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LIDIA VIANU -- MATTHEW SWEENEY
A poet should never pay much attention to his or her critics
Interview with MATTHEW SWEENEY (born 1952), British poet
Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006
© Lidia Vianu
LIDIA VIANU: You are a poet of incredible stories put in verse, and of the tenderest nature narrated. Your poems may look absurd at first sight, but this only because your sensibility defends itself from too much reality. There are also times when you do the reverse: you use too much reality to stifle any possible sentimentality. But your secret is soon out. Reading your Selected Poems I started by believing the cover, which said I would be entertained, and ended up sad, concerned and sharing your every mood. Which is what poetry should do. On the other hand, I find it a common feature (one of the very few common features) of what I call Desperado poetry that the narrative replaces confession. How would you describe your approach to poetry? Purely lyrical, mainly narrative, meditative or plain sentimental?
MATTHEW SWEENEY: The way I describe my poetry, when asked, is to say I think of it as imagistic narrative. As this suggests, I consider poetry – or at least this kind of poetry – to have a lot in common with film. I am not at all interested in confessional poetry, or indeed much in autobiographical poetry (although there are some poems which are autobiographical in nature, and many other poems have autobiographical details smuggled in). One early TLS review put it that I was more a poet of the world than the self, and it is true that I prefer on the whole to imagine myself into other people’s experiences than to write out of my own. Most of my poetry has a narrative element. Some of it strays beyond realism into the territory I call alternative realism (which is not to be confused with surrealism, although many people do this), and it often mixes humour and seriousness. Both these latter tendencies are common in the Irish literary tradition, also in the German literary tradition that I studied at university and had such a profound effect on me.
LV. When I talk about Desperado poetry, I mean a contemporary grouping of poets whose only common feature might be the fact that they tend to be different from everybody else, even different from their own previous work. It is a non-grouping, maybe, but when you try to make sense of an age, you look for labels. I hate Postmodernism, so I am replacing it. As I read more and take more interviews, new features seem to be shared by the Desperado poets. Yours is the would-be mood. I shall quote one illustrative poem, The Hat:
A green hat is blowing through the Harvard Square
and no one is trying to catch it.
Whoever has lost it has given up –
perhaps, because his wife was cheating,
he took it off and threw it like a frisbee,
trying to decapitate a statue
of a woman in her middle years
who doesn’t look anything like his wife.
This wind wouldn’t lift the hat alone,
and any man would be glad to keep it.
I can imagine – as it tumbles along,
gusting past cars, people, lampposts –
it sitting above a dark green suit.
The face between them would be bearded
and not unhealthy, yet. The eyes
would be green, too – an all-green man
thinking of his wife in another bed,
these thoughts all through the green hat,
like garlic in the pores, and no one,
no one pouncing on the hat to put it on.
You rarely write autobiographically, or you do not write ostensibly so. Such small stories are what you prefer: narratives of what would be true, if... Some are violent, shocking, unexpected, absurd. This one is desperately tender. Many stories about a woman leaving a man are in your work painfully tender, and also grudging. You spice the mixture with an exquisite sense of humour. As a reader, one laughs with bitter tears. How do you feel as a poet? What is the mood in which you write these parables?
MS. What mood do I write in? It depends. Usually I am busy imagining myself into someone else’s experience, with the necessary distance that implies. I never know much about a poem before I write it – Robert Frost puts this brilliantly when he says that he likes it best that a poem begins as a tantalising vagueness, and in the act of writing it either finds its thought and becomes that poem or it comes to nothing and ends up in the bin. So the act of writing is a process of curiosity and discovery, with the unconscious mind leading, and everything focussing on finding the right concrete details. The hat, for example, in the poem you quote is taking the weight of all that abstract emotion – Eliot’s objective correlative.
LV. Since your poems reveal nothing concrete about their author, I have no idea who Matthew Sweeney the poet really is. Could you tell me and your readers whatever can be revealed of your life and hopes? When were you born, what is your education, your job, your family life?
MS. I tend to think that what the poems reveal of their author is enough, or at least that the poems are the most important bit. Much is best kept private. I can tell you though that I was born in Co. Donegal, Ireland in 1952, and make my living as a freelance writer. I don’t have a job, in other words, beyond writing, and other activities connected with this – giving readings, doing workshops, poetry residencies, the odd commission, radio stuff and a bit of reviewing. I have a degree in German and English.
