Portrait by VIC (Cristina Ioana Vianu)
LIDIA VIANU -- JOHN WHITWORTH
I would hate to write anything that people think they ought to read rather than want to read
Interview with JOHN WHITWORTH (born 1945), British poet
Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006
LIDIA VIANU: One Desperado feature, which you perfectly illustrate, is the mastery of form, exhausted and then made an object of derision. You can write using any fixed form anyone may name, I think, but your secret is in your rhymes, which most often than not, run against the grain. A traditional rhyme falls like the dead sound of a bell, stressing meaning, making it irreversible. Your rhymes are dynamite to sense. A Desperado rhyme, if I may call it that, is, to my mind, what you do. You wink at the reader and whisper, Forget meaning, come and play with my half words, suffixes, auxiliaries and prepositions. A rhyme, you teach your readers, does not have to be so much in earnest. A rhyme should constantly surprise and shock. I will soon mention some startling rhymes, which extend the possibilities of Desperado poetry far beyond the so far accepted idea of lyricism. Right now the question is: Do you overturn lyricism deliberately? Are you a deliberate reformer of rhyme? Did you begin doing that out of instinct or out of the need to apply irony to a dying (because boring) literary genre?
JOHN WHITWORTH: Long questions require long answers. I don’t think the word ‘deliberately’ is right at all. I didn’t do anything deliberately. I didn’t even become a poet deliberately. It just happened. I had better start with how I became a poet in the first place. I didn’t do it very early. I didn’t lisp in numbers much or really at all. If I wanted to be a writer at all at the age of, say, ten or eleven, rather than a professional cricketer, I wanted to write like PG Wodehouse – funny things. And I was living in Edinburgh – an English boy in Scotland, not an altogether comfortable thing to be. To be a poet and English as well, amongst these tough, aggressive Scots, that would not have done at all. It was better to be clever. Clever is always OK in Scotland though not in England then or now, where my children use the contemptuous word ‘boff’ (equals boffin equals mad scientist) to describe clever people. And of course it was better to be funny – as you probably know the British forgive funny people anything. There is a poem of mine in ‘Landscape with Small Humans’ (my favourite book), which takes some of this up – ‘Having the Nose for It’. But the poem (for dramatic reasons) makes me more consciously a poet than I ever was. I wanted to be an actor (that’s after wanting to play cricket for England). I wanted to show off. I loved poetry privately though and never found it boring. And I was as impressed by difficulty (from Donne to Eliot) as clever adolescents tend to be. Incidentally, I was terribly well taught in Scotland, better probably than I would have been in England. I think the irony is an English thing. We hide behind it. I’ve never been one for showing (parading) my feelings. There was a girl I was deeply in love with when I was seventeen, eighteen, nineteen… we laughed and joked and I yearned for her in her badminton things – ‘Jenny Jeffery’ is the poem, much influenced by Browning. I think the acrobatic rhymes were something I knew I could do, whereas being deep like Yeats and Eliot or visionary like Dylan Thomas, that might well be beyond me.
LV. Unlike most Desperado poets, who confine their art to the irony of their use of language, which encodes emotion so well that it sometimes gets away undiscovered, you are a tender Desperado. I have come across tender Desperado novelists (to name only Peter Ackroyd and Graham Swift), but I must confess that in poetry, particularly male poetry (why do you, seemingly ironically, say women write light verse?), tenderness is an unfought battle. I think the world of your poetry precisely because you had the courage to confront lyricism where it used to be stronger – sentiment. You do not object so much to lyricism, as to its pampering use of words so far. You belong to a generation which rejects ready-made phrases and ready-made rhyme. You devise a kind of do-it-yourself (your word) lyricism, and your ingenuity is irresistible. Do you view your poetry as tender? Do you mean to sympathize while shocking or to shock without sympathy? Do you expect a loving or loveless reader?
