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.


At 21 April 2010 at 02:04 , Blogger Amanda said...

I thoroughly enjoyed your first blog and would like very much to hear the full story of your meeting with Graves one day. I thought the point you made about the difference between a lifetime of writing poetry and a single faltering - or stunning - attempt, was also very interesting. As a novelist I often encounter the 'everyone has a novel in them' school of thought...which I do not believe to be true. Some writers however, do seem only to have one good novel in them,which is a different thing entirely and connected,I believe, to the source of their inspiration/imagination...further fuel for future discussions. But a great blog - thank you. (I have serious doubts about Twitter too. Doesn't the word itself ('twittering', surely, is pointless and plaintive) say it all?!
Amanda Brookfield

At 11 May 2010 at 09:39 , Anonymous Rory said...

My own experience of first meeting Graves was a walking one. When he was Professor of Poetry in 1965 I went round to St John's hoping to meet him and talk to him about Old Norse mythology. The college porter was initially very protective of him, but allowed me to try my chances with Graves when he, Graves, walked into the lodge. Graves at once proposed a a walk round the college gardens: we went clockwise, which was consistent with what he says in his essay 'How poets see' about tending to swerve to the right when he walks. He said little about Old Norse mythology (directing me here to J.R.R. Tolkien, something I was never able to follow up), but was interesting on many topics, not least an introduction he had just completed to a history of ancient Greece, for which, he said, he was looking for a typist. Our walk ended up in St Giles, where Posy, my wife of just a few weeks' standing, was working as a secretary for the cartographic department of the O.U.P. Graves gratefully accepted the offer of her typing services and passed the manuscript to us. When I commented that his handwriting was very like Thomas Hardy's (of which I happened to have recently seen a sample) it was obvious that he was well aware of this but regarded it as a mystery, even though, as he said of Hardy, 'I knew him and loved him.' The one word that we could not make out in the manuscript was 'Homer', I think partly because Graves had spelt it consistently in inverted commas, by way of suggesting that the Homeric poems were orally composed by many poets rather than the work of one man. He seemed pleased with the typing, and kindly allowed us to keep the manuscript, which remains a much-cherished possession of ours: so much cherished, in fact, that I can't find it at present, which I hope means it's in an extra safe place!


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