An Interview with
On His Early Career
My schoolboy poems derived from my reading of Pound and Eliot, and Ronald Bottrall, who was Leavis' great protege in New Bearings. I wrote a long poem, when I was seventeen, called 'Phallus in Wonderland' which Geoffrey Grigson published in New Verse. It was very similar to something that Bottrall had done - lots of different people making statements - a sort of dramatic poem. This is the kind of thing a young poet should attempt: it teaches you to make each little bit different.
But when, after this, I read Auden's Poems (1930), I was absolutely taken over, and I didn't want to write poems that seemed like anything but Auden's. 'Audenesque for an Initiation' is the best example; it really tries to reproduce Auden's voice in every possible detail: "Before next month we'll storm the clubhouse" and so on. But I also agreed with what he was saying about the decadent upper class, and how it was going to be swept away by the revolution - one imagined there was going to be a great political change. That was all very well, and good for me; it gave me a style, and an interest in writing. But when the War started in 1939, everything that Auden had predicted came true at once - war, violence, spies - and I felt I couldn't write about these any more. So for six or seven years I wrote almost nothing - perhaps only twelve poems.
This was just a little bit like the problem of the First World War poets, who had to forge a style to deal with their terrible experience, and all they had to hand was this sloppy romantic dilution of Keats. It's very much to Owen's credit that he managed to make poems which were original and different; But people like Sassoon had terrible difficulty, and his best poems are satirical and not romantic. This was my problem too; after the war I was completely stuck. The only person I thought I could imitate (I was still at the stage of imitating at least a style) was Betjeman; and I wrote one or two poems which have a Betjeman feel because they're topographical - one about Barnes Bridge, another about Chelsea in winter.
But I didn't write much at all until 1959 when Alan Ross took over The London Magazine and asked me to try to write some poems for it. The result of this was the book, which I don't think very interesting, called Londoners, written in a sort of vers libre. I think it's the weakest verse I've ever written, much as I think Summoned by Bells is Betjeman's weakest verse; both books go on and on, and some bits are better than others, and that's about all you can say. Nevertheless, it started me off, and once I got this topographical thing out of my system (for Londoners I actually wandered around Madame Tussaud's with a notebook, taking down the names of the murderers, and so on) then I began to write poems which had something to do with my actual life; poems about being married, about little children. Except for my duties as an Artillery Officer, responsibility really passed me by until I was married, which didn't happen until I was forty. Then my poems got better. The first book that I consider good - apart from some of the Thirties' poems - is Pleasures of the Flesh (1966). I was writing now either in vers libre or in tight quatrains such as I used in the poem 'Office Friendships':
Sex suppressed will go berserk,
But it keeps us all alive.
It's a wonderful change from wives and work
And it ends at half past five.
On Craft and Experiment
Soon after Pleasures of the Flesh I began to experiment. I wrote some shorter poems, influenced by writers who would have called themselves avant garde. I tried to invent languages - the kind of thing that Edwin Morgan had been doing well. I thought, I don't want to sit back and write little quatrains all the time. Even as good a writer as Betjeman, I think, rather sold the pass by writing quatrains which weren't particularly tightly formed - because it was easy. I have the same feeling about some of Charles Causley's simple ballads, though his later poems have been much more interesting. Poets should avoid the easy way, if they can help it - though of course the price you pay if you write anything complicated, is that the ordinary reading public don't realise the difficulty of what you're doing. They don't want to judge a poem by its craft, but by whether it moves them - whether it's about things they like, roughly speaking. The kind of writer who uses unfamiliar techniques and subjects, what I would call the high grade, highbrow writer, is going to lose a lot of appreciation. You have to stay in a groove to get public acclaim. The writer who uses a variety of styles confuses not only the ordinary reader of poetry but even, perhaps, critics, who like to be able to think, ah yes, he writes social satire, or whatever. But subject matter is what attracts the reading public. It seems to me, for example, that John Fuller is better than many more appreciated poets, because he writes so much better. But his subject matter isn't what many readers can understand or relate to. Percipient critics praise him, but one can safely say he'll never sell copies in thousands. I think D.M. Thomas is a good poet, too, but obviously the way to make a name and money is to write novels like The White Hotel.
