I have always tried to avoid literary and journalistic pigeon-holing of my work
Interview with PETER DALE (born 1938), British poet
Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006
LIDIA VIANU: I am reading you with an eye to a possible image of the Desperado poet, by which I mean a number of features, many present in your poetry. I shall start with your obsession with a recording of absence, first your father’s, later on of the woman you (still) love, finally, (this is just my intuition) your own. You write about places where you are not, and feelings which you are afraid may be lost, but which actually last longer than your own being, because your poems will spread and prolong them. Your reader is a privileged sharer of secrecy and guilt. You sensibility carries an unseen burden. Is communication of your daily burdens a joy or just a necessity for the poet Peter Dale? You never play when you write, although you try your hand at many rhythms and rhymes. Is poetry a game for you?
PETER DALE: Oh, dear, I wish you were not reading me ‘with an eye to a possible image of a Desperado poet.’ I feel as if I’m going to have hesitations and trouble throughout this interview with that term ‘Desperado.’ It isn’t a term I know, understand or welcome. So far as I know it isn’t a current label or pigeon-hole in British poetry. I can get as far as Thoreau’s remark that the mass of men live lives of quiet desperation. But I have always tried to avoid literary and journalistic pigeon-holing of my work or myself so I don’t think I can accept such a term as a description of my position or my work. You may perhaps persuade me in the course of our discussion but I hope not.
As you suggest there are some absences in the poems, but there are many presences also and I don’t think that, as a poet, I am at all rare or desperate in considering absences. It’s always been a major theme in British and European poetry – indeed, world poetry. The Book of the Duchess; Paradise Lost for example; Wordsworth mourned the absence of the first youthful vision of the world; Coleridge remarked: I see not feel how beautiful they are, speaking of his loss or absence of feeling for the beauties of nature; In Memoriam deals with the loss of Hallam and of religious certainty; then there’s ‘Dover Beach’ and ‘Thyrsis’. Not to mention, in general, the elegiac traditions, the nostalgic tradition, the pastoral and classicising tradition: and nearly all love poems are poems of love in some way lost. So I’m nothing special in that respect – nor are all the absences you mention actual absences in my work. My father is there in mirrors, and window reflections. The larger part of everyone’s life is an absence: for life exists mainly in memory or some hoped-for future. – When is the present present? That’s one of the abiding conundrums of the arts. – I think my poems are best considered, most of them, as forms of attempted dialogue or duologue, not always with a living person; as the breaking out from the solipsism of this life where the heart of another is a dark forest or attempts to discover – was it Pound who asked? – what do two know in their knowing?
You go on to inquire whether the reader is a privileged sharer of secrecy and guilt in the poems. The answer is I don’t know. Poets seldom get to talk to their readers directly. And reviewers, who are paid, and poorly, to read your poems, are not noted for feelings of guilt. You don’t in essence write a poem for readers: you write it to find out what the poem is.
In a sense all lyrical poems whoever writes them are eavesdropped, first by the writer and then by the reader. A normal person usually feels a degree of guilt at eavesdropping on other people. Poems attempt to make emotions conscious, to discover what mix they are in, and to transfer the result without loss of impact to the reader.
As for your suggestion that my sensibility carries an unseen burden, all I can say is that it’s hardly unseen; it is the common burden of humanity:
... the burden of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world
Poetry is just another, perhaps illusory, attempt at lightening that burden of consciousness for oneself and hopefully for others. The ex-Jesuit poet Peter Levi wrote in his memoir The Flutes of Autumn: ‘All the consolations are false.’
Or, to put it another way, Yeats, this time:
Man is in love, and loves what vanishes,
What more is there to say?
‘Vanishes’ may well suggest your word ‘absences’ but my poems attempt to open dialogue with people before and after they vanish.
You suggest that I never play in the poems but many poems are laced with ironies, jokes; puns, sexual and otherwise; in a sense rhyme is a type of game. Stephen Spender, a better critic than poet, once spoke of poetry as a ‘truth’ game. But poetry is not a simple game, though Eliot called it a mug’s game, nor is it an option for a genuine poet. For some of them it has been a game of Russian roulette. It is what poets have to do. People say all poets are mad. But they might have been even madder people if they had had no gift for verse.
