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Interviews

An Interview with Douglas Dunn by Bernard O'Donoghue

Douglas Dunn was born in Renfrewshire in 1942. He worked as a librarian both before and after his English degree at Hull (1966-1969), up to 1971, since when he has held various library appointments. His first Faber poetry volume, Terry Street (1969) was concerned with Iife in Hull and was greeted with great acclaim; St. Kilda's Parliament was published in 1981, and Elegies, his new book, is the Poetry Book Society Choice for Spring 1985. He has recently returned to live in Scotland.


The political opinions you voiced in your interview with John Haffenden surprised a lot of your admirers, I think, by their amorphousness. Are you still committed to a 'Left Wing of the spirit' rather than to any part of the organised political Left?

I've never been implicated in the organised Left. I'm a poet and short story writer, and an occasional writer of radio and TV scripts. I'm not a theorist or an activist.

On the other hand, I've written about class and the system of humiliations on which this country and the rest of the world tick over. But I don't think I chose these subjects. The way r look at it is that my imagination decided that I should show my colours. In retrospect, I think the gesture was necessary, and I stand by it.

Over the past few years there's been a conspicuous shift to the Right in politics and in poetry as well. I'd like to make it clear that I haven't shifted anywhere. I've changed addresses, but politically and artistically I'm on the same ground.

Has your return to Scotland affected your political feelings at all?

My political instincts have been republican for as long as I can remember and they've always existed in relation to Scotland. It's probably the death of my so-called career to be so plain on the subject. Quite simply, these are states of mind and imagination that I consider natural to me. To suppress them, or avoid their implications for my work, would be a deliberately dishonest act.

Do you now feel permanently placed, in contrast to the "temporal" attachment you felt you had to Hull?

As a writer, I feel the same here in Tayport as I did in Hull - that might change, but I don't see how. Nationality is as portable as socks, the only difference being that you don't change your nationality. It's as fixed as your nose. I feel a sort of suspect exhilaration in being back among the people I often write about. I say 'suspect' because I note that it doesn't make writing any easier. But it doesn't make it more difficult.

I knew times of great happiness in Hull, as well as the kind of sorrow I wouldn't have the heart or the hate to wish on my worst enemy. In the past, I was guilty of overstating my attachment to Hull. I feel love for the Iife I lived there, but not for the place Hull wasn't good to me either as a man or as a writer.

Looking at your Faber selection from Byron, I wondered if you feel influenced by him at all (he's not amongst the poets you name as influences). St Kilda's Parliament, both in forms and spirit, seemed much more like Byron than your previous books of poems.

I've always loved the zest and excitement of life in Byron, his Europeanness, his taste for action, his libertarian convictions generously expressed in Italy and Greece. Sheer envy, on my part. I particularly admire his immorality, which is a genuine aspect of his fame, not of his notoriety, as is his graceful fallibility and the wonderful elegance of his bad-temper. Byron is more like an obsessive hobby than an influence.

In the Haffenden interview, there seemed to be a contradiction between your criticism of Auden's narrowness in his "impotent urbanities" and your own later claims for a kind of Graeco- Roman, bejewelled quality of the imagination opposed to the scum?

I remain an admirer of Auden's poetry. but the constricting Englishness of his later work I found hard to take. Poetry's a bigger, more comprehensive fact of human necessity than the exercise of the psychic mannerisms of a nationality, and I can't bring myself to take seriously such belittling concepts as Common Sense. There's a very great deal about the English imagination that I admire, but its habit of willingly hedging itself with properties, while pretending that restraint is a virtue, is not one of them.

So I don't accept your suggestion that I was contradicting myself - which is far from saying that I'm incapable of changing my mind. When poetry ceases to be civilization-making, it becomes smugly minor, 'interesting', decorative and self-satisfied. To be other than that in our own times means risking a poetry that will be criticizing, and which in defending the values of civilization will be vulnerable to dismissals by those implicated in power and the preconceptions supporting it as negative and morbid. Only a really big poet can make or re-make a civilization - that goes without saying. And I don't see any Dantes, Shakespeares, Miltons or Goethes, not even small, on the horizon.

Isn't there some irresponsibility in dismissing British Society as "rubbish" or "boring" and declaring yourself a Francophile?

