Sunday, 28 September 2014

Lurching at King's Lynn:
A discussion of passive suffering

King's Lynn Poetry Festival is rather different from most festivals. It is, in many ways, much more a communal event, all organised by the remarkable solicitor Tony Ellis with considerable help from his friendly and willing committe and, no doubt, friends and family too.  The events are very well attended and supported; there are poets who have returned on several occasions (nor was this my first time); there are lunches and dinners and, besides the readings that are either in the morning or the evening, afternoon discussions where all the poets are invited to contribute.

This was in fact the thirtieth such festival and therefore a more than usually celebratory occasion.  The poetry takes care of itself. I read on Saturday morning with Tiffany Atkinson and the Catalan poet Manuel Forcano whose work is  beautifully translated by Anna Crowe. Anna couldn't come but Manuel''s UK publishers, Tony Ward and Angela Jarman of Arc were there, and Angela read the translations to great effect. As to the rest of the bill you can read it here.


Clarissa came with me but we could only stay till Saturday night as I have a mad schedule coming up and I needed to prepare (I am recording a radio programme for Radio Four tomorrow), then we're off to Lithuania for a few days. So I missed the Sunday discussion but was able to be part of the Saturday afternoon discussion which was nominally about what we want from poetry and should it be left to the academics, and about whether Yeats should have included Wilfred Owen  and the other War Poets in his Oxford Book of Modern Verse. The crux of the matter, as Yeats dealt with it in his Introduction, can be read here.

Of course it didn't turn out like that. We started with Yeats versus Owen and some of us decided that Yeats's notion of passive suffering was nonsense and, what is more, tautologous, because wasn't the essence of suffering passivity in any case. We did not deal with the two sentences that followed the remark about passive suffering, namely that "In all the great tragedies, tragedy is a joy to the man who dies; in Greece the tragic chorus danced". In other words we left the question of tragedy to one side.

Such discussions tend to lurch from here to there without a firm chair. Our chair was lively rather than firm and it could be argued that the lurching was actually enjoyed by a lay audience: that they had, in effect, come for the lurch.

So we talked about other poems by soldier poets, including those of the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan wars. One felt strongly that the recent poets were a poor lot because they didn't consider their enemies as subjects or fully examine the complexities, political or other, of the war as a whole. Some of us replied that that had never been an expectation in war poetry and that a touch of humanity regarding the foe was probably the best that could be expected.

Was war a proper subject at all then? Clearly it must have been or we'd never have had the great war poems of the past. But if that is the case, so the discussion lurched on, what were proper and improper subjects for poetry?

There were, of course, common poetic subjects such as love, the sea, the moon, nature, art, mortality etc and others much less common (readers should suggest their own at this point). Some poets disliked the idea of writing about the experiences of others. Others pointed out that not doing so would signal the end of theatre and the poetry of drama. The word 'appropriation' did the rounds. One was concerned that poems should not cause pain. I wondered whether this would not demolish satire. I quoted Pope: John Lucas in the audience quoted Dryden. Was pain in poetry better than pain in prose or as administered by the fist? That's a very big question, but then they all were.

For some reason the discussion lurched into the issues of form and rhyme eliciting some diametrically opposing views which were not quite as opposing as they first sounded. Rhyme was generally let off the hook as of course it must be or else we'd have to discount a vast number of marvellous English-language poems that have used it to remarkable effect.

Then we were on to the propriety or possibly overweening egotism or possibly narcissism of writing about sex in particular ways (specifically, according to one poet, by women), then - perhaps not surprisingly considering the potentially contentious, not to mention inflammable, nature of the opinion - we found ourselves back on the safer ground of other technical matters and the issue of difficulty.

Do we have to understand poems in order to like them, or do we have to like them first in order to understand them? I suggested that the issue of understanding is not at all simple and tried to elucidate a little. A man in the audience said he hadn't liked Bartók at first but trustworthy friends suggested Bartók was pretty good and he himself eventually thought so.

By the end we had cited and quoted a good number of poems and essays to no particular effect except the cause of intellectual entertainment. Not that we were ever going to decide anything or even investigate it in a focused way, and it's quite possible that, had we done so, the afternoon might have been a good deal less entertaining. Free-for-alls are generally entertainments.

And of course every time someone cited or quoted in order to propose something, a quick counter-quotation immediately demonstrated that the proposition in question would lose us an entire class of writing including some wonderful poems.

In the evening we listened to Hugo Williams and Tom Paulin. Quite a different experience. Utterly different, particularly in Hugo's case. No one raised the question of passive suffering.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Why Poetry?
Text of Speech at Goldsmiths

Photo by Tom Szirtes. Estelle Morris speaking as Chair. Joan Ruddock next to me.

