Portrait by VIC (Cristina Ioana Vianu)
LIDIA VIANU -- U.A. FANTHORPE
Poetic arrogance is as bad as any other kind of arrogance
Interview with U.A. FANTHORPE (born 29 July 1929), British poet
Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006
LIDIA VIANU: Reading your poems has made me ashamed of my attempt at defining contemporary poets as a group. I always start from the assumption that Desperado poets (as I call them, because I hate the vagueness and indeterminacy of postmodernism) are basically similar in dissimilarity. Yet, more than any of those I have interviewed so far, you stand majestically alone and aloof. I understand you started out as a school teacher and continued as a hospital clerk, after sixteen years of teaching. What exactly pushed you into poetry? What was your education, what were your childhood and youth experiences? In short, would you reveal to the readers as much of your private life as their eyes are allowed to glimpse at?
U.A. FANTHORPE: When I began writing, at forty-something, I thought my only advantage over everyone else who’s just beginning to write is that I’ve seen things they haven’t all seen. The hospital gave me an angle on life which few others were fortunate enough to have. I didn’t want to be like anyone else. My childhood was happy until the war began in 1939; then our parents had to send us (my brother and I) away to school for safety, because Kent – where we lived – was near Biggin Hill, an important airfield regularly targeted by German bombers. I never really settled at the school they sent me to, but I couldn’t tell them; they already had enough to worry about.
When I escaped from school I managed to get to Oxford, which suited me much better, and which introduced me to Old and Middle English, which was a delight. I didn’t want to stay on at university after I graduated. It seemed to me then an unadventurous thing to do; also I thought it would be better to try and write myself, than write about other writers. I quite liked teaching at first. But after I’d been doing it for some time I was promoted, and I began to see that power had an effect on me that I didn’t like.
LV. Reading through all the poems, I notice the steadfastness of the theme of death and the shyness of the feeling of love. A critic talked about the dryness in your poems. I do not see it. I can only see a constantly aching sensibility, struggling hard to face life and the idea of the absence of life. Your poetry is buoyantly present, yet deals with absences most of the time. It conveys a sharp, violent pain. How do you see yourself? A happy poet? A melancholy one? A very strong one you are. Is poetry a means of coming to terms with the burden of living?
UAF. I’m not really a happy poet, but I try to write happy poems to cheer myself up. This was particularly true in the hospital days. I like adventure: I like wondering what will happen next – and poetry’s good for that. You think you know what you’re doing, where you’re going, but then the poem takes over, and takes you somewhere else entirely.
LV. After modernism, the Desperadoes think little of musical lines, flamboyant rhymes, ironical rhymes, rhymes that must absolutely be noticed. The Desperadoes use small, modest, common rhymes, or unusual, uncouth ones (broken words are made to rhyme with some pronoun or preposition). Rhyme has lost its meaning, I should say. The music of your lines comes more from the aptness of words than their rhyming or sonorous rhythm. Your cadence is a forceful inner one, a cadence of meaning rather than sounds. Is the music of poetry important to you? What does it consist in?
UAF. I love the music of other people’s poetry, and especially the wit. But when I started writing, in the hospital, rhyme just wouldn’t do for the very sad subjects. I couldn’t be jaunty, in the face of such suffering. My upbringing was not helpful here: the two big influences on me, as a child, were the hymnbook (sanctimonious rhymes) and the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, which have irresistible comic rhymes, and I found myself falling into one or the other of these modes when I attempted rhyme. Neither would do for what I wanted to say. In fact, I couldn’t find a model, so I had to find my own way. But the sound of a poem is nevertheless very important to me.
LV. Many of your poems resort to debunking older texts, sometimes myths. Not My Best Side is one such instance. The dragon, the girl and the rescuer from the story of St. George talk in turns and the rescuer comes out as the aggressor. You endow the girl and the dragon with wonderful sensibilities. You do that very often. The least likely to elicit love are in fact the richest in feeling. This earnest irony pervades all your lines. The more prosaic and clearly stated, the more mysterious. Love is your hidden burden. Am I pursuing a wrong line here? Would you be prepared to state that your poems, though apparently refusing to name love, are about caring? It may be a commonplace of poetry (I am aware of that), but so many young poets forget it. You do not. Would you side with someone like Eliot in this respect? What contemporary poets do you feel close to?
