LIDIA VIANU -- DAVID HARSENT
Postmodernism has proved such a muddle and mess
Interview with DAVID HARSENT (born 1942), British poet
Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006
© Lidia Vianu
LIDIA VIANU: With poetry one likes, questions come easily and informally. In your Selected Poems I could not help noticing obvious Eliotian echoes. You were born in 1942. Eliot died in 1965. Was he a major influence? Dawn Walk reminds me faintly of the ‘cruellest month’, The Woman’s Soliloquies of the ‘typist home for tea’, of the cities bursting and reforming in The Waste Land, After Dark sends to Gerontion under the ‘windy knob’. Slowly, these echoes fade. You also write for music, which Eliot would have loved to do, I am sure. I think you have in common with Eliot the idea of the dignity of poetry, its earnestness and intensity. Would you associate your beginnings with Eliot’s verse?
DAVID HARSENT: Influences are subterranean, I think. I’ve never been conscious of any Eliot influence in my work, though he was certainly an influence on the way I regarded modern poetry when I was in my teens. He was the man who changed everything. I didn’t have a formal education, so I came at everything with an autodidact’s lack of structural references: a kind of innocence not to be recommended. For that reason, it seemed to me that Modernism had only just happened. The day that Picasso woke up and decided to do away with perspective — the day that Eliot wrote line three of Prufrock — seemed like the day before yesterday. I had this mental image of the Georgians, lounging in their book-lined studies, detecting a sudden seismic shift, a sinister change in the weather, and looking up, startled but, as yet, not aware that the shudder in the foundations was the aftershock of most of their empire falling into the sea. This wasn’t an accurate picture, of course. For one thing, it ignored the poetry of the wars, none of which I’d read at the time. It was only later that I started to work out the time-scales. Or, rather, read in the time scales.
This was 1958/9. I was working in a bookshop. Also working there was a man in his early sixties who was a great reader of poetry, but whose copies of Flecker and Dowson were still, figuratively speaking, by his bedside. I came from a working-class family; he was the only person I’d ever met who also liked poetry. As a result of our friendship, I was reading The Golden Road to Samarkand and Non sum qualis eram...Cynareae at the same time as The Waste Land and the Imagists. I read Eliot as if he were new. Of course, he was still news in the Poundian sense and, in any case, how else does one read? My oddly foreshortened view of literary history meant that that Ted Hughes and Thom Gunn seemed to follow hard on Eliot’s heels.
My bookshop friend was half-French and had spent many years translating Les Fleurs du Mal into a sort of Masefield English, so one of my first strong influences (though not in style, of course) was Baudelaire. I was delighted by the idea of a syphilitic dandy with a mulatto mistress. Later, I began to understand a little of Baudelaire’s genius.
LV. How would you describe yourself as a reader of poetry? What does a poem have to be to do something to you?
DH. It’s only possible, really, to talk about individual poems, or about a body of work. I’d need a text in front of me in order to talk about my responses. It’s easier, sometimes, to talk about what a poem shouldn’t be: fake, self-regarding, smug.
LV. I find in your lines a gasping limpidity, a breathless respect for language, for communication. A large part of contemporary poetry relies heavily on defying common sense, defying the reader’s understanding. The word is not encoded but twisted, so as to bar easy access to an obvious meaning. If anything, contemporary poets are inaccessible (not all of them, but so many). What do you think of that?
DH. The whole poetry-for-poets discussion is a tangled web. Two notions have been confused: the first, that poetry is found rebarbative because it uses a coded language; the second that poetry delights in being found rebarbative and uses a coded language as a ring-fence. So I guess we know that the problem has to do with language.
These two notions look similar but are utterly different. One has to do with people who don’t read poetry, don’t have an interest in poetry, but feel they can comment on poetry as part of a more general argument regarding society and the arts and the issue of accessibility. They seem to believe that any poem should yield its meaning at a glance and if it doesn’t, they tend to use that much-misused (and in this context largely meaningless) word ‘elitist’. The second notion is part of a critical war between so-called language poets, or other glum obscurantists, and poets who are mistakenly thought of as ‘traditional’.