LV. A recurrent character of your poems is a woman who goes away. She goes away in various landscapes and situations. Do you attach any particular meaning to this mood of departure without return?
MS. There are recurrent images and dramatic situations in the work of all writers. The woman going away is simply a dramatisation of insecurity – relationships are important things for me. Insecurity runs all through the work (a recent review of the Selected said that the poems convert anxiety into a source of illumination) but has to be dramatically represented. Frost also said that a poem is nothing if it is not dramatic, that it need not declare itself as so but it is drama or nothing.
LV. Death likes poetry, in your lines. It can be seen in the following poem:
I will break into a tomb
in Highgate cemetery,
one that hasn’t been opened
for a hundred years.
The bones in there won’t mind.
I’ll light a candle
and set up my camp bed,
then I’ll read ghost stories
till the bones rattle and come together
to form a skeleton.
I’ll watch flesh form
on that skull again,
then the chest, the legs,
until a smiling old man
dressed in tweeds
sits down beside me
and asks me to read on.
You have a sense of continuity, you despise fears or picturesque cemetery sadness. Thinking of the metaphysical poets, I can only say you do nothing of the kind. Yet the grave is often the background of your poems. Maybe this is the mistake: it is not the background, it is the starting point, and from there you restore life. To continue my definition of your poetry, it is a would-be restoration of life. Is this recurrent motif of death (which is as old as the hills in poetry, even though it looks so new in yours) an obsession that could assimilate you to Eliot, the pre-romantics, or anybody else whose identity you could disclose?
MS. Death is common visitor to poetry, and some would say particularly Irish poetry. And yes, it frequently makes an appearance in my work. But to write about death is to write about life – several of the poems, indeed (including the one you quote), bring dead people back to life, or give them roles they might have had in life. I do not feel that this element in the poems necessarily connects me to other writers. The poet who was closest to me when I started out was the American poet Sylvia Plath, and I did learn lots from her. Coleridge was my favourite poet at school.
LV. Maybe death is synonymous with solitude. The following poem brings the two together in an extraordinary image of modern man, who knows so much more yet has so much less than ever before:
After two days he knew they were lying,
they wouldn’t send anyone to rescue him,
he was stuck here, forever, on the moon
without even a dead man for company.
Why did they load so much dust and rocks
the module couldn’t lift off?
How many experiments could they do?
How long before he’d replace some of the dust?
He looked up at Earth where his wife was.
What would they say to her? More lies,
he knew. His children would never learn
he hadn’t died in a meteor shower,
and neither of them would visit his grave.
He wouldn’t even have a grave!
He countered this by thinking back
to the last time he and his wife
had made love, to the borsch she’d cooked
that night, the vodka they’d drunk.
What was she doing now? Did she
know he was beaming thoughts at her
across the thousands of miles of space,
hoping that in her sleep she’d beam some back?
Everyday clarity brings forth an image not many would have thought of: alone on the moon, pining for earth, lost to love. This poem is an emblem of your sensibility. I have noticed that these days clarity of style goes hand in hand with tenderness. The more distant and defying the poet wants to be, the more encoded his words are. Yours are relaxed and limpid. Your soul is on a platter for the reader to touch. What do you expect from this reader?
MS. A third Frost quote is this: ‘Poetry is a fresh look and a fresh listen.’ I came across the situation of this poem in a supposed interview in a wacky American newspaper. I thought two things simultaneously – what a preposterous story, I don’t believe a word of it; and what a fantastic metaphor for loneliness. So I set about imagining being up there alone on the moon. Everything comes down to metaphor in the end – and metaphor can be localised, or extended into parable, taking in the whole poem. I value clarity greatly, and much of the work in writing a poem is to get to this clarity. What do I expect from my readers? A response of some sort – in this instance, to also imagine themselves stranded on the moon, away from their loved ones. To see, perhaps, the comic side of the poem first, then the sad or serious.
LV. Poetry seems to have two gates open today: limpid language or fireworks of poetic devices squeezed from contorted words. Between clarity and obscurity the border is very clear. You are one of the few clear poets, who do not want to make the word an obstacle, but a bridge. Fiction writers have learnt this lesson the hard way: they had a Joyce to run away from (which will never be totally possible). Eliot was not such a challenge. I have been reading British new poetry for years now, interviewing poets. The clear ones are those I cherish. They usually answer in relaxed, long explanations. The more complicated a poet gets, the less I can understand from his answers and the more elliptical these answers are. What do you think of interviews? They cannot explain the poetry, of course, but they can make it known. Is there a particular question you would have liked to be asked yet somehow never have been, so far?