JW. Certainly I had the wish to shock, but only to get attention. Being physically timid, I suppose I used my tongue as a weapon and let it run away with me rather, saying things that got me into hot water without quite meaning to. As for tenderness, I discovered that (in my life) when I escaped the Scots ‘hard man’ ethos and went to Oxford University – the best thing I got from there. Indeed it would be the best thing one could get, don’t you think? Certainly I mean to be tender – what’s the use of poetry without tenderness? And who would want a loveless reader? On the other hand one doesn’t want to be slopping it all over the place, does one? There is room for the English stiff upper lip and the Scots savagery (they, we, are a savage lot) as a kind of sauce to the tenderness.
LV. Your first volume, with a significant Desperado title, I think – Unhistorical Fragments – (a Desperado usually escapes from history, from any form of tradition, and struggles to be as dissimilar as possible from everybody else, his own previous works included), is a tender inventory of most of your themes: ‘The furtive unicorns of lust’, ‘The illimitable misery/ Of being young’, ‘I hate Monday mornings’, and, last but not least, ‘Whitworth, what the hell do you think you are doing?’ Again, unlike your Desperado contemporaries, the biographical narrative is obvious in your poems, and becomes food for the reader’s thought. Your Landscape with Small Humans gratifies the curiosity of all those who want to peep at your soul. Desperado novels, being denied love interest and a traditional plot, take refuge in the diary and the autobiographical (Lessing, among others). Desperado feminine poetry dives into the personal, almost the private and the forbidden. Desperado male poetry (this is becoming rather sexist, but true in my reading experience so far) escapes into feats of language, of style. You do both: you eat your cake and have it, so to say. You feel and say. You are unashamed of making your life public, and you spice it with an unparallelled gift of rhyme. Is a volume of poetry expected to be a kind of diary of the poet? Would you agree that the Desperado Diary is a new genre, which only the brave can use?
JW. I don’t see myself as brave in any way alas, for I admire courage, as who does not. I can always deny anything that seems autobiographical and say I made it up – sometimes I did make it up. I am kicking round the idea of writing an autobiography which mingles truth and fiction (meaning lies which are true). Indeed I have already written quite a bit of it. It’s inside the computer I’m writing this on now. I hate the idea of Confessions though (they seem so self-important) and tend to agree with Norman MacCaig: I am in no way an unusual man, so talking about myself is talking about everybody. Yes, I also have noticed that male poets, being men, like showing off, in language as in other non-poetic things (getting into drunken fights, stealing cars and so forth) more than female poets. It’s surely not sexist (yet) to say that men and women are different.
LV. It is quite difficult for the reader to find your literary masters and peers. You mock at all poets, whether near and dear or repulsive and remote. I could mention Eliot, Yeats, cummings (with his ‘lower case’), Larkin, Hughes. There are many more. Your From the Sonnet History of Modern Poetry is a brilliant, intensely enjoyable volume that challenges irony in the reader. Without a sense of humour it is a pity to tackle your poems. Talking seriously (this interview is getting too intellectual for such emotionally gratifying poems), who is your friend and who your foe (if any)? Who has influenced you? Whom do you side with among your contemporaries?
JW. Well, I’ve been corralled into something called ‘School of Ewart’, along with Peter Reading and Wendy Cope and others, and since I was stuck there by the GREATEST (no irony) poet of my lifetime, Philip Larkin, I must be content with that. I am. Gavin Ewart’s poetry is a joy to me, and an inspiration but, to be honest I don’t think he is better than me. Larkin is better. Auden is better. Les Murray is better, or at least he can do things I can’t. Betjeman is an influence and I much admire his skill and his ability to do something different. I like Wendy Cope, Peter Reading, Sophie Hannah, Kit Wright (Kit above all) and I read all their books, but I don’t (honestly) think they are better either —though more successful here in some cases – just different. I have (honestly) quite a high opinion of my work, an opinion not (yet) shared by the English poetry establishment alas. But Les (Murray) thinks I’m good, and Gavin thought so, and the Peters Reading and Porter and Anthony Thwaite and a good friend of mine (a poet too) called Simon Rae, so I don’t know what I am grumbling about.
