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Al Que Quiere! ‘If Not, Not.’

Peter Robinson in conversation with Steve Clark

This piece is 5.500 words or about twelve printed pages long.

There is a photo, a bio note and links to dozens of pieces of writing by Peter Robinson on his Jacket Author Notes page.

Steve Clarke: Many of your poems are concerned with the agency of recollection. How far is this private or does it take on a collective and representative function as well?

Peter Robinson: The Muses are still the daughters of Memory, aren’t they? Memories are memories of something. If you concentrate on what they are of, then personal memory — if it isn’t cuddled up to as some kind of private property — is the most directly available access for poets and writers to collective and representative memorialization

The apparent redemptive or therapeutic function seems never wholly acceded to: the working-through tends as often as not to end in blockage or a sense of the experience of reminiscence as punitively self-inflicted (I find this very much the case with the poems on your illness and also with the ones concerning the assault on your first wife).

My favourite Rimbaud poem is ‘Mémoire’. It has a family romance, some intensely realized landscape materials, and at the end it also seems stuck in some mud: ‘à quel boue?’ The memories I had to deal with have been recurrent ones, ones associated with feelings of guilt or shame. This might be connected with Kandinsky’s ‘inner necessity’ concept. If the memories are compulsive, then the poem feels as if it had to address them. Poems only come out for me when there’s some such need.

With Rosemary Laxton, Asolo, Italy, 1981, photo Annalisa Perusi

With Rosemary Laxton
Asolo, Italy, 1981

photo Annalisa Perusi

The writing can get caught up with a self-punitive reconsideration of the past, and that can produce a secondary impulse to relieve and resolve. Yet the poem shouldn’t read like a perpetual let-out clause for the writer. So what you call ‘blockage’ may be a way of acknowledging that I don’t write to get myself off the hook — more like hooking myself onto it for emblematic purposes in fact.

The presence of family, particularly your father, is noteworthy throughout (as in the recent prose-poems): a kind of embeddedness with a hint of entrapment?

That’s it — in a nut-shell.

How would you describe that continuous negotiation with the family romance?

One of the reasons why my dad figures prominently is because he was, in his own parish, a public figure — and so being like him, and yet being different, was a natural ambition for a first son. Quarrelling with my dad gave access to religion, politics, culture, and the relation of the public figure to the private man. Quarrelling with my mother would involve something rather more like an inward spiral. I’ve written a longish poem in twelve parts called ‘There are Avenues’ which contains some of that inward spiralling. It hasn’t been published yet.

Given your father’s employment as a vicar, how far does that religious background continue to influence your writing. In a recent interview with Adam Piette (Tears in the Fence 36) you remark ‘I’m keen to leave preaching to the clergy — which brings us back to my dad.’ Preaching however doesn’t really seem adequate to the deep seriousness with which many of your poems approach acts of self-definition through writing. (This perhaps lies behind the complaint of lack of humour: there seems to me plenty of wryness, laconic self-deprecation, comedy of human circumstance in your writing, but this never ultimately detracts from the high threshold of commitment — one might see devoutness — which some readers may find quite hard to take).

The joking is part of the commitment, as in ‘la gaya scienza’. The question is — commitment to what? In a cultural situation where such seriousness may be thought uncool, being committed to finding other people and things valuable is likely to be smeared as merely self-important. Liking poetry, and being committed to that part of culture, has for me been a way of taking everything else seriously too. The remark about preaching and the clergy in the interview with Adam Piette came in the context of writers who adopt a ‘preachy’ stance. Hence, again, the joking. You know: not all moral people are moralists, nor all moralists moralistic. It was just a gesture at keeping away from a degenerated version of the ‘clerisy’ pigeon-hole. As to whether people can take the poetry or not, I recently heard that a friend of mine received various e-mails from a mutual acquaintance outlining in detail why this acquaintance didn’t like my poems. My first thought was — why did he bother? My second — that it was an inverted compliment. What can I say? Al Que Quiere! ‘If Not, Not.’