I’ve written a book of epigrams, parodies, journalistic squibs, and, recently have started making amusing verses for my grandchildren. (It’s a serious thing to accuse an English person of lacking a sense of humour.) But the poet’s job is ultimately to write poems; the verse should end up as printer’s flong. And anyone with a modicum of philosophy or science is tempted to consider the entire universe ‘the sport of my mad mother Kali’. Some game, that, in which poetry isn’t even a house of cards.
LV. The Desperado poets push language to the furthest brink of limpidity. Your words are no obstacle to understanding. You seem to make a point of stating in clear terms the most confusing and unutterable depths of nostalgia and regret. Many other poets are conversational, but your veiled rhythm, which is a rhythm of your soul more than of mere syllables, circumscribes you within a circle of pure poetry. When you write you do not talk, but it does happen to you to find yourself making poems in the middle of a chat. Is the poetic image important to your meaning? Are certain words unacceptable to poetry? Where do you draw the line between the poetic and the conversational style? By what devices do you manage to load your (everyday) words with emotion?
PD. I imagine you are referring with the word ‘limpidity’ to what is often called the neutral style in English: writers like Thomas Wyatt, George Gascoigne, Edward Sherbourne, George Herbert, bits of Donne; Henry King; William Wordsworth, Edward Thomas, Larkin generally, the good bits of that curate’s egg, Tennyson: ‘An infant crying in the night/ And with no language but a cry’. Poets try to articulate that cry and others with ‘the imaginable moral power of perfect speech’. (But I’d emphasise ‘imaginable moral’.) So, yes, it’s true that I veer to that clear end of the spectrum rather than the ‘Babylonish dialect’ of Milton. Though Milton is limpid enough when he needs to be.
But one limpidly clear line complicates another like contour lines on a map from which a map-reader can imagine the gradient of a hillside or mountain and fix a height from which later he may get a good view. Browning speaks in Abt Vogler of composers making out of three sounds not a fourth sound but a star. That is a good image of how poems work with words, too.
But I wouldn’t want to over-emphasise the importance of the image. Perception can be jaded by the hebdomadal, the quotidian. A poem has to introduce a degree of surprise or the ‘disquotidian’ to fire the reader’s imagination. It may be my image, rhythm, rhyme, diction, sound-effects, aphorism, wit, idea, wordplay clash of character, and so forth in a variety of mixes. Another way is to make a reader wonder why a bunch of words called a poem is of significance when it is being foregrounded almost only by layout. I don’t mean e.e. cummings by that. Frost was one of the experts at this one. Somebody said the poet’s job was to make familiar things seem unfamiliar and to make the unfamiliar seem familiar. That’s not the job but it may be one of the tools. You may say I choose rather quiet ways to do this. The poet shouldn’t draw attention to his stylistic self; the poem should be a lens through which something crucial is seen. ‘The poem is not distinguished in its source.’ I can’t remember who said that but it is true and anon provest it too often for comfort.
I said a good many years back, in a piece on Hardy, that imagism is a young person’s poetic when the world is excitingly strange and fresh. There is also a poetry of experience in which, in a shared culture, a mere reference may be more powerful than a new-fangled image.
As for the conversational style, the question has always to be who is the conversationalist whose speech is regarded as the arbiter of what is permissible in conversation and what is not, and in which part of the world in terms of region or ethnic group has that speaker to live or come from? And lastly which particular year shall we pick on as standard for poems? Emily Tennyson’s letters are full of ‘thees’ and ‘-eths’ which sound very literary now but presumably were very intimate then. Conversational styles change rapidly. (Commentators speak of ministers having ‘oversight’ of something. In my conversation it’s the last thing I would want them to have.) A natural style is what I’m after: the right words in the right order. Yvor Winters, whom I don’t much agree with, was right to suggest that a poem should not be confined to a conversational level. Emily Dickinson said that the pen has many inflexions, the voice but one. There are ideas and words not used in speech but a writer might well need to use them. And a mixing of registers can, if well done, act to ‘disquotidiate’, to disorientate expectation or assumption. In moments of high emotion we all say some extraordinary things.
