950, for compulsory military service. I was delighted, because I did not think I had the intellectual ability or the courage to face the ‘panels’ who interviewed those who applied not to do military service for pacifist reasons. I remain a pacifist in practice, but theoretically I believe that war might in some circumstances be just; the problem is I have never discovered, in my lifetime, something I could, in good conscience, describe as ‘a just war’.
LV. You mentioned once briefly in a conversation your father being a printer. Could that account for your learning how to read when you were only five? You also mentioned the tremendous importance of radio broadcasts in your becoming not only aware but passionate about literature. Could you remember those times again in writing? The long hours you spent by the radio set and whom you listened to? What kind of a start in literature that offered?
AB. My father was a printer, so was his father, so was his father and his father. That is as far back as I can trace! My father and my grandfather (I knew my great-grandfather, but never had close contact with him and he died when I was five years old) both encouraged me to read.
My father passed me the newspapers across the table, and I can remember thinking that it was much easier for me to read books because I could hold a book in my two hands and had never managed to hold a newspaper open. My father was very eager that I should become interested in books, and passed to me all the books he had kept from his own childhood. It was not an immense number, but some of them were quite challenging books. They included classic boys’ adventure stories and sea yarns. But he also gave me Gulliver’s Travels.
In a sense, my grandfather was even more important, because he took me to the local public library and signed me up as a member. I think this was purely because my grandparents had to spend a lot of time looking after me during the Second World War, when both my parents had full-time jobs, and they wanted to keep me quiet and occupied. But my grandfather himself, although not an ‘educated’ man, was a wide and venturesome reader, and was always recommending books that I could not possibly understand at the age of ten or eleven (such as T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom and R.H. Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism.) I am not certain that he understood all of them himself. But his love of exploring ideas through books undoubtedly influenced him — and me — very greatly.
My grandfather was, though, quite a bad-tempered man (all shouting, never
violence) so that I sometimes felt safer if I was absorbed in a book when he had one of his bad moods in the home.
My parents and my grandparents were all devoted radio listeners; and there was no television during the Second World War. We went to the cinema a lot (Grandad was keen on Laurel and Hardy films), and my childhood illnesses (asthma especially) meant that I spent time away from school at home, and listened avidly to radio plays and stories. Radio drama of any kind came to be very important for me, as did music. There was comparatively little poetry on radio, but I can remember responding to it very eagerly when I did hear some. All of this was crucial in helping me to enjoy literature. I kept a
notebook of radio plays I had heard, allocating marks to them, out of twenty. In that way I became acquainted with Shakespeare plays (I gave him high marks) and much modern drama.
LV. Did you begin writing as a poet or a novelist, then? Do you happen to remember what it felt like to put pen to paper for the first time, and then to reread your own text? Did you feel it would lead to a lifelong career? Were you intimidated by your first fight with the dragon?
AB. In my earlier childhood, from the age of nine, I wanted to be a novelist. I began by telling stories to friends and occasionally trying to write them down. So that putting pen to paper for the first time was a matter of beginning the first chapter with a suitable opening. I can remember very little about those stories except that some of them contained —this sounds rather up-to-date! — a dashing woman detective. I think there was such a character in one of the serial stories I was reading in a children’s magazine at the time, Film Fun. None of this work survives in writing, only in my memory. Including the name of the detective: Jean Vane.
I wrote a lengthy diary during my teenage years from 15 to 19 years old, so most of my literary effort went into that activity. The diary sometimes broke into poetry, when I felt I had personal feelings to express or stories to tell which could be turned into verse.
Poetry only truly began when I became a student at Oxford. It came out of my early loneliness at the university, but I soon discovered that several fellow students were writing verse. We began to meet and exchange enthusiasms and encourage each other, so the whole desire to continue as a poet began there. Many of those students later became lifelong poets, and I was absolutely convinced that poetry would then be a lifelong career.
LV. You often say your are Post-Movement, but not many people know what the Movement meant and what writers it included. Whom did you look up to, what beliefs made them stick together, what made the Movement a distinct grouping, and why do you think so few critics talk about it now? Where and when should it be placed? Who initiated it? Which of those writers were your friends, what did you learn from them? What differentiates the Movement form the Post-Movement? Did they come right after Modernism? Is Postmodernism a label you would use?
AB. The idea that I was Post-Movement came from the editor of one particular anthology, but I accepted that category at once. The Movement is thoroughly covered in Blake Morrison’s book about it, which will provide all the information about the writers involved, including what I myself said and wrote about it at the time (the mid-1950s). The writers of the Movement were roughly a decade later than myself and my student poet friends. The principal ones among them were Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis, Thom Gunn, John Wain and Elizabeth Jennings (but all of this is in Morrison’s excellent guide to the period). Generally speaking, it was a 1950s mode of writing which favoured formal techniques, and an empirical and commonsense approach to life, and was in one critic’s words ‘sceptical, robust, ironic’. These writers were certainly sceptical about some aspects of modernism, though most of them revered Eliot, Joyce and Yeats (though not Ezra Pound).
LV. Would you give your own definition of the Movement? What were the formal features that made it a movement? What characterized the Post-Movement?
AB. Briefly, I would say that it represented a return to regular forms in poetry, a rational approach to subject-matter and a general no-nonsense attitude in contrast to the freer, wilder poetry of the previous decade (a Neo-Romantic period). The Post-Movement idea was coined by Edward Lucie-Smith for his book, and is a useful term, but it has not been taken up very much. It signified a variety of poetry that respected the formal care and the emotional restraint of the Movement but diversified things a little by simply being less academic (many of the Movement poets had been university lecturers) and more concerned with daily life. But all the information you really need is in Morrison’s book. (I gave him days of help!)