Cambridge obviously had a formative impact both as a group of writers with whom you were associated and an academic institution within which you made your early reputation, but from which you have now moved on. Yet to some extent you continue to take your bearings from it (I’m thinking particularly of the debates with Ricks, Hill, and Griffiths in Poetry, Poets, Readers). How would you define your present relation to both the writers and school of criticism?

Peter Robinson, right, with Adam Clarke-Williams, somewhere in the UK, c. 1980, photo Jane Dunster

Peter Robinson, right
with Adam Clarke-Williams
somewhere in the UK, c. 1980

photo Jane Dunster

These days I have no relations with Cambridge as an institution at all. John Kerrigan and I collaborated on the book of essays about Roy Fisher, but that came about through e-mail dialogue, and the collaborating was almost all done with an eight-hour time difference between the zones in which we were working. Nowadays I only have relations with particular people there: some of my closest friends and supporters live and work in the town.

Your criticism stresses the model of poem as felicitous utterance, a speech-act successfully performed; the emphasis of your own poems, however localised their context of enunciation in terms of date, location, and addressee, is of the inconclusiveness of that relation; one cannot know what one’s words will mean. Do you see continuity or disjunction between your writing and critical practice in this regard?

If I’m writing about somebody else’s poem, then, being a reader I can assert that the speech act has been successfully performed. On the receiving end, as it were, I can describe what appears to be happening. If others are convinced, then the ‘success’ proliferates. With poems I have written, it would be presumptuous to assert that they have succeeded in this way. However hard the poet tries to be ‘un autre’, it’s not possible to the extent of having not written the poem. So I would say that the principles in operation are the same, but the participant roles are different.

Your coming of age as a writer means that you just about miss the vogue for 60s confessionalism, perhaps mercifully as some of its more histrionic aspects have not worn well. Yet, at a stretch, your verse reads as a kind of continuous narrative of self. The fondness for short sequences seems to recall diary or chapbook or spiritual exercise. Do you think your writing goes back to older quasi-puritanical models of self-interrogation? (The title Lost and Found most obviously evokes a lost-property office [as in ‘Lost Objects’] but also alludes to Calvinist election in ‘Amazing Grace’: what once was lost but now is found).

That would, for me, be ‘a stretch’ too far. For me writing poems is like watching a dripping tap. Sometimes there’s a droplet all but formed, sometimes not. That can’t amount even to ‘a kind of continuous narrative of the self’. I haven’t yet written an autobiography — in verse or prose. However, I am — banally — the sine qua non of my poetry, and tend to prefer poetry that acknowledges this general point over kinds which keep quiet about it or superficially efface it. The only ‘confessional’ poet I ever had any time for was Lowell, and it quickly passed. The models for those sequences might be Fisher’s ‘Seven Attempted Moves’ or his ‘Diversions’. They might be Montale’s ‘Mottetti’, or Sereni’s ‘Diario d’Algeria’. Behind them might be ‘Maud’ or ‘In Memoriam’. Behind them, sonnet sequences by Petrarch, Sidney, Spenser, and Shakespeare. Continuous narratives of the self? I don’t think so. Naturally, the poems may have other sources in the culture of which I’m unaware. Yes, I was conscious of the religious usage in that title (as also in the Catholic ‘loss and gain’). There I’m probably doing what you have described elsewhere as poetic secularizing.

Andrew Duncan has gone on record as saying that if reading poetry ceases to be as much fun as listening to rock music, why bother? One can reverse this of course: why listen to rock music if it does not offer as much as a good poem, and it obviously reeks of New Generation, poetry as the new rock and roll brand-marketing. But there remains a question of the pleasure-principle in contemporary poetry; where would situate your own writing in this regard?