LV. As a short sequel to the previous question: I noticed two poems, in two volumes, about Seamus Heaney. Is he a friend or the opposite? You do not write in his manner. If you could choose, would you?
JW. Seamus Heaney (whom I have never met) knows how to write. Some of his poems are perfect. But he is not an influence. He is there because he is Number One now, just as Eliot was Number One in my childhood and youth. Does he deserve to be? No-one deserves to be Number One. Poetry is not a competition. Nevertheless…
LV. A poem mentions ‘committing poetry’. You commit poems just as other people commit adultery: you seduce words. Every word becomes your mistress and is pushed into bewildering rhymes. A line says, ‘Love, luv? There’s too much/ talk of love.’ You hint at feelings, but do not cross the border, unless it is with a grin and a need to argue. No idylls in your poems (but plenty of tenderness, as I have said). Debunking love is typical for Desperadoes, yet no one wants to admit to the trick/ arrogance (or whatever the name). Most poets have accused me of misreading their lines, which are so full of emotions I fail to see. I do see emotion with you, but I also see your defiance of commiseration. Would you be prepared to accept the idea that your poetry reinvents sensibility, rewrites the very idea of feeling? In a language totally different from Dickinson, Eliot, Larkin & Co?
JW. I don’t know if it’s as different from Larkin as all that. When I first started writing seriously, in my twenties, he did seem to me the pinnacle of poetic art in the later part of the twentieth century – he still does. I once sent some poems to a magazine and the editor wrote me a rather acid note saying (roughly) that I was just recycling Larkin’s tricks – he obviously hadn’t noticed Betjeman’s. I thought – damn, he’s found me out. So I reckoned I’d better do something different and encouraged the unLarkin-like bits, the jokes (though Larkin certainly has jokes), the optimism, the showing-off with technique and the particular brand of sentimentality (tenderness if you like). Robert Browning was the poet who showed me how to do a lot of this; I didn’t expect any editors to say I was recycling Browning’s tricks; they probably wouldn’t know anyway. I do agree that one has to be different or why bother. I don’t know anybody writing now who writes like me, not really like me. That used to worry me (uniqueness is worrying – perhaps you’re mad) but it doesn’t now. I suppose I realise that, in spite of what I said to MacCaig, I am odd, though (really. really) I don’t try to be. All poets are odd. It’s an odd thing to be doing. Something that seems to describe me to myself is a remark of the novelist Peter de Vries, or at least a remark in a novel by Peter de Vries – ‘deep down you’re shallow’. I think that’s me. And there’s that American thing (great people Americans) ‘It looks like a duck. It walks like a duck. It quacks like a duck. It’s a duck.’ Things often are just as they appear. Pretty girls are nicer than ugly girls. Children are amazing. You are transfigured by love. Proverbs are true. God is dead. (Nietzsche) Nietzsche is dead. (God) My existence is terrible. Sometimes I can’t see how I’ll get out of it alive (WC Fields). Reinventing sensibility? Yes, I’ll buy that, though it wasn’t a conscious programme – it just happened that way.
LV. I have found one typical rhyme for you (Are You Dancing? No, It’s Just the Way I’m Standing): ‘neat meat in flaccid chops, em-/ braced in haste to see if she drops ‘em...’ You invent the rhyme with a sense of humour. Many other poets try unusual, shocking rhymes (Peter Porter, Ian Duhig, Sean O’Brien, to name just very few), and they all debunk rhyme. You go a step farther: you re-bunk it, if I can say that in English. You load your deliberately debunked/ disillusioned rhymes with a cargo of hopeful, expectant soul. Your sensibility is always in ambush for words and for readers who can find the magic path. Unlike many Desperadoes, you do have a magic path. Your poetry does lead to a warm kernel of love and the reader is filled with joy. It would be naive to ask if that is your aim (who would say no to that?), but I can find another way of putting it: What do you value more, words or emotions? Could you do without verbal fireworks? Could you do without emotions, if the lines were unbelievably clever verbally?
