In conversation with
James Harpur: First of all, congratulations on reaching three score years and ten – and on all your many achievements in the realm of poetry and literature. I’d like to start off by asking you a general question before getting into specifics: what is your relationship with music? Your verse is carefully modulated with great attention to rhythm, assonance, rhyme and so on – what has influenced your musical ear? Classical music, jazz, pop?
Peter Robinson: Thank you. And thank you for talking to me as this landmark goes by. Poetry and music? Well, I have folk-level skills in piano playing and guitar. My mum and dad wanted me to have some musical education. Both had good singing voices and performed in a madrigal group in the 1960s. They sent me to get piano lessons. I was mysteriously good at the theory, passing five grades, and could read music at one time, but didn’t like practising and only ever achieved one grade of piano. Those experiences formed the background to the first story I managed to finish, one called ‘Music Lessons’ in Foreigners, Drunks and Babies. Still, in my teenage years I was able to convert that knowledge of the piano and music theory into a competence on the guitar and am able to knock out folk and pop tunes on the piano too. I was a choirboy until my voice broke, and the more mysterious words in some hymns could induce tears: ‘As o’er each continent and island, dawn leads on another day’. Traces of song lyrics have got into poems: ‘I need you in all honesty’ from ‘Loud Weather’ references ‘Thank you for the Music’ by ABBA because it kept coming back through the inflight entertainment on route back to Japan.
The title ‘In Summer Wind’ acknowledges an early orchestral piece by Webern; ‘Crying All Day’ is a similar nod to Bix Beiderbecke; but ‘Cádiz (listening to Albéniz)’ is probably the only poem I’ve published directly about the influence of music, contributed to by a YouTube film of Julian Bream appearing to play it in situ. So the short answer would be church music, some classical, lots of folk and blues, a range of jazz, and vast amounts of the better written, more melodic pop music.
JH: Do you listen to music while working, or use it to set a pre-poetic mood?
PR: I don’t use music to set the mood for writing poetry but have done as a memory-trigger for fiction, and as background when writing criticism. There’s often a song going around in my head as if on a loop tape, which may be how some of the rhythms of uncalled for poetic lines begin to form. And my novel, September in the Rain, is thematically haunted by the Harry Warren and Al Dubin song.
JH: I am fascinated by the familial and cultural conditions in which poets were raised – the seedbed of their consciousnesses – and I think readers would be interested in your background. You grew up mostly in parts of Liverpool during the 1950s and ’60s – how conscious were you of your time and place during these years?
PR: I didn’t visit London, or anywhere in the south of England, until I was over sixteen years old. I’m not, strictly, from Liverpool. I was born in Salford, Lancashire. I am related through my mother to a family of Baxters from Dundee. Her immediate family, Whiteheads and Redferns, are from Tyne and Teesside. I know less about my father’s branch, though his middle name, Fisher, suggests we might have been related to a family of them. In fact, there was a funny moment in the 1990s when Roy Fisher put me in touch with Fleur Adcock, who was researching her ancestry, because she came from a family of Manchester Robinsons. It seemed we might be related, and she might track down the poetry gene. But what Fleur confirmed was that our Robinsons were not connected, and I have no idea why my great-grandfather was also called Thomas Fisher Robinson. Fleur could only trace my father’s side of the family back to that relative whom my dad was named after, born in 1836, and to Elizabeth Hewitt (to whom he may not have actually been married). Elizabeth was my grandfather’s mother and born in Knutsford in 1848 (I included these prompts in my book The Draft Will).
JH: Did you have a concept of being a Liverpudlian or ‘Northerner’ or ‘British’ – were there physical reminders of World War 2 around you? Has your place of birth and rearing exerted any influence on your poems, in the way that the Calder Valley did for Ted Hughes, or Sligo for Yeats?
PR: Growing up in a series of working-class areas and travelling by steam train from the North-West to South Shields for visits to my maternal grandparents for summer holidays definitively shaped me, providing formative landscapes and, in their tensions and contradictions, my first subjects. I’m a northerner, but not a ‘proud’ or ‘professional’ one. Liverpool, where my mother still lives, as do two of my dearest friends, is the only place I can call my hometown. It was severely bombed, and you could see that plainly when I was a little boy. I can remember wondering how it was that I had been born ‘English’ when a child from the Indian subcontinent joined our infants school class, though I have since concluded that, as far as nationality is concerned, no one is strictly born anything. My years in Japan also made me realize that I didn’t have to worry about my nationality. Others would look after that for me.
JH: Your father was an Anglican curate and your mother a geography teacher and so, I imagine, your family life must have had a veneer at the very least of gentility and of learning?
PR: My parents met at Durham University in 1947. They were the first and only members of their families to receive tertiary education. My mother, born in 1926, had gone up in September 1945 to study geography, and was beginning her final year. My father, born in 1920, was starting his degree in theology. The six years’ difference is the length of the war. My father had done well enough at school to be accepted into the John Rylands Library in Manchester (where he met Maurice Oldfield, later head of MI6, then a student of Medieval History). He had been granted a place because of his calling to the ministry and would be taught by the future Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsay. He had been in Palestine with the Intelligence Corps in 1946 after spending the 1943-45 period moving up the Italian peninsula with the Eighth Army. My dad’s time at St John’s College coincided with that of the novelist Tim Parks’ father, and both preached together in Durham mining parishes as part of their training. Tim’s dad was much more evangelical than mine, but I was naturally brought up as a believing churchgoer.