I’m afraid I haven’t read the context of Andrew Duncan’s remark, so my answer is not a response to his tastes and preferences. Growing up in Liverpool in the 60s meant knowing plenty about rock music and fun. I do, when I get the chance, enjoy playing guitar with Dave Taylor and his friends in Fukuoka. The sound we make is certainly louder than my poetry. But why have one or the other when you can have both? And, you know, just like it’s the kiss of death to be called ‘the new Bob Dylan’, so too to be called ‘the new Rock and Roll’. The slogan has already sold the pass. My poetry and the pleasure principle? I’m with Horace more than Freud on that one, perhaps. I enjoy reading my own stuff, when I’m called upon or feel like it, and can only hope other people do too.

Some of the less sympathetic criticism of your poetry has found its blurring of distinctions between private and public spheres unsettling, serving as a kind of language game to which they have not received an invitation. Do you think there is a risk in writing so experientially located a form of verse, of receiving the rejoinder why should this matter to me? What makes your life interesting enough to be worth writing or reading about?

Peter Robinson, center, with Olga Rudge and Kevin Jackson, Cambridge Poetry Festival, UK, 1985, photo Adam Clarke-Williams

left to right:
Kevin Jackson
Peter Robinson
Olga Rudge

Cambridge Poetry Festival
UK, 1985

photo Adam Clarke-Williams

A danger in this line of questioning is that someone might ask back what is it about other people does matter to you? They might ask what makes anything that happens to be someone else’s interesting to you? This line might also haplessly consort with contemporary celebrity culture. So Wordsworth’s poem ‘To H. C. Six Years Old’, about his friend Coleridge’s son Hartley, is fine because they’re famous. Your poem about your daughter is not, because you’re not. A good deal of the greatest poetry has an evident personal source — something this imaginary questioner is either overlooking, or also doesn’t like. At good times, it can amuse me when people call my poetry ‘unsettling’, because in the next breath they’re likely to call it ‘mainstream’. Is there a problem about people finding poetry ‘unsettling’? I thought that was part of what it did. It shakes us out of our — Ed Dorn’s phrase — ‘vicious isolation’. Robert Creeley says somewhere that the personal is what we have in common. Only two things make my life worth writing about. It is an instance of life, and it’s being written about well. Once again, in the words of Ron Kitaj’s oh-so-quotable title, ‘If Not, Not’. Naturally enough, I tend to like poetry in which the poet offers a well-drawn picture of a life that is not mine. When the sense of life being experienced by some represented individual is edited out of poetry, I’m likely to get bored and put it down. The other thing I’d say to such critics is that more often than you might think the ‘I’ in these poems is a device for deploying material whose theme points in the other direction from myself alone. The marginal presence of an ‘I’ is a means to making the presence of everything that is ‘not-I’ more vivid.

The prose aphorisms in Untitled Deeds (for example 64, 80 and 81) return to the theme of the search for an ideal reader, very much fit audience though few? Do you think there is a danger of an excessive burden of expectation (which would actually link you to contemporary experimental schools such as Language) so that you end up with your only adequate exegete being yourself? Do you feel there is a risk of a potential circularity?

But don’t I say that my ideal reader is the person who has decided to spend some time reading my work? That will be you, whoever you are. The poet is the best and the worst of commentators. There’s always going to be the risk of circularity. Poets have, though, sometimes felt the need to kick-start attention — Whitman writing his own first reviews, for example. Obviously you have to publish as widely as you can, though it’s not usually yours to say how widely that can be. You have to try and reach readers and critics so as not to short-circuit the exchanges. Is my stuff difficult? If not, then it doesn’t strike me as needing exegetes. It certainly needs readers and critics who can understand and appreciate what it’s doing, and then comment on that experience even-handedly. Don’t we all?

Do these issues lie behind some of the comments on the potential solipsism of your work?

Wittgenstein’s two arguments about solipsism both dispense with it. In the Tractatus it coincides exactly with empirical realism. Since we are all entirely solipsists, the term drops out of the equation. Then the so-called Private Language Argument (which demonstrates that there can be no such thing) in Philosophical Investigations shows how language-users by definition cannot be solipsists. But perhaps these cures are hardly necessary for what began as a journalistic slur, and evolved into a critical misunderstanding. The reason I reacted so badly to being labelled with the term is that I have had to endure periods of acute loneliness and isolation in life, and have tried to relieve them by writing and publishing. You ask Robinson Crusoe if being alone and being a solipsist are the same thing. To see my efforts brushed off in that way felt like watching a beggar being mugged for his credit card.

