Friday, 2 July 2010

Working Poets

I haven’t written a blog since the Oxford P of P elections. It’s not that I’ve been licking my wounds, I’ve just been busy catching up on things I had left aside. And, who knows, if I am alive and kicking at the next election, I may have another go.

I’ll eventually continue my previous blog on poets I have known, but I’ve been distracted by a by-product of the P of P spat between Michael Horovitz and Roger Lewis: a letter Horovitz wrote to the Times concluding

‘Lewis’s prescription that in order to be “any good” as a poet, just make sure you hold down a proper job, is as antipoetic as most of his guff. If followed to the letter, it would have left the bookshelves of the world with nothingness where at present the poetries of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Burns, Blake, Emily Dickinson, Yeats, W.H. Davies, Ezra Pound, Dylan Thomas, Hugh MacDiarmid, Robert Lowell, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Joseph Brodsky, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Roger McGough, Carol Ann Duffy and many others who regard their proper job as poetry itself happily reside.’

I chose to make my living by other means than poetry because I feared having to ‘perform’ for others as a poet, feeling pressure to produce on demand, teaching poetry in academic settings where it becomes reduced to prose, teaching it as part of ‘creative writing’ courses when I don’t even see it as creative writing, being known to the world (and women) as a poet before I am known as a man – and so on. I would have liked to earn a living by writing prose, but I couldn’t sell my early prose. Hardy, Graves, and Seymour-Smith lived from prose and kept it distinct from poetry. But I can’t think of any poet I admire who lived entirely from poetry. The poetry of ‘Public poets’, whether rebellious like Byron or conformist like Tennyson, wears thin with time.

Look at Horovitz’s list. How many of these poets had or have (exclusively, as Horovitz implies) ‘proper jobs’ as poets? I know nothing about how the last three earn their living, and not much about Plath and Hughes although she didn’t earn a living from poetry and he did not at first. Of the others, two (Wordsworth, Burns) worked for the government until they could live off their poetry, one (Blake) earned his living all his life as an engraver, one (Brodsky) was a university professor. McDiarmaid was in the army in WWI and then a journalist. The rest were dependent on others for money: Coleridge lived largely off the charity of friends, Shelley and Lowell had inheritances, Dickinson was supported in her family, Pound eventually had a rich wife, Davies lived off various odd jobs as a tramp but then on charity, and Thomas was a sponger on friends (see Norman Cameron’s poem which begins ‘Who invited him in, the dirty little intruder?’

None of these lived off ‘their proper job as poetry’. But Horovitz has a point in that none of them is commonly identified with a particular job other than poetry.

Of the few living poets I know and admire, one teaches in adult education, another was a computer programmer, another was a civil servant, another was head of a primary school, another works for a cultural foundation. They are dependent on nobody.

Among other 20th century poets who did hold down a ‘proper job’ other than poetry were the career diplomats Valentin Iremonger (for Ireland), St-John Perse (France), and Robert Ford (Canada); the civil servant Paul Valery; the school-teachers Wilhelm Lehmann and Sorley MacLean; the journalist and music critic Eugenio Montale.

I think I am in good company.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Friends and Poets

First an update on my previous blog on Poetry readings. I read 25 or so poems – including the dreaded Hugger Mugger which I had dared myself to include – to a small audience at Univ., Oxford, on 2nd June. It was easy because I was mainly among friends, and we had a running discussion of poems and how they came into being. Christina and Ahmed performed a group of Spanish songs, and the wine was good.

In the Professor of Poetry election, registration to vote closed on the 4th, and voting itself will close on the 16th, followed by the results on the 18th. Since I have resolved to make no comments on other candidates or on the process of the election, I am now in a state of suspension. I feel like writing something about my friendships with poets.

Most of my contemporaries among poets whom I admire are also friends. This is not some kind of cronyship through, for example, having gone to school together. It is simply that either I have wanted to be friends with them because of their poetry or they with me because of mine.

