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

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