I am always very struck by the productivity of the Midlands — Larkin, Hill, Fisher (and maybe Enright according to taste). Your Liverpool anthology seems motivated by a quest to define a genius locii and your poetry seems to me to negotiate very honourably with this imperative of provincialism in recent British poetry. As now an expatriate writer perhaps more immediately connected to Italy and Japan, how do you see this issue?

Peter Robinson with Ric Caddel, Sendai, Japan, 2000, photo Eiichi Hara

Peter Robinson, left
with Ric Caddel

Sendai, Japan, 2000

photo Eiichi Hara

I’m not more immediately connected to Italy or Japan — not being able to speak the languages like natives, and not having the right acculturation. I just live in those countries part of every year. The Liverpool anthology was done about eight years ago now. Perhaps my writing may be entering another phase as far as location is concerned. I’ve certainly paid my dues to where I come from; but the more you stay away, the more you can’t really go back — because ‘back’ is no longer there.

Your poetry is immediately striking for its phenomenological fidelity to the object world. One could relate this both to Movement empiricism and to American modernist poetics stemming from Williams. (One can see a similar confluence in Fisher). It does not strike me as romantic epiphany, more a kind of edgy oscillation between objectivist acknowledgement of the thing-in-itself and an impulse to assimilate the lived environment wholly within the self. How would you see this effect of a vivid evocation of locality counterpointed with a simultaneous alienation from that very environment (this would hold true of the early northern industrial poems as much as later ones on Italy and Japan)?

Surely, the lived environment can’t quite be assimilated within the self (if we’re talking about the poems) because they are culturally mediated externalizations. The poetry can produce a sense of balanced integration that may help with living in a place. It’s possible that the two effects you note are part of the same thing. As with the marginal presence of the ‘I’, you don’t get the vivid evocation if you don’t have the alienation. It looks like that if you’re in Williams’s ‘The Lonely Street’, or Fisher’s City, or anywhere in Bishop, or Pierre Reverdy for that matter. Once again, the unwary could mistake this equilibrium of perception and perceiver for ‘solipsism’. And perhaps you’re right, the reason why expatriation has not been a problem as far as writing locality poems is concerned must be that it has instituted as a normal condition what seemed slightly perverse when I was supposed to be feeling at home.

Your aphorisms seem concerned to reinstate a kind of civic duty to the poet, a democratic impulse that seems at times in tension with some of the more elite conceptualization of poetic vocation. If one were to attempt a political reading of your verse in terms of broad historical and cultural contexts, where would you suggest beginning?

You could start from the movement in the middle of twentieth-century meritocratic Britain to extend the benefits of the highest culture to people, and the children of people, who were rapidly rising from the lowest levels in the land. It was culturally validated by the idea of a liberal education — an education for living and not merely for earning — which came under fierce attack at the end of the 1970s, and still is under attack despite the change of party in government. You could ask why I had to leave the country to find suitable employment, and thus why the poems come to take on a more global perspective. The predicaments that some of the UK-located work addresses (‘The Benefit Forms’, ‘Temporary Poems’, ‘A Burning Head’, for instance) come out of contradictions between the values in which I was raised and the conflict-ridden, crisis-riven social realities I then encountered. The world and a poem’s responses to it seem too complex for those pigeon-hole words ‘elite’ and ‘democratic’. As for me in an election year, someone recently reported that a landlady in Austin, Texas, described herself as ‘a yellow dog Democrat’ — meaning that she’d vote for a yellow dog rather than anyone from the GOP. I’m the British equivalent of a yellow dog Democrat.