Part of the problem regarding the first, socio-artistic, notion is that poetry is a minority taste and there seems to be a wayward pejorative linked to that notion. It’s basically Philistine to suggest that poetry needs to find a way of reaching people. The reverse might be true, but that’s an educational issue. I’ve worked in music theatre and have encountered the same sort of attitude towards opera: it’s elitist, it shuns people. Not true. Opera, like poetry, is a club anyone can join. Far from being inaccessible, it’s on the doorstep.
Just recently, I’ve read an article by a British publisher who suggests that poetry would reach more people were it less male-dominated and if book design were less austere. He also seems to suggest (by quoting a dreadful poem recently published by himself, of course) that it ought to be more inspirational and simple-minded. He even hauls up from the gruesome past Adrian Mitchell’s sloppy slogan: Most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most people. This kind of anti-intellectual, crowd-pleasing drivel is actually an attack on poetry. (It’s even more distasteful in this case for being self-serving.) No one should give any credence to the idea that an audience can be gained by force-feeding it with custom-built garbage. The whole notion of pursuing an audience is for impresarios or TV execs. A poet’s task is to do his/her best work and publish it.
The notion of doctrinal obscurantism is different. This is no place to launch an attack on language poets but, in general, I consider them the enemy.
LV. When you use rhyme, it is discreet and often imperfect, which makes the poems even more appealing. Your forte is the direct image, if we can use that term, which is a paradox. Your images are clear, their meaning is not that obvious, though. Like any good poet, you are indirect. How do you go about this indirectness, since you do not do it the way your contemporaries do (confusing sense, using hysterical uncouth rhymes)?
DH. I like para-rhyme for its music. Mostly, it just falls to hand. I like the way rhyme, or slant-rhyme contributes to the way the poem works: the way it progresses. I like the directions it leads me in. As for image: my poems almost never begin with an idea; they almost always begin with an image that, as often as not, arrives with a phrase or two attached and continues to accrue language as I start to work it. I proceed much more by instinct than by plan; I can’t imagine beginning with a formula for a poem or some sort of pre-determined narrative structure (that’s not to say I begin lacking a subject, of course.). I don’t want to talk about ‘organic growth’ because it’s misleading: too close to the silly idea of poet as medium. Maybe it’s more a matter of going hand over hand.
I’d be pretty suspicious of anyone who could describe his compositional methods in any detail: maybe that’s why I can’t answer your question about indirectness in a direct way. I think it must have something to do with strength of image and the way that images provide a narrative sense, but if I stray too far down that road I’ll begin to sound like an old-fashioned Symbolist.
LV. Many of your poems are very much like stream of consciousness in the third person. They betray the mind of a fiction writer. Do you also write fiction?
DH. I’ve always worked in sequences and, since Dreams of the Dead, have published long or book-length sequences. I have often used personae, too. Not me in a mask: genuine fictional creations. My most recent collection, Marriage, consists of two sequences: one is (very) loosely based on the enigmatic relationship between Pierre Bonnard and Marthe de Meligny, the other concerns the hare — a creature who often appears in my work as trickster. The idea, I guess, has been to create a fiction where the overall narrative can be discerned by inference, using the moments and incidents that are made available.
That aside, I have written a novel — From An Inland Sea — which was published in 1985, and which I tend to think of as partly successful. Which must mean it was partly unsuccessful, though to what degree needn’t concern us. Like all poets, I have to have a day-job. I worked as a bookseller, then as a publisher, but it was killing me, so I quit and decided to try to make a living by my pen. Literary journalism is very badly paid, so I wrote a crime novel more in hope than expectation. It was published round the world. Since then, I’ve published ten crime novels under various names. They allow me my own schedules, they allow me to work alone, they allow me a different kind of writing (recreational writing, perhaps), they’re cadenced and tough and dark and they put food on my table.
I wouldn’t call myself a novelist.
LV. The core of your poems is usually one small gesture or incident, which is surrounded by the psychology of the poetic voice. You use characters, you do not confess. That makes it impossible to guess your life from your poetry. Would you be willing to tell our readers more about yourself? Education, family background, what you wanted from poetry and what you have achieved?