I’ve already written in my earlier blogs something about Robert Graves. I don’t like to think that any poet influences the poems I write, but my poet friends have influenced the way I think about poetry. My strongest influence in this sense was Martin Seymour-Smith who died at age 70 in 1998, leaving a last letter to me on his computer. I first met him at James Reeves’s house in 1966. He put me onto Trumbull Stickney, whom I eventually wrote about. I had been startled some years earlier when still at school when I read a long poem by Martin, Blitzenkrieger, in a selection of poets by Graves in New World Writing 1958. Martin was unusual in being able to write long obliquely narrative and ironical poems without lagging inspiration, although he sometimes worried about whether he had a ‘lyrical gift’. He had it, in his shorter poems and in much of the longer, although their honesty (he believed poems made one face oneself against one’s will) could be harsh. At age 15 he had ended a poem with the magical line: ‘The endless drummers of subtracting night.’ His poems are above all direct (I like the ideal of Gaelic poetry, the dán direach, the ‘direct poem’). By the end of his life he seemed to know almost too much, and wrote: ‘My days are disabled / By my history.’ But there was still magic:

‘Your moon in ice and my moon in water

Are the same moon. I tremble

As I remember

When I was not there:

Your grief as you watched alone

Your heart’s moon broken

In the spume of waterfalls.’

Another poet in that 1958 selection was Marnie Pomeroy with whom I eventually lived, running the Ladysmith Press, in Quebec. When I first knew her she was writing an extra-ordinary (the hyphen is in the word for emphasis: sharp alternations between ordinary and ex- were characteristic of her) narrative poem, a cycle called A Calendar for Dinah which began: ‘Stars fly apart through night one more degree’ and ended (45 pages later) with: ‘Stars fly further apart through endless night.’ Her poems, like our life together, cycled round and round then stopped. We flew apart.

At the Ladysmith Press in 1970 we published the Collected Poems of Kenneth Leslie. He was then almost 80 and driving a taxi in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I had read through all the Canadian poetry I could when I arrived in Canada, and most of it left me cold, but Leslie’s early poems had a romantic intensity:

‘At length you stood on the landing and you cried,

with quick low cries you timed me stroke on stroke

as I steadily won my way with the fulling tide

and crossed the threshold where the last wave broke

and coasted over the step of water and threw

straight through the air my mooring line to you.’

Then I found that the local newspaper editor was one of Leslie’s daughters (in the 40s they had formed a kind of Trapp family, singing Nova Scotia Gaelic songs on the radio from New York). When I wrote to Leslie that we wanted to publish his poems he drove almost non-stop to Ladysmith to visit us – nearly 1,000 miles. He brought with him and gave to me a first edition of Robert Frost’s Collected Poems 1930, inscribed by Frost ‘To Kenneth Leslie from his friend and fellow in the Art.’ Sadly we fell out when the Ken collection appeared, as he was a communist in the Nova Scotia mining town tradition and I had omitted a late political poem – ‘Remember Lumumba, the drums of the Congo...’ etc.’

At Ladysmith we published Just PassingThrough, a first volume by the Canadian Philip Roberts (now one of my P of P nominators) whom I had met at a party of Graves’s in Oxford when, wearing a red pullover, he had riveted us all with a ballad, The Winnipeg Whore, whose tune I think comes from Gilbert and Sullivan but whose words definitely don’t: ‘....She put her hand upon my knee./ How’s about a little lovin?/ A dollar and a half’s the usual fee...’ Phil became an academic in Australia for many years and his poetry became more cerebral. I still like his early naive poems best:

‘You with the clear eyes and face

drew me unprotesting through the nights

of a summer race. Winter laughs

I thought this could grow; I am trapped

By all the unknown roads I know.’

He is now reincarnated as the respectable Mayor of a Nova Scotia town and I hope his recent poetry, which I haven’t yet seen, is reincarnated too.

Among living poets in the UK and Ireland my friends are Cliff Ashby, Robert Nye, David Cameron (the other one), Jim Fenton, and Helena Nelson. And there is Narcis Comadira, in Catalonia. I’ll write about them in my next blog or two.

Monday, 31 May 2010

Changing People

‘I now think poetry has more capacity to change people than psychotherapy’. This remark of mine on an Observer ‘Q & A’ interview (30 May 2010 ) has become an instant news item apparently, and is rushing across Twitter. Perhaps I should be looking over my shoulder at the NHS which employs me as a neuropsychologist and psychologist one of whose jobs is to supervise a psychotherapy service. But the NHS does not see psychotherapy as changing people: in no matter what mode (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Cognitive Analytic Therapy, Psychodynamic Therapy), psychotherapy in the NHS is fairly brief, and symptom-oriented, with measurable goals.