One of the aphorisms (156) that seemed to me to have particular pertinence was the comparison of the British reception of ‘contemporary American poetry’ to GIs distributing candy bars to ‘local peasants’. I am always struck by the obsequious credulity with which say Olson (surely the most overblown reputation in the 20th century) was received. An anthology otherwise as scrupulous as A Various Art can subscribe to this without demur. I admire greatly your own translations from a wide variety of European writers: these seem to free you up metrically in certain ways, and also allow more demonstrative rhetorical gestures than you generally permit in your own writing.

Thanks for the vote of confidence about the translations. Doing them, I try to imitate other people’s styles so that the resulting poems don’t — like Lowell’s imitations — seem so obviously the same poet appropriating others’ occasions. Naturally, imitating in that way, you hope something rubs off on your own ways of writing. But I’m not sure that ‘permit’ is quite the word to use about composing my own poems. All I can do is allow into print what feels right in each specific case. Gestures that can’t be integrated with it would sound and be false. Translating is different. Someone else has already made the gestures. You’re trying to make the English version integrate something like them into an equivalent form.

So would you agree that British poetry might gain from a little less emphasis on the Anglo-American special relationship (divided by a common language) and see itself more in the context of a common European home?

The joke in my father’s anecdote, by the way, is not that the candy bars are being generously thrown to peasants, but that a group of Intelligence Corps soldiers is being mistaken for the needy. I would have no quarrel with John Ashbery and his many books, for instance, because he’s reciprocal: he champions European poets like Pierre Reverdy and F. T. Prince (a Captain in the Intelligence Corps, by the way). Yes, I do think British poetry (in its sometimes ‘vicious isolation’) would benefit by being better attuned to receiving what its European neighbours are doing. But once again it’s not a matter of either/ or, is it? If you come across an interesting American poet — like Elaine Equi, for instance — why not read her too?

In a previous Jacket interview [], Nate Dorward characterised you as a mainstream writer with modernist inflections. You challenged the initial terms of the opposition, understandably enough; but your continual affiliation to aspects of a Movement aesthetic (however mediated and evolved) is one of the things I admire most in your writing.

Thanks again. Let’s put it like this. I began research on Ezra Pound, but changed to doing something on British poets born between 1920 and 1930. My first move was to school myself in the early modernism of my grandparents’ generation. I then attempted to come to terms with the poetry of my parents’ generation. While doing this, I was reading for pleasure poetry written by people born between then and the early to mid 1950s. As is often the case, I felt there was more space to breathe with my grandparents, but it was from my parents that I both had to inherit directly and move on. We might be able to agree about a range of aesthetic features that you can find in my poems and those of poets born during the 1920s and associated with that amorphous journalistic slogan. Yet I would be inclined to see the characteristics as more generally those of the entire tradition I’ve inherited. Take, for instance, Ben Jonson’s ‘On my First Son’, Herbert’s ‘Deniall’, Anne Finch’s ‘On Myself’, Samuel Johnson’s ‘On the Death of Dr Robert Levet’, Wordsworth’s ‘The Sailor’s Mother’, Coleridge’s ‘Frost at Midnight’, Browning’s ‘Two in the Campagna’, Hardy’s Poems ‘1912-1913’. It’s the tradition of the plain or middle style. As you’ve already said, you could get a scrupulous empiricism from a Quaker Objectivist like Bunting. I read him as an undergraduate. In 1974 I bought Larkin’s High Windows when it came out and hated it to the extent that it cast a pall over the few poems in two of his earlier books that I thought were well managed. By the time I was writing the doctorate in Cambridge I’d got a chapter of aesthetic, cultural, and ethical reasons for the dislike — which the revelations of the letters and the biography only served to underline.

But clearly Davie has been a hugely important figure for you; how would you define that heritage more broadly?