UAF. No, you’re not pursuing a wrong line here – you’re absolutely right. I’m interested always in the underdog, the loser. My poems are in fact about love, though the message may be oblique. T. S. Eliot is the greatest twentieth-century master, opening up the possibilities. You can never stop learning from him. I feel closest, I suppose, to the Russian Anna Akhmatova, and to the Scottish poet Elma Mitchell, and perhaps to Wendy Cope; of earlier poets, Robert Browning is most important to me.
LV. Your poems bathe in a delightful clarity. The uncomplicated style shows enormous respect for communication. The poet in you is in awe of the reader, who must be reached. The latter half of your creation becomes more elliptical in meaning, but the words stay clear. You seem to hate verbal confusion. Some poets hide in it in order to make access to meaning harder and more enticing. Your lines are meaningful above everything else, and you rejoice in this meaningfulness. Have you ever written poems that could hardly be understood? Have you ever been reproached with using a style that bars access to your message? What do you think of the (numerous) poets who do just that (to a more or less commendable purpose)?
UAF. Everything you say is true. I do think communication is important – I’ve been a teacher, and my father was a barrister. Young people find me difficult: these days, they’re not educated in the Bible or the classics, and they reproach me for using this material in my poems. It seems to me a great shame to lose such important reference points. A poem is a conversation between the poet and the reader; it’s absurd to make things so difficult that you can’t be understood – though of course some subjects are difficult, by their very nature, and you can’t just reduce them to simple terms.
LV. In Canal: 1977 I have found a line that is emblematic for your poetry as a whole: ‘Humanity goes out/ Like a light...’ This is what happens to someone you invoke as ‘Winfrid Fanthorpe’ in the poem Fanfare. The irony is melancholy, heavy, affectionate:
All your life you lived in a minefield,
And were pleased, in a quiet way, when mines
Exploded. You never actually said
I told you so, but we could tell you meant it.
Who is this hero, who appears, I think, more than once? How much of your private life goes into your poems? I mean, how much of your private stories? Desperadoes always claim they never use their private narratives in their lines, and I find it to be such a loss. You seem to me to be striking a compromise: I will not share my private incidents, but you can have the support of my feelings in a story or two, you seem to claim.
UAF. Winifrid Fanthorpe, whom you rightly describe as a hero, was my mother. I’ve written quite a lot about her (‘Nee’, ‘Mother Scrubbing the Floor’, ‘Eating Out’) as well as ‘Fanfare’. I write less about my father, because he died before I became a poet. I use my private life when it seems appropriate – for instance, about my father in ‘Of Worms and Being Lucky’, and ‘Father in the Railway Buffet’; my feeling about my parents isn’t that I’m sharing them, but I want to celebrate them. I feel lucky in having had them.
LV. In A the Ferry I read: ‘I had been born young and lonely, being/ Now loved, and older...’ Loneliness is a fear with you. You are very much concerned with the reader not feeling lonely while reading you. Sympathy is one of the major messages of your lines. Some recent poets are contemptuous, others neglectful of the readers, some merely ignore any possible companion, as if poetry could ever be a lonely trip. Your lines cling at companionship. Writing is in fact reaching out, with you. Obviously the idea of poetry has changed immensely these past fifty years. It has become at the same time more personal yet so cold in words, for so many. It is a long winter we are crossing, one might say. Not when reading you, though. Your inner season is tropical summer. The season of your words is one of mild spring, a compromise between the trivially clear and the inaccessible. What is your own idea of poetry?
UAF. In ‘At the Ferry’, writing is ‘reaching out’ – but it’s also reaching out to myself, to enable me to understand the things I’ve endured (I’m rather stupid, and often it takes time for things to become clear to me. Poetry often helps this process.). I don’t know what to say about the ‘tropical summer’ bit, and the compromising between the clear and the inaccessible. I don’t want to be inaccessible. But I do want to be truthful. Poetry is the most primitive of all the arts, and one of the best things about it is that it’s possible to use ideas, techniques, etc. from very long ago and apply them to now. In England at the moment there’s a lot of competition from television, trashy novels and journalism and so forth, but there’s a way in which poetry scores when people are feeling strongly about things, when they are in love, or in despair or brokenhearted or afraid or lonely.
