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.