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LIDIA VIANU -- JOHN MOLE
My addiction is to surprise and the unexpected
Interview with JOHN MOLE (born 12 October 1941), British poet
Published in LIDIA VIANU, Desperado Essay-Interviews, Editura Universitatii din Bucuresti, 2006
© Lidia Vianu
LIDIA VIANU: You are a poet, a teacher and a musician. The three are closely connected, I guess. Your lines are didactically clear (thank God for clarity) and also delightful webs of themes that remind anyone of jazz. What do you think of those poems which you hardly understand, which operate with bits of meaning and leave the whole open to conjecture? Is clarity a concern of yours or just an instinct?
JOHN MOLE: My addiction is to surprise and the unexpected. If there’s no surprise for the writer then there’s unlikely to be any surprise for the reader, as Robert Frost once said. I suppose there must be a connection between the three activities. As a teacher of Literature I’ve always tried to make it new for myself – not to do that would be to go stale very quickly. Just think – ‘Macbeth’ for the hundredth time, saying the same thing about it! I’ve always enjoyed following up and improvising on students’ insights, finding this in itself to be a kind of creativity. Education as conversation, if you like. I try to be well-read but never over-prepared. To be over-prepared is to run the risk of not being alert to all those chance changes of direction which can make a good session in the classroom an event, a process of mutual discovery.
It’s much the same, for me, with jazz. Conversation within a frame, continual alertness and a balancing act of control and risk. I like the account Earl Hines once gave of his jazz performances when playing a familiar number: ‘Every time, I try to find a different way of laying down the chords towards a fixed point, and when you see me smiling you know I’m lost.’ Except, of course, that you know it’s the smile of experience, of being musically well-read enough to risk going out on a limb.
As for the poetry, those ‘webs and themes’ you’re kind enough to detect in my work are the directions I take within – in the main – quite traditional forms. The clarity you refer to is probably a matter of form, a sense of security attendant on traditional patterns. Within these patterns, though, my instinct is to be oblique, subversive and above all open-ended. I feel the need for the tensions within a poem to be resolved but I don’t want anything to be wrapped-up, snapped-shut. Robert Graves, a poet I admire and who taught me much by example, has a fine poem in which he writes of ending ‘on a careless comma’. Graves is, of course, a highly disciplined poet. There’s nothing careless about his craftsmanship. The carelessness he celebrates is a kind of insouciance, a lightness of being, conferred by the strength of his technique. I find this very congenial. Open to conjecture? Yes. No full stops. In short I suppose what connects the poetry, the jazz and the teaching is that they are all part of an ongoing conversation – with myself and within the hearing of others.
LV. I have come across a poem which is emblematic for the way your sensibility blends with discreet, incomplete (yet perfectly clear) expression: The Cherry Tree. I will quote it in full, for the readers who have not met you yet:
Welcome to the cherry,
Of itself, so utterly
Not you, not me, with our same
The old stones’
Of this year
Of Do you love me
As much as...?
Or Who was
He or she?
Or Do you love me less
Than I love you?
Or Tell me something new.
Haven’t I heard this?
Welcome to the cherry,
Its white silence,
Its common sense,
Its letting be.
You write for the soul. Language, though, plays along. Do you have to work hard for the poem, or is it easily written, without toil for the best, the chiselled word?
JM. The hardest thing about writing this particular poem, I remember, was removing a stanza which originally came after the one which ends it now. I sent it in its original form to a magazine editor whose judgement I respect, and he suggested the cut. At first this seemed too radical, and I resisted it, but the more I thought about it the more I could see that he was right. I had wanted to end with an image rather than a statement ( you have probably already gathered that I don’t like being didactic ) but in this case the meaning is, I suspect, in the cadence as much as in the statement so I’m happy with that. In general I find the hardest work comes after the initial draft, and this is not so much a matter of ‘chiselling’ the words as it is of taking out lines and stanzas which draw too much attention to themselves at the expense of the poem as a whole.
LV. Love is a shared solitude in many poems. It is also a poignant emotion which the words conceal, will only allude at, never name plainly. Your poems are not only clear, but also shy. The two do not usually work together. You manage to help the reader understand while hiding the core of emotion from him. Like a good poet, actually, you are indirect. It is a feature of what I call the Desperado poets to veil their meaning in apparently meaningless commonplace. The meaning is no longer inside the word, it becomes the halo of the word. Your poems have this halo of meaningful emotion. Do you think this is what poetry has been doing ever since ancient history, or do you feel you are doing something new? Because it is my conviction that you do, you unveil the way to a new poetic idiom in your lines.