JH: You have written many books of poetry and achieved academic excellence at York and Cambridge – were you encouraged to be intellectually ambitious by your parents, or was that something you found within yourself?
PR: I don’t recall any expectation that I would go to university, except that when I expressed the desire to go from sixth form to an art school, it was strongly impressed upon me by parents and teachers alike that I should think about university. I was doing English, history and art, having been mediocre at languages and been obliged to drop geography because I particularly wanted to do an art A-level – I had started painting again after leaving it aside at the end of junior school. The urge had come over me at the same time as picking up the guitar, puberty again having provided the drive to express things that couldn’t find expression elsewhere. My intellectual curiosity is something I found for myself, I think. It came out of childhood reading. If I read a Biggles story about our hero and a female spy in WW1, then I would go and find out all about the actual planes, the real pilots, about Mata Hari and Edith Cavell. The only place you could do that then was at the local library. The same would be true for the fate of the Native Americans in the nineteenth century, or the battles of the American Civil War. In fact it was only in the sixth form that my interest in history started to slip in favour of English Literature, and I went up to York to do a joint English and History degree, switching to single English in the second term. My parents might have been a little surprised by my intellectualism, and I can recall being described by them as a ‘culture vulture’ in about 1970, which suggests that they didn’t encourage it, but didn’t do the opposite exactly either.
JH: At what point in your life did you start taking an interest in poetry? Were there poems at primary or secondary schools that grabbed your attention?
PR: Poetry was in my life very early because of the hymns I was singing, such as ‘Jerusalem’ or ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’. Then it came in through folk music, whether old songs like ‘Barbara Allen’ or more recent ones like ‘Dirty Old Town’. I honestly can’t recall a poem being presented to us at school until English A-level when we had to take on an anthology of Metaphysical Poetry, but by then I was already committed.
JH: At what point did you write your first poem – was it a class exercise or did you take to experimenting with words at home?
PR: When I was in the top class of junior school, aged about 10 or maybe 11, there was a class exercise to write a poem, and I have a clear memory of realizing how hard it was to say what you wanted and make it rhyme. I gave up with the thing unfinished and didn’t think anything more about it. Some five years later I consciously perpetrated my first poems, two of them, written under my own impulse. They were both satires or burlesques based on the conviction that I had seen through the contradictions in Christianity and in the anti-Immigration position adopted by Enoch Powell (I was aware that the white English population was made up of waves of immigration from continental Europe). This would have been in 1969, the year of his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. They were written in an improvised free verse, and probably had some rhymes woven into them, but they don’t survive, and just as well. Soon after that I wrote the first poem that may survive somewhere (I don’t have a copy), because it was published in an anthology printed on a hand press in the school basement. It was called ‘The Mockingbird and the Oak’, the bird perhaps from Harper Lee’s book, and the allegory and quatrains from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. It was about a teen romance and pretended to the latter while revealing the former. But I had things to say, or thought I did, and began looking for ways to say them effectively, and still am.
JH: As a teenager did you lead a double life – in the way that Tony Harrison describes (being bottled up at home and studying Cicero while his peers were out and about kicking a football)? Did you smoke, drink and go to pubs and parties or find succour in reading and writing and shun extraverted activities?
PR: I have a phobia about matches and always hated the smell of cigarette smoke, so I never did that, but I would get blind drunk sometimes as a teenager at parties, as a way of trying to lose my self-consciousness, no doubt. I led a double life in the standard growing-up sense – those who think things and try to express them through art of one kind or another have to behave in ways required by the norms of home, school, or social life for kids at that time. Yes, I kicked a football around, but the only sport I was any good at really was cross-country running, and then, as I realized when being pushed towards higher levels of competition, only to being captain of the school team. But I used to sober up from parties all over south Liverpool by running home down the central reservations of the dual carriageways in the small hours of Sunday mornings (two northern realist black & white film titles in one there).
JH: At some point you decided to go to university – was there a schoolteacher or teachers that inspired you to take your studies further?
PR: Alan Hodgkinson was the senior English teacher at Liverpool College (the same school as the poets Grevel Lindop and Jamie McKendrick), and he was instrumental in the slow shift from my thinking I was most interested in History to knowing it was English I needed to follow. Three things come to mind. He bought and gave me a copy of the Penguin edition of Ulysses, newly published. A Portrait of the Artist was a set text, and I must have written enthusiastically about it. He made me the library prefect in the sixth form, so I got to know its contents better than I otherwise would have. One of my essays on Othello used the word demonry to describe Iago, and Mr. Hodgkinson made a point of picking it out when handing back marked papers to the sixth-form group, noting that the word doesn’t exist (demon of course does and devilry), but adding that he thought it was expressive of what I intended. That was a sort of permission.
JH: Was it a big moment when you got into York? Did it feel like a rite of passage, leaving home and being an undergraduate?
PR: One of my friends at York, when we were having what she called ‘a brief affair’ during the year after graduation, said that she and her friends had all admired my mind, but I wasn’t exactly a social success. In that sense, it was ‘a rite of passage’ and although I am still in contact with three people I knew then, York didn’t produce my core friendship group – as university is often said to do. I had to move on to Cambridge, and further, to find many of those people.
JH: How did York sustain you poetically? Did you find like-minded souls? Was there a hub of poetry, like a poetry society? At what point did you become aware of, or were influenced by, contemporary poets (I know Roy Fisher, about whom you write movingly in Received Attachments, was one of them).
