Poetry in Desperate Times?
An interview with Lidia Vianu,
by Ruth O’Callaghan
In your critique of contemporary British
literature you coined the phrase Desperado Literature which distinguishes the
works of the post modernists from that of the stream of consciousness
Lidia Vianu: I think what I meant was that, whereas Joyce, Woolf and Eliot were born into and brought up by what I call the fairy-tale tradition (love interest, chronological causality, explicit ending...), however vehemently they denied it, tradition was still their frame of mind. Their denial was hiding a deep debt precisely to what they claimed literature should not do. But it was a remarkable denial, since they claimed to leave behind at least nineteen centuries of literature (and we must not forget that the Bible was also conceived in the same fairy-tale tradition, after all.)
On the other hand, Kazuo Ishiguro, Jonathan Coe, David Lodge, Alan Brownjohn, George Szirtes (to give just very few examples) were born into tradition already denied. They did not have to find reasons (like Woolf, Joyce and Eliot), they did not have to fight traditional devices for fiction and poetry. What really happened, after all, was that these Desperadoes (or whatever name we give them – I am afraid I have left the Desperado business a little behind me lately) actually did what the modernists Joyce, Eliot and Woolf had only preached.
To restrict this statement to poetry, after the ‘50s, poets had to fight the enormous pressure of the lack of tradition: they became obsessed with the need to bring it back. They could not simply go back to Byron or Milton, but they delved into the forest of the past and came back with bits of yesterday: rhyme, motifs, moods... Their poems were a little like bottles found floating after fifty years: there was a message of tradition in there, but the poets took such pains to hide it. What they were actually doing was denying the previous deniers. Claiming the right to be their own architects, while using all devices ever. This winding way of denying the denial poured on their page in the wrapping paper of a very conversational style. Who reads a lot of poetry today knows that this conversational ease is just a façade.
RO: Has a similar revolution taken place in Eastern European literature/ poetry and did it follow a similar time-scale or was it provoked more by political events?
LV: I should only speak for Romanian literature, and, no, we did not follow precisely the same pattern, but we did reach – for other reasons, though – the same spot. Literature after communism (here we can safely generalize) was paralyzed (I could also say fuelled) by censorship. Censorship prevented poets from living in their time, from speaking truths which politics forbade individuals to utter. I illustrated this in a book published in 1998 by Central European University Press, Censorship in Romania. Censorship also fuelled an Eliot-type of concentration in fiction and poetry, pushing us into Modernism.
Even in a relatively small geographical area as the
To my mind, these differences were small: the poet’s
major concern was to defy censorship, and censorship was the same all over the
communist area. The poet had to reinvent devices to do what a writer has always
done: establish a privileged intimacy with his reader. Censorship imposed an
official poetic discourse: praise communism, the leaders, the new man – in
short, the superiority of communism over capitalism. Huxley’s
Brave New World and Orwell’s
1984 are incredibly true. Actually
Huxley, whom I felt less to the point while I lived in communist
So, whether in
To cut a long story short, politics thought literature was sleeping, while writers never closed and eye.
With the expansion of the European Union a radical cross-fertilisation of poetry
is possible. How do you think this will affect the English poetry scene and will
it have an equal impact upon Eastern European poetry? Do you, as Professor of
Yes, I do see the influence of British Modernism on my
former students, some poets now. I have always taught them Eliot in detail (at
least Eliot was accessible and allowed, even before 1990). But, besides the
aesthetics of the ugly, cultured lines, hybridization of literary genres, stream
of consciousness in poetry, these poets (in their forties now) have been pretty
quick to catch up. The major event was the fall of communism and the
liberalization of the book market. The European Union may not be a factor we
deal with. We have always been part of
RO: Traditionally, English poetry has been regarded as male dominated. Naturally there have been exceptions yet even today it is unusual for a woman to occupy, say, a major editorial chair – Fiona Sampson, editor of Poetry Review, is a breakthrough. Has gender ever been a defining boundary within Eastern European poetry? Did you undergo the ‘feminist’ revolution we experienced in the ‘60’s/’70’s?
LV: We had such a thing as women leaders during the reign of Elena Ceausescu. She promoted the idea that women must be in leading positions. So, to start with, Romanians after 1990 were a bit adverse to the idea, they saw it as a communist slogan. There was nothing worse than a narrow minded woman in power, and we had a handful: ministry of education, party secretaries, everything just to support the idea that Elena Ceausescu (Academician who had only studied two years of primary school, or about as much) was meritorious. So, when communism fell, we started from the somewhat distorted feeling that women should behave themselves.
