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.

Monday, 19 April 2010

First Post

One of my nominators has suggested I open this blog. As he emails, ‘After all, this is the first electronic election for the P of P, so you might as well go with mood.’ He also suggests I go on Twitter but I’ll draw the line at that.

How can I – and you – best use this space? I’d like to expand some items in my Statement of Candidacy, answer any questions, reply to any comments. Please send in any thoughts you have. Perhaps we can get a conversation going, about the Professorship of Poetry and poetry itself.

Last week The Londoner’s Diary in The Evening Standard picked up on my candidate statement remark that I would like to do the same as Robert Graves when I was at Oxford: attract lecture audiences who were not only students of English, and be accessible to students. Yesterday I was having lunch sitting in the sun outside the Six Bells pub in Chiddingly, Sussex, with people who had attended a party the previous evening celebrating the 40th wedding anniversary of a cousin. (We were both born in what is now her and her husband’s house, in a neighbouring village.) I found myself chatting to an Oxonian of about my age and I repeated this point about Graves. He said he had met Graves in Camberra, Australia, in about 1968, when he had been a young journalist and had waylaid Graves who was arriving by car after a very long drive down from Sydney (he was going to give a speech in Camberra on poetry and the Great War). ‘Mr Graves, can I please have an interview with you?’ Graves, having clambered out of the car said, ‘Look I’m so stiff after this drive that I need a walk. I can only give you the interview if you walk along with me.’ Whereupon Graves set off at quite a fierce pace, and since he was 6 foot 2 the journalist who was a lot smaller found it hard to keep up. During the walk Graves was courteous but outspoken (as usual). Later that day, during his speech, he had seemed modest and quiet and people who had been expecting someone more flamboyant were quite disappointed. But the journalist was impressed by how straightforward Graves had been, and how open in talking to him: Graves was aged about 73 and the journalist about 24. This reminded me of my own first meeting with Graves, when he was 66 and I was 18, and he was also straightforward, looking me in the eye at one point and saying ‘There’s such a thing as friendship at first sight.’ I’d like to talk about that meeting with Graves in an Oxford lecture, if I get the chance. But for now what I take out of the former journalist’s story is Graves’s directness. I have met few genuine poets, but they have all had this quality of directness, in themselves and in their poems. It reminds me of the Irish ‘dán direach’, literally ‘direct poem’ – the poem that speaks directly about life, love, death or whatever, without literary fuss.

At the anniversary party my cousin’s husband had given a speech about his love for her. He finished by reading a poem he had written to her. He is a retired banker, and the poem was in a sort of mock-heroic nineteenth century couplet style which I suppose he had learned at school fifty years ago. It was humorous, and in part a joke against himself, but it ended with a few utterly serious and heartfelt lines. We were stunned into silence. Then we clapped. I think almost everybody has at least attempted to write poems. Mostly they are rubbishy imitations of what the day calls poetry. But I have an idea that many people have written one real poem, once in their lives. What is the difference between the one-off poet and the poet who writes many poems? Another thing to discuss at Oxford if I get the chance.

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