PR: York did sustain me poetically, but not really because I found like-minded souls. There was a fellow poet called Hugh McPherson, and we self-published two little pamphlets together. He went into the diplomatic service and died in his fifties without managing to publish much beyond his undergraduate output as far as I know. Helen Dunmore was in the year above me, and I think we published some of her poems in a student magazine, but I don’t believe I ever met her – and Maura Dooley was there too, but I had left before she arrived. However, I did meet Robert Wells who was there for a year, perhaps doing a PGCE, and he encouraged me to attend a lecture by Donald Davie followed by the poetry reading he gave. I also heard Geoffrey Hill read for the first time when he came over from Leeds. I showed poems to my first supervisor for the introductory term, David Moody, the Poundian, and to my tutor, the French feminist writer Nicole Ward Jouve. For the rest, I did it myself by offering poems to student magazines, and being parodied for my pains, which, in retrospect, looks like a compliment, as well as reading widely beyond the curriculum, buying a copy of Bunting’s Fulcrum Collected, discovering Roy Fisher’s books in the Bradford University Library (my girlfriend and future first wife was studying there) and finding Pierre Reverdy’s Main d’oeuvre in the J. B. Morrell Library when searching for material for the Symbolists paper, which Nicole taught.
JH: Which other poets loomed large in your firmament – those of the Movement, say, or the more neo-Romantic strain of Ted Hughes and Peter Redgrove?
PR: Philip Larkin’s High Windows and Donald Davie’s The Shires came out when I was an undergraduate, both massive disappointments after The Whitsun Weddings and Essex Poems. But Davie’s Thomas Hardy and British Poetry pushed me in the direction of Charles Tomlinson, and reinforced the Fisher interest, as well as alerting me to the existence of J. H. Prynne – Nicole’s husband Tony Ward, who knew Jeremy from Cambridge, lent me some of his and Elaine Feinstein’s books. That’s how I got to know about the Prospect group and was led in the direction of Zukofsky, Olson, Dorn, Creeley and more. Tony Ward also told me about the existence of a magazine called The Grosseteste Review and I just missed meeting John Riley in a pub in York. All of which was like beginning to do the homework for what was to come next.
JH: You continued your studies at Cambridge: can you say how your years there developed you as a person and a poet? Outsiders might think of Oxbridge as a refined, rarefied environment, but was this the case with you?
PR: I was in a psychologically bad way when I arrived in Cambridge in late September 1975, for reasons I’ve already written and spoken about enough. I spent much of the first year untangling a relationship and trying to get my bearings. Arriving as a graduate student meant I was an outsider to whatever refinement and rarefication was on offer and would largely remain so. Strictly academic assimilation never fully occurred, even though I was there for the best part of fifteen years, but I did join the Poetry Society straight away, and from that came the editing of Perfect Bound, and I made contact with the Cambridge Poetry Festival group too.
JH: Did you find your academic studies helping or interfering with your poetry writing? You were also active with editing poetry magazines. How much did you enjoy this, and did reading other people’s poems prove to be an inspiration or hindrance (or neither) to your own poetry writing?
PR: There has never been any conflict for me between reading and studying and writing poetry. I would go to the University Library regularly, like a nine-to-five job, but sometimes instead of reading, making notes, or writing critical prose for the thesis, I would devote the morning to a poem. A number of the pieces in my first two books were produced like that, and those experiences are vivid to this day. I’m interested in the entire process of poetry and its place in life, which has always included its grass roots publishing, and I very much enjoyed the business of writing to poets to ask for contributions to Perfect Bound. There was a lot to learn, some of it the hard way, but it was all good experience. One of the things I discovered by reading others’ poems, whether in workshops or as a magazine editor, was that I have various levels of interest: one is strictly related to what I’m doing myself (kindred spirits, as it were) and is quite exclusive in that if it doesn’t feed me I have no use for it; the other is more expansively curious and self-educational, enlarging my range by reading against the grain of my supposed tastes; and a third is more socio-cultural, encouraging whatever is going on around me and giving things by others a chance to develop and find readers. I did come into conflict with some of my peers in Cambridge who adopted a more sectarian view of the poetry field, promoting coteries or gangs. Included in my gratitude to Roy Fisher is his help with managing the aesthetic and social bullying that the ‘poetry world’ could and can, strangely enough, more than occasionally promote. Reading others may, as you suggest, be a goad and a curb, which is probably good and just another of the things you have to learn to cope with in a life of poetry.
JH: You met the painter David Inshaw while at Cambridge – indeed you’ve celebrated this and your admiration of his work in your excellent book, Bonjour Mr Inshaw. Can you say what drew you to him and also something about your own artistic practice? Has your own ability to paint and draw influenced your poetry at all, or your subject matter?
PR: That was all a happy chance in that David was there as a Creative Fellow and he was good enough to let me drop round and have a cup of tea with him from time to time. He’s a quiet person with a lot of poetic sensibility and I found it easy to talk to him about what was involved in painting and in creating images that express more than just the look of things. Life choices sent us in separate ways after about 1980, so it was a delight to make contact again with him some years ago now. Back then, I was trying hard to paint well, while at the time shifting from an attempt to combine a representational mode with a would-be hard-edged abstracting, derived from Vorticism, as in later William Roberts, towards something nearer to a poetical realism, a direction encouraged by David. It was he who more or less told me to stop using acrylics and convert to oils, which I dutifully did. I kept painting until 1992, when my brain tumour meant that I lost the use of the tear duct in my right eye, and the ability to blink easily, so that staring for long periods at things to paint them became near impossible. Since then, I’ve only managed a few watercolours. Painting has been extremely important for me and I’m always happy in an exhibition or gallery. I wonder where my poems would be without the visual stimulus that often gets them going or provides them with materials and contents?