I have a distaste for the ‘poetic’ in terms of diction, unnatural syntax, word-order, archaic inflexions and self-referring poems. I hate silly games with typography, punctuation and layout in general but don’t insist that those can never be appropriate. I have ended one poem with a comma, and used gothic type in another for local purposes.
A criterion of conversational English too often leads to people dismissing the expression of obscurity as obscurity of expression. Given our hasty instant society now, I mean by ‘obscurity’ here: ‘what is not immediately apparent’. In conversation you can ask for repeats and amplification. There isn’t time in a poem for such dilutions. In fact, if you tape a conversation, you will find its syntax and redundancies far more complicated than prose or verse.
LV. For a Desperado poet there is one major priority: his theme(s) must first be graspable by the chance reader, because the poetry lover can find his own way. A Desperado wants to make converts, and your poetry actually converts many prose-lovers. Your transition from fiction to poetry is very smooth, hardly noticeable. You fictionalize poetry, resorting to incident more than image. The hybridization of literary genres, initiated by Joyce and Eliot, comes naturally to you. You mix poetry with diary, fiction, conversation, even obituary. You see no borders and there is no limit to the sky of your word. How far are you willing to go in order to propitiate the reader? To educate the lover of simplicity in the complications of your meandering feelings? Do you feel it is a shame to compromise with accessibility, a necessity or something that is of no real consequence? Do you ever willfully encode, hide your emotion in a text which needs deciphering?
PD. I’m not going to respond as one or talk about ‘Desperado’ poets, if you don’t mind. Sorry.
But who is this so-called chance reader of poems? It must be a tiny minority of the minority that reads modern verse. A poem has readers or it doesn’t. I don’t think a poem has necessarily to be ‘graspable by the chance reader’. I like a poem to have, even on first reading, something attractive or interesting to draw the attention of a reader while the whole poem itself gets to work. But this wouldn’t be a rule for all poems or poets. Some poems, not to say poets, make very off-putting first impressions. But a poet has to assume some degree of literateness or even literariness in his readers or he would be reduced to rejigging platitudes and conventional wisdom, cracker mottoes. I’m quite unaware that my ‘poetry actually converts many prose-lovers’, as you suggest. I would hope so, but my publisher certainly hasn’t noticed this. But there is no necessary distinction between prose readers and poetry readers.
The hybridization of poetry you speak of long predates Joyce and Eliot. The ‘mix’ of poetry you refer to is a fairly traditional mix in poetry if you include all its genres from epic, through verse-letter and haiku to light verse. I don’t think my approach in this is so very different from scores of poets.
No self-respecting poet can countenance the idea of ‘ propitiating’ the reader – though some so-called performance poets may well propitiate the audience. I may have misunderstood you if you are using the word ‘propitiate’ in some religious sense.
Frost said he never knew where a poem would end when he began one; Laforgue speaks of a poem having to surprise the poet when finished. (For me one can arrive as a surprise and end as a shock.) A poet has to concentrate on getting the poem right. Readers come after and must fend for themselves. A famous composer whose name at this juncture eludes me was asked if he would explain his piece that he’d just played; he agreed to do so, and immediately sat down and played the piece without comment a second time. Poems equally must speak for themselves. So you see that it is not a question of my going about to ‘hide an emotion’. The poem contains the emotion, perhaps in both senses. No amount of explanation will make a bad poem better. You can’t argue people into responding to a poem as poem. The poem has to convince them. A true poem discovers an emotion in the process of its creation, makes it conscious however complicated the emotion, the situation, may be. Coleridge, speaking of Donne, remarks that ‘the wheels take fire from their motion’. A poem is a word for which we have no other word, no synonyms. Poems shouldn’t need deciphering, what they need is imaginative response. But the poet may not always be certain even when the poem is finished as to what it is really doing. I remember asking a poet-friend if a line of his might also have an implication I thought I had noticed and he replied, ‘It does now on’.
I prefaced One Another with some tips for readers but I think it was a mistake now to have done so. I have a distaste for all sorts of encryption and encoding in poetry that modernism made modish, and a distaste for several other things that look too much like intellectual self-gratulation. Muldoon, in this respect, I find often a profligate of his considerable talents. My poetry has thus been accused in this country of ‘accessibility’, by some, as if that were in essence a fault.