LV. Who were your mentors? Whom did you befriend when you became a young published poet?
AB. My living mentors were any older poet whose work I admired when I was young: T.S. Eliot, Auden, MacNeice, Dylan Thomas a little, George Barker and then Larkin. I consider that I learnt a lot from each of those. My poetry friends when young were people of the same age as myself — I have spoken of Porter, Thwaite, Redgrove and Martin Bell (though he was ten years older), Elizabteh Jennings (a Movement poet. Died 2002).
LV. Your respect for your readers is immense. This is the cause, I think, of your wonderful clarity, which hides unsuspected depths of ambiguity, though. Do you like poems which do not make sense, or not easily? Must the reader work his soul out in order to find out the poet’s intention (if he does)?
AB. I do tend to prefer poems which do make sense, and I become impatient with poetry that seems to me to wallow in abstraction. The idea of ‘concrete imagery’ has always seemed important to me. But if a poet is difficult to understand and yet still seems to be working in a recognisably real world with strong qualities of imagination, then I am drawn to him or her. Notable among these is the American John Ashbery, whom many of my poet friends find impossible! I believe Ashbery opens up the imagination in new and fascinating ways.
So I end up in favour of working hard to understand a particular poet, if there is clearly a powerful imagination at work among all the difficulty.
LV. One day, when leaving my apartment, you gazed at me sadly and whispered: ‘You think of me so much more than I think myself...’ I do think the world of you. You are shy and yet endlessly bold in your meanings. You are at the same time personal and impersonal. Your experiences are in your poems, but your biography is not. Eliot insisted on impersonality, yet never got there in his poems. Neither do you, thank God. You are the poet of this generation. I just wonder: what place do you allow yourself in your age? Who do you think you are in today’s poetic landscape?
AB. As I grow older I cease trying to work out what place I do have in the English poetry of today. I suppose I could allow the labels of Post-Movement and ‘the Group’ to be applied to me for want of anything better. If obliged to attempt to place myself, I think I would like to belong to a tradition of English poets who write with a care for form and feeling, a degree of wit and irony, if possible, and without too much wild excess. Names like Edward Thomas, MacNeice and the others I mentioned immediately come to mind. (I do realise Eliot was American, MacNeice Northern Irish, etc.!)
LV. Clear language does not mean clear poem. Your poetic ambiguity is always present. But you do want your audience (which Eliot and Joyce almost lost), and you are aware of that. How far are you prepared to go in securing the reader’s sympathy and empathy?
AB. The strange thing is that writers like T.S. Eliot and James Joyce probably believed that readers would come to them, and understand them, without their having to make concessions. I come increasingly to the conclusion that the audience for poetry, or fiction, or drama, or films has lost too much of its power of concentration. Easy sensation has been too readily offered to them and they have too readily accepted it. Having said that, I am bound to report that with a minority of young students I meet, I detect a considerable ability to work hard at understanding current poetry, fiction, music, etc. So perhaps the people prepared to make the effort were always a minority, and that minority is a persistent group which will always exist — just call it intelligent people, if you like!
LV. Discussing your poetry with my students, we started talking about what they expected of a poet today. The general reaction was they wanted a personal connection with the poet, they wanted to share the poet’s soul, know as much as possible about his life. Most poets today – so much like Eliot of old – try to escape their life and flee to poetry. You do not do exactly that. But you do keep your life private. What do you think of my students’ desire to know more about you? As your reader, I have experienced that frustration myself. Is that the wrong way to read you?
AB. I consider that the poetry should come first, and knowledge of the life should only be used if it is a genuine aid to understanding the verse. X may be an admirable poet but not a pleasant man – in that case we should forget the life and appreciate X’s poetry. Myself, I shall be willing to divulge some personal information if it helps, but most of it I should prefer to leave to a biographer (if there is one!) after my death. And then, some of my poetry is oblique, and ‘fictional’, with origins in my experience but not much direct reference to it.
LV. You speak tenderly and appreciatively of Larkin. What other writers are your friends today? What critics do you favour?
AB. My main poetry friends are Anthony Thwaite, Peter Porter, not to a lesser extent – because I see them less – George Szirtes, Peter Scupham and Douglas Dunn, all over 55 years old. There are younger poets I do meet privately (not just at parties and lunches): Paul Farley (best younger poet, in my opinion), Jane Griffiths, etc.
LV. Since you are a critic yourself and have written a lot of critical essays and reviews, what do you expect from a critic? What do you think of specialized academic criticism? Is criticism literature?
AB. I expect rigorous standards, a sense of urgency about poets’ respect for language, a sense of justice (which might mean mercy sometimes), a bit of courage, a wide knowledge, a sensitive intelligence. I do not enjoy specialised academic criticism, particularly if it has been influenced by post-structuralism and post-modernism. But individual poets’ worth is generally ignored or despised by post-modernist critics. It is not criticism! Yes, a few critics have been great – Samuel Johnson, Coleridge, Matthew Arnold, and the deeply controversial F.R. Leavis, whose harshness blinds people to the immense sensitivity of his detailed criticism. Leavis on Shakespeare, G.M. Hopkins and D.H. Lawrence is wonderful.
LV. Since you have visited Romania many times, what Romanian authors do you favour, what critics, what translators? What does Romania mean to you?
AB. There have been very good translations of Romanian poetry into English, so I can mention Eminescu, Arghezi, Nichita Stănescu, Marin Sorescu – only the beginning of a long list. But we do not have enough fiction in English – I have read only one novel – one! – in English, and that is D.R. Popescu’s Vânătoarea regală: The Royal Hunt. And then the plays of Caragiale are not frequently translated. Perhaps the verbal humour of the Romanian context is untranslatable? That does not mean translators should not try.