Many of your poems are apparently inspired by historical and anthropological research. How does the incorporation of this information influence the shape and overall form of the poem?
Repetitively completingIt has that feeling of exhaustion because Geometry went on for too long and Surveillance was so hard to finish, and I took on too much on. The 'tormented conduct' is the poem, where you are being compared to a thousand other poets who have completed the same course. The twists and turns (root of torment is twisting) make it art, it can't be straightforward. Perhaps I was thinking of the scene at the end of Book XIV of the Iliad where Hector's body is burnt - the hero completes the course and is burnt on a gridiron (and his grave becomes a cult site). But the poet is also appearing as an animal which the connoisseur has hunted down. The height where your lungs fail is interesting to you, but too interesting to other people, as well. I'm fascinated by situations where the audience is hostile - maybe every poem has to be designed as an act of conflict as well as one of complicity.
There was a poem which split in two - the other half is part of 'Savage Survivals' and is called 'Self-reproducing Programs, Property Regimes'. That half is about the effects of being a younger brother. The idea is of little behaviour programs that copy themselves and so expand to fill up the available space and block out other programs. This might be the origin of style; the character in 'Coastal defences' has built these huge verbal structures, and completely exhausted himself, and at the point of blacking out he realises that he has made his self visible to the hostile, over-cultured, audience, and that what is visible is tiny programs acquired in childhood, or which acquired the neural space, and sit there reciting themselves, and which perhaps appeal to a child. It's like the end of autobiography. And all the poems which follow in the book are non-autobiographical.
For me, there is a Strip of land between scenes too abstract and scenes too cluttered with dull detail, saucepans etc., and in that Strip you find the poems it is legitimate to write. A kind of walking the roof-ridge, to use the German phrase. Which is not quite walking on thin air If you cross the terrain where poetry is distorted, unfruitful, etc., you can find the terrain where poetry is shining and faultless and abundant.
To what extent does obscurity have a place in modern poetry?
This is a divisive question and can get people angry very quickly. There is a simple truth, that what remains obscure is not part of anyone's artistic experience or pleasure. It is a failure, a cinder that belongs on a heap of cinders.
If anyone finds any of my poems obscure, I would like to apologise here and now. The whole poem is an explanation of the poem, it has to take you by the hand.
However, truth is revealed by Time, and what is obscure on one day may reveal itself on the next. The experience of communication breakdown involves three things: speaker, the receiver, and the process. All three may evolve radically with time. Failures can perhaps be fixed by tinkering with the receiver or the process.
I read Geoffrey Hill's first two books in about 1976 and had no idea what he was talking about. I re-read them in about 1993 and found them quite transparent. So had the poems changed in the interim? I don't think so. The real issue here is about pop culture. Everything 'mass' is aimed at 15 year olds. That's dandy when you're 15, but what happens when you grow up. Once art becomes adult, it's also going to be less sweet and sticky, less egocentric, more complex and curious - and some people will find it hard to follow. If you want pop culture, you've got Radio 1, haven't you.
It's fair to point out that the hard-line Cambridge School regards my work as unsubtle, over-explained, populist, dependent on familiar emotional situations.
My early commitments had massively to do with rock music and Socialism. Neither of these has much time for obscurity. If my poetry of around 2000 is fairly obscure, this may be because I got more complex. Or it could be the influence of living with a tiny specialist audience who really don't want those eternal human situations over again, who are only turned on by reflexive formalism. This was the concrete situation I was in. Maybe there was a fatal curve - I grew to be part of my period, but grew away from classical standards of art. I don't know.
I find some Cambridge poetry utterly obscure. There is this social background of a very strict power hierarchy based on intelligence rankings set by competitive tests. The poem works as one of these tests. It does not matter if no-one understands your poem because that means you've won!
When I say that, it's bad language because the subjects would indignantly deny the truth of it. But I still believe it to be true. Cambridge students of 22 or 23 now are writing poems exactly like Cambridge poetry of 1977. Just as bristly, just as few doors and windows. Flawless black cubes.
Let's take a less adversarial approach to this issue, where we say that at line zero the poem is totally unknown to you. The extent of the unknown is what limits your experience as you read the poem. A completely familiar poem is not friendly, it shuts you out from any experience. Reading is about a motion from the unknown to the known. Poetry has to go close to the Unknown and the Unknowable, as 'Only the prisoner shall be free, only the poor shall be rich, only the weak strong, only the humble exalted, only the empty filled, only nothing shall be something' (Luther). Language at the edge of breakdown is not language breaking down. I am deliberately engineering situations where there is a lot of information you don't have at the outset. You start out in a totally darkened room and I bring you drops of light in a glass one by one until finally you can see the entire scene.
The suppression of innovative poetry and the monopolization of most outlets for poetry in the 80s and 90s is now a well-documented phenomenon. You've mentioned that this temporarily affected your exposure to poetry. Does the situation seem healthier now?
I'm not sure. If the test is whether my poetry is available on the shelves of high Street shops, the retailing world still fails the test. The unorthodox books get published but not distributed. Computerised stock control has chased poetry off the shelves, not produced a wonder landscape of generous pluralism. The test case is poets we've never heard of, isn't it - the poet born in 1973 who can't get published. So, what is the outcome of this test. When Keith Tuma published that classic anthology of 20th C poetry, there was uproar from the gatekeepers. I think the resistance to poetry with claims to be art, in this country, is obstinate and in control of the institutions. Most of the professionals are there to prevent diversity. I can say this because I'm an outsider. Actually there is an anthology of the new generation, in the process of being edited by Keston Sutherland, which should shed a shower of light on this issue, if it ever reaches daylight. Is the work of gifted young poets easily available? can they hear their own generation? Maybe you should ask them.