JW. Oh I do hope I have a magic path, I do hope so. Nobody can do without emotions. Lewis Carroll’s poetry (he’s another influence) is crammed with emotions. I am an emotional person and some poems (not my own) make me pretty well burst into tears. Dylan Thomas’s ‘Fern Hill’, for instance, or Richard Burton reading poetry on tape, Prospero’s ‘Our revels now are ended’, something by Hopkins. But you can’t have poetry without words, can you? I do think some poetry nowadays is a desiccated, bloodless thing; the real stuff must appeal directly to the emotions. But you can’t do that without words and you do have to be good at using them. I’m very impressed by skill. Wallace Stevens, say, is very skilful, and I can really relate to that as they say nowadays. Whereas, say, the Beat poets are just not interesting enough. I’ve just reread Carol Ann Duffy’s sonnet ‘Prayer’
Pray for us now. Grade 1 piano scales
console the lodger looking out across
a Midlands town. Then dusk, and someone calls
a child’s name as though they named their loss.
– now that’s the sort of stuff we need!
LV. Your poetry is a volcano of rhyming words and half-words, suffixes, last and first letters (one example: the rhyming of ‘visit/ is it/ hesit-, followed in the next line by
-ance). It also is a volcano of healthy sexuality. The sound track is great. The sense is equally satisfying. I wonder, is mockery replacing lyricism? You create poetry while you are actually mocking at its conventions. You use old patterns and deprive them of meaning deliberately (or am I wrong?). You also create new, private patterns, which you endow with real, captivating life. In Scribble Scribble I find the following:
The poems are all failures, never
Quite what I meant. Too bloody clever,
Obsessed with technicalities,
Enamelled in self parodies,
Rhymes chiming pat, like that. Bah! Too
Easy, and finally, not true.
Are you happy with your poetry so far? If you were to start all over again, would you do it any differently?
JW. I wouldn’t change it. I wouldn’t re-edit it either, like Auden. I’m happy I’ve done it. But, as Larkin says, you don’t choose to write the way you do. What I do is not the only way to write poems, or not maybe even the best way. But it’s the only way for me. And I have to write a lot. Wendy Cope, who was a schoolteacher, and has that air sometimes (smarten up, John!) reckons I publish too much. She goes for the thin stream of pure gold, like Eliot or Larkin. But I think, what the hell? Write it all and publish what you can. It’ll all be sorted out by time. No, I wouldn’t do it differently, I don’t see how I could. I think my next book and the next after that will be new and exciting – or exciting for me. You should be getting it from Harry Chambers pretty soon – The Whitworth Gun. I hope it goes off to good effect.
LV. Having reached this far, it is high time for my readers to know you, the man behind the poet mask. You were born in 1945 in India. What more can you confess about yourself? What have you studied, what do you do for a living, whom do you read, what is your family life (you have two daughters), in a word, who is John Whitworth the man, not necessarily the poet?
JW. Ah, now you can have a really long answer. I shall work on this one. You’ve got my childhood already in the poems. After school in Edinburgh I went to Oxford, which was something I’d never expected to do – not nearly clever enough – and did two degrees there. In fact it wasn’t until six years after leaving school that I actually had to get a job. I tried for university ones but my first degree was only second class so I ended up teaching foreigners English. I went on doing that from 1969 to 1982 when the London outfit I worked for went bankrupt. I was married by then but we were TINAs (two incomes, no children) . Then I was out of work and we had one, then two children. Since Doreen, my wife, had a university job which paid better than anything I was likely to get, I became a sort of househusband working part time for pin money (that’s not much money) a year. In other words I haven’t had a proper job since 1982 – for twenty years! Bringing up the girls was great, the best thing I can remember doing. It beats working except that you never have enough money. My wife, of course, got the rotten end of the deal. She had to work full time and also do all sorts of things at home because a woman is supposed to. I taught creative writing, did the poet thing and swanned around with the kids at swimming pools and MacDonalds and the seaside. And of course everyone thought it was marvellous, because I was a man and could change a nappy, cook a dinner and so forth. Now Doreen’s retired and I’m supposed to make more money but it isn’t happening, or it isn’t happening enough.