JM. I do like your phrase ‘the halo of the word’, and that is certainly an effect I should hope to achieve. You also put your finger on a problem I am very aware of when you speak of ‘apparently meaningless commonplace’. I can imagine some readers of my work becoming impatient with a certain unemphatic quietness. In fact I was once told by an examiner who had wanted to set a group of my poems for study that his colleagues had rejected them on the grounds that there wouldn’t be enough in them for students to write about. I suppose it may be true that they don’t present the kind of difficulties which appeal to the analytic mind. On the other hand, I should like to think that they have a resonance which appeals to the imagination and which, with luck, may lodge there. A sort of slow-burning fuse. A deceptive simplicity, perhaps. It always pleases me when people tell me that they have particularly liked a poem of mine but can’t explain why. If they simply want to quote it back at me I take this as the highest compliment, much more precious than even the most flattering analysis. A new poetic idiom, though? I rather doubt it. It’s in the world of academic criticism that fashions tend to come and go, hence the fluctuation in poetic reputations. All the poet can do, I think, is write according to his or her temperament, never to a programme dictated by current ‘ologies’ or ‘isms’.
LV. You mention in one poem Yeats, ‘Who said that poetry is our quarrel with ourselves.’ I think your poems do quite the opposite: they find the point of harmony. Your most effective refuge is childhood. Wind-Up is a good example, mixing object-time and soul-time, if it can be put that way. Your emotions, though painful and sharp, are very much at peace with themselves. You do not write to exorcise, but to share this feeling of certainty. What do you feel in front of the white sheet of paper, before you begin a poem? Have you ever experienced Eliot’s reiterated fear that you will never be able to write again? Because you seem inexhaustible to me, although you do not need an emotional circus for that.
JM. Louis MacNeice, a poet I much admire, answered the question ‘Why do you write?’ by explaining that it was probably because he became restless when he wasn’t writing. As to whether I ever fear that I shall never write again, well yes. It happens if that ‘restlessness’ has not been there for some time. Or if everything I write falls dead on the page. On the other hand I find it important always to get something down – not to stare too long at a blank page or a blank screen. However dead the line seems, I take it for a walk – as Paul Klee put it when talking about drawing. I don’t think I’m inexhaustible but I do regard the act of writing as regular work. My best friend is – as it was for Graves – the waste-paper basket. I keep at it and hope the lightning will strike. Incidentally, I don’t regard childhood ( which I realise features largely in my work ) as a refuge. It is often in childhood that we experience emotion at its most primal and naked, childhood as a source of imagination rather than a refuge from adult concerns.
LV. Since you mentioned Yeats, I remember his despair at the idea of growing old and becoming ‘a tattered coat upon a stick’, because his heart was ‘fastened to a dying animal’. Your Going On comes two poetic generations later (after Eliot and
post-Eliotians) and yet talks about the same thing:
Scotch and water, warm,
Medicinal, two tablets
On a little tray, his Times
Tucked underarm, a dignified
But frail ascent, prolonged
Undressing measured out
By heavy footsteps, coughing
Gently not to worry us, as if
A mere polite reminder, then
The silence of the grave.
And why must I recall this now
As half-way up the stairs
I hear my grown son calling
Going on, then, Dad?
An early night? Sleep well.
The sadness hurts. Yet the words are incredibly serene. While describing Alan Brownjohn’s poetry, I often talked about blank words. Your words go beyond being blank. They blindfold the reader, comfort him (‘There, there, it’s all right, don’t be afraid’), until the last line falls like an axe and you have taken it all in, you can no longer forget it. The reader is trapped into your poems. Are you aware of this aggressive meekness? Do you see yourself as gentle or violent? Because your poems are violent emotions in very gentle words...