DH. I was born to a working-class family. We lived on a housing estate. My father was a bricklayer. When I was born, he was being shelled in the Western Desert. I went to disgracefully bad just-post-war schools, the last of which specialized in technical subjects about which I knew nothing and cared less. The teachers were under-qualified and
over-aggressive. The headmaster was a boorish buffoon. When I was in my twenties, someone mentioned to me that he’d died and I remember feeling elated. The combination of estate, schools and thuggish teachers meant I knew how to fight. Later, I learned how to avoid fights.
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t write. The first piece of work that I thought of as ‘a piece’ — something of mine — was a story I wrote in school when I was six. I remember handing it to the teacher with the clear feeling that it was only on loan to her. I read all the time. I read while I was cleaning my teeth; I read while playing football; I read in my sleep. Notebooks were prized possessions; a clean, ruled page had an irresistible, seductive look. I still can’t pass a stationer’s without going in: the hunt for the perfect notebook...
I left school at sixteen and got a job in a bookshop. While I was there I started publishing poems in magazines. This led to a friendship with Ian Hamilton, a fine poet and editor of two immensely influential little magazines, the Review and the New Review. Ian was a tremendous factor in my life: he published my work (along with others, of course), gave me a freelance reviewing job on the TLS, and showed my first manuscript to Jon Stallworthy at Oxford University Press, who published it (in all the Press published five collections of mine together with a Selected Poems; my last two collections have been with Faber & Faber). Ian also remained a close friend until his premature death last December.
I published my first collection, A Violent Country, while still working at the bookshop, and received my first Arts Council Bursary shortly afterwards. This enabled me to give up work for a while. A year later, the money ran out and I got a job in publishing. For the next decade or more, I pretended to be a businessman; in truth, I was a fairly good editor; I faked the rest. The job became increasingly onerous, I was writing less and less, so I resigned, gave back the BMW and the expense account, and wrote a crime novel ‘on spec’ (as I’ve mentioned). At just the same time, I had been asked by Harrison Birtwistle to collaborate with him on an opera for the Royal Opera House. It was a busy time. Since then, a crime novel a year has allowed me to pay my way and I’ve had a great deal more time for poetry.
The other details are a list: I live in London with my second wife, who is an actress; we have a daughter, who is twelve; I have three children by my first marriage.
You ask me what I want from poetry. The answer is nothing. Poetry seems to want quite a lot from me, but that’s as it should be.
LV. I am trying to find out in what way I could include you in what I call Desperado poetry – another word for Postmodernist, maybe. I mean by it that young poets try to make their own laws and use a gun against anyone who attempts at classifying them, at implying they might have anything in common with one another. The slogan today is different, and if these poets are similar in any way, it is by being so dissimilar. Your lines give the feeling of speech (Eliot tried so hard to get there yet could not), but you also have an air of ‘loftiness’ which would be very Eliotian if it did not carefully avoid his ‘poetry’ (which he desperately tried to ‘cut out’ and in vain). You do what Eliot was dreaming of. Where does that place you? Could you state what the difference between you and other contemporary poets is?
DH. The word ‘loftiness’ struck my eye and raised a bruise. I’d agree that some of my early work might be a little too well-made. Someone once told me that my lines were impeccable, and I took it as a criticism (though it wasn’t meant that way). My last two collections — A Bird’s Idea of Flight and Marriage — mark a significant departure from books like Mister Punch and News From the Front. I’m not taking issue with those earlier books — they’re part of a journey and I’m still travelling — but in the last two, there’s a distinct change of direction.
I didn’t know it was coming; and it wasn’t the result of any radical dissatisfaction with what had gone before, or a conscious desire to seek a new direction. But I was restless. I was talking about this with Ian Hamilton over a meal one day, and he said, ‘Try lengthening your line.’ That was all. I don’t know what he’d seen or intuited, but it proved crucial. Just that. Lengthen your line. I did, and A Bird’s Idea of Flight was the upshot.