‘Changing people’ (the title of a 1930s book by Wilhem Reich, in whose methods I trained) is the language of radical psychoanalysis which was in vogue when I first practised in the 1970s and whose not so modest goal was ultimately social change. It is part of my personal history. As I told the Observer’s Tim Adams in what was for me more a thoughtful conversation than an interview, I had at one stage given up on poetry because I rejected its Keatsian passivity, as I impatiently saw it, and wanted to change the world. But I soon found that psychotherapy did not change people very much, let alone the world, and that poetry (which returned with a vengeance in a personal crisis: as my friend Martin Seymour-Smith said, ‘You may have given up on poetry, but poetry didn’t give up on you’) changed something in me. And I do now think that a poem can change a reader – at least his or her perspective and emotional relations to the world – at least as radically, and more quickly, than psychotherapy. Reading a certain poem at a certain time can be unforgettable and provide words for a lasting shift.

If I were doing a follow-up interview now I would ask myself, ‘What poems have changed you?’ I would have to answer first, ‘My own.’ As for poems by others, I think it would be banal to spell out how they have changed something in me, but here are a few examples:

‘Rose thou art sick,

The invisible worm

Has sought out thy bed

Of crimson joy

And his dark secret love

Doth thy life destroy.’

When I read this poem by Blake as an adolescent it suddenly made me aware of how my possessive lust for my then girlfriend was consuming her. I gave her more space – which she abused, but that is another story.

Donne’s Songs and Sonnets. Their excited multi-levelled ‘everything happens at once’ analysis of sex / love was something I came back to after some years of ‘one thing at a time’ psychological thinking, in a realisation, which has affected me ever since, that some human experience can be conveyed only in poetry.

Valentin Iremonger’s ‘The Invocation’ which begins:

Ten bloody years with this quill lying

Almost idle on my table, I have sourly watched

The narrow summers go, the winters ride over,

Awaiting always, seized in a cold silence,

The genetic word, the arrogant vaticinal line.

And each spring, unmoving by an open window,

The room ringing with emptiness like an unswung bell...

I read this when I was aged 19 and had written a handful of poems then dried up. The poems no longer came, yet I knew in my bones I was a poet. On the strength of Iremonger’s poem I resolved never to make an effort to write a poem. I would wait. Which I did for four years until poems returned. This waiting has become part of my life.

These are early examples. A much later one is Wilhelm Lehmann’s ‘Fahrt űber den Plöner See’ / ‘Journey on Plön Lake’, written in 1940. A stanza:

‘Our fingers slip through the water

Gurgling along the clinkers, on land

The banks go by like melodies,

And my hand seeks your hand...’

And later:

‘We journey through the terror of the times,

Together still, my love.’

Yes, Lehmann and his wife survived the terror of the times, but the poem (see my translation on conveys that they are trapped going round and round on the lake and that they cannot escape the times. When I read this poem I gave up on a hope that one could, in fact, detach oneself from the times one was in.

Another poem which made me give up a hope for good is Isaac Rosenberg’s ‘Dead Man’s Dump.’ If you think there is any redeeming feature about dying in a war, read it: it will change your mind. It does, however, illustrate what Hardy called ‘the sustaining power of poetry’ (even in this case, possibly the most horrible poem ever written). You can go to poetry for this sustaining power a lot more cheaply than to a private psychotherapist....

Monday, 24 May 2010

Poetry Readings

For most of my life I have had an aversion to poetry readings. The quickest way to get me out of a building would be to put up a sign announcing one about to begin. I used to pride myself on only having been to one: Marianne Moore, reading in Cambridge, Mass., in 1965. I went to please my then wife. I recall Marianne Moore’s appearance in detail: a tiny woman wearing a blue suit and a flat black hat rather like the one judges used to put on when they pronounced the death penalty. And I remember her clear, ‘proper’ voice. Not a word of the poems. But my memory is bad for poems.

I don’t think poems read aloud in lectures count as poetry readings. Another Graves story which one of my nominators recently reminded me of: Graves in 1962, in the Oxford ‘Schools’, reading a poem. ‘Two women!’ (barked out as if a military order, then a pause as Graves reaches for his glass of water... Glug, glug glug... puts glass down.) ‘One as good as bread....’ I prefer his recordings of poems – more natural. Some poetry reading on recordings is captivating: the accent (again ‘proper’ Boston) of e.e.cummings, Sorley MacLean’s Gaelic chant, Martin Seymour-Smith’s rasping London voice which he described in a poem, The Love Toucan, which ends:

Don't let me drain your eyes

Of their new green,

Let me be by you in a cage

All night, all day,

And, though I cannot sing,

Love you with my hoarse cries.