True, editors in chief tended to be men. But I see an army of women in positions of power, culturally speaking, today. Students of literatures and languages are now pre-eminently girls, so what can we expect? No, coming out of communism, where the idea that woman and man were equal (and woman had to do all the chores plus the children and her job), I guess we missed the feminist revolution. I wish we had had it, instead of Elena Ceausescu and her mutilating principles.
On the other hand, come to think of it, male poetry does tend to have particular topics and moods, but I have not read enough Romanian young poets to be able to put my finger on the difference.
RO: Are women poets as ambitious as men poets or do they set themselves limitations which the men wouldn’t consider?
LV: It just strikes me that we are talking from two very different stands: you come from a society with clear social classes, with elites. We – those who are now in their fifties and more – are lucky to have escaped communism without being brainwashed. Elite is a word that could have landed you in prison a wile ago. Once out of the nightmare, we enjoyed being free, and I think it never crossed anybody’s mind who came first, the man or the woman. Yes, that must be it: you do not talk about lace dresses to someone in a concentration camp. When we joined your world, we were busy getting to know it, so we forgot to pay attention to the man-woman chart.
RO: Politics and poetry are both a force for change. Does one precede/supersede the other?
Poetry used to be a subversive means of communication in
What happened after 1990 was that the intensity vanished. Freedom of speech killed the exhilarating concentration and communion in the sin of writing and reading ‘between the lines.’ For ten good years, literature identified with journalism. It exposed and exposed. We went through a maddening obsession with exposing – like the Jews crossing the desert. When the anger died down – which was when younger poets began to emerge – poetry slowly came back.
So, yes, we can say, in the case of
RO: Emotional intelligence is crucial to our understanding of a poem. As a translator do you work collaboratively with the host poet or, if this is not possible , how far are you able to adopt the host poet’s culture and experience and put to one side your own?
LV: I have tried to approach the poets I have translated. I have been so lucky. I met Ruth Fainlight, Mimi Khalvati, Peter Ackroyd, Alan Brownjohn, George Szirtes, John Mole... The list can go on forever. I do have difficulty understanding social or political details and have asked many foolish questions. When the poet is busy, or just unavailable, he certainly runs the risk of being misconstrued...
RO: Do you regard yourself primarily as an academic or a poet? How far does each discipline influence/impinge upon the other?
LV: Sad to say, I am an academic first. I have always wanted to be a novelist, but I have never been able to tell stories, so... I have no idea how I came to write the three booklets of poetry I have published. Absolutely no idea. I have no particular gift for lines. Just an immense need to share tenderness. I can’t fool myself, I am no poet. Everything I do reflects on my students, I am trying to open new ways for them, I write books of criticism that will help them understand contemporary British literature (sometimes I wonder if I understand it myself, or I am reinventing it), so I am definitely an academic and no poet at all.
But I do have a little self-serving theory that criticism is literature, too, and those books of criticism which cannot be read with pleasure should be burnt at the stake. Sorry for the violence of the thought.
RO: What is the role of the literary critic? Is literary criticism an art form in itself or is it, of necessity, parasitically dependent upon the original text?
LV: This is a question I could talk about for ever and ever. I hate literary jargon in criticism. I hate those words invented by some critics a year or a decade ago, which everyone rushes to quote and whose history becomes subject of academic examinations. I hate criticism that uses the literary text self-servingly. A critic must narrate his judgment of a novel or poem, and achiever two things: give the reader something new to think of (because a critic should be a more gifted reader), and please his reader – which means address him in plain English. If he creates a word to express some theory he has, he must explain himself thoroughly. I can’t seem to forget Eliot saying that creating words such as ‘the objective correlative’ or ‘the dissociation of sensibility’ simply set his critics on a ‘wild goose chase.’ Parroting other critics’ words will never do. Academics should stop examining their students on how well they know this or that (fashionable) critic’s words. We are living today in the middle of a tyranny of words bereft of sentences, if I may say so.
The answer is, then, yes, to my mind criticism is literature, but a type of literature that admits to an inability of telling stories (or poems) and resigns itself to imparting a secret bond, like that between a failed writer (turned academic at times) and a successful piece of literature.