JH: What course did your poetic journey take leading up to your first full collection? Which magazines did your poems get published in (can you remember your first ever acceptance?); and at what point did you submit a collection to a publisher? Was the latter a difficult process of trial and error, submission or rejection, or did your work get accepted without too much of a hitch?
PR: Here my thanks must go to John Welch and The Many Press. As I say, I went to Cambridge to do the PhD in the autumn of 1975 and exactly five years later Overdrawn Account, which John published, came out in its ochre cover. That’s quite a short time, really, and by then two pamphlets had been published and a broadside. It all seemed to happen quite organically and came about because I went to the offices of the Eastern Arts Association in Station Road and was given to understand that if we applied for a grant to run a poetry magazine, we would get it. Perfect Bound put me in touch with a vast range of writers, some of whom edited magazines themselves. Looking at the acknowledgements in those first two pamphlets, I see that Jon Silkin’s Stand had accepted the first part of ‘The Benefit Forms’ and Jim Burns’ Palantir had accepted a domestic interior poem. Those were the most prominent places I managed back then. I started at the very bottom and slowly worked my way up. According to my website, the earliest poem, aside from student publications, appears to have been published in something called Krax. It must be there in the archive somewhere. Those were very busy and exciting times, culminating with coordinating the 1979 Cambridge International Poetry Festival, which produced a vast amount of correspondence with poets from Europe and America. My first collection simply precipitated out of all that activity.
JH: In 1988 you published your first full collection with a major publisher, Carcanet. This Other Life garnered excellent reviews and won the Cheltenham Prize: did this feel like the start of a trajectory you had always imagined or hoped for?
PR: It was a long, hard, eight-year climb from my first collection in late 1980 to This Other Life, involving vast amounts of rewriting, lots of rejections, and a deal of subsequent mischaracterization. I needed to remake my ideas of how a poem could communicate, because again I felt I had things to say, and the styles I’d developed in the second half of the 1970s didn’t allow enough of that to find form. I needed more syntax, stanzaic torque, more inner orchestration, a more flexible relationship to definition, suggestion, and to making the unstated more sharply implied. These were the years in which my first wife’s jokes had bite, for example when, taking her cue from Eric Morecambe, she remarked on reading yet another draft, that she had seen all these words before but never in this order. She also commented that I was the only person she knew who had been rejected five times before eating his breakfast; and, best of all, preempting my expressing where I wanted to be buried in a bit of post-prandial banter, saying I’d be buried in the tomb of the unknown poet. So the reception of This Other Life was a reassuring vindication, though not something I had expected. But though it felt like the start of a trajectory, wherever it was supposed to lead, I don’t think I actually ended up there.
JH: In 1989 you left the UK for Japan to teach and were there for many years. Can you say how that came about and how it affected your life and work?
PR: It has taken me a long time to get this into focus, but I have to be immensely grateful for the opportunity that Japan provided. You see, however happily things were going in the later 1970s as regards my getting involved with the world of poetry, my PhD on Davie, Tomlinson and Fisher, with a Larkin chapter for contrast, was both a car crash waiting to happen and a bit ahead of its time. It certainly wasn’t a meal ticket, and the years from the first to the second collection were also spent in the university precariat, where, again, I was ahead of my time, though by no means alone in that. So when, after yet another missed job appointment, I encountered a Kyoto academic looking for someone with an Oxbridge PhD to do a couple of years out in Japan, I had the qualifications and accepted the post, expecting to be away long enough to finish a first book of criticism, which would be In the Circumstances (1992), and, I hoped, to reenter the job market back home.
JH: How much of an adventure did it feel to be in such a far-flung country? How many years were you there?
PR: Eighteen in all. It was an adventure, but much of the time it also felt like an ordeal, a life described as ‘a gilded cage’ by one senior Japanese professor. Visiting dignitaries would pass through from time to time, and I would be called upon to host or entertain them, which is how I came to spend a little time, over the years, with Helen Vendler, Marjorie Perloff, John Ashbery, Seamus Heaney, Ciaran Carson, Charles and Brenda Tomlinson, James Lasdun and Sean O’Brien. During my first year there I gave a talk about ‘The Rape of Lucrece’ to the Japan Shakespeare Society where it was heard by Hiroshi Ozawa, about to be appointed assistant professor in Tohoku University, Sendai. They were looking for a new foreign teacher, which is how in April 1991 I took up a post previously held by Ralph Hodgson, George Barker, and James Kirkup, a post I would remain in for fourteen years.
JH: Did Japanese culture and its art and poetry influence your writing?