If I do what Eliot was dreaming of, I’m delighted. I think that my work in music theatre trades off an ability with dialogue; my fiction uses direct speech a good deal. I can see that my poems often approximate to speech; that is, the ‘voice’ reads out loud in your head. A Bird’s Idea of Flight is couched in the first person, though the character in question is a fictional one; Marriage promotes the voice of the painter (nominally Bonnard, but better described as ‘a painter-husband’); Lepus (the hare sequence) uses the voice of the hare a good deal.
I think it’s dangerous to categorise individual output in broad terms like ‘Postmodern’, not least since Postmodernism has proved such a muddle and mess. Maybe we never properly learned the lessons of Modernism and that’s why people are still worrying about ‘modern’ verse and ‘modern’ music almost a century after the event. I never know whether to be amused or angry when people talk of (say) Birtwistle’s music as impenetrable ninety years after the first performance of Le Sacre Du Printemps.
Critics in the UK are constantly (just as critics always have) trying to round poets up into schools, but it’s noticeable that the names given to schools are almost always coined by the critics themselves. Groups, if they exist, often have to do with geography. There was a (short) time when critics liked to speak of a ‘Review school’ of poetry which, in theory, had to do with a propensity for very short, emotionally-charged poems. There was an ounce of truth in this, but each of those involved had his own purpose and his own version of the short poem. For example, I was interested in the way short poems could serve as brief chapters in a much longer story. It was the beginning of my attempt to forge an interrupted narrative of some length using a basically lyrical vocabulary. I suppose that, if I were to have to nominate some characteristic that sets me aside from my contemporaries, it would be this career-long preoccupation to tackle complex subjects through what might be described as the ‘dramatic sequence’. ‘Not content’, as one reviewer put it, ‘to isolate shining moments.’
LV. Is rhyme a must in your poetry? What does rhythm mean to your poems? You have both, but so discreet that they take a while to become apparent. What does poetry mean to you?
DH. I’ve pretty much dealt with rhyme in my answer above. Rhyme, rhythm, cadence — music — are all important to me, but not, of course, a be-all. I like the rhythm, supported by glancing rhyme, to grow out of meaning and support it. Without music, without good sounds, how does poetry differ from prose? Rhythm is part of poetry’s unique strength; part of the way something can be understood before meaning has quite surfaced.
You ask what poetry means to me. Poetry is a way of life.
LV. Gawain is both a poem and a libretto. It reminds me of Yeats, Goethe, and, above all, Murder in the Cathedral. It seems to me that, although writing for the stage, you remain faithful to poetry. What does this libretto mean in the context of your poetry?
DH. Gawain was a tall order. When Harrison Birtwistle contacted me and asked me to make a libretto from Sir Gawain and the Grene Knight I was delighted — that benchmark for any English poet. Then the magnitude of the task struck me— that benchmark for any English poet! Apart from having to square up to the Gawain poet, I found myself facing technical problems that were pretty considerable. To begin with, there’s little direct speech in the poem and musical drama consists of nothing but direct speech.
I had several decisions to make. The first was to re-work the piece, retaining the narrative (or my version of it) but using almost nothing of the original poem apart from one or two very familiar and unignorable lines. The second was to bring Morgan Le Fay centre-stage, so to speak. In the poem, she barely appears, though she is the architect of all Gawain’s trials. In my version, she is rarely off stage (The women in the piece — Morgan, Bertilak’s wife, Guinevere — interested me much more than the self-regarding, callow boys of the Arthurian court.) Of those men, only Gawain and the Fool (an invention of mine) achieve any sort of insight or awakening. The third decision was to write in verse.
In a sense, it’s pointless to write libretti in verse because the music has its own way with the words. However, it’s necessary for the librettist to have his own compositional strategy. My serenade (Serenade the Silkie: Julian Grant wrote the music) was heavily cadenced and had occasional rhyme, but wasn’t verse. The Woman and the Hare, a piece set by Birtwistle for the Nash Ensemble, where the words were shared by a reciter and a soprano, was a specially-commissioned poem. My television opera, When She Died, (music by Jonathan Dove) was quite deliberately written in prose — much of it the demotic — because of its subject matter (three linked fictions that take place on the day of the funeral of Diana, princess of Wales) though parts are cadenced and even fall to rhyme now and then. I’m about to embark on a new opera with Birtwistle — Minotaur — and I’m not at all sure, just yet, whether I’ll write in verse or not. Something tells me it might be a macaronic piece.