LV. Lovely Day for a Wedding is a mixture in the open between poetry and narrative. You like telling stories, or simply telling jokes in your verse, but this time the story is longer and has suspense and an ending. It is a typical Desperado story, mocking at love (shy of intense emotion, therefore putting it down or aside), ending in a common, everyday, uneventful way. It is in fact a deconstruction of the narrative (I hate the method in criticism, but the creator is entitled to anything). All your volumes rely, in part at least, on narratives. Have you ever written fiction? If not, would you like to? Does it seem correct to you to say that any contemporary poet is a novelist in a nutshell? And that those who reject the narrative thread have to fall back on language alone, soon exhausting their medium?
JW. I hadn’t thought about any contemporary poet being a novelist but there’s undoubtedly something in it. I’ve been trying to be a novelist for years (to earn more money) and the story in LDFW started as an aborted novel. The novel form doesn’t seem to suit me, though I’ve written some short stories (skewed autobiography – very skewed indeed) which I am happy with, which I think are good, but I don’t know how I’ll get them published. There’s a kind of Tristram Shandy novel I could probably do – the lying autobiography I told you about could be that.
LV. In Tennis and Sex and Death I have found one poem which shows everything you are at once: warm, ironical, inventive, incredulous, mistrustful of words, in love with life. It is entitled Birthday Present, and here it is, for such readers as have not read you yet:
Now daughter, hear your father. He
Is wise. At least he ought to be:
No money, lots of books, a lit-
tle beard, you may be sure of it.
So heed the advice he offers you.
It is the best that he can do.
Too soon you’ll go to school, and for
A dozen years and maybe more,
You must be educated – what
Is what and who is who. Do not
Believe them much, but all the same
Be courteous. They are not to blame.
Be speculative, dreamy, kind,
Impractical. Don’t speak your mind.
For your opinions, hold as few
As it seems reasonable to do.
Hold them but do not be afraid
To bury them when they are dead.
Don’t pick your friends with too much care,
But such as happen to be there.
Trust – if you must – a pretty face.
There lies disaster, not disgrace.
Love soon, love easily – the fact is,
Like most things love improves with practice.
Don’t weigh your conversation – talking
Should be as natural as walking
To take the Sunday morning air,
Not just because of getting there.
Watch trash on television. Read
Old books, not new. Do not succeed.
Try not to preach, try not to plan,
Try not take the Guardian.
Tolerate spiders, snakes and bats.
Be on the best of terms with cats.
Love gardens, garlic, sunset, lambs,
Church weddings, babies in their prams,
Fairgrounds and Mozart, Keats and... oh dear,
I said I wouldn’t and there I go, dear.
It’s only daddy rabbitting.
Same old daddy, same old thing.
My love, if you contrive to be
Just what you please, that pleases me.
And yes, p.s. do not believe in
Words. Their business is deceiving.
Most Desperado poets (all rejecting their being grouped together and scoffing at the name) deny emotional involvement in their lines. Some interviews even turn into lectures on how to/ and why to be uninvolved. Other answers scold the interviewer for not seeing emotion where it is obvious to the poet himself (not so obvious to the reader, though). Your poems are both easy-going and artful. You offer both emotion and play upon and with words. You verse is playful both in sensibility and style. Your being a Desperado relies on using all the tools a poet can wish for today. I am not sure my idea of a Desperado is clear as yet, but, so far, would you accept being called one?
JW. I’m glad you like that poem. I wrote it when Ellie, my elder daughter, was very small, and I stand by it now that she’s eighteen, though I’m afraid she hasn’t managed the thing about spiders and has a real phobia about them. How can you be uninvolved in your lines? I think poets who say that are posing. Why would you write poems at all except to touch the reader’s heart by showing your own, as Hardy says? On the other hand I think you can/should go at it obliquely, you don’t want your heart bleeding all over the page now do you? Art as a game appeals to me because I love games, like most men perhaps and unlike many women. I used to play cards a lot though I don’t now, and I do lots of crosswords and stuff like that. In my classes I love inventing new writing games and often get a poem of my own out of one.