LV. Desperado novelists have given up the story of the couple, the ‘love interest’ in Virginia Woolf’s words, the happy ending. Desperado poets have also pushed love behind the poem, or rather, love in its romantic, sentimental guise. Your love poems are so discreet that they could pass for dispassionate discourse. You seem to be a passionate person who feels strongly. When it comes to writing, passionate words avoid you, or you avoid them. Consequently, your major theme does not appear to be love, but death. The death of love, actually. Your shyness in front of love statements is typically Desperado. Do you fight it when you write about the one woman your poems outline? When you picture her in the grave, after the grave, even before the grave, is it the grave or your heart that you actually describe? Would you agree to being called a sentimental in disguise?
PD. I don’t avoid ‘passionate words’ and don’t think they avoid me but it isn’t such a simple choice. I spoke earlier of contour lines. Sentences in their rhythms and juxtapositions may be more passionate than words as words. To give one example of many, the emotion in ‘A Time to Speak’ isn’t to be found in individual words but in the sentence rhythms, the tension between speech-rhythm and metric, the pauses, the timing and, on this occasion, the images. But the poem won’t seem much to anyone with little experience of life. Genuine poems select the words they need for themselves; poems can ‘arrive’ fully made, even rhymed in sleep, in waking moments at night, on train-journeys or whatever – even when you’re busy with some other writing. When Dante was asked where he got his sweet new style he replied that he took down what love dictated. When the going is good poets take down what feels like dictation; translators sometimes feel almost that the source poet is dictating in the receiver’s language. The problem for poets is always to try to keep their third ear pricked for when the genuine words sound behind all the distractions.
Why do I, or does any poet, have to have this ‘major theme’ as you call it? There are many themes and angles of approach in my work but I don’t put up signposts to them. Dialogue, duologue involves all sorts of topics. You are, I think, mistaken to find only one female in the poems. Why should the imagination be so limited? I can’t recall I ever pictured in a poem any woman in her grave. As Marvel said the grave’s a fine and private place/ But none methinks do there embrace.
It’s interesting that you use the phrase a ‘sentimental in disguise’. ‘Sentimental’ is a tricky word to define usefully. There are a range of sentimentalisms; one art critic has spoken of the painter Francis Bacon as indulging in a sort of sentimentalism of violence. I don’t think I’m anything in disguise nor are the poems; they are out there as poems, not adverts, not novels, not sermons, not word-puzzles. How sentimental is: ‘Only in dreams the living haunt the dead/ In their long night’ ? Simple words, maybe, but they represent a considerable charge of hatred and vitriol. Sometimes the quietest voices are the most powerful; the metaphor is: not in the fire, the thunder or the earthquake but in the still small voice.
LV. Most Desperadoes defy theatricality. They resort to a blankness which protects them, a devious indirectness, a complicating veil. Peter Porter, Alan Brownjohn, George Szirtes do the same (to name only a few). This blankness can be ironical, sarcastic, rememorating, wise. Yours is a bruised blankness. Unaddressed Letter states: ‘The shock I felt was distant and unreal.’ This is a perfect definition of contemporary (apparent) shy inexpressivity. Have you ever felt you need totally new words in order to express a totally new mood? Is innovation among your goals? Would you agree that your superficial simplicity is just a ruse? That your complication (unwilling, maybe, yet very real) is even worse than Eliot’s, whose dramatic instinct led the reader to the poet’s plan, while you offer no clue? You create a total text, and set the reader free to roam in it. Could you state, for the record, what you expect your readers to find?
PD. I don’t understand what you are driving at, or where from, with your phrase ‘defy theatricality’. I would think all artists in words would wish to avoid ‘theatricality’. Hamlet is dramatic; the play within that play is necessarily theatrical. The clash between the two is the dramatic point. Nor do I see that the only alternative to ‘theatricality’ is necessarily a blankness of whatever species. The blankness that all conscious beings face is summed up in Wallace Stevens:
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
I think you are misapplying my line from Unaddressed Letter. It refers to the distance between a son just out of his teens and his father. When fathers live this distance closes usually in the natural course of things. It can’t if the father is dead. Remember the twenty-five year old who said: ‘When I was eighteen my father was a complete ignoramus. I was amazed at what he’d learnt by the time I was twenty-one.’