JM. I find it very difficult to answer the questions here. I do, I suppose, tend to understate emotion, particularly painful experience, but whether I am personally gentle or violent depends, I suspect, on circumstance. My star sign is Libra – the scales! Perhaps you could characterise me as a Libran poet – which I hope doesn’t make me sound dull. What I don’t want to do is to bombard readers with emotion, with a kind of ‘look at me, here are my entrails!’ insistence. If you detect a ‘meekness’ I wouldn’t say that it’s aggressive. I should like to think that I am inviting readers to share my experience. Too much emotion insisted upon would crowd them out, leaving no space for their own response. That kind of space is very important to me. You could almost call it an intuitive strategy involving courtesy to, and respect for, the reader.
LV. When did you start writing poetry? seems to intimate that a poem means ‘to search for a silence/ that nobody but myself could hear’. The Desperado poet is essentially reticent. Yet you are not simply that. You create the impression that a lazy sensibility unfurls a poem in which every line is a postponement of the truth. That also brings in a very effective sense of suspense. The reader learns to wait for the last line breathlessly. This is your own, peculiar poetic strategy. Your patience with the word creates very impatient readers, who want it all at once: both the obvious (tame) statement and the shy (wild) feeling, which you only obliquely hint at. How do you yourself define your poetic approach? Are you an emotional or intellectual poet, in your view?
JM. I think the question here has already been answered, if indirectly. I’m really not sure, though, how I would define my ‘poetic approach’. E.M. Forster once asked ‘How can I know what I think until I see what I say?’ And, in my case, every poem is an attempt to know by saying. Emotion and intellect are, I’d suggest, inseparable in this venture. Let me quote from another of Graves’s poems: ‘You were venturesome, I was shy’. Well, there I am – quarrelling with myself – because I’m probably both at once when I’m writing.
LV. In The Erl-King’s Daughter I cannot help noticing your playful use of incredibly subtle half-rhymes, which give to most of your poems an air of bewildered, stealthy musicality. I can hardly point my finger at it, but it affects the music and rhythm of my thoughts as I read. Does rhyme engage your attention in any way? What does the music of a poem consist in for you?
JM. I’m so glad you comment on the rhyming in this poem but I particularly like poems where the rhyme is sensed rather than immediately noticed. Browning’s monologue ‘My Last Duchess’ is a fine example of this ( and, of course, ‘The Erl-King’s Daughter’ is also a monologue ). Half-rhyme, para-rhyme, slant-rhyme, call it what you will, give a poem momentum, helping to call up the next line and to advance the narrative. I understand you perfectly when you speak of ‘stealthy’ musicality. Though I’m not sure about ‘bewildered’. What, increasingly, I’ve come to avoid ( or try to ) is rhyme which gives a poem the air of spurious neatness. This relates to what I said earlier about not wanting to wrap things up in a poem. To do this would be to impose too much of a limiting frame on what you describe as ‘the rhythm of thought’. Rhyme, for me, must be discreet if it is to realise its full potential. In the kind of poem I want to write, that is. For the satirical poet, for example, it’s another matter altogether – as, say, for Byron in ‘Don Juan’ where rhyme comes front stage and has us admiring its ingenuity.
LV. However tender your poems, however quiveringly sensitive, they are also stubbornly ironical, though, again, in a devious way. Grandmother’s Advice debunks Red Riding Hood’s tale, maybe even mixes it with Snow White (the bite from the apple?), and ends in existential sadness. It is a thoughtful and emotional burden. It hides deep inside the ‘core’ of fear. It seems to me all your poems are afraid. Afraid of being afraid, afraid of your own intensity. You do not use dramatic scenery and linguistic fireworks, like most Desperadoes, because with you it is all inside. You do not need to show it, it is all too true. All you have to do is peep and smile, and the poem is ready. What do you choose, the smile or the peep/ frowning thought? Which would you say the key note, the defining mood of your poetry was?
JM. It’s interesting that you should pick on ‘Grandmother’s Advice’. I’ve always been fascinated by the darker tales of the Brothers Grimm, and the forest as a location for domestic drama. I also much admire the fiction of writers such as Angela Carter which recasts folk tale in a contemporary idiom. Carter’s collection ‘The Bloody Chamber’ (which, incidentally, contains a version of ‘The Erl-King’ ) is one that I go back to quite often. Its mixture of passion and irony – often with an added touch of surrealism – is my kind of brew. I’m sure you’re right to detect a ‘core’ of fear in much of what I write, of (metaphorically ) children lost in a wood. I’d not though of it until you raised the issue, but maybe a number of my poems are like the gingerbread house in ‘Hansel and Gretel’ – enticing sweetmeats on the outside walls but the witch’s oven waiting inside. I should like to think, though, that they move towards striking an affirmative note and are not, ultimately, as fearful as you seem to suggest. My poem ‘The Waterfall’ ( from ‘For the Moment’ ) is perhaps the nearest I have come so far to defining the mood of my poetry and offering some kind of statement of belief.