PR: Japan helped change my poetry’s style again, most notably in the untangling of the syntax, which I put down to giving entirely improvised, reiterative lectures (written ones weren’t understandable) where I would write the key points as lists of aphorisms on the whiteboard. Then there was the influence of Japanese aesthetics in ukiyo-e, haiku and tanka, and the impact both of the country’s extraordinary natural beauty, and its concreted, kitschy cities. The great kindness and loyalty of some students and colleagues also sustained and uplifted me both there and after returning. Also, wherever the trajectory of This Other Life might have pointed, it was in Sendai that I was allowed to become myself, eventually leaving Japan having published three more collections and a Selected Poems with Carcanet, plus three academic monographs with Oxford, as well as two translated volumes of Vittorio Sereni’s poetry, the latter with Chicago, and one of Luciano Erba’s with Princeton – the last of these among my happiest literary and publishing experiences. It’s thanks to these books, and the time allowed to produce them, that I was able to return to the British academic world in 2007, in the days when the research excellence exercises allowed transfer windows for higher performers.
JH: Your rentrée to the UK must have seemed strange at first – did you re-evaluate or appreciate or depreciate British culture in comparison with that of Japan?
PR: The one great thing about living abroad for a sustained period of time is that it gives you the opportunity to see that your native way of doing things is not the only way, and not even the best way in every case. One example: in our foreign professors’ residence on a mountain top in Sendai we were provided with the aerial and decoder to allow us to watch TV channels from all over the world. When in 2003 the US and Britain invaded Iraq, we watched the reporting of it on the BBC, of course, but also on CNN, France 2, ZDF, NHK and Al Jazeera. That gives you the space to think independently of any national narrative. Living there, with the other teachers from many and various countries, was an education in itself, and the place where I was encouraged by one of the Italian teachers to activate my knowledge of his language. I didn’t depreciate British culture when I returned, because I had very much missed many aspects of it over my eighteen years abroad, but I couldn’t possibly see it in the same light. After all, it was rather a different place. When I left, Mrs. Thatcher was in power; when I returned Tony Blair was about to hand over to Gordon Brown.
JH: Did your move to Japan disrupt, as it were, your poetic journey – the necessary business of readings, submissions, festivals and the like? Or were you to-ing and fro-ing from Japan to the UK so often that you were at home in both countries?
PR: Yes, being in Japan did, of course, disrupt whatever poetic journey I might have been on with the little success of The Other Life. I did manage to give some readings when back in the country, but few and far between, and didn’t attend many festivals. The one I most recall was in Vienna in 1996, organized to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the British Council office being founded there (Wilfred Pickles’ role in The Third Man). My publishing in magazines first slowed down because of the communication problem, then sped up rapidly with the coming of the internet, so that I also started to publish more in the USA, thanks mainly to John Matthias and the Notre Dame Review, but also in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, as well as in Italy, where a bilingual edition of my work came out in 2004. And for fourteen of my years in Japan I had no home base at all in the UK and would only visit briefly to see friends and parents, spending the rest of the time in Parma with my second wife’s family.
JH: The 1990s were a momentous decade for you: you had an operation on a brain tumour and also married your Italian wife, Ornella. These were two huge life events – did they serve to broaden or deepen your world view and poetic sensibility?
PR: The first change was very slow and grinding in that I met Ornella in June 1984, and we were married in February 1995. The second was also slow in its growth: the tumour had been there for some eight years when it was eventually removed on 13 May 1993 – getting on for thirty years ago now. However, it was only discovered in November 1992, so the waiting for the operation was just about six months. The intersection of these dates indicates how the last stages of my first marriage coincided with the emergency of what at first seemed like a fatal diagnosis. I was only enlightened on the likelihood of surviving a ‘benign’ brain tumour after travelling all the way from Japan to Addenbrookes Hospital, Cambridge, in late 1992. This crisis clarified a number of things for me and was strangely liberating in various ways. The brush with death helped push the decline of the marriage into a final breakdown, it concentrated the mind on life priorities, and it released me from much anxious second guessing about what I should or should not write and attempt to print. After all, if you’re damned if you do, and if you don’t, then doing it looks like the recommendable option. I’m not sure if these events deepened my world view or changed my poetic sensibility, but what they did do was to increase a sense of the precariousness of existence and the risk involved in just going from day to day. They also underlined the need not to take sole responsibility for things that you had not solely done, even if circumstances and convenience suggest doing that might simplify matters.
JH: So did you find your poems changing in your Carcanet collections, Entertaining Fates (1992) and Lost and Found (1997)?
PR: Looking back at those two collections, it seems Entertaining Fates contains some of my strongest and most ambitious poems, tense with hopes and fears coming from those emotional conflicts, but also quite a few that are ill-focused or misjudged, partly through the wish to use poetry to direct life in ways it would not go. Lost and Found is a much more consistent book with a newly coherent amalgam of technique, material, and sensibility in which the poems don’t try to get ahead of experience, which rather moves with its own logics and pressures better recognized. There are still a few wishful or undercooked ones, but many less than Entertaining Fates, which now looks to me like a transitional work caught between lives and modes, as indeed its title indicates.
JH: When you settled back in the UK in 2007 you moved to Reading where you have been teaching English and American Literature and Creative Writing, a course you founded. What were your first impressions of Reading, especially compared to other places you’ve lived in? Does it have a genius loci? Were you drawn to write about it and its Victorian culture and its associations with Oscar Wilde?