As implied earlier, any new word I might need would be the poem that became it. (It’s true, though, that as a translator I’m sometimes hindered like the rest of that profession by words or nuances unavailable in English and vice-versa.) I’ve occasionally revived an old word or extended a word by analogy but very seldom. In Eighth Period, an early poem, I invented the portmanteau word ‘insinuity’ as one joke among several in the dramatic monologue. An early poem takes off from an old word ‘wayzgoose’. As for innovation it is not for the poet or artist to worry about that; he must be true to each poem as it arrives. If the poem demands something traditional or innovative I do it. Beethoven said that what is new and original will make itself felt without our (the artist’s) worrying about it. As I said before: I write the poems; hopefully the reader brings to them a full imaginative response. Hopefully, if the reader’s mind’s eye and the mind’s ear are tuned to rhythm, nuance, register and lived experience, some feeling expressed in the poem will be ‘truable’ to themselves.
I tend to bridle at your suggestion of any poet using ‘a ruse’ as a style. A glass of clear water might look superficially simple when compared to a barrel of oil but it wasn’t a ruse on anyone’s part to make H2O look like that. Syntactically e=mc2 is simple but takes a bit of explaining. Maybe poems of any sort are like that, a simple syntax indicating experiential depths. So let’s say my poems might have surface tension. It’s only seen in water in some situations but it makes a lens of a drop spilt. I don’t know what a total text might be. I expect readers of a poem to find an emotional nexus of experience that is ‘truable’ for or to themselves.
As for groups, let me refer to Brownjohn’s early piece, ‘English Poetry in the Early Seventies’ (A Critical Survey, eds. Michael Schmidt and Grevel Lindop, Carcanet): ‘Reticence, as a quality, is about at the same time possessing, yet withholding the features of extremity.’ He was referring in this essay to ‘some of the younger English poets loosely brought together as the Review group – Ian Hamilton, David Harsent, Hugo Williams, Peter Dale, Colin Falck and others’. Notice that ‘loosely’. That was in my early days but I’ve never been closely associated with any group or clique, though of course I have many poet friends. Keats wrote that the genius of poetry must work out its own salvation in a man. That’s why the people in that list above are remarkable now for the differences in their poetic methods and means and that is how it has always been with most groupings of budding poets and ‘movements’. Nowadays such assemblages have more to do with publicity that with literary endeavour or quality.
LV. As I read your volumes of poems, I have noticed echoes from Eliot, Donne, Yeats. You seem extremely familiar with The Waste Land. As T.S. Eliot is the stream of consciousness poet, and as you come right after him, as part of what I call the Desperado age, what is your relationship with him and Yeats (a crossroads poet preceding Eliot’s innovation)? Most Desperadoes worship Eliot, echo him instinctively, admit he is huge, but deny any intellectual kinship, as no Desperado admits having idols. On the other hand, no one could be farther away from Eliot’s noisy suffering than you, the discreet bard. What poets do you value, who are your literary friends, where do you place yourself, if you were to think of a group?
PD. Yes, there are many localised allusions and near citations or parodies of other poets in some periods of my work. And more than you mention: Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Hopkins and so forth. It was partly a trick of the times when I began. Somebody accused Brahms, symphony number three, was it, of coming close to repeating a Beethoven motif and he replied, ‘Any fool can see that.’ But, as in music so in literature, with a bit of luck, echoes and reminiscences may add depth and colour to new works. But they are not essential or obligatory, though you might think so from some modernists. In The Fragments there are deliberate Waste Land references. Those share the area of the poem with the figure 6,000,000 as a comment on the Holocaust. The figure was also used in an advert for Guinness which struck me as a chilling irony but the poem deals with the whole idea of the tradition of Christianity in the modern world; my father was a teetotal fundamentalist Christian living in a tabernacle voided of the contemporary world; Eliot, an avowed Christian, also had a streak of anti-Semitism as had the whole Christian tradition until fairly recently. But such references are in the common job-lot of information.
I value all sorts of poets; but all sorts of poems would be more to the point. Hopkins said somewhere that the effect of a masterpiece was to make him admire and do otherwise. Otherwise is a good influence, perhaps my favourite. Otherwise one would repeat others or yourself. Poets who are awake can be influenced in some ways, conscious or not, by everything they read.