What do you think is the role of metre in contemporary poetry? Does the incorporation of found or random elements, or the fracturing of syntax in the poetic line require a rethinking of the way rhythm is theorised?
I think this question is much more about Allen Fisher than about me.
Let's start with the absorption into poetry of organised knowledge which exists essentially in a prose form. The idea of taking poetry away from stylized, idyllic, elevated scenes involved bringing in this material on a large scale.
Another possible start is the rhythmic variety of everyday speech. Prose is far more monotonous than this. Poetry bears a fluctuating relationship to this teeming variety. Bringing ideas in is not distinct from the documentary impulse.
The wish to take on the real world drags swathes of material into the poem which is unassimilated by its nature - assimilating it would break its nature down. This is where you get a new rhythmic basis - the poem stops in order to expand, taking in this heterogeneous material. By now the poem is something long and open, a patchwork in which the individual cells each have the rhythmic and linguistic patterns fitting to them.
I can't theorise about metre. When I look at a line, I unconsciously scan it to see if it's a good line. I look at 20 parameters at once, I'm not theorising because I'm thinking of hundreds of alternatives to fix the problems. This is really what I do all day as a poet. Writing by now, what, 20,000 lines, 22,000? It's like putting an object on a computer screen and using CAD to swivel it around and see it from every direction. I got to think about this more when I was translating a long German poem by Jürgen Becker, the Journal of Repetitions, 700 lines of it. A completely wonderful poem. Some of the lines didn't come out well in English straight away, and I had to spend hours fixing those lines. I could think about what a line is because I didn't have to write the poem.
I agree that meter is inseparable from syntax (in English), because levels of stress are all about contrasting pairs, and syntax shows where the contrasts are and which is the more emphatic one in each pair. People have quite mystic notions about metre because they fail to understand it. I see it as subordinate and instrumental. You react to a voice because you have feelings about the person it belongs to. Semantics and interpersonal relations are much more complex than stress and pitch contour, and so much more likely to be the sites of the 'poetic essence'. Prosody is something acquired early in childhood, and if a three year old can master it it can't be very complex. It is reinforced by every (English) utterance you hear, and after being reinforced so many thousands of times it does not have any degree of autonomy. I think good and bad poets use the same rhythmic patterns, following distribution curves inevitable for the English language; what differentiates them is not simply in the phonology. People mumble about rhythm because it is physical and therefore seems to be objective, and this lets them mask their intense subjective feelings about the poet or the scene in the poem. Readers of poetry don't want to accept their own feelings of affection, identification and trust, which are actually some of the most admirable things about them. This is why we end up with reviewers explaining to you that someone's sensitivity and authenticity are in how many syllables they put in a line!
I think what reviewers say about metre is junk, frankly. The discourse in England around metre is fanciful, self-assured and is not serving poets well. People can't tell you 'what is a line break' 'what is stress' 'what is the base prosody of spoken English'. Fortunately you can be brilliant at reciting verse without knowing any theory.
There is an old conundrum about love poems telling you very little about the loved object (whose every word the poet is supposedly hanging on!). The question of incorporating a second voice is vital to poetry. Because one version of poetry is that it turns everything into a personal voice. The world is apparently varied but the poem always sounds the same. Maybe a more modern poem includes different 'self-reciting machines'. In a work like Place, Allen incorporates a huge amount about the history of London and the regime of its watercourses. This is magnificent because it includes so much which is outside the confines of the self, and the little tunes that populate the self- quietening them down so you can hear much larger, less familiar, more entrancing patterns.
Many of the poems in The Imaginary in Geometry trace the interaction and movement of linguistic components across geographical spaces. Is this related to the projection of the imaginary explored elsewhere in the book? Could you say something about the importance you ascribe to these ephemeral moments of language change?
I chose geolinguistics because so many different planes coincide in a fascinating way - a shimmer effect which I can't resolve. I am certainly interested in the distribution of related languages over such a wide area of Asia and Europe. This distribution belongs to deep time rather than the ephemeral. But you're right to talk about the ephemeral, because language also came in as speaking, the recreation of the social from moment to moment, where 'structure' gives way and you have conscious choice (with such phenomena as hesitation and improvisation).
The title refers to the projection of England, the idea that visual imagery presets ideology in a sizable way - so that you can point to an ideal England which is mixed up with features of the real one. Elevating poetry to myth might mean going through collective myths.
I am interested in imagining the pattern of Indo-European languages, from Sogdian somewhere in Central Asia to Gaelic on the shores of the Atlantic. 'The Ruins of Guldursun' is about an archaeologist (Tolstov, S.P.) in Khwarezm, and starts with Dar zamin dur dast, 'in a far-away land', the traditional opening of Persian fairy-tales, which is supposed to take us back to being three years old, acquiring language, where the neurology is working at its best, and to a kind of Persian dreamworld of minstrels and castles. I accept the reader won't get this (except through the Note), but it's precious to me. I like to think about that Eurasian continuum and about the discontinuities. Between Polish and its neighbour, German, there is such a discontinuity. What happened to the intermediate dialects? Are there any traces of them? What did they sound like? The difference between Irish and Scots Gaelic may be due to the Norse language once spoken by so many people in the Hebrides, who simplified the word endings a lot. In the north-east Caucasus is an Iranian language which has maybe, in some eyes, traits (l replacing syllabic r) intermediate between Iranian and Slav, as if there was once a connecting language which was both like Russian and like Farsi. I don't have the ability to imagine 1000 species of moths, but I can imagine the map of Indo-European languages. I allude to the facts in poems but I don't recite them. Does this overlap with the stuff about Tallents and the English imaginary? No, I would have liked to invent intermediate points, but I concede they aren't there. Phonology is invisible but not imaginary.
Note. Savage Survivals (amid Modern Suavity) is the name of a book of poems to be published by Shearsman later this year.