Remember that I was introduced to Davie in 1972. He hadn’t even published that poor Guggenheim-grant book, The Shires, which came out in the same year as High Windows — threatening to do for Davie’s poetry that Larkin’s had for his. The Davie I read and learned from was more or less a 60s writer: in the poetry, Events and Wisdoms, and Essex Poems; in the criticism, Articulate Energy, Ezra Pound: Poet as Sculptor, and the essays from around those years in The Poet in the Imaginary Museum. I owe plenty to Donald Davie, and to Geoffrey Hill for that matter — but most of it has been got by disagreeing with them.

I found the terms established in Poetry, Poets, Readers extremely helpful for approaching your work. How would you regard the relation between your critical and poetic activities? Are they separate spheres or part of a common project?

I began writing poetry and poetic prose when I was a schoolboy, and could produce a reasonable likeness of a poem long before I could do a critical essay that was worth reading. For whatever reasons, it was poetry and prose that came naturally, and criticism that followed it. Creative prose is the skeleton in my cupboard.

The aphorisms show you acutely conscious of your position as part of a generation of writers, whether in rivalry or support. The cracks about the merchandising mechanisms of the literary ‘stock exchange of status and opinion’ are generally well-founded (for example 237), but criticism as the higher gossip has its occasional charm. Of an older generation of British poets, I would assume Hill and Fisher would be your choices: which writers of your own or of a slightly younger generation do you particularly respect?

The frank answer to this question is that I don’t ‘respect’ any of them, because that word seems to go for me with people who are older. Come to think of it, I probably ‘admire’ senior poets like Prince, who died last year, or Mairi MacInnes, or, above all, Roy Fisher. I ‘respect’ people slightly younger like the late Douglas Oliver — which seems to mean that I don’t always like everything they do, but the project appears to me a noble one. People who are my age or younger will have written individual poems or books that I like. I could offer you a long and varied list, but I think it would give a false impression and also be invidious.

Obviously the form of aphorism owes much to classics such as Goethe and Nietzsche, but also Wittgenstein’s Tractatus: fairly intimidating company. In a more limited way, what has been the influence of ordinary language philosophy on your own writing? One can see the impact of embedded contexts, trust to the resonance and enigma of common phraseology, and above all the Austinian model of promise for the literary act.

That was part of the Cambridge that I encountered. When being introduced to various versions of ‘theory’ in graduate seminars, the one that really intrigued me was a discussion of some passages from the Philosophical Investigations. It chimed with a comment of Roy Fisher’s about finding the Tractatus a good stylistic model. I already knew that Veronica Forrest-Thomson had been there. Then along came Hill’s essay ‘Our Word Is Our Bond’. After reading it, I sensed that Austin’s exclusion of poetry from legislatively performative — which Hill accepts, didn’t exhaust the matter. Language Philosophy had the benefit for a poet that it tended to be anti-system building (or at least in the German Metaphysical sense of the term) and it seemed to be usefully sniffing around the edges of what words mean and how they are used. The relevance of all this for a poet appeared obvious.

In Austin there is a kind of slippage whereby the performative rather simply applying to a specific class of utterance comes to underlie language itself: every locutionary act may be prefixed with ‘I promise to be truthful when I affirm that’ and so acquires per- and illocutionary force. Does something similar happen in your concept of the poem as event, which becomes not merely a verbal message with impact in the world (which most people would presumably concede), but a kind of paradigm for being in that world: good usage as good living. And is that possibly too much pressure to place to bear: hence your poems frequently seem to dramatise their inability to live up to what is required of them (or perhaps of life itself to match the standard to which they aspire)?