The first poetry reading I attended after Marianne Moore’s was my own, in May 2009 at the book launch of Always Two. To my horror, I enjoyed it. I’m used to hearing the sound of my own voice giving lectures or talks on neuropsychology, but reading my own poems I actually found myself moved by them – or not. More precisely, I realised that some were difficult to read aloud, because moving, and others not, because not. I haven’t done enough further readings (only one, later that month, in Belfast) to work out why only some of my poems move me when I read them aloud. Perhaps some of it is context. I read ‘Desire in Belfast’ in Belfast with a sense of anxious excitement because there were some rather proper (that word again) people in the audience who were old enough to know the background scenes of the poems pretty well, and I wasn’t sure how they’d take torrid stanzas about my love-life in those scenes. But they clapped. So now I enjoy poetry readings.

I will be giving one in Oxford, at University College, on Wednesday 2nd June (Hardy's birthday) at 8.15. I don’t like poetry readings, even my own, enough to think they should be very long. This one will be introduced by Rory McTurk, then I’ll read some poems and perhaps chat or invite comments about them, then there will be a brief break, then my singing daughter Christina Raphaelle and her colleague Ahmed Dickinson Cardenas on guitar will do three Spanish songs, then I’ll read a few more poems.

Perhaps the word ‘proper’ keeps coming up because I am embarrassed by reading my poems. The poet James Reeves said that true poetry was embarrassing, but that was all right because in this day and age it was embarrassing to be alive. I don’t agree. I am not in fact embarrassed by anything in my life. But poetry is outspoken. So it is best to keep it between friends, at least for a while. I don’t know whether John Donne was embarrassed by his poems, but he came to believe his love poems were private and he suppressed them when he became Dean of St Paul’s. This was just politics. A lot of poets, even now when supposedly ‘anything goes’, become safer and safer as they become better known. But safe poems are usually duds. Perhaps these poets have unsafe poems in their desk drawers. Hardy attempted to resolve the problem by labelling his more personal poems idiosyncratically as ‘personations’ – i.e. ‘these poems aren’t really about me.’ But at least he published them, and since poems have a life of their own I think they should be allowed to come out and live it. Publishing involves risk. I don’t mind publishing a personal poem like, for example, The Hugger-Mugger. For all people know it’s a personation. But I do wonder if I’ll have the nerve to read it at University College, Oxford. I’m not embarrassed by it but it’s not very proper. I don’t know whether it will move me or not.

Anyone reading this Blog is welcome to the reading.

Saturday, 8 May 2010



Amanda, Andrew, Bruce, Laura, Martin, Mike, Oliver, Patrick, Phil, Richard B, Richard P, Rip, Robert M, Robert Mc, Robin, Rory, Sandy, Sholto, William.

Now the nominations for the Oxford Professorship of Poetry have been completed and your surnames with initials have appeared in a list on the Elections website, I’d like to thank you again for your support. And I find myself asking ‘Who are my nominators?’ What does the list say about me, or the post of P of P, or poetry?

I don’t want to invade your privacy by identifying you too precisely, and not all of you know each other although I hope some day you will. But what can be said of you as a group?

For one thing, only two of you are women, which saddens me, but is a result of the fact that when I was at Oxford there were so few women there, and when Rory (my campaign manager as it were) and I thought of possible nominators we started with people we had known at Oxford who were all men. So there is a cluster of our contemporaries – eight of you. Otherwise in age you range from 30 to 93. You live in the UK, Belgium, France, and Canada.

At least eleven of you have published books, three of you books of poems or of poetry translations. Seven of you are university professors or fellows: in history (medieval, scientific), languages (Icelandic & Old Norse, Old English, French & Spanish), peace studies/conflict resolution, and psychology. You include a novelist, a botanist, a medical specialist, a BBC manager, one of the founders of Mass Observation in the late 1930s, a publisher, an expert in conflict resolution, the manager of a European agency, a retired schoolmaster, the director of a language school, the mayor of a town in Canada, an industrialist, a psychologist, and a pianist. Some of these overlap.