LV. A Desperado is more often than not autobiographical. Some novelists, such as Graham Swift, claim that imagination comes first. As a poet, you do not have to invent everything. Mere hiding of obvious narration and avoiding too direct revelation of privacy will do. You are talking about yourself, it would seem. Your honesty is disarming. Your truthfulness is captivating. Yet, at the end of all your volumes so far, all we get to know is a literary persona. Your poetry does not give your life away. Since this not poetry but an interview, I would like to know a few facts, all the same. How old are you? Why this animosity in the relationship with your father? Who is the woman you love and lost? Who is the child you fathered, described tenderly and then never mentioned again? What did you study? What is your profession? In short, I think I am asking for a brief summary of your non-poetic life.
PD. Can one handle these words ‘honesty’ and ‘truthfulness’ as critical terms? Graham Swift is right; imagination comes first. The old classical idea was that the truest poetry was the most feigning. How can anyone tell from words printed on the page whether the person who wrote them is lying? Good liars and conmen are believed. Poems have to be ‘truable’ in the reader’s imagination and experience. Do we really know the truth or honesty rating of Dante, Villon, Shakespeare? Do you claim to know any of these as more than a literary persona? Even their biographies in so far as they still exist are written. Some critics have even doubted the biographical content of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, claiming they form a triangular plot of his typically dramatic imagination.
Poems have no obligation to be autobiographical but I think poems must spring out of a life; they shouldn’t generalise life-experience but rather universalise it.
So there is biography in my work, too much, in some of it. But in the mature work I think the poems have as much biography in them as they need. Other details are available on all the blurbs and flapdoodles and in reference books – for the curious. (You seem to have overlooked many poems about pregnancy and children, several that deal with teaching experience, many about marriage and love, friends and acquaintance.)
But to deal with your particular points. I’m sixty two. The opposition between father and son is an old theme in literature and mine was caused in confronting the absurdity of his fundamentalist religion. I haven’t loved and lost any women recently. I’ve been married for thirty five years. We have two children, a girl and a boy, and two grandchildren. I’ve written about both of our children more than a few times and my daughter’s children receive regular nonsense poems. There are also several poems about walking, several mention cycling. I studied English at Oxford, taught it and then became a freelance writer. While teaching, I translated into verse-equivalents: Villon; Corbière; Laforgue; Dante. I’m currently working on a new book of poems and sundry translations.
LV. The Desperado is often a displaced person (concretely or just in an intellectual area), who builds a dystopia as his only refuge. The description fits you. You run away from your life. You live in the ante-chamber of death (death of a loved person, father, woman, friend), and build it into a dystopic land, a kind of after life on the page. Your poetry exorcises the fear of death. You inhabit all ends. You kill the fear of the end. Frail as your sensibility may look, your lines attempt a feat of bravery. They rescue life from mortality for the brief space of a poem. Would you say you are a serene poet? Do you have torturing, haunting fears? Is poetry a liberation from them, a recreation of lost peace, or an image of life dislocated into the dystopic land of after-death?
PD. Well, all of us live in the ‘antechamber of death’. But how on earth can you say I run away from life: look how much I have crammed into it: over two years working in hospitals – between college terms and before; thirty years full-time teaching running a big department while translating all those mentioned above; at the same time I was co-editing Agenda magazine, bringing up a family, writing all the books of verse – doing walking tours, cycling tours. Now I’m writing poems, translating, reading and lecturing, writing verse for my grandchildren and interviewing for and helping to run Between the Lines publications. If that is running away from life how do you run towards it?
But I like your phrase that poems, not just mine, rescue life from mortality for the brief space of a poem. It is close to a remark of Larkin’s. But when you read a living poem by a dead poet it also does the reverse: it brings home to us that this poor bugger who felt this so powerfully is dead. I touch on this in Summer Shadows. Auden said that the arts are our only means of communication with the dead and without such communication a truly human life is not possible.
As for displaced person, here’s a verse I wrote to amuse my wife:
Asked for requests for Christmas, birthday gifts,
I put my closest friends to awful shifts.
They cannot wrap it, pack it, box it, can it,
Since what I always want’s another planet.