LV. Age and death always benumb your poems, when they occur in your lines. Last Look is one good example:
He weighed so little. They carried him out
for a last look at the garden.
It blazed with autumn sunlight.
Gently they put down their burden.
Grief, not flesh, was the heaviness.
He asked to be left there.
A flash of the old order.
Nothing to do but obey.
The family mock salute.
At ease. Stand easy.
Go inside and wait.
So little. They watched from the house
for as long as it took
(which was hardest, they told us)
then carried him back.
The words are harmless, infinitely innocent. The meaning is the scythe of death. Your poem, an unbearable reconciliation of clarity and the unutterable. You stage the pain. You definitely rehearse your words. Could you reveal a few of the secrets that make your poems? What does it take for you to write a good poem?
JM. The answer to this question has to be ( Auden again ) ‘If I could tell you I would let you know’. Don’t think me evasive when I say that I have no secrets to reveal. Apart, that is, from saying that in a poem like ‘Last Look’ I take out everything that is not essential, but that is hardly a secret! I suppose I hope readers will supply all the additional detail from their own experience. If the poem is any good it will become a collaboration between writer and reader. My instinct, as a poet, is never to have what Keats called a ‘palpable design’ upon the reader.
LV. For the readers of this interview, could you mention the meaningful experiences in your life? And also the story that supports your imagination? What have you studied, what jobs have you had, which do you prefer? Did you choose poetry or were you chosen by it?
JM. A short biography, then, of the externals. I was born in the West Country of England in 1941 and had a fairly conventional middle-class upbringing as the son (and grandson) of an accountant. My mother, as was often the case during and immediately following World War 2, was a full-time housewife. I attended various schools and went on to study English Literature at Cambridge University. Following that I became a teacher, mainly in England though with a spell in New York during the late 1960s – a difficult and, for me, certainly educative time, politically. I married in 1968 – my wife is the artist and illustrator Mary Norman, and we have worked together on several books for children. Our own children, two sons (Simon and Ben) were born in 1972 and 1974. Most of my adult life has been involved with teaching, although I took early retirement in 1998 and have since then worked freelance as a writer (book reviews, essays, poems etc. ), lecturer, and jazz musician with my own quartet. I am also, currently, Visiting Poet at the University of Hertfordshire, and involved with an education venture, working, as a poet, with children in the inner city area of London where many of the children have English as their second language. Language, its patterns, rhythms, colours, have always been important to me from the earliest days I can remember, but though I always enjoyed poetry my ambition when at school was to be a novelist (see my poem ‘The Cigarette’ in ‘For the Moment’) and a chance meeting with John Steinbeck, one of my early idols, reinforced this. Then when I was nineteen I came across the poems of Robert Graves and was gripped by their clarity, economy and mixture of the classical and the romantic. My earliest poetic attempts were in direct imitation. Graves was a colourful character, very much the poet, and for a time I shamelessly modelled myself on him even adopting some of his more eccentric ( as I now see them to be ) world views. Did I choose poetry or was I chosen by it? A bit of both, I suspect. Who was it once said that he dabbled in verses and then it became his life? The Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh, I think. That has very much been the case with me, although I have also gained considerable satisfaction from my work as a teacher. One golden rule, though – I have never taught my own poems. For reasons of (false) modesty? Perhaps, though probably for the more selfish reason that I want to avoid becoming too conscious of where they come from and how they get written. This may explain a certain evasiveness in some of the answers I have been giving you!
LV. Since you have taught yourself for a while, I wonder what you think of academic criticism. What kind of criticism do you prefer (if any)? Eliot had a positive hatred of ‘-isms’, maybe that is why I have come up with the term Desperado. Maybe it was just to voice the contemporary lawlessness insofar as poetic art is concerned. Poets today mean to be different from other poets, other ages, even from their own previous work. They take the law in their own hands and turn their art into a frontier which is always farther away than the previous ones. Many of these poets objected to my calling them Desperadoes, taking that to mean a character from a Western. I wonder what you think about the term. Would you prefer a more scholastic definition for a possible contemporary stock of common features?