LV. Sisyphus could be interpreted as an image of the poet. Camus says Sisyphus must be imagined to be ‘happy’, you quote in the motto. In your words, Sisyphus states: ‘I accept this/ As my vocation: to do what I cannot do./ The stone and I are// Close.’ Later on he continues: ‘But I am the mover. I cannot afford/ To spend energy or emotion. I push/ The stone up the hill. At the top// It falls, and I pursue it,/ To heave it up again. Time not spent/ On doing this is squandered time.’ Poetry has indeed become the fight with the dragon (read ‘explicit emotion’), the heaving of the stone. This stone is the weight of a word which claims to be word before it is something else. You write both this way and the old-fashioned, warmly sympathetic way. Your first poems remind me of Dannie Abse, of William Carlos Williams. In those descriptions of life and death and illness, you did not give a damn whether the discourse looked old or new. In your later poems, you explore language more. What do you think of the contemporary explorations of language and how far in that direction ( of what ‘I cannot do’) are you prepared to go?
UAF. Dannie Abse? William Carlos Williams? I’m pleased that you should think of them!.. But there’s an important reservation, in that they were / are doctors, and I was only a receptionist – a lowly but nevertheless specialised role: the receptionist’s job is to watch. I hardly thought whether I was writing a poem or not; I just wanted to say what I saw.
LV. In The Guide, you say Vergil ‘found ways of wording the unsayable’. He
Hell is a sort of underground bog
... In it
Those we have loved and failed
Turn their backs for ever.
There is this sense of emotional guilt in your poems: you silently accuse yourself of not having been close enough, of not having shared you love enough. Is this the ‘unsayable’, too? Just how much do you think poetry should reveal? How far has the word strayed from emotion?
UAF. ‘Emotional guilt’? Uncomfortably accurate! I’m not an admirer of ‘confessional’ poetry, but I don’t think there can be rules about what poetry should or should not reveal. Just when the boundaries have been decided, some brilliant innovator is sure to come along and leap over them.
LV. Your lines are unadorned, concentrated, very much to the point. You seem to be interested in apt words, no more. Excess of beauty is repelled. The Passing of Alfred turns to death again, but not so much to the cessation of life as to the communication with what could be after it:
... the dead followed them, as they do us,
Tenderly through darkness,
But fade when we turn to look in the upper air.
An apt word is to you one which has a certain load of inner warmth. Your words become very personal. You recreate them, I should say. You write as if language had to be reinvented all the time. One can feel the difficulty with which you decide upon a word. Do poems come easily to you? Do you take long in putting one down? Do you rewrite a lot? Is creation to you, as Eliot used to say about criticism, ‘as inevitable as breathing’?
UAF. I’m very interested in the words people use in everyday life, and in how much is heard that is not actually said. I do decide on a word with difficulty. It’s a delight to ransack the language and find – if I do find – exactly the right word. Poems don’t come easily. One took me four years. Yes, I do re-write a lot. I’m always thinking about what I’m writing about – it’s a constant preoccupation.
LV. In Growing Up you write, ‘I wasn’t good/ At being a child. I missed/ The innocent age.’ Then you say the same about adolescence and adulthood. Your lines exhale a sense of fear. They try to make up for some unnamed failure. Most poets today run away from something, whether it is a sense of loss, of failure, of restlessness, it does not really matter to them. What matters is to find the particular words that will hide that shameful sense as best they can. You are different. You stand naked in front of the eye. You hide nothing. Would it be wrong to say that you are brave in acknowledging your many fears, that your words are apt because they never avoid them? Have you ever thought of poetry as a catharsis of regret?
UAF. I think it’s important not to run away. I was a child in the 1939-45 war, living – during the school holidays – in a dangerous part of Kent. There was nowhere to escape to, so I suppose I learnt to follow my mother’s example: she knew the danger (of bombs etc.) was there all the time, but went on behaving as if things were quite normal. So you’re right: I do have fears. I think it’s important to admit them. But the most important thing is to survive, and you can’t survive if you’re eaten up by terror. So I try to find a balance.