But perhaps Julio Cortazar put it more seriously: ‘The only true exile is the writer who lives in his country.’ Not just writers. Christ said almost the same of prophets. But this is being over-dramatic: a person is not so much displaced as sent into internal exile in their own heads.
LV. Desperado poetry breathes the air of dystopia because it defamiliarizes whatever should be familiar, maximizes fears and then stifles them, ruins all expectations of peace, baffles and rejects emotion of all kinds, more or less attempting a dry approach. You are an exception to the last feature, you are not at all dry. You are, however, extremely fond of secrecy. Would you be willing to explain why you hide your life so well that the reader cannot even guess what you do for a living? With William Carlos Williams, we knew he was a doctor. With Eliot, banking was not hard to guess, or philosophy, for that matter. With Desperadoes, the inner life is all that matters. They use the incident, the story – the outer life – as self-detonation. They tell the story of an absent hero. Are you present as a human person, a concrete life in your poems? Or would you rather have the reader converse with a spokesman, a persona, all feelings and not even one moment of reliable truth?
PD. Secrecy is not the word; reticence is. Why should any reader want to know what I do/did for a living? If I am any good I shall be dead when most of my readers reach the poems and jobs and so forth will be irrelevant. Why do you assume that emotions aren’t reliable truth? Shelley said that in our intelligence we are the same but in our imaginations we are all different individuals. It may be that in our emotions too we are the same unless certified. In which case we come back to my necessary invented word ‘truable’. Everyone presents personas of different sorts to different acquaintance all through life; why shouldn’t one be content with the ones that a poet presents? The true self can’t be presented in life perhaps because it can’t be fully known to the presenter. Graves who opened a poem superbly with ‘She always speaks in her own voice/ Even to strangers...’ presented the poem to two separate women, I seem to remember. Personas in life may try to speak the truth as they know it when occasion demands; but poems speak the truth of the self. Why should they be attached to a bunch of personas? They are often a sort of esprit de l’escalier also: they are either what should have been said in an ideal world or what one would say in a hell of a world.
LV. The poem Steps contains a perfect definition of your favourite environment in poetry, ‘the bottom step of light.’ You share this space with a girlish figure,
green-eyed, Irish, childishly tender, good gardener (with green fingers, you say), gentle vicinity and a shy person on the whole. You address her as ‘after-image, my after-love.’ Eidetic Image adds, ‘ I expect you everywhere.’ This love is lost, the woman died. Yet death is not your theme, but death defeated. Your poetry is not a forceful one, but the feeling insidiously pervades the reader’s soul. Your frailty is more convincing than a firm statement. Is creation joy to you? Is poetry a necessary survival, a longing for what is lost, a drug or mere remembrance of things past?
PD. Steps, stairs, are not my favourite environment, even in poems. The woman in Eidetic Image did not die and wasn’t Irish; the whole sequence, The Going, is about a relationship that broke up. So she might still be encountered anywhere in town; when an advert appears that looks like her the imagination of loss can be reawakened anywhere. So Eidetic Image is about an advertising hoarding reminiscent of a loved face. Imagination and adverts occur everywhere. Eidetic and after-image are technical terms in studies of modes of visual perception. Macbeth’s dagger may be an eidetic image; he tries anyway to grab it. Some people have that kind of externalising imagination. It may account for some ghost stories.
There are quite a few scientific concepts lying about my poems from nuclear physics references to quantum and cosmological. Often, oddly, in the voice of a woman.
Well, perhaps my poems may not appear forceful but I remind you of the awful joke about a Japanese sentry who said to his Gurkha attacker: ‘Hah, missed me!’ To which the Gurkha replied: ‘Try turning your head.’
LV. Vigil is one of your most appealing poems: ‘Now you are gone/ your small perfections inveigle me:/ curve of your eyelid closed in sleep/ widens to my horizon.// Sleepless/ I used to watch those pupils move,/ shifting deltas of blue veins,/ blindly scanning my face.// Some nights I came near/ my lips in touch/ with your pulsing lids/ to catch the drift of your dreams.’ The poem is remarkable as a blend of very concrete love imagery and very ethereal presence of loss, of the ever after. It is a paradox, and all your poems follow this pattern, this alternance here-there, direct-indirect, statement-understatement. Are you a dual nature or is this your poetic strategy?