MS. What do I think of interviews? They can help get the poetry noticed, and maybe give it some context that might help the reader. They are not of much interest to the poet
him- or herself. I cannot think of a question I am dying to be asked that I haven’t been asked yet.
LV. Do you have a favourite type of critic in mind when you think of what criticism might find to say about your poems? I must confess I am partial to creative critics, whom Eliot hated. I think criticism should be as clear as the texts it approaches, or more. I also think no critic should use ready made labels and terms to prove his point. The same as the author takes pride in creating his words anew, the critic should at least explain everything he states, and not rely on footnotes to let us know when the term he invokes was first created and subsequently modified by so and so. An informed critic is, to my mind, a critic who has read a lot, not one who is able to juggle with other critics’ words. I am afraid I am attacking scholarly criticism. What do you think of it?
MS. I prefer a critic who is also a poet – but one who is open to ways of writing different to his or her own. Too many critics come with very narrow prejudiced ideas of what constitutes poetry. For example, there are formalist critics who dismiss anything that isn’t formalist, or critics who can’t accommodate humour or non-highbrow subject-matter, believing either of these compromise the seriousness or artiness of the endeavour. I am talking about reviews in the main here, although I’m finding that a review of a Selected Poems is halfway between a review and a critical article, bringing in an overview of the whole range of work presented in the Selected. I haven’t had much experience of the more academic end of criticism, although there have been two or three articles and papers presented at conferences. These provide a less familiar reading of the work, often fascinating in the claims it makes for it, and the way it links it to the work and concerns of others. But a poet should never pay much attention to his or her critics.
LV. It seems at times that few people are readers of poetry these days. Mostly other poets or academics. Books of poetry are published in a rather small number of copies. What do you think of the future of poetry? So many poets and so few readers. Is anything going to change, to bring poetry to the front, as it has been through twenty centuries and more?
MS. I agree that poetry could do with more readers, but things are not as bad as is commonly thought – or as bad as they were, say, twenty years ago. I am thinking primarily of Britain here, which is where I have been most operational in. A poetry book is rarely going to reach the best-seller list (though Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters did), but it can sell anything between two and five thousand copies. This doesn’t come near the sales of a successful novelist, but it is not nothing. Add to this, the smaller, perhaps, sales figures of foreign editions – sometimes in translation – and anthology and magazine publication. Also, the considerable increase in public readings, and the sometimes large audiences that attend (my reading at the Ledbury Poetry Festival two weeks ago, for example, had an audience of 150, and a couple of years ago I had 700 at the Adelaide Festival, in Australia). There will be people in these audiences who would never read a poetry book, but love hearing it read aloud. Poetry is also popular on radio, and people are beginning to make tapes and cds of poets reading their work (the British Council, for example, in conjunction with the northern English publisher Bloodaxe, are bringing out a series of Poetry Quartets). If the literary editors of the broadside newspapers gave more space to poetry, that would help. Also if everyone who wrote poetry would buy it and read it as well. There is no shortage of people who write it. The best-selling book I have ever published is Writing Poetry, a handbook co-written with the English poet John Hartley Williams, giving technical advice on how to do it. So far it has sold something in the region of 15,000, which says it all.
LV. What makes your write poetry? You could be a fiction writer easily, and maybe the story would attract more readers, even a film-producer. Is the screen tempting? This battle between the screen and the page (between television and real art, mainly) is dispiriting. Who is the winner? Are you confident in the fate of the art you have chosen?
MS. What makes me want to write poetry? I have always been drawn to poetry. I found the noise of it attractive, the mystery of it – the way it leaves so much to the reader ( a student put it to me once that the reader of a poem must, as it were, finish the writing of the poem) – and how it can tell a story in a short space. When one is used to operating so sparely, the sprawl of prose is not attractive. W.H. Auden said once: ‘The novelist has to be the whole of boredom.’ I have written some prose. There is a children’s novel, Fox, coming out in November, but even this is written in very short, spare chapters – in other words, as close to poetry as possible. I am also very late with a book of short stories (for adults), some of which have appeared in anthologies or periodicals. Film attracts me greatly for the reasons I give at the beginning of my first answer, but I don’t think anyone’s going to invite me to direct my first film. I’ll have to keep making my films in poems.