The example of my own work that I held in mind when I was starting Gawain was a short sequence called The Windhound, which only appears in my Selected Poems. It dealt, to some extent, with the loss of instinct, as does Gawain. The other aspect that particularly interested me was what I saw as the extended metaphor of the indoors/outdoors division between culture and nature, between society’s rules and a
self-governing wilderness, between the trappings of a spurious decency and unignorable appetites, between the mendacity inherent in ‘civilised’ behaviour and the unfakeable bare bones of landscape and weather.
The Windhound is verse, of course, so maybe it just led me in that direction. You can see Gawain is poetry on the page; in the opera house, I’m not so sure.
LV. What do you expect of a poetry critic? What should he pay attention to in order to reach a definition of contemporary poetry?
DH. What I expect from poetry critics is that they shouldn’t be self-serving and that they’ll have done their homework. I also expect (that is, I’m prepared for the fact) that they’ll have a strong point of view. As with critics, so with anthologists. An anthology without a point of view is a garage sale. It goes without saying that a critic should be intelligent and well-read, but it’s never guaranteed. People sometimes complain that poetry critics tend always to be poets, as if they ought to be something else. What?
Generally speaking, the level of criticism in the UK isn’t good. There are a few excellent poet-reviewer-critics, but there are also some lame-brains. When the Review and the New Review were in existence (c.1963-1978) they set a standard in criticism that hasn’t, I feel, been matched since. They weren’t interested in making friends and were stringent in their views. In short, punches were never pulled. Hamilton once remarked that the magazine ‘...needed its friends almost as much as it needed its enemies.’ There’s little of that acerbity at present, and little of the intellectual rigour and not enough of the true feeling for poetry that characterised those journals.
There seems to be a shortage of intelligence at present, a refusal to take poetry seriously. There’s also a lot of over-publishing, not least in the area of public subsidy. It’s clear that some of the newer published poets have little or no grasp of literary history — even recent literary history; it’s as if they read only their own work and the work of a few friends. Time will find these sad amateurs out, of course, and their feebleness is evident in the poems, but it’s annoying to have them milling about and knocking into things.
LV. Is it important to you to be different from the other poets? Have you ever thought of a set of rules you go by?
DH. I don’t set out to be like, or unlike, anyone. I have my own work to do. As I said earlier, if I have rules, they’re instinctual.
LV. From your work as an editor, could you name a direction you think fiction and poetry are following? What is to become of literature in this constant, unfair and yet challenging battle with the screen?
DH. Directions, no. Individual writers develop (or they don’t). I think we’re all pretty much on our own. Now and then, a group of writers, or painters, or dramatists might get together and declare themselves for this and against that, but it’s mostly windy polemic, or attention-seeking, or an oblique method of criticism. Such movements invariably disband almost as soon as they’re formed, and lose any coherence as soon as someone starts to draw up a manifesto. Anyone of real talent has usually walked away long before they all pose for the group photo.
I don’t consider poetry (or fiction) to be in a fight with the screen. Some might say that the screen has stolen some of our audience, but that’s not strictly speaking true: there was never a contest or a referendum. Some of a potential audience, maybe, but so what? We live in a screen culture: it’s a fact. Do fewer people read than used to in (say) the fifties? If so, what were they reading then? You might say that popular culture is now screen-based, but I don’t think there’s a strong case for suggesting that it did poetry a disservice. There’s a theory that reading is simply a better (less corrupt?) activity than watching TV or movies; in fact, we’re told that when people watch TV their brain-waves are flatlining; but I’m not sure that makes a case for the airport novel.
Is poetry a minority interest? Yes. Has this always been the case? Yes. Does it matter? No. It’s part of the deal. All references to a lost ‘aural’ culture are wishful thinking. Save it for the folklorists.
LV. Is drama important today? You have written for the stage – opera – so you obviously have a taste of how poetry and the stage interact (they have done so since
Shakespeare and before). Is that a combination with a bright future, do you think?
