Honouring The Vertical Man:
An Interview with Stephen Romer
by Ian Sansom
Stephen Romer lives in France, where he teaches at the University of Tours. His new collection Plato's Ladder (OUP, £6.99) includes a number of poems which were inspired by his stay in Poland during 1989-90. Fleur Adcock breathed a sigh of relief when reviewing Romer's first book Idols (1986) - at last, she wrote, a young poet who had escaped the shadow of Craig Raine and the Martians. Romer was in Oxford recently as part of a reading tour to promote his new volume, and he explained to Ian Sansom how his work has continued to flourish and develop outside the constraining orthodoxies of 'British' poetry.
When did you start writing?
I can name that pretty precisely - when I was sixteen at school, I think. We had a book with Ted Hughes and Thorn Gunn in it, and one boring class I was flicking through and I came across the poems by Thorn Gunn. I thought, good God, here's someone who's writing about people in the modern world motorcycles, drugs, rock and roll. And that set me off. Also the Liverpool poets, people like Brian Patten.
I'm surprised at that - your poetry seems to be written from within a strong French tradition, certainly no hint of Gunn or Patten. You wrote once: 'There can be no two ways about it: contemporary French poetry is difficult'. How do you see yourself in relation to your 'difficult' French contemporaries?
Actually I don't feel a part of any French tradition, except perhaps an earlier one, which I suppose would be Laforgue, Corbiere - the tradition which goes back to Baudelaire. Surrealism has never been a big interest of mine. I've translated some contemporary French poets, like Jacques Dupin, but chiefly Yves Bonnefoy, who is a big influence. I'm not influenced so much by his technique, but by his aesthetic vision, which I find very attractive.
His kind of religious humanism?
Very much so, particularly his idea of 'presence', which is a kind of humanism writ large; you find the same in Rilke. The point about Rilke, that links him with Bonnefoy and with Mandelstam, is the importance to him of the real world of objects, the idea of 'lived-in' objects - the tradition behind a house, or a hearth, or a tool. The presence in ordinary objects - I think that's a very important notion.
Do you find it in English poetry at all? In Charles Tomlinson perhaps?
I think Tomlinson is interesting - his landscapes particularly, and his aesthetic meditations, also there's a lot of colour in his work, which is very important to me. Going back to Bonnefoy, he speaks of the 'non-conceptual clairvoyance' of colour. It's the way the dumb phenomenal world speaks itself, if you like. And that's essential to a notion of humanistic presence, I think, though it's not remotely near any orthodox religion I can name.
But in your earlier work I detected hints of a transcendent Other, a more orthodox vision of God perhaps, not just an Immanence.
I think there was that, certainly, in the second half of Idols, which I think is something that people haven't fully grasped, because it is actually an account of a religious approach which went wrong, which broke off. The first half of Idols, which consisted of the more recent poems in that book, are love poems - I suppose I found a new object of desire. Plato's Ladder, of course considerably widens those interests.
Into a more philosophical approach?
Yes. I think there's a more serious endeavour being made in some of the poems. In the two epigraphs in the book, one from Plato and the other from Clough, I've tried to sum it up. The one from Clough is important ('Utterly vain is, alas! this attempt at the Absolute, - wholly! ') - he has that kind of irony which is central to Plato's Ladder.
The Polish poems particularly seem to be injected with a humour and irony that hadn't been apparent in your work before.
Yes, Polish humour; it's perpetually black humour. Like drinking till you're blind drunk and falling over and finding it funny. But the Polish poems aren't just intended to be funny, there's an important political context to them.
Do you think of them as political poems?
Well they're political simply in the sense that in Poland and right across what was the Soviet Union, there is this extraordinary political symbolism just there, and you can simply read it off. One of the poems has me watching the film Wall Street, and then coming out - you're suddenly back in what looks like Weimar Germany. It's odd, it's political in itself, in that juxtaposition, though not political in a partisan sense.
The other new thing about the Polish poems is that, to use Pascal's terms, although your poetry has always been concerned with the 'grandeur' of things, you now seem to be writing about the 'misere' also.
In Poland you're constantly coming into contact with history in the rawest sense - it's grittier, not least because the air is grittier and you're having to breathe it in. I got very obsessed by the history of the Lodz ghetto. In Poland today you see where the Western dream has somehow gone horribly wrong - that comes across in the poem 'Nightlife' I hope. I felt all the time in Lodz a sense of being dragged under by its history, never getting free of it.