PR: My first impressions of the town produced mysteriously equivocal tears (see my poem ‘Huntley & Palmers’). But Reading was another piece of good luck, because I naturally needed a job to be able to bring our daughters back to the UK for their education, and to be around as our parents approached the ends of their lives, but then you have to make the best of the place where the job is. I don’t drive a car, and given house prices in the Thames Valley, the idea of commuting from Oxford or London, as a number of my colleagues do, never so much as crossed my mind. We live in a transport hub, half an hour by taxi at 4 am from Heathrow, and you can now get on a Tube train (the new Elizabeth Line) at Tottenham Court Road which has Reading as its destination. We’re still in something of a cultural frost shadow, cast in one direction by the town with the dreaming spires and in the other by perhaps the world’s most multicultural city, but that’s quite a good place for a poet to be since the meaning and identity of what you see around you is not so intensely pre-packaged and fought over. It was while in Sendai, a provincial capital of two-million inhabitants, that I started to try and plant grass roots by pursuing cultural leads (discovering, by chance, its name in the opening pages of ‘Anna Livia Plurabelle’, for instance), and I just kept doing it when I got to Reading. The results can also be read in my semi-autobiographical fiction, The Constitutionals, in which the protagonist walks around the town to try and get his health back reflecting on such things as Rimbaud’s stay in the place, and Oscar Wilde’s.
JH: After your Selected with Carcanet in 2003, you have explored a number of other independent poetry publishers, including Worple, Shearsman and Pine Wave. And you yourself became poetry editor of Two Rivers Press. Can you say something about the place of smaller poetry publishers in the poetry economy, and what sort of relationship do you think they have with the more celebrated presses, such as Faber and Cape?
PR: The requirements of a trade publisher and the needs of a poet with a lifelong vocation are not simply or straightforwardly reconciled. Smaller presses with lower overheads and probably no state sponsorship have more flexibility and may answer better the publishing needs either of poets who have to write and publish steadily, or ones who hardly ever write at all. The more celebrated presses used to command wide public attention and could promise a greater social profile, though only a small proportion of their writers tend to benefit from such promises. I did quite well for about fifteen years in that sort of environment, but it was changing, the presence of poets and poetry in general culture retreating fast. I have found it congenial, on the whole, to have more control over what I publish, and when, by collaborating with the enthusiastic individuals who run the smaller operations, and occasionally to publish things with the press for which I am the poetry editor. I would also prefer not to sign any more contracts in which all the residual rights for my work are conferred upon publishers who are not in the business of maximizing the benefits of holding those rights. Publishing a book with a trade press, in this sense, can be like having a Hollywood studio buy up the rights to your novel on the off-chance that they might make a movie from it – which they then don’t. Better to print small runs and sell them through to those that want them, or, by the same logic, make your niche work available through print-on-demand.
JH: Back to your own poetry: In your wonderful book, English Nettles, you combine townscape, nature and history into an enchanting blend of verse (beautifully illustrated by Sally Castle). The poems seem to interlink and feed each other. This also occurs, for example, with your David Inshaw book and Ravishing Europa. Can you say to what extent you favour thematic books in which the poems riff around a theme, or, conversely, collections in which most of the poems are stand-alone and thematically unconnected?
PR: Poems tend to come in bunches for me, and even if I think they’re separate stand-alone pieces, they often appear to be talking to the ones that came before and after, so when collecting them I’m inclined to put them together, which can then imply a trajectory for others to cluster around. I got the idea of assembling books like this from Les fleurs du mal and was reinforced in it by encountering volumes like Montale’s Le occasioni and Sereni’s Gli strumenti umani where there are sections, sometimes numbered, sometimes titled, and reading them constitutes a progression through stages to some kind of larger resolution. However, I don’t think organizing books like this means ignoring the sorts of advice that a Larkin might give about arranging a series of variety turns for a little collection of separate acts.
JH: Ted Hughes in his writings on Shakespeare, Eliot and Coleridge put forward the idea that every poet writes an ‘Ur’ poem (or two) during the start of his or her writing life. That is to say, a poem that isn’t necessarily the best one, but one in which future themes are stored, like an acorn with the DNA of an oak tree. Can you say, if possible, which of your early poems might accord with his notion of an Ur poem?
PR: I’ll respond to that by talking about five early poems, three of which I know off by heart, and two others which I have also self-quoted in more recent work. They were written or completed between late November 1975 and the end of 1976, which is to say straddling my twenty-third birthday. ‘A Homage’ is the earliest, whose immediate inspiration was an exhibition of L.S. Lowry’s work at the Royal Academy in the summer of 1975, but its eight rhymed lines go back to my birth in Salford and relations with my mother. It gets its unexpected ending by punning on the difference of pitch implication between the verb ‘owe’ in its epigraph and an exclamatory ‘Oh’. ‘Some Hope’ gets its theme from taking an idiomatic expression of hopelessness literally. It took a while to find its definitive three-part form. I wrote all three around the same time, but the middle one was in a different sequence, and the first contains phrases also in the tenth part of ‘The Benefit Forms’ – because I thought to abandon it, salvaged some words, then brought it back to life and accepted the self-borrowings as trace elements of the compositional process. I also had to tidy up the lineation when reprinting the third part in that Carcanet Selected Poems. ‘The Interrupted Views’, written early in 1976 about returning home to Liverpool, starts a long-running theme and is one of the most cited poems in the chapters for Tom Phillips’ collection of essays published in 2021. ‘Overdrawn Account’, the title poem for my first collection, was written on the fourth floor of Beauchamp Lodge, Little Venice, where Katherine Mansfield first lived when she came to London from New Zealand. This was then a flat above a children’s home where my first wife-to-be was living. I wrote the first seven lines one evening in late September and the next morning found I could improvise the following twenty-one quite freely, surprising myself in doing so. It gets a rhymed close by finding the ‘real’ in the word ‘cereal’ and, although the word doesn’t appear in the poem, I suspect that the word ‘serial’ was driving its composition, though not the word ‘surreal’ – which I was amused to hear somebody suggesting when the thing was workshopped in Cambridge that autumn. The last of these five is ‘Autobiography’, whose subject matter and occasion I’ve been revisiting ever since, most prominently in Chapter 8 of September in the Rain and in the ‘Dreamt Affections’ sequence in Retrieved Attachments. It gets quoted in ‘Above the Sea’ from that same collection. ‘Some Hope’ is cited in ‘Sladers Yard’ from Bonjour Mr Inshaw and ‘The Interrupted Views’ in ‘Graffiti Service’, because it was tauntingly quoted back at me by a friend.