JM. Well yes, Desperado does sound a bit wild. It makes me think, immediately, of the black-hatted villain in a Western movie, but you will be defining your use of the term when you introduce your thesis, and it is certainly thought-provoking. I am, I guess, in two minds about academic criticism. It can be most illuminating and encourage readers to look at familiar poets from new and refreshing angles, although at its worst it makes excessive claims for mediocre poets who just happen to offer the kind of ‘difficulties’ that the academic likes to unravel. The criticism that appeals most to me, and which I return to, is nearly always by poets themselves – some of whom may well hold university posts but are independent of academic fashion. Among the poet-critics I most often read are Randall Jarrell, W.H. Auden, Geoffrey Grigson and Ian Hamilton. I admire Eliot but find too often that there is something a little too ex-cathedra about his judgement.
LV. Does your music bear any influence on your poetry? Do the two express the same inner need for safety and tenderness? Or is poetry tender and music safe? You are such an unreliable guide of the reader’s sensibility, you make him forget his fears and then release a whirlwind of emotional arrows. Your lines may seem gentle, but their intention is wild, and it is not just a smile. Yeats is not so far from you. You are both tragic at heart. Or aren’t you?
JM. Yeats said many memorable things – including the reference to poetry being the quarrel with oneself – and I admire him enormously. It would not, though, have occurred to me to see myself as being in any way close to him in spirit or temperament. There’s an aristocratic magnificence about his work, a hammered splendour which I cannot aspire to. A musicality, too, although by all accounts he was himself tone-deaf! As to whether my love of music has influenced my poetry, that’s hard to say. I’ve already mentioned the connection between jazz and poetry where improvisation is concerned, but I’m not conscious of any further cross-over. I’m certainly fascinated by the relationship between composer and lyricist whether in the field of classical music – e.g. Britten and Auden – or popular song. The hand-in-glove collaboration between George and Ira Gershwin has always struck me as close to miraculous. I am currently working on a commission to write the lyrics for a composition to be sung by children as part of this year’s Royal Jubilee celebrations. Not being a fervent royalist, I’m facing a double challenge. As Yeats would have said – ‘the fascination of what’s difficult’! Tragic at heart? I really couldn’t say. But aren’t we all, when it comes down to it, skating on ice that grows thinner as the years pass?
LV. Do you see yourself as part of any poetic group/ generation/ movement? Who are your friends and your foes in poetry? Do you have a pattern that shaped you, or a starting influence? Do you think the idea of movement still exists today? I think Desperadoes are all alike in their need to be different. Do you feel the temptation of singularity or would you prefer being integrated in a category?
JM. The only category I should want to belong to would be the category of kindred spirits. Movements are, I know, a convenient labelling, and it is sometimes to a poet’s advantage that he or she be associated with one. You do perhaps receive more attention that way, at least from those critics who have discerned the movement and feel a proprietary interest in it. There are also poets whose instinct is to ‘belong’ and who find it stimulating to be part of a group. I have never found this to be either desirable or necessary. Nor am I someone who seeks to feel embattled and to thrive on literary enmities. Some might say that this makes me sound very dull. On the other hand perhaps (in your terms) it makes me something of a Desperado.
LV. To put an end to my questions, what is the reason for a poem (any poem)? Why does John Mole write, in this age of screens and computers, when fewer and fewer people read poetry?
JM. Everything I should want to say in answer to this question is best said for me by Auden in his poem ‘The Cave of Making’, addressed to the shade of Louis MacNeice:
After all, it’s rather a privilege
amid the affluent traffic
to serve this unpopular art which cannot be turned into
background noise for study
or hung as a status trophy by rising executives,
cannot be ‘done’ like Venice
or abridged like Tolstoy, but stubbornly still insists upon
being read or ignored: our handful
of clients at least can rune. . .
What more can I say, except that the reason for a poem is always the search for the elusive perfect match of form and content: in the words of Samuel Beckett: ‘No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’ So it goes on.
March 14, 2002