LV. I found an essential line for you in I Too Dislike It: ‘I gave up being bored when I was thirty’. You never look bored, and I am sure one is never so with your poetry as company. Is your highly entertaining poetry deliberately or instinctively so? Do you aim at the reader’s laughter? What else do you expect of your readers?
JW. I suppose that line was a sideswipe at a certain type of intellectual. I like people to laugh. I like them to be touched. I like them to buy the books, of course I do. I don’t know that one should expect anything of one’s readers at all, any more than an actor expects things of the audience – except that they turn up. It’s up to us, isn’t it, us the poets and the actors, to make it worthwhile for any audience we are lucky enough to get. I don’t want my audience to read poetry, anyone’s, because it makes them feel better than, superior to, people who don’t read it. That’s the sort of stuff you get from the arts pages of Sunday papers.
LV. Parody is an essential tool with you. I find here and there parodies of many poets (that of Dickinson in From the Sonnet History of Modern Poetry can have anyone roar with laughter). You do not spare Eliot, Shakespeare, Yeats, Heaney and a lot more. What is the creator’s mood in those poems? Do you despise, worship in disguise, or just use as pretext? What is the reader supposed to infer? That he must side with a rebel or with a conformer in disguise? I think you love gossip, and I wonder if you would admit to using it in your volume with parody-sonnets, if you would be willing to state that debunking great myths (from Shakespeare to Heaney) is healthy.
JW. I think debunking is probably too ambitious. I make jokes. Emily Dickinson is great and good. But also more than a bit absurd, like the rest of us. Tolstoy’s debunking of King Lear (which made me very cross when I first read it – I saw Shakespeare as a personal friend of mine) didn’t actually make any difference, did it? I think, though it sounds a bit affected to say so, that to me the great poets, like Yeats for instance, are still alive. And living people, people you know, are imperfect, just as one is oneself. Yeats was a bloody fool in many ways (and knew it himself) and his flirting with Irish fascism was the act of a bloody fool (an act which many an Irishman repeats today), but poets are not known for their worldly wisdom, are they? But of course Yeats was a great poet; that’s taken as read. Pound, on the other hand, wasn’t much good, and even Eliot wasn’t much good after 1930 (a great man before that). According to me.
LV. Landscape with Small Humans ends with a shattering experience for your childhood, which was your mother’s death. The pain is even deeper when seen, as you do, through the child’s eyes. Your books, all together, make up a history of your inner life. They can be read as an autobiographical, indirect, lyrical narrative. This is another Desperado feature, which you illustrate. Do you ever find in poetry a friendly ear, a diary page? Or is it just the tense and intense hide-and-seek with chameleonic words?
JW. ‘He tames it who fetters it in verse’ says Donne. Obviously true. I couldn’t get Jenny Jeffery in life but she’s there in the poem and that’s something. As for my mother’s death, well of course I never got over it. You never get over anything, do you? My father married again, and my stepmother (a friend of my mother’s) was a really nice person. I loved her very much and we always got on well except when I was getting at her in my irritating know-all adolescent leftist way for being a white Rhodesian – she knew Doris Lessing, incidentally, and didn’t like her much. My stepmother was a treasure, but I still never got over my mother’s death. Of course I didn’t. I’m sure I would have been nicer if she hadn’t died, nicer because happier. I wasn’t at all happy between the ages of fourteen and seventeen, but then I suppose few boys are, and things got better after that. My marriage and my children made me happy and still do – not all the time of course, that would be silly. But life’s been quite good to me SO FAR. Wendy Cope said I’d never written a happy poem but I swear she’s wrong about that. Indeed the one you quote seems happy to me.