As a group you show a tremendous range – which I hope reflects a range in my own interests and friendships. I enjoy the fact that none of you are teachers of English literature (although several of you, like me, graduated in English, and nine of you are or have been academics), because although poetry is naturally at home in English literature I don’t think it is only in the possession of English Faculties. Poetry means something to all of you.

I have been moved to have your support so far, and I hope that whatever conversation we get going among ourselves about poetry and life will continue after the election, and bring into itself friends and companions who are not on this list. For now, I would be really pleased if even the reticent among you could help me get a conversation going on this blog.

This week’s Times Literary Supplement, using the royal we in referring to some of the nominees in this election, states ‘We don’t know... Haldane...’, and I hear that Clive James has also referred to some nominees, including me, as ‘unknowns’. I suppose that so far in my life I have been content to be known to those I want to know. Most of you have known me for years. The various volumes of poems I have published have found a circle of readers, some of whom have written to me or come to know me. And nowadays anyone, even the TLS or Clive James, can get to know something about almost anyone by clicking onto the Net - if they want to. But in standing for the Professorship of Poetry I do need to make myself and my work known more widely. This blog is one way to do so.


8 May 2010


Saturday, 1 May 2010


Following problems with my website domain my website has been moved to

Once is available again, access to both will be combined. Meanwhile it may take some days for search engines to zero in on the new website.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Post Two

Thanks Amanda, it’s good to have a first comment from a writer. You gave a talk in Oxford over a year ago about your sense of being compelled in writing a novel, and your wonder at how the novel, even if not about your own life, could sometimes predict events. I suppose in any compelled prose there is something in common with a poem, and an unconscious element which is somehow 'outside time' and breaks its rules. And it’s not enough simply to want to write: ‘something else’ has to take over. Pasternak said something to the effect that good poetry aspires to be prose, which seems puzzling, but I think he meant that poetry must at the very least be as clear as good prose. Coleridge said something similar about poetry having a body of good sense.

If elected P of P I’d like to talk about the ‘something else’ in terms of inspiration and the neuropsychology of poetry. I wrote a booklet on ‘What Poetry Is’ in 1970 but I still don’t fully know what it is. I know what it isn't. One of the many reasons I have never wanted to be a career poet (meaning to use poetry as a major source of income) is that the external pressure to write poems whether they come or not risks the forcing of non-poems – which have no internal pressure. (My friend David Cameron – not the politician, a Scottish poet living in Ireland – shakes his head over many published ‘poems’ and says ‘Where’s the pressure?’)

The internal pressure of a poem seems to take over the pulsation of the writer’s body. The beat of a 4 or 5 stress line, though variable, is synchronous with the heart-beat, and the line itself is often synchronous with the breath. ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ has 5 stresses and a rising emphasis on the second syllable of ‘compare’ which is synchronous with the usual in-breath and slightly longer (ratio 2 to 3) out-breath. I have no idea why (did the Italian inventors of the sonnet work this out?), but a sonnet contains 14 lines (breaths), each of 5 stresses which equals 70 beats a minute. The average adult human breathes 12 to 15 times a minute with a pulse of 68-72 a minute… A sonnet is a minute! And by the way, since early renaissance hour-glasses could not measure seconds, Galileo timed his experiments with falling objects by counting his own pulse beats. Paradoxically poems create time (although they predate clocks), while they can seem ‘out of time’

Back to Robert Graves. He used to say, ‘There is no time’. The theoretical physicist Julian Barbour (‘The End of Time’) would agree. Yes, I’d like to say more eventually about my first meeting with Graves because it included a brief but dense discussion of poetry which has influenced me ever since. (I don’t like ‘influence’ talk about poems, and I doubt if my poems have been influenced much by Graves’s, but I mean influence on the way I think.) As I say in my candidacy statement, Graves made himself available to students. Actually, two others among my nominators who were contemporaries with me at Oxford, quite independently got to know Graves. I only saw him a few times there, and exchanged a few letters later. There was a sort of cult around him at the time and I didn’t want to join it, so I didn’t go, as some did, to Mallorca. Some people at Oxford were horrified by him. ‘He can’t mean it!’ I recall one offended Leavisite saying scornfully. But he did.

I find myself jumping focus here, more than I would in a formal piece, but I hope that is OK in a Blog. I’m still feeling my way.

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