LIDIA VIANU -- R. V. BAILEY
It’s no good being ‘deep and meaningful’ if what you write isn’t meaningful to anybody else.
Interview with R.V. BAILEY (born 20 August 1932), British poet
Published in Lidia Vianu, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006
LIDIA VIANU: You say you are a ‘late beginner’ and a ‘poet by accident’. The last poem in your volume (Road) is masterful. There are many others, on old age, parents, solitude. They all betray a wonderful sensibility. Now that you do write poetry, do you feel it to be a calling?
R.V. BAILEY I really don’t think I’ve ever had a ‘career’ as such: life so far has simply meant saying ‘yes’ to whatever seemed to turn up. This isn’t a bit respectable, I know, but it’s what happened. I’ve had a variety of proper jobs, and enjoyed them, but I can’t remember ever making the sort of decisions one is supposed to make about one’s ‘calling’. Poetry was just one of the things I said yes to when it came along. The students I was requiring to write poems, as part of their creative writing course, very sensibly decided that – if I were to retain any sort of credibility in their eyes – I should write poems too. So I did, and thus it all began. Afterwards, colleagues in a small workshop kept me up to the mark.
I daresay I’d never have started writing if I hadn’t been obliged to, but once started I couldn’t easily stop. I wouldn’t think it deserved such an august description as a ‘calling’, though.
LV. What was your profession before? What was your education? Did your training lead you to literature?
RB. Literature was always, from schooldays, of enormous importance. Books were the things I wanted most, and they were special, and of course hardback, apart from Penguins. Paper for publishing was in short supply, during the war and soon after. I ordered most of T.S. Eliot and Auden and so forth via the bookshop at the local railway station, half an hour’s walk away. There was a library, but I don’t remember a bookshop in my home town then.
LV. Your clarity is delightful. What do you think of encoded poetry? Will poetry survive if it can hardly be understood, however deep and meaningful it may prove to be?
RB. Encoded poetry is fine by me, though I don’t write it. For the reader, its rewards are different from the rewards more conventional poetry offers, and have more in common, perhaps, with the pleasures of solving crosswords puzzles. People have a serious need for poetry (think of all those poetical messages in birthday cards, and the poems people spontaneously wrote after the death of Princess Diana). I suppose if we never fell in love or suffered loss or death or loneliness or any of the great human experiences, I daresay we’d not need poetry. So poetry should be accessible, even if it requires some effort in reading. Sometimes poetry deals with subjects that are just too difficult to write of very simply. But (you guessed it) I haven’t much sympathy with the portentous. It’s no good being ‘deep and meaningful’ if what you write isn’t meaningful to anybody else.
LV. Many Desperado poets – as I call them – run away from confession. They hide behind imagined stories, they rely on invented incidents to convey their moods. You seem not to care. You do both. Is it wrong to look for the poet’s life in the poem? Sometimes – always, I should say – the poet’s life is the plot of the volume. It takes the reader places and offers him experience to rent, just like fiction. When you read a novel, you live one more life, they say. The more you read, the more lives you lead. Why, then, knowing this, do most Desperado poets refuse to share their own story with the reader?
RB. I’m not keen on confessional poetry. I wouldn’t get far if all I had to write about was me. Of course we all like to guess the writer’s life from the poetry – we’re all curious and nosey. But the ‘I’ of poetry isn’t always the simple ‘I’ of the self: there are all sorts of voices, and poets, like novelists, often get into somebody else’s shoes. We’d be terribly limited if we only had our own experiences – reading and writing are both about being able to see things from somebody else’s point of view. That’s the liberating – and indeed the civilising – force of literature. As you say, it’s ‘experience to rent’ As far as ‘Desperado’ poets refusing to share their own stories – well, perhaps they don’t feel their own stories to be the right vehicles for what they want to say.
LV. Is it enough to invent stories and emotions when you write a volume of poems? Fiction writers invent. Why would it not be enough for poets as well?
RB. I suppose all art forms, including fiction, are at bottom about trying to tell the truth; certainly poetry is. But ‘the truth’ is, among other things, a matter of the imagination; it comes in many shapes, and is hard to pin down. I’m not quite sure what you mean when you say ‘is it enough’ to invent stories and emotions, or why you feel that poets don’t ‘invent’ these things. I think they do. Is poetry more direct than prose? Well, it’s shorter than prose, more concentrated, higher octane (proof spirit, if you like). The words do their bit, and ‘knowing’ the poet can illuminate the words, but it can also distort our understanding of them. In the last analysis the words have to stand alone.
LV. Do you read criticism of poetry? What do you expect from it?
RB. Some criticism is worth reading, usually the criticism that is written by other poets; Coleridge, Sidney, Johnson, for example, in the past, and contemporary poet-critics now. I’ve read a lot of it, inevitably, in my time, but I don’t read much now – there’s not time to read everything, and I’d rather spend more of it on the poetry.
LV. Is criticism necessary to the poet in any way? The readers of poetry are said to be fewer and fewer every year. Do you feel this to be true? Is poetry going to survive this crisis of reading on the whole? Are young people today reading poetry any more? I see many of them writing it, anyway...
RB. I’d have thought the opposite. Poetry lost a lot of ground with the Modernists; a whole generation of potential readers gave up then. But poetry has gone on, and certainly since the Sixties and the Liverpool Poets I think the poetry audience has increased. Now we have a whole range of new voices, new audiences. Performance poets like John Hegley are widely appreciated. And there’s all the influence of the Caribbean writers, a full range of women writers, local, national, and sectional voices of all sorts, and influences from music, rap, and so on. No: I think the poetry audience has actually increased enormously. And of course people are increasingly interested in writing poetry – witness the vast numbers of creative writing courses on offer. Mind you, I sometimes wonder if people who write poetry and go to courses actually read enough poetry.
24 February 2005