LV. In years of reading contemporary poetry I have not come across a more touching, entertaining, satisfying (from all points of view) book than The Complete Poetical Works of Phoebe Flood. My twenty-year old daughter and my eighty-year-old mother enjoyed it just as much as me, which means it appeals to quite a number of generations. My first question, out of many about this book: Did you set out with Milne in mind? Because you have his tenderness, but totally different tools. The mood is the same, but you rely on parody where he just invented more reasons for emotion. Is Phoebe a love affair with or a gossip-pretext for poetry?
JW. I wrote Phoebe for my daughters. Ellie was about ten when I started and Katie was about ten when I finished. And for money of course – I found a publisher who would do a children’s book. It was accepted before I’d finished it, before I’d written some of the best poems. I didn’t set out with Milne in mind, but I admire Milne very much – his Winnie the Pooh books seem perfect, a kind of hymn to Englishness. And the illustrations are so good. I wanted Phoebe to have good illustrations and it does. I tried to avoid one of Milne’s faults – the ‘Christopher Robin is saying his prayers’ sort of thing, appealing to adult slushiness over the heads of the children. Phoebe is FOR children – and a lot of the poems work for them. I tried them out on Ellie and Katie first and I read them in schools, so I think I know the best ones. Incidentally ‘bored to the bone’ is an invention of Ellie’s. I just pinched the phrase and carried on. The first publisher of the poem wouldn’t allow the word ‘bum’ so I had to write ‘Hum!’ instead. That one was actually the first children’s poem that I wrote.
LV. I am reading Phoebe’s poems with an alert eye to the hidden literary darts. One is on the very first page, and it makes this interview rather superfluous: ‘I’m not going to tell you much more about myself because there’s quite a lot of that in the poems.’ And a few pages further on: ‘I am an Artist and don’t have to be clever, only Artistic’. Maybe I ought to get the drift and stop here, but this book has to be known. Everything in it is remarkable, from the shape of letters to illustrations and the wild sense of humour. In Ten Quiz Questions Phoebe announces: ‘I think all poetry books should have a quiz. I suppose the answers ought to be at the back of the book’. After these put together, one question comes to mind: How much store do you set by literary criticism? What kind of critics do you value? I was just wondering if you can stand the scholarly type, hoping you would not (or maybe I should not have said that?).
JW. The jokes in Phoebe were (mostly) put in near the end. They don’t make up a conscious programme. I have nothing against a scholarly type though I’m too intellectually lazy to be a scholar myself. Of course it depends on what kind of scholarly type. I have a friend from school called Richard Hogg who is now a Professor of English Language at Manchester. I was up at a reading weekend with him and he suggested a reading of a poem by Paul Muldoon. It seemed to me
far-fetched (though I hadn’t the faintest idea what the poem was about) and I asked him if he believed it. ‘Oh no,’ he said, ‘but what’s that got to do with it?’ or words to that effect. I like clever people like Hogg or William Empson saying clever things. But don’t you think that criticism has sometimes become a substitute for poetry – people do it instead. And they don’t do it (as Johnson did) to elucidate but to obfuscate, to cut poetry off from the common reader. I’m against that. When I think about it, most of the critics of poetry I like are actually poets. Of course you are a critic I like, and I haven’t read a word of your criticism yet. But (genuinely) I’d love to know why I was doing what I was doing and how I fit into a zeitgeist. In other words the whole Desperadoes thing fascinates me and I have no doubt it is true – whatever it is.
LV. Letter To Seamus Heaney makes me ask: what do you think is most valuable in a poem? Rhyme, emotion, cleverness, shocking use of language, clarity? How much do you rely on clarity (considering there is not one line in seven volumes that I have not been able to figure out, which is a record in contemporary poetry; most poets today are happy if they get away with rhyming and not much/ or against sense)?
JW. I like to be clear. It doesn’t necessarily have to make sense but it ought to be clear like Lewis Carroll or Rimbaud’s ‘Mon triste coeur bave à la poupe’ a poem I would like to translate. Do you see what I mean? The ‘Fern Hill’ that makes me weep is clear in the sense that I mean, though I know Thomas used to throw words at his poems like Jackson Pollock throwing paint at his canvasses. The poem in Phoebe called ‘Mr Alucard’ is one way I am going nowadays. I don’t think poets should try too hard to be philosophers or psychologists or social historians or political historians or anything else. If that’s what you want then you know where you can get it. Poets make poems, just as painters make paintings (or at least that’s what they used to do).