Oh all of that and more besides! ... What you call a slippage in Austin is surely at the heart of Searle’s speech act theories. Your question deserves an essay. Perhaps a way to respond would be by underlining again that the poems were written like a dripping tap, not a continuous stream of water from a pure and theorized source. The first part of ‘The Benefit Forms’ ends ‘but I don’t know what to say.’ It’s responding in 1976 to the represented situation of the Welfare State. ‘News Abroad’, written in January 1983, ends with ‘News staying news though I don’t understand.’ It’s about the outbreak of the Falklands crisis. Neither of these different instances match the end of ‘A September Night’, written between those two (‘I’d just make amends’), or ‘For Lavinia’, from about five years later (‘I’ve said too much already’) — both from the rape sequence. Different again, a phrase in the middle of ‘Maple Leaf’, from 1990 or early 1991 (‘I can’t’) is having a tacit quarrel with Richard Rorty’s philosophy. It’s a poetic strategy that I picked up while noticing the curious doubling of significance effected at such moments in other poems: Browning’s ‘Well, I forget the rest’, Hardy’s ‘And I was unaware’, or Fisher’s: ‘I couldn’t’.

Pater famously or notoriously says that all art aspires to the condition of music: would you regard it as facetious that your own poetry seems to aspire to the condition of secular prayer — and sometimes not so secular: you describe yourself at one point as a kind of lapsed atheist (aphorism 184).

No, I wouldn’t think of that as facetious. I was tickled and moved by your critical remark that one or two of my poems seemed not so much a ‘Prayer for my Daughter’ as ‘a daughter for my prayer’. The ‘lapsed atheist’ comment relates to a specific moment — and might have been applied to another one — when I thought I was going to die, and to die young. It’s an acknowledgement that I’ve been so pathetic as to treat God as a foul-weather friend.

The move to prose-poem should come as no surprise given Hill and Fisher’s use of the form; how would you predict your writing developing, or do you feel that you cannot envisage the courses that it may or may not take? Will you go back to finish your uncompleted novel for example?

The publication of some prose-poems in Untitled Deeds isn’t exactly a ‘development’ or a ‘move’. I was doing them in the 70s and have been writing prose pieces all along. There’s an unpublished story called ‘Music Lessons’ that was written in 1981. ‘The Draft Will’ was drafted in 1994. Nor have the poems stopped in the least. Quite the contrary, the tap’s been dripping much more than usual over the last few years. That first novel, September in the Rain, has been re-revised and is with a publisher. I have a book of stories in various stages of completion, and about a third of a second novel. What I would dearly like to happen is for this range to develop and be accepted by publishers. If there is some take on that side, then there may be able to be some more give on mine.

I was struck by the concept of futurity in both your poetry and criticism. The traditional precepts ‘ars longa, vita brevis’, Yeats’s ‘monuments of unageing intellect’ and so on, seem very much at odds with your insistence on the contingency, embeddedness and occasional nature of poetic utterance: one might expect this to lead to a sense of the ephemeral and disposable (O’Hara’s poem as phone-call) but instead there is a strong commitment to durability if not immortality: ‘Transience is here to stay’ as one of your aphorisms (26) neatly puts it.

Many years ago I saw a black-and-white BBC profile of Henry Moore in which he said that the only way you get beauty in art is by ignoring it and concentrating on the job in hand. Beauty is a by-product. So is futurity. We’re from one of the ‘A thing of beauty is a joy for ever’ cultures, and that ability to survive is associated with durable materials, as in Gautier’s ‘L’Art’. The danger is the assumption that our poetry has to be ‘heavy’ and ‘solid’ in order to be set to last. It’s panic-feeling is the ‘written on water’ fate Keats mistakenly foresaw for himself. I’ve just finished a new book of criticism and the first chapter begins with a quotation from Robert Desnos, writing his ‘Réflexions sur la poésie’ in occupied Paris during January 1944, where he says that ‘La grande poésie peut être nécessairement actuelle, de circonstances — elle peut donc être fugitive.’ Yet just because Japanese poetry is committed to the idea of the beautiful as, in essence, fugitive, doesn’t mean they don’t carve the haiku on blocks of stone, or preserve the ancient manuscripts. Perhaps the question of how poetry addresses itself to the flow of life has to be disconnected from the question of its durability or, again, from its actual survival. My idea must be that you commit yourself thoroughly to the occasion and out of that may come something that will or will not last. And of course — as in the case of Robert Desnos, who died just eighteen months after writing his reflections — about its cultural survival you may yourself have very little say.

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