JH: As we all know, there are no rules to writing poems that have that touch of magic or the eternal; but have you ever been conscious of writing something that you felt you would not be able to match? Or match for a long time? If so, how did that poem come about?
PR: I early got onto the idea that if a new poem doesn’t surprise or enthuse me then there’s probably something wrong with it. Naturally if I produce something that does seem to break new ground, as ‘Overdrawn Account’ did, then I try to make that space my own by building on it, which partly explains the procedure and form of ‘Autobiography’. I may have had this experience quite a lot down the years, but I wouldn’t know how to generalize about how it happens – and, as I’ve implied, my response to it is to set about trying to match or outdo it as soon as possible. Here’s a recent example. Last September I started writing some poems set around Weymouth in Dorset, which we’d been visiting for a while, and I’d recently read Weymouth Sands, John Cowper Powys’ novel set in the town, as well as George Eliot’s translation of Spinoza’s Ethics. By the end of the month I’d written a sequence of sixteen quite substantial parts. How had it come out like that? It’s as if material that I’ve been pondering for a long time coincides with things that are happening or I’m noticing and the latter come immediately to hand as the means for articulating and expressing, and then pushing further than I had thought possible, whatever it was had been pressing to find poetic form. These ‘Weymouth Poems’ will be coming out in The Powys Journal next year. Will I be able to match them sooner or later? I don’t yet know.
JH: Your critique of Brexit in Ravishing Europa has a sharp political edge beneath the lyricism. Has politics influenced your life and work?
PR: The first sequence I finished, ‘The Benefit Forms’, is a poem about the Welfare State written between late 1974 and mid-1976. Around the end of that decade I became aware of people speculating about what my politics might be. For a fellow traveller with the rising new right they were characterized as ‘Tony Benn painted by Rembrandt’, for a poet with leanings towards the radical left, I was ‘a social democrat’, while for one of my PhD examiners I was ‘a nettled egalitarian.’ Politics has certainly influenced my life and work mostly in ways that I wouldn’t have wished upon it. My expatriation to Japan in 1989 had quite a lot to do with the previous decade of Thatcherite views on the chattering classes and humanities in the university sector.
JH: How has your world view shifted over the years, and how much does it influence your poems?
PR: Have my politics changed from those I will have imbibed in a vicarage during the 1960s? Probably not, but more recent events have further sharpened the issues and required me to declare my hand. Just an emblem: some of Ravishing Europa exists now in draft Italian translations for a bilingual selection projected to appear in 2024. The rendering of the phrase ‘mendacious bullshit’ came up in conversation over lunch with the series editor just before New Year 2023. The ‘bull’ in that Latinate and Anglo-Saxon collocation is important because of the role of Zeus in the Rape of Europa. Until recently, I’m not sure the phrase would have pressed itself upon me. There is no equivalent expletive that includes the animal and its excrement an Italian.
JH: What is your relationship with ‘God’ or ultimate truth? After all, your father was a vicar who dealt in ideas of eternity.
PR: I was naturally brought up with a knowledge of Christian values, and particularly those of the New Testament’s ‘He that is without sin let him cast the first stone’, the ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’, and the ‘Turn the other cheek’ variety, and, when it comes to nettled egalitarianism, well, ‘we are all equal in the eyes of God.’ Though I have not been a practising Christian for over half a century, I have continued to try to live according to the implications of Jesus’s extremely wise parables and aphorisms.
JH: Have you found alternative spiritual beliefs of any sort, or are you a secular humanist? Or what?
PR: Over New Year I was rereading Lichtenberg’s Waste Books. He was the son of a Pietist pastor. Among his pennyworths of wisdom, I came across this in Notebook H: ‘If the world should endure for an incalculable number of years the universal religion will be a purified Spinozism. Left to itself reason can lead to nothing else and it is impossible that it ever will lead to anything else.’ As already mentioned, I have been rereading Spinoza recently, having started to try to understand him soon after returning to England and finding Stuart Hampshire’s 1958 book on him in the second-hand part of Blackwell’s in Oxford. This, for example, from his Tractatus Politicus, is only too apt to a recent departure from Downing Street: ‘For it is as impossible for a sovereign … openly to break or hold in contempt laws which he himself has passed, and still to preserve his sovereignty, as it is to be and not be at the same time.’ Spinoza’s arguments for religious freedom and state support for individual self-achievement within a determinist framework, and his monist theory of a single universal matter, which is co-extensive with God or Nature, have helped me think about how I might make sense of my spiritual, political, and intellectual needs and beliefs. So I’ve recently concluded that if anything I must be a Spinozist.