LV. Old MacDonald Had a Zoo begins with the explanation: ‘This one is a bit silly but everyone should be silly for ten minutes each day. Some are already of course.’ Your loving and lovable sense of humour would win anyone. But you do more than just pretend you love and laugh. You warn. Unless poetry sticks to accessibility, it is lost. You do not tolerate humbugs (I will avoid names). But you do hate something, and that something is the aim of your parody in this apparently harmless, innocent little book. Could you define that something or, rather, would you?
JW. What do I hate? I hate that sort of superior cant the literary journalists use to show how clever they are and how stupid the rest of us are. A poem should be as simple as it is possible for it to be and as exact as its nature permits. Sometimes things have to be woolly and impressionistic, sometimes there are huge cloudy symbols of a high romance, but often this is not so. I hate people who scoff at, say, this sort of thing:
But pleasures are like poppies spread:
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls on the river,
A moment white – then melts for ever,
Or like the Borealis race
That flit ere you can point their place,
Or like the rainbow’s lovely form
Evanishing amid the storm.
That seems to me perfect, memorable from the first time I heard it at a Burns Supper, memorable for ever. You try to do that, thought in between you try other things as well. Or I do..
LV. Do-it-yourself Insult Poem (the do-it-yourself poem, used by you several times, is a brilliant explanation of what the Desperado poem is often all about) begins with: ‘One of the reasons to write poems is TO GET YOUR OWN BACK.’ I think you do get your own back because you write clearly and emotionally and endearingly and ironically where many fail to do the same. Bad poets rush where good poets fear to tread. Could you describe the kind of poem you would hate to write?
JW. I would hate to write Ezra Pound’s ‘Hugh Selwyn Mauberley’ or indeed to want to write it because it is mean-spirited and putting the reader down. I would hate to write Hart Crane’s ‘The Bridge’ because it is unintelligible and (therefore) putting the reader down. I would hate to write anything that people think they ought to read rather than want to read. I would hate to write anything (much) in free verse.
LV. In Boring Phoebe states, ‘You can hear poetry every day if you just listen’.
Here is the whole poem (I just could not help quoting it in full):
I’m dead bored
bored to the bone.
Nobody likes me.
I’m all alone.
I’ll just go crawl
under a stone.
Hate my family,
got no friends.
I’ll sit here till
the Universe ends
Or I starve to death.
It all depends.
Then I’ll be dead,
dead and rotten,
Less than a blot that’s
been well blotten,
Less than a teddy bear
that’s been forgotten.
Then I’ll go to heaven which is
more than can be said
For certain persons
when they’re dead
They’ll go you-know-
Then they’ll be sorry,
then they’ll be glum,
Sitting on a stove till
They can all go
kiss my bum.
Bum’s a sort of swearing.
People shouldn’t swear.
I won’t go to heaven but
I don’t care.
I don’t care.
I don’t care.
I’ll sit here and swear.
Except that it’s boring!
Your poems could not be farther away from boring. If anything, you are that adjective which is the very opposite of boring. I do not name antonyms because, where your poetry is concerned, I would most certainly never be happy with a simple word. You are a poetic firework, the very image of the loving soul wrapped in rhyme. At the end of this trip across your work, what would you like readers to be left with? What should they be listening for in your ‘every day’ handling of the word? Because your rhymes and sense of humour are definitely far more than ‘worth a wit’...
JW. Good Heavens I feel almost embarrassed. Thank you for feeling as you do. What should my readers be left with? I hope they will feel happier for reading things of mine. I do think one of art’s functions is to cheer people up. Besides, it cheers me up to write my poems, I always feel better when I have written what seems to me a good one, so it’s only fair that the reader should be cheered up too.