I suppose people do think of my poems about sex as characteristic of me - my groove, if you like - in the same way that everybody thinks Thomas Hardy is Wessex. Well, it's an interesting subject. My view is that you shouldn't pull punches, or avoid phrases or descriptions which might shock. This may be my claim to originality, since other writers don't do it. The point isn't to shock, though, except in a good sense. It's strange how you can pick up a novel and find sex as explicit as possible. But, if people find it in a poem, they throw their hands up in horror and call it disgusting. Why shouldn't poems deal with the things that novels deal with?
On Metre and Rhythm
I'm not keen on very short lines; the two-word line, which has become a kind of American standard. I don't think it can really be defended - what's a line, except a form of punctuation? You should stop slightly before you go on to the next line. But when you hear people reading their two-line poems, they reel them off like prose, or they read into the middle of a line, stop, and start again - that's just cheating. If you're going to divide into lines, you're punctuating, and you have to read accordingly. The blank verse line has been described as the length that you can read in one breath; but I don't see how these short-line poems could be spoken. I heard a poet the other day who read extremely well; his rhythms were strong and exciting. But I'd seen the poems before in the book, in one- and two-word lines, divisions which he'd completely ignored. I couldn't see the point. I'm all in favour of experiment, but not with things that can be proved from the start not to work. I'd far more happily write prose poems than these little cut-up things.
On Light and Serious Verse
It's quite possible to write a serious poem by humorous means. One of mine, 'Adolescent Agonies' is written in a very light verse style, with feminine rhymes all the way through, but it tries to say something about young people:
I live at the stormy centre.
I am in that sad condition:
permanently in transition.
Another, called 'True Love', is about St. Valentine's Day messages in The Guardian. It makes fun of the messages, but at the end concedes that there is something genuinely sad there that Love isn't like their 'Never-Never Land':
Surely BUM FACE
must be the jolly mask for some face
that has know how
isn't much relieved by dressing
up in whiskers and false noses?
This one too has feminine rhymes, which, except for their use by Hardy, have always been regarded as light verse expedients. I've tried to make them serious again.
Peter Porter was a big influence on me, after the more obvious ones. He helped me to discover that I could write poems which were fantasties. I read Porter's poem 'Happening at Sordid Creek' (1964), and saw how to put yourself in another person's shoes is such a good way to write a poem (I'd known about Browning, of course, but I'd never thought of doing it for myself):
One day I'll sit in an eau-de-nil office
And ask Miss Palethorpe the time, then go
Down to folded white napkins, the set lunch
And my first stroke at about half past one.
The advantage is of course that you're not bored by having to talk about your own problems, and have to imagine altogether different ones, and interpret them. It's like the playwright's job. But the modern lyric poet isn't very good at Shakespeare's method of imitation.
On Lyric Poetry
The best lyric poems are what I like to think of as loaded lyrics, like Auden's best: 'Our Hunting Fathers', for example. It's obscure, but has so many different repercussions - it's like throwing a stone into a pool, and watching the many meanings and possibilities spreading out from it.
The best lyric poetry also has to flow. It's no good having two lines of one sentence, and a stop, then another little sentence of one and a half lines, and so on. Every stanza should be a complete sentence. This is another example of those things that the ordinary reader may not be concerned about, but the writer should be. One lyric I've written which conforms to this runs:
The alcoholically inclined
who live in this hotel
are often stoned out of their mind
and only ring the bell
for bottles of that certain kind
they know and love so well.
One stanza, one sentence. It's also essential to remember that you can run on from one stanza to another - you don't have to shut things up in little boxes. Awkward rhymes can be got round because you've got the whole of the next stanza to modify what you've said.