JH: Your latest book, Received Attachments, is an elegant, poignant and lyrical record of life encounters, landscapes, history and much else. Does it feel like a book that’s setting a seal on many of your themes, or is it another waymark on your poetry journey?
PR: Well, I think it’s probably both. Maybe all my books aim to close and sum up a phase, but then serve as preludes to the next one. The opening section of poems about a return to Japan after a decade away looks back and forward, and the title poem, being a revision of a poem left out of the Collected Poems 1976-2016 from Entertaining Fates similarly looks back and sets a seal on something completed, I hope. But that return upon an older work was inspired by meeting the person addressed again after many years in which she had been living in Colombia – and that meeting sparked ‘The Revenants’, which accompanies it in the collection. The last section especially, which contains my responses to being house bound during the pandemic and allowed out for our daily walks, encounters unexpected themes which point forward and open other perspectives, things that I have already found myself needing to write further to explore. Our European horizons have darkened since I finished those poems in the summer of 2021, shifting again the implications of decisions made and policies followed in the previous decade. And then there’s the business of coming to terms with growing and being old. I take Hokusai’s view of ‘ars longa vita brevis’: he said he only started to really know what he was doing at seventy-three, so I’m hoping to emulate him, and Hardy and Yeats, for that matter, as Noriko Ibaragi put it in one of her poems: ‘So I decided, if possible, I’d live a long life / like that French artist grandpa Rouault / who painted in old age outrageously fine pictures, / wouldn’t I?’
from Retrieved Attachments
Via de Chirico
There on the front of a number 8 bus
in via Venezia coming towards us,
that metaphysical destination
gives me a shiver, a start, and I ask you,
‘Where is via de Chirico?’
supposing it somewhere on the far side of town;
but as it veers left at the lights to via Trento
you’re coming back with: ‘I don’t know.’
Intrigued by enigmatic directions
now as the bus trundles on
through a luminous dusk for the station,
I can imagine it, though,
in the spirit of that structure’s saved façade
caught by honey-coloured sunlight
when, however warm pale stone,
the frontage resembles a hollowed-out shell,
a charm against split-level extension,
while day has grown theatrical
staging encounters with gloves, fruit, biscuits,
as manikins from the lit shop windows
point at Garibaldi in his square;
and the same bus diminishes towards a curtain wall
where dusk light shining up behind it
promises a late, postponed arrival …
It conjures a three-quarter moon above Parma
in pink-tinged sky the pantographs strike through,
then more masked figures at a distance,
goods train wagons disappearing
down tracks raised over roofs in the town;
and as they do, the fact of things
confirms your residence here among them,
the schoolkids biking home
by way of such small factory remnants
as lengthening shadows sharpen, redefine,
and our metaphysical destination,
it looms from this end of the number 8 bus line.
Behind the Shops
Then take, for instance, this short cut
with cloud-filled puddles in each tyre rut,
its gravel earth impacted,
the plastic dreck and wreckage …
Tiptoeing through a chain of lakes
you pick out remnant signs –
O. Phillips & Sons, as it happens,
Builders and Decorators
painted on the brick.
Fly-tipped stuff, a supermarket trolley,
skips, bins, other far-flung gear,
they’ve come to rest, been retired here,
the flaking, faded traces
of long-since-failed businesses
given way to later strata.
Abandoned sofas on a lock-up roof!
A tyre replacement premises
has worn-thin, shed black treads
woven into heaps out back.
Look, how the world’s turned upside down
as if you could already see
a future archaeology!
Then on the hapless, sun-struck street
like a character in search of a building site,
you see where time only half effaces
Royal Albert Garage, and the place’s
proprietors: G. Jarvis & Son
Cars, Coaches, and Repairs,
it emerges from the smutted brickwork
in a raking light.
Then, ashen, like some figure from Pompey,
astonished, you come face to face
with no world but this short-cut’s back-of-shops
being history too, one of these people
who’ve nowhere else to choose,
no home in time than those
lived through, those infected years,
bereft, still, of our day.
The Garden Path
Grape bunches, heavy summer thoughts
in mottled shade, our futures
come at us as cherished glimpses,
hedgehog droppings, well-fed pigeons …
Now, green-fingered, you’re shoo-shooing
white butterflies off salad leaves,
and though our cabbage can’t speak French
you do, love.
Love, you do.
You’re telling me how sunflower heads
are reaching over latticed fence-work,
the neighbour’s borrowed scenery is
competing with our few pink roses
while by borage-sipping bees, your path
through flowers, fuchsias, leads where trellis
blackberry clusters tumble, ripened,
on our open lips.
JAMES HARPUR has published eight collections of poetry with Anvil, Carcanet and Two Rivers Press. His latest books are The White Silhouette, an Irish Times Book of the Year; and the verse memoir The Examined Life, an odyssey through boarding school, which was a winner of the Vincent Buckley Poetry Prize. He is currently Writer Fellow at Trinity College Dublin.
PETER ROBINSON helps edit poetry for The Fortnightly Review. Alongside Retrieved Attachments, recent publications include English Nettles and Other Poems; his translations from Pietro De Marchi, Reports after the Fire: Selected Poems; and The Personal Art: Essays, Reviews & Memoirs. Peter Robinson: A Portrait of his Work, a collection of essays and a bibliography edited by Tom Phillips, has also recently appeared. An archive of his work in The Fortnightly Review is indexed here and an audio track of ‘Dreamt Affections’ is here.