I was extremely privileged yesterday to receive an Honorary Fellowship from Goldsmiths College, University of London. Such things are rare and of course I couldn't help thinking of my parents to whom - especially to my mother who died very early - this would have been some kind of official stamp of approval, more perhaps than the literary prizes, (because, after all, this is a real university) on my apparently poor choice of art college poetry over something more stable and more generally recognised.

I received a very handsome and full laudation from Professor Alan Downie and, as is costumary, was asked to reply in about 5-7 minutes. This is what I said. There is some autobiographical material but I also wanted to speak, however briefly, about the meaning of poetry and the value of all the arts in a civilised society.
I put it here since it is unlikely to appear anywhere else and I'd like to preserve the occasion.

It is a great and unexpected pleasure to be awarded an Honorary Fellowship by one’s old college and my first act must be to thank Goldsmith's College for the privilege; my second, quite clearly, is warmly to congratulate all those receiving their degrees today, people who are artists, art historians, students of English and American Literature, Comparative Literature, or Drama and, in the case of higher degrees, of Creative Writing.

All these degrees cover various parts of my own background. The fact is I was only at Goldsmiths for a year between 1972 and 1973, and that was for the purpose of doing a postgraduate Art Teaching Certificate following my degree in Fine Art at Leeds. That was the qualification, though when I came to this great college - so well known now for both the artists and writers it has nourished - I nurtured no ambition to be a teacher - but I had to do something. I was a painter and a poet and needed to survive, especially since I was already married and we were expecting our first child.  What had chiefly attracted me back then was the generous provision of studio time and the availablity of a studio in the cellar of the disused car showroom then used by Goldsmiths for the course. The college seemed to accept that one’s life as an artist had not come to an end with teaching. You could teach and yet be an artist.

It had been a circuitous route getting here. You have already heard much of my life from Professor Downie’s kind speech so I don’t need to go over that again, so maybe just a little background to one or two points.

I was born in Budapest in 1948 and would probably have stayed there had it not been for the revolution of 1956 when my family, like many others, took the illegal route out of Hungary and walked across the border, becoming refugees in the process. Once in Austria we were offered a flight to England and arrived here in the winter of '56 spending our first few months on the Kent coast in an off-season boarding house along with other refugees. We had nothing at all at the time so were utterly dependent on whatever hospitality was afforded. That hospitality, I should say, was generous and efficient. We were seen as victims of Soviet imperialism and aggression and this was at the height of the Cold War so our welcome was partly conditioned by our circumstances.

From Kent we moved to London. Having been clever at school in Budapest my parents assumed I would do well at school here and eventually bcome what they intended me to be, that is a doctor, preferably a heart surgeon. The trouble was I had neither the head for sciences nor the necessary manual skill to be delving into delicate human organs. In fact I wasn’t particularly good at school: I was all right but nothing more.

Nevertheless, I did sciences to A level and, having dropped art at thirteen, picked it up again for a term at the end of my sixth form. To everyone’s astonishment I did well at it. I had already started writing poems, quite suddenly in fact. This is how it happened. A friend stopped me in the school corridor and showed me a poem written by a mutual acquaintance. I read it and, though I didn't say so, didn’t like it. It didn't ring true somehow. I didn’t know much about poems at all and had only read a few while supposedly doing Physics homework - but I knew it was not a truth I could believe in. I wouldn’t have known quite why not but, strange as it seems, I suddenly knew what I wanted to be. I wanted to be a poet.

The thought had never crossed my mind before. I had no really independent notion of the future. Life had been a series of anxieties and partial failures to that point: now my course seemed clear. Not for my parents of course. Art was no career and poetry was even less.

What is poetry? I hope I am speaking for all the arts here.

We know what poetry is in our bones. Everyone does. For a writer it is a particular sense of the world as it meets language. It is the way words strike each other and form something beyond themselves. It is not lyrical speech or a pretty way of saying something. It is language that is compelling in its own way however simple or difficult, or hot or cold, or direct or ironic it might be. It is the world and our experience of it in language. It is complexity coming to a shape, becoming a process that reads as meaning. It is all the terrible and beautiful things we fear, know, hope, and imagine assuming a comprehensible shape in words.