PD. I think you may have misread Vigil somewhat. It concerns the attempted escape from solipsism through love; the speaker wants to know the sleeper’s dream as she dreams it. To share all, the reality, not the report. The regret comes not from absence but from the impossibility of this kind of synchronicity.
LV. In Old Poet on a Rainy Day, you call poetry ‘the lonely art.’ You are a poet on a rainy day, looking out of the window, seeing your inner life out in the street. What does it feel like to know your readers share your experience like a museum? What is your relationship to these readers? Do you want them to know you or to dream you, according to the rules you make up?
PD. I can’t answer this very well. Poets want their poems to be read and felt. Charles Simic has said: ‘In a good poem the poet who wrote the poem vanishes so that the poet-reader may come into existence.’ The first poet-reader is the poet on completion of the poem. His job then is to pass it on.
Writing is one of the loneliest of the creative arts. Many writers require absolute silence, absolute solitude in which to compose. Even painters have models and composers need musicians and meet hundreds. But writing is even lonelier because only the most ‘famous’ and ‘fashionable’ writers really meet any of their readers and then usually in social and distanced situations. Only twice in my life have I seen someone who is unknown to me reading a book of mine.
LV. In the foreword to One Another, you felt the need to acknowledge the presence of fiction. You talk about a ‘story’, which, you also state, is in the end ‘the morphology of an emotion.’ Can your poetry exist without incidents? Could you go back to what lyricism was before Eliot devised hybridization, the mixture of poetry, fiction, drama?
PD. Eliot didn’t invent this hybridization; it’s been around for ages. But I don’t think I understand your question. What do you mean by ‘incidents’? There’s nothing odd or modern about poems that need incidents. Look at Wyatt’s:
Thanked be fortune, it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
And softly said: dear heart how like you this?
A woman coming to your room like that must be an incident, surely. So too must it have been when Keats thrust out his hand in that fragment:
This moving hand now warm and capable.
There are thousands of previous and other examples.
LV. If Wordsworth thought of poetry as emotion recollected in tranquility, you see it as tenderness recollected in grief. Not only that, but also repeated, as your volume says, Da Capo, which is also an urge to the perfectly Desperado gesture of rereading. What is your advice to the Desperado reader? How would you like to be read? What is the profile of the ideal critic, for you? Is your poetry communication with your readers and critics, or recreation/ recollection of tenderness, or, probably, both?
PD. I don’t think I understand your remarks about Desperadoes and rereading. One thing that makes literature literature is that it invites reading after reading and further re-readings. I haven’t much notion of what an ideal critic would be. It seems to me that an ideal Coleridge critic might not be, say, and ideal Housman critic, or an ideal Pound critic an ideal Jeffers critic. I suppose a Dale critic ought to get himself a life, have some idea of sentence sounds and verse rhythms, a knowledge of rhyme techniques and an armoured vest against manic depression. But I’d rather have ideal readers; what they need to be I hardly know. I just try to write poems; it’s what I do. But a finished poem may have many uses in society that don’t require the assent or acquiescence of the originator or the critics. When he asked, I lent my local chemist books of my verse because he wanted some poems to interest a woman friend. When poems get out into that kind of use you may think that something has been achieved. Remember Sir Philip Sidney’s almost benign curse:
‘But if... you cannot bear the planet-like music of poetry; if you have so earth-creeping a mind that it cannot lift itself up to look to the sky of poetry... thus much curse I must send you in the behalf of all poets: that while you live, you live in love, and never get favour, for lacking skill of a sonnet; and when you die, your memory die from the earth for want of an epitaph.’
That extract clearly implies a poetry that is intimately integrated into the life of the people whose culture produces it. This is the ideal and it’s one we are a long way from these days. It’s always pleasing when an ordinary member of the public writes to say they were impressed by, or found interest or use, in one of your poems. One person I wrote to on a poem-card ordered fifty more copies from the publisher. That is how poems ought to live. We are a long way now from the kind of society in which a poem like In Memoriam can have an almost immediate wide impact and general social effect. I think it’s maybe an energising idea in some poets’ imagination. But it isn’t for that forlorn hope that anyone writes poems. They are trying to write poems as poems and the measure they have in their heads is a rule calibrated by the great poems of the past.