Is that what has attracted so many Western poets to East European themes?
Yes. probably. Donald Davie was attacking Daniel Weissbon recently, saying that all the interest in Eastern Europe is just jumping on a bandwagon. I think that in writing Holocaust poems one is open to a certain charge, but one does not write those poems without an enormous amount of soul searching. Above all one must ask where is oneself in all this? I kept myself out of the Holocaust poems entirely - that seemed the most honest way to present what I wanted to. I hope that I am not exploiting anything.
Going back to something you said earlier - how you see yourself sharing affinities with Bonnefoy and his idea of 'presence'. What does this mean for the way you write - is a poem necessarily a triumph of concentration?
I think so. Certainly I can't stand any sort of verbosity in poetry; I'm allergic to it I don't really have time for things that have been slackly written. I've never been a martian, for example, although I can see that they've done some good things, some things that are exciting, but my imagination simply doesn't work that way. In the best poems one is using the entire emotional range, writing, so to speak, with one's entire body; one is re-living one's own history or recuperating it in some way. My poetry is much more about refusal, the selection of details rather than inclusiveness.
How does that relate to your use of poetic form - particularly your use of couplets, which are really your trademark?
I think I write less in couplets now, but they served me well in Idols because there the intellect was grappling with emotional chaos and trying to mould it into something coherent The couplets are an aid to concision and control.
Where do they come from?
I was reading a lot of Ovid - in translation - and Peter Whigham's Catullus,that combined with Americans like Berryman, I suppose that's where they come from. I chose to use them because they're sinewy and supple. I've abandoned half rhyme now though; I suppose I felt I could contain stuff without it. The Polish poems use internal rhymes, just enough to keep them on the boil.
The other most noticeable thing about Plato's Lad.d.er is that it covers a lot of ground geographically.
Yes. I would never like to write 'tourist' poems though; I think that whatever I write has been put through the grille, as it were, of my own obsessions. I think that perhaps behind everything there's a shadowy ideal place, an idea which I talk about in the poem 'The Work'. Proust has been important to me in that respect. There is the wonderful passage after the death of Albertine, when he's watching a slant of light on the wall like a dagger, and it goes into him because he associates it with when she was in the house. It's that minute reworking of experience at a high level of concentration that I think is important; all these images he's lived and resurrected in his work, they become an essential part of the fabric of things. I hope in the best poems of Plato's Ladder there is that feeling of depth, of the depth of a colour, or a landscape, or a place - not the horizontal but the vertical. For example, if you revisit a place where you've suffered, as happens in 'Bellagio', then you're in a position to structure that experience, or to understand it there's depth there. That idea of reliving suffering links up with the idea of the ladder: an ascent towards greater consciousness, fuller understanding.
So what about your latest poetry, your work since Plato's Ladder?
Well, firstly I've moved and I now live in the country, and as one might expect I'm writing a lot of stuff inspired by the surroundings, trying to strip the poetry down, just to let phenomena speak in an almost Haiku-like way. What I've found in this attempt to transpose a natural phenomenon is that it's toneless, which is difficult, it worries me, because I think if my poems have a hallmark it's a tonal one. The best of the new poems are the ones where there is an ideal combination of intellectual play engaging with a seen object - there's a particular tonality arises there. The other new direction is that I've been reading Mandelstarn and I've got a lot from that Mandelstam's hold on the world seems ideal, he seems to me the exemplary poet at the moment, his mix of lively intellect and extraordinarily original vision. And the colour as well, of course, his work is full of colour.
Another foreign model?
Yes. I think I have learnt a lot from the English though. ill Plato's Ladder, in the Polish poems, I use more of an anecdotal style, which I think is distinctively English. I cannot stress enough how much that way of writing is in polar contradistinction to the French, where there is not usually even an 'I' person in the poem. French poetry now is often linguistics-based, and as a result the vocabulary of contemporary French poetry has shrunk: - you rarely get the name of a film or anything that indicates the modern world There's a phobia of the modem world and certainly a phobia of peopling the poems in any other way than is allegorical or sentimental.
Where do you think that phobia has come from?
From Mallarme. It's a symbolist hangover, from the days when the language of poetry had to be purified, so that it had nothing to do with prose, nothing to do with stories, nothing to do with characters. In comparison poetry in Britain and Ireland is incredibly pluralistic - very different.