LV. Death Row Poets mentions ‘the unrepeatable marvel of each second’. Other texts focus on previous texts, in poems that are both cultured and emotional, because you usually debunk other texts, you do not take anybody’s words for granted. Intertextuality began with Eliot and Joyce, but has changed much since then. Your dialogue with written texts others than your own shows bitter irony and a nimble intelligence. It also relies on emotional exploration of well-known literary situations, on modern interpretations of someone like Lady Macbeth, for instance. It all leads to debunking. Although deeply sentimental, your poems are eager to find new thoughts and show old ideas in new shapes. Do you consider yourself an intellectual or an emotional poet? Do you mean to appeal to the soul or the mind? Your poems clearly separate the two and give up none. When you scrutinize your poetic art, in what area of your being do you feel at ease?
UAF. About intellectual / emotional: I don’t want to be trapped into an either / or situation: I’m on the side of wholeness and integration. I feel at ease when I’m putting both sides. I like to feel the balance in things. (Also, it amuses me, if people conclude that I’m one thing, to pull the rug out from under them and surprise them with the fact that I’m the other...)
LV. Whom did you teach for sixteen years? Why did you dislike it so much?
UAF. I taught English to girls aged 11-18.
LV. What do you think of contemporary criticism, with its scientific aspirations, which stifle creativity and bar understanding?
UAF. I hardly read much contemporary criticism. I’m not in the academic world. I’m tempted to mis-quote Shaw: Those who can, write; those who can’t write, write criticism. But that’s a bit harsh. And I do value criticism by poets, or at least by those who’ve tried to write poetry. They know what they’re talking about!
LV. Which modernist or earlier poets are your favourites? I could hardly trace any influence in your writing. Is there any?
UAF. It’s impossible to write in English and not to be influenced by Shakespeare. I feel close to the metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell; and two more recent poets I admire are Emily Dickinson and John Berryman.
LV. Do you have the feeling that poetry is no longer widely read for a good reason? Because it has changed in the wrong direction? Can you imagine yourself writing in Eliot’s or someone else’s manner?
UAF. I feel that poetry became too hard for the general reader with the Modernists, in the twenties (including Eliot of course). The universities are no help, because they tend to present poetry as something out of reach of the untutored, as something that has to be explained, decoded. Nevertheless, as I go round to readings I find there’s a very wide public for poetry, not all academics by any means, often very committed. The Liverpool Poets, in the Sixties, won back a lot of readers. And nowadays there’s a lot of interest in and enthusiasm for the Caribbeans – John Agard, Grace Nichols and others – and of course Benjamin Zephaniah and many others. Is poetry no longer widely read? It’s certainly widely listened to these days. And poetry is very adaptable. It finds new places to grow all the time.
LV. If you were to start all over again, would you still choose poetry of all arts? Why/ not?
UAF. Poetry chose me. And I’d go on choosing poetry. There’s much more money in other genres, no doubt – but poetry’s the thing for me!
LV. Is poetic arrogance excusable in your opinion? Do you find it in you to agree with a poet who despises his audience and tries to humiliate them because he thinks he is too good to be understood properly? Because he will not admit it is his fault he cannot communicate? In short, do you approve of the so-called difficult poetry?
UAF. I see it as a collaboration between poet and audience. I’m quite certain that any kind of ‘humiliation’ is absolutely wrong, and poetic arrogance is as bad as any other kind of arrogance.
LV. I should say the language of Desperado poetry has been going through a crisis of desacralization. Which is a good thing, as long as it does not go to the other extreme. Your verse does not. Most young poets, though, smash their own golden bowls. Poetry has always been a Henry James kind (a cracked one, I guess) of golden bowl. It has always had a slight imperfection that brought in the charm. What is your imperfection, I wonder?
UAF. I’m not absolutely sure that I understand this question. I think that perhaps my ‘imperfection’ is stupidity, which I use in poems. I’m aware in daily life that the people I meet are more perceptive, braver, and more practical than I am – and out of perversity, I like to celebrate this.