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Candid Narrative: An Interview with Blake Morrison by Tim Kendall

Blake Morrison is Literary Editor of The Independent on Sunday. He has published two volumes of poetry, Dark Glasses (Chatto, 1984) and The Ballad of the Yorkshire Ripper (Chatto, 1987), and two critical studies, The Movement (OUP, 1980) and Seamus Heaney (Methuen, 1982). With Andrew Motion he edited The Penguin Book of Contemporary Poetry (Penguin, 1982). His most recent book And When Did You Last See Your Father? (Granta, 1993) won the first Esquire/ Volvo/ Waterstone's prize for non-fiction.

Did you start writing poetry at university?

No, I started as a teenager. I remember being set a poem as homework and gravitating towards the village church, thinking that poetic inspiration must come from graveyards - serious places. Then came a later stage when I began to think that poetry could be a voluntary activity. By the sixth form I was writing terrible, adolescent poems about how convention-minded parents misunderstood noble, unfettered youth, etc. And I wrote satirical poems for the school magazine: parodies of The Waste Land and poems about teachers with bald heads, a peculiar mixture of schoolboy facetiousness and modernism.

In And When Did You Last See Your Father? you mention that you saw writing as a rebellion against the culture in which you grew up.

Yes, ours wasn't a very bookish household. I always identify with Tony Harrison's descriptions of his childhood home. It's supposed that if you grow up in a middle-class environment and your parents are doctors, you're in a literary and cultural whirl compared with the working-class child. I don't think that's so. There were a few books in our house, and indeed my mother read a bit; later on I discovered a book of poems inscribed to her by an Irish admirer. But it never felt as though reading - let alone writing - were activities which might be pursued, so to that extent poetry was an escape from my parents' world.

Which poets were you reading at this stage?

The poet who really got me going was Wilfred Owen. I can remember reading right through the night his First World War poems, and swooning over them. It was poetry that wanted to do something, to make something happen. Maybe this was an aspect of my upbringing that I didn't rebel from, because my parents were doctors, caring professional people, who impressed on me the importance of helping others. I thought poetry might have that function. My other great discovery during that period was Eliot. I read The Waste Land and thought, "this is poetry". I can remember that excitement of not understanding something, but feeling sure it was the real thing, and thinking it was worth the trouble to go back to the poem again and again, to try to understand it a bit more. I didn't have much of a grounding in pretwentieth-century poetry. I read Wordsworth and Browning, but nothing much earlier apart from Donne and Shakespeare.

You came across Larkin and the Movement later?

Much later. I was a modernist at twenty - Lawrence, Joyce, Eliot. But I seem to have stopped at 1945. I spent a year in Canada writing an M.A., and came under the influence of a very good teacher who was a real Romantic enthusiast. For him the two great poets were Blake and Yeats, and they were great because of their mysticism. So I went through a mystical, transcendentalist phase. Then I came back to London - I was twenty-two or twenty-three - and discovered Larkin. He challenged everything I'd been doing. I became obsessed with rationalism in poetry.

Your first book was The Movement. Have you always viewed your criticism as being written, as it were, with the left hand?

That's a very difficult question to answer. Certainly at the time I was writing the Movement study, I was also writing Larkinesque pastiche. The juvenilia which preceded that was more obscure, and one of the effects of reading Larkin was to make my poetry lucid, but also flat. I think my poetry and criticism did come out of the same place. I can remember sitting in the British Museum Reading Room, reading everything Robert Conquest had written on the Soviet Union, and I'd have a notebook beside me and try to write poems about the girl who brought me the books. So they were simultaneous activities.

Did the same osmosis occur while you were writing your book on Heaney?

By that time I was much more aware of the down si'ie - the echoes. What you think is yours turns out to be a poor copy of someone else. It's all right to use Larkin to help your poetry become more lucid. But when you find you're employing tones and idioms that are not yours but his, it's appalling. My poem 'Xerox', which is about the Sara Tisdall affair, has the line "sweet-faced, two-faced, a face for every paper". It seems to me now pure Heaney, and it comes from 'Punishment' . It takes away from my poem, which I'd felt to be really mine because it was about secrecy, a theme which obsessed me.

The Penguin Book of Contemporary British Poetry took a lot of flak when it was first published. How do you think it stands up now, with eleven years of hindsight?

Any anthology like that, where you're representing a new generation of poets, some of whom have published only one volume, is a gamble. On the whole, I think we did okay. There are ten poets in that anthology who would be in anybody's anthology of British poetry in the second half of this century. Off the top of my head, I'd mention Heaney, Muldoon, Paulin, Dunn, Fenton, Craig Raine, Tony Harrison .... Of the other ten, there are five who are okay, and five whom we soon thought the better of for various reasons. It was the Martian moment, when Craig Raine was influencing every young poet. We probably went overboard on that, which distorted our overall sense of what was happening. Not that I regret his presence, but there may have been one or two too many imitators. There have been developments since, which the anthology doesn't include - the emergence of a number of black poets, and a new oral tradition which seems to have taken off. If we were doing - as we are thinking of doing - a new anthology now, it would be more generous. We were rather didactic in presenting the "new canon".

You've already gone on record condemning the recent Bloodaxe anthology, The New Poetry. But which poets represented there do you think deserve to stand alongside those in your anthology?

Well, when you say condemning, I think mildly rebuking. Particularly the introduction - although it's always the introduction that gets the stick, as ours did. The annoying thing about The New Poetry is that it