DH. I’m married to an actress, so I see a lot of theatre. Also, I used to be a theatre critic. As with poetry, there’s some interesting work being done, and there’s a lot of dreck.
Excepting Shakespeare at Stratford and the Globe, and the big musicals and middle-class revivals in the west end (London’s theatre district), drama often struggles to find an audience, especially new drama and especially in the provinces. It’s not all bleak, though. Some playwrights will always fill a theatre and they’re not just Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter or David Hare. I’ve seen some exceptional work and have also seen some plays that took risks and failed, but were by no means uninteresting. There are some very interesting women playwrights working in the UK at present. Caryl Churchill’s ‘Far Away’ (2000) is one of the best plays I’ve seen for a long time.
Craig Raine suggested that the last refuge for poetry on stage might be opera, and I can see what he meant, though there’s a reason for thinking that the stage offers the poet an opportunity for polemic. I’m thinking particularly of Sean O’Brien’s theatre/radio play Laughter When We’re Dead and his version of Aristophanes’ The Birds. This is not to say that there aren’t playwrights concerned with political or social issues, there are many; but the point is that both of O’Brien’s plays are in verse.
Eliot’s plays seem to me dead on the page, let alone on stage. You could play The Family Reunion in mask and get more out of the characters. Maybe it’s significant that O’Brien’s plays are both viperish and darkly comic and take Restoration drama as a model; dramatic verse has built-in emphases; perhaps its mannerisms need to be matched by broad expression, broad narrative movement and equally broad responses in the audience.
I can imagine writing in verse for the stage, but have no great ambition to do so. I think that dramatic vision and poetic vision are very different. Drama is, quite properly, a joint venture; poetry is not. Drama is democratic; poetry is not. Poetry is best on the page; drama isn’t itself until it escapes the page.
LV. If you had a choice, what critics would you read and what critics would you like to write about your work: scholars or creators? Is scholarly criticism to be commended for its forbidding jargon? Can’t informed criticism resort to commonsensical words in order to reach the depth of the text? Is this new multitude of inherited, worshipped terms the only way? This is the point where I think postmodernism is very wrong. I wonder how you see it.
DH. Criticism is only useful — and then can be indispensable — when it talks about an individual poem or a body of work. Criticism that wants to promulgate a doctrine or be otherwise prescriptive, is usually up to no good. In crude terms, the critic’s job is to excoriate the second-rate and praise the good, but the former task is a lot more important than the latter. Good work will almost always come to the fore; bad work can establish itself by stealth unless there are enough people determined to cry ‘fake!’
And, yes, of course it’s possible to talk about poetry in a jargon-free way though some poems positively invite jargon, they require jargon. In fact, they probably deserve jargon.
There’s a difference, too, between the kind of crypto-scholarly obfuscation you’re talking about and someone writing about poetry in a way that requires some knowledge on the part of the reader. A. Alvarez once observed that if a poet is going to bring to a poem a good deal of intelligence, sensitivity and knowledge of the form, he has a right to expect a reader to bring to it at least a degree of those qualities. I’d go along with that. It applies to criticism, too.
LV. There are quite a number of poets today. Some are highly enjoyable, others are highly praised, though maybe less appealing. How and in whom do you see poetry surviving?
DH. There are a fair number of good poets writing in Britain today, by which I mean more than a few, not dozens. A list would be invidious because I’d be sure to forget someone.
I wish criticism were more vigorous and less worried about giving offence. Maybe we all know each other too well. (I’m off the hook, here; I gave up reviewing a long time ago.) For some time now, I’ve been advocating a poetry magazine in which the reviews would be anonymous, as they were in the old days of the TLS. The New Review, though, managed to draw up its battle-lines without having to make its combatants faceless and nameless.
Poetry will go forward thanks to poets of talent, it’s as simple as that; the talentless loud-mouths and the windy self-promoters will always be with us, but they don’t matter. And, despite what seems an endless (and massively tedious) debate about the ‘audience’ for poetry, the readership will remain both small and secure. Readership is not an issue. Poetry will always be read.