The greater irresponsibility would be to accept 'British society' - for a start, I don't believe it exists, except as a notion of the ruling class and the military. How can a society exist when it's not supported by a culture? And the gentry, the armed forces, the Conservative Party, the Church of England, the Public Schools, Ascot, Harrods, Henley and the University Boat Race, are not, I submit, of very great inspiration in that respect.

At certain points the cultures of Wales, Ireland, Scotland and England overlap. But there's too much resistance from each of them - and, quite rightly so, from England too - for these tentatively shared concerns to make a 'Britain.' Some observers see that as self-evident. Readers of poetry need only compare the underlying convictions of Welsh, Irish, Scottish and English poetry.

Others accept the idea of Britain at its face value, and, to the extent that it's untruthful, or an administrative expedient, or an antiquarian arrangement perpetuated by the monarchy, or not the case, then it's rubbish. As a calculated political or social contrivance, it might be much worse than mere drivel, but a primary lie on which the anachronism of power in this country is founded, that whole clapped-out inequity of Them and Us, of First, Second and Third Worlds in national and international dimensions, of different levels of time, the so-called different 'levels of development' manipulated in the interests of currencies, investors and power. It's sickening. It's as hideous as the holocaust. It corrupts life. To the extent, too, that it's possible to lose interest and patience in values that sustain anachronism in the name of power and money, then it's boring, and those who create this ennui are profoundly offensive.

A fascination for French literature and ideas is very far from believing that French society is perfect. But if you find the stimulus you need in a language other than your own, then you take it.

The poems of yours that I have seen in periodicals since St Kilda's Parliament seem to mc to be strikingly different in tone from that volume: less formal and urbane, more sombre. In what ways does your new volume Elegies seem to you to differ from your earlier poetry? Do you still see yourself as a poet of society?

I don't have the brass neck to think of myself as a poet of society. What society? Whose society? I don't write for 'the pubIic'. At the same time, I've always been aware of not writing for myself, but for other people - if only the imaginary, understanding reader, that little light of goodwill for which all writers live. I suppose I see myself as a lyric poet distracted by social concerns that are not of my invention.

My wife died of cancer in March 1981. By my own measures of decorum it's reprehensible to talk about an event of such grievous magnitude in terms other than its own. Elegies is therefore addressed to one subject, a love and its loss. It would have shamed me to print elegies among poems of other kinds. At the same time it distresses mc to publish a book like Elegies which is thorough in its loyalty to bleakness and as close as I could bear to make it to a true testimony. That what happened interrupted the direction my poetry might have taken after St Kilda's Parliament is beside the point.

Poetry's neither a gentle exercise of leisure nor an act of fidelity to a chosen aesthetic or stylistic impulse, traditional, avantgarde, experimental, punk or whatever. I've had my face rubbed in that truth and I hope to have learned from it. During the year in which I wrote or drafted Elegies, I found myself mounting a subjective reappraisal of poetry. I emphasize the word subjective. Why had poetry become so important in my life? Why did I believe in the value of poetry? What is its value? Why was I convinced that the elegies I was trying to write were so important, inevitable and natural to me? What made me uncertain and irascible could have been a simple lack of talent, but I felt very acutely the inadequacy of poetry as a means of describing love and its loss in death. If poetry, for me, could be imperfect on the subject closest to my heart, then might it not be inadequate on any other subject?

Writing Elegies affirmed poetry to myself, myself to myself it seems melodramatic and preposterous, but all I mean is that I have discovered a kind of patience, or tolerance, some sort of understanding that poetry is natural and benevolent, even when it's about what hurts its writers and readers. To have avoided the poems of my sorrow - and at times I tried to - would have been a sly act of reticence, a self-distorting discretion. Yet the last thing I wanted to do was inflict my grief on others, or seem to look for sympathy. All subjects in poetry have to be earned or deserved. And to be honest in joy you must also be true to the rituals of sorrow and misfortune. 'Life' as a quality in writing is a notion I acknowledge as gruffly as Dr Johnson, from whom I imitate it.

In style, the poems in Elegies differ little if at all from earlier writing. The stylistic habits acquired in previous books were all I had to hold on to as I worked. To have broken away from them would have been insincere, technically, and probably in feeling as well.