But poetry is not just for readers or writers. Even for those who are not writers and never read a poem it is, as W H Auden put it in his poem In Memory of W. B. Yeats, a way of happening. It is what Finn McCool in Irish legend decides is the music of what happens. It is the way someone steps out through a door, the way something lies on the table, the way a move in football leads to a goal. The way light moves. The way something extremely minute makes sense by being itself yet being other and more. It happens to everyone. We desire such moments more than we desire money or fame or even happiness. It is what moves us from routine into possibility. We live for it. We can’t really live without it. We want the other stuff that jobs and careers bring us and offer to society, and - of course - they too contain such moments. We need the poetry of being to help make sense of the world and to make life worth while..

I don’t want to go all rhetorical and Dead Poets Society on you but this is true. This is the case. If you don’t believe something like this why do it? Why engage with it?

I  never wanted a career as such, I just wanted to write. Other things had to be done and done well for my own sanity and the well-being of others. I didn’t plan much. I enjoyed my time at Goldsmiths but had no idea what would come next.The only certainty was that I would be writing whatever the circumstances.

Going out into the world with a degree like yours or mine is no easy passport to anything, but what you have chosen to do is a form of love, and that kind of devoted yet oddly disinterested love is a vital aspect of human life.  You may do all sorts of things along the way but it is what fascinates you, what you love and distrust and love again, that matters. You are not just job vacancies and career paths or plugged holes in the economy. You are representatives of the imagination and intelligence and of the arts’ own brand of perception and wisdom. That is your vital contribution.

It is great to be receiving a degree and completing a course of study. I want to thank Goldsmiths again for the tremendous honour and to wish you all everything good in your future lives.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Reflections on The Hurst

Although I have often kept journals at residential courses, generally for the Arvon Foundation, I have never mentioned names or commented on individual students or moments for what will be obvious reasons, though, in many respects, it is the individual students and moments in class or tutorials that define the experience.

The way such things work from the tutor's point of view is that two writers are pitched together and, once they have been introduced to each other by email, they engage in some preliminary discussion, firstly to find a theme and title for the course, then to plan it in greater detail. Having settled that the two tutors usually arrange to take two morning group sessions each and decide between themselves what they might be and how they should be related. The rest is pretty well fixed. Afternoons are individual tutorials, the evenings run as according to the formula with Monday arrival and evening meeting with some small light task to think about, Tuesday night the tutors reading, on Wednesday a guest reader comes to read, on Thursday the students choose poems from the library or from their memories and read round once, maybe twice, and on Friday they compile an anthology of their own work and read their poems in the evening.

I have sometimes marvelled with friends and fellow tutors at the success of the formula. Everyone can get on for four days while a fifth or sixth might be stretching the sense of mutual tolerance and benevolence to close to breaking point. One can achieve a lot in four days under the kind of continuous immersion represented by the well-tried structure of the course.

There are two chief ways of looking at the course. The first is as a kind of surgery for poems-in-progress where the tutor's function is to offer a competent professional view of this or that poem. The second is as a chance to review the ways of writing and, possibly, to move on in some way. It is, of course, the second of these that is most exciting for everyone, even the tutors who discover new ways of approaching and producing work. I myself have published a good many poems in books that were begun (and often finished) as part of an exercise set by the other writer.


I think I taught my first Arvon Course in 1979 because I remember waiting for copies of my first book, The Slant Door, to arrive at Totleigh Barton while I was there. I was exhausted by the end of it and ill for a week after as I had worked myself to the bone, staying up all hours to talk and, naturally, feeling a certain anxiety about the value and appropriateness of what I was doing. It took - and still does take - a lot of nervous energy to sustain responsibility throughout the week. I don't think we had the morning group sessions back then, not in the same way, but concentrated on indidivual students. The tutor who had been asked first could nominate the fellow tutor and together they could suggest and in effect decide, who the guest reader might be. The accommodation was far more basic, students shared rooms, and there were no en suite bathrooms, not even for the tutors. In any case I have taught plenty since - possibly over twenty - but I haven't counted. Each was a leaping in and full immersion with very little contact with the outside world (The Hurst actually had wifi for the tutors only this time, the whole centre having been rebuilt.)

Nevertheless, each course seems quite dreamlike as soon as it is over. The journey home - a long journey in my case - is like the part where one emerges from the dream, still a little disorientated, the mind moving on but not yet in the normal manner.

This course has been as productive as the ones before.

Working with Kathryn Maris (I can name her at least) was a pleasure. She has a generous spirit and a genuinely original mind which is all part of her being a splendid poet. Our morning sessions fitted well and one led to the next naturally, opening out areas of discussion.

There was certainly talent of considerable variety among the students which kept us on our toes.

This is beginning to sound awfully like a school end-of-term report. Heaven forbid! End here before you start discussing the legitimacy of creative writing course, whether poetry can be taught and all the usual, on the whole, simplistic questions. Well, another time perhaps.