RO: You are an eminent scholar, critic, translator, novelist and author of handbooks in English – what part of you remains unsatisfied by all these achievements and compels you to write poetry?
LV: It strikes me that I have published all the books I had never expected to write – those you mention, poetry included – and yet the only one that really matters to me (a novel written in English some seven years ago) has never appealed to any publisher so far. I guess poetry cannot make me happy, but fiction... well, fiction would.
RO: Your poems are, on the surface, seemingly simple. Is this because, whilst writing, you are constantly aware of the reader? Is there a conflict between your obligation to the reader and your obligation to the poem?
I have this stubborn conviction that good texts must be
clear or they are no texts at all. Just independent words, a
RO: The tools of poetry, rhythm, form, metaphor, lyricism. etc. can be employed to seduce the reader. Does this compromise the veracity of the poem? Have you ever deliberately used these tools with the object of engaging the reader rather than because of poetical necessity?
LV: Sad but true, I am no good with poetic form, and this proves I am no real poet. I am a lyrical narrator, who has not found a place to rest.
RO: Would you consider yourself a Desperado poet?
LV: Looking at myself with the lucidity of the academic, I am a Desperado, I display all the symptoms, but it does not help me write better fiction. It does, however, make me a good critic – and here I do not feel the need to deny myself. I suppose I am a failed Desperado novelist, and I know I am a decent Desperado critic, after all.
RO: You have said that private hell makes the best of poems – is this true of your poems?
LV: Yes. Of my poems and my fiction, such as it is. That private hell is another term for inner intensity. This emotional intensity is not necessary to criticism, where reading enthusiasm is enough. I shall always regret not having been able to get one single editor perceive the private hell in my unpublished fiction as I feel the inner hell of the novels or poetry I analyse.
RO: Does biography and poetry necessarily have to co-habit in a poem for the poem to achieve a certain distinction?
LV: Now, as a critic, I can tell you that I love bits of autobiography – but can hardly tell you why. It must be an oddity of mine. Most poets have snubbed me when I asked them this very same question, saying they only imagine, and life never mixes with inspiration. It must be true if they say so. I am a peeping tom when I read a poem. I expect to see the kernel of truth at some point. I like to touch the poet’s heart before I start analysing him. It’s like a blood transfusion – not safe but salutary. Life (the poet’s) supports life (the reader’s). There is nothing wrong with sharing your own inner intensity in plain words at times.
RO: Your achievements have been mentioned at the beginning of this interview but could you ‘flesh out’ these bare academic bones, please, by telling us of your background, influences on work, life and any role models you may have had or, indeed, do have?
LV: I started as a five-year-old who was trying desperately to tell herself stories of her own. I grew up into a critic of other people’s stories (whether poetry or fiction). At some point in my life, in my early fifties, I wrote my second novel (God knows why I chose English – probably because I had a feeling it would never be published). All along, I have been, and am, a compassionate, sensitive, quivering critic. Criticism is the one thing no one can take away from me.
I never thought anyone would ask me who influenced me. It used to be my question to others. Only now do I realize how unfair a question it is. One does not imitate one’s models, one tears them down... I wrote my dissertation on TS Eliot and my frivolous dream is that, at some point, I might publish at Faber & Faber. This is as far as Eliot’s influence on me goes. As to my background... if I speak about it from a literary point of view, parents, lovers, family, friends.. all these mean nothing unless they can be found by a reader in the novel I wrote.
RO: Obviously this is simply a brief outline of your views but is there a further topic on which you would have liked to have been able to express your views?
LV: I ought to end by saying that, after all, there is emotional intensity in criticism, too, and to encourage those who feel exasperated by literary theory to stick to their intuition of the text...
RO: We have had modernism, post-modernism, desperado literature etc. – what do you think the next movement in poetry will be? What will the poetry scene be like in, say, 2020?
LV: It pains me to say that literature may leave us at some point. Life is faster and faster, and paper may lose the battle with the internet. I see bright students of English literature reading less and less. I see a huge number of brilliant minds preferring ‘interdisciplinarity’, and I feel I am surrounded by wooden language, from grants I apply for, to documents, laws, papers. I have given up reading books of criticism because I cannot stand the new wooden language of critical theory. But I can tell you one thing: if I am alive in 2020 and later, nothing in the world can ever kill my shy love for a new book.
RO: Thank you.
Published in Staple Magazine 69/2008, Nottingham, UK, pp.92-102, ISSN 0266 4410