Although you set yourself against MacDiarmid, and the Scottish traditions you identify with seem more to be socio-political than poetic (recent poetry, anyway), you have always seen yourself as a poet of place. And you are an anthologist of Hull North East English poetry: I wondered if you were developing an exile's commitment to the North East at all?

A Rumoured City: New Poets from Hull was devised because I felt under an obligation to present poets I believe to be talented and who were in danger of being starved of publication and the chance of a readership. So, no exile's commitment to Hull- l owe it nothing. It doesn't owe me anything either.

As for MacDiarmid, I'm devoted to his first three books, but after that the bulk of his work strikes me as neurotic pomposity. What I'm now going to say is selfish in the extreme - but I resent that the major figure in modern Scottish poetry should have been wonderful for a decade, and then dreadful, figureheadish, and decisively intolerant, for five decades more; and that during that long phase of sovereignty he should have installed a system of literary expectations which does not encourage me, but against which I have to contend. As an interested reader I find it heartbreaking. As a poet I find it infuriating. What I can't do is surrender my aesthetic convictions (which, I submit, are of the same Scotland) to national and political priorities of writing, as MacDiarmid defined them, and thereby allow myself to become a function of MacDiarmid, even at the level of lip-service for the sake of a quiet life.

I overstate. Fortunately the position isn't as bad as I've sketched it. Scottish poetry has been rich in this century. As well as Edwin Muir and Andrew Young, there arc Norman MacCaig, Sydney Goodsir Smith, W.S. Graham, Robert Garioch, lain Crichton Smith, Edwin Morgan, Sorley Maclean, George Mackay Brown. These are wise, profound and witty poets, imaginative and interesting, and their individual and collective achievements are heartening to a poet of my generation. I wouldn't deny that their work is important to my own. Their poems mean as much to me if not more than those of English, Irish, American and other poets now writing or of the recent past. This won't be believed in Scotland where the malice of deliberate misunderstanding is for ever topical.

A poet invents much of his or her own working tradition.

Poetry affections can come from all sorts of sources, few of which need be specifically national if what a poet has chosen to identify with are the characters and times of the people and places the poet comes from. There are Traditions with a capital T - but what poet sits down to write thinking of Tradition?

Other users of the Burns stanza in modern poetry are James Fenton and John Fuller. Are you happy with the Motion Morrison anthology?

Seamus Heaney's An Open Letter is the newest poem I've come across in that stanza - which comes from Lochwinnoch in Renfrewshire, via the Troubadours. Heaney chides Morrotion for calling him 'British'. I agree with Heaney. I support his complaint and understand his grievance. Mind you, he's been patient with it. He's not what you'd call outspoken. But no one actually calls him English, even by implication, just because he writes in English, is published in London, and has taken guidance from English poetry - that's the kind of thing I get. Nowhere in Morrotion's Introduction am I referred to as Scots, simply as 'provincial.' This did not cheer me. Tantrums on this subject, though, are an affront to my dignity. I'd have been even unhappier with the book if I hadn't been in it.

The Introduction to Motion-Morrison speaks of your debt to Larkin. Do you owe him anything, do you think?

Much as I admire Larkin's poetry, I doubt if it has influenced mine. Whatever l owe Larkin, it isn't literary, except at the level of conversation, which isn't as insignificant as it sounds. It certainly isn't political.

Someone once said that your poetry is becoming less explicitly political at a time when others (Heaney, Montague, Paulin) are becoming more so. Is there an imagination vs political divide?

I read and admire the three poets you mention, but if their poems are increasingly political, then surely it's because they're Irish and have a political drama to absorb and react against.

As I said earlier, I'm a lyric poet distracted by unlyrical subjects. The long poem I'm working on, Politovsky's Letters Home, is not without its political dimensions. What I feel to be necessary, and the state towards which I hope to be working, is the coexistence in poems of the poet's dream and the poet's argument, of imagining and thinking. Like most problems in writing, it's a question of technique and style. In the case of what I'm writing now I think it's a question of finding a form of narrative fluid enough to include both reality and its imaginative transformations, one which doesn't disfigure the language or insult the chances of melody and cadence.

On the other hand, I find short stories increasingly congenial - old-fashioned, straightforward tales which do not invite such questions as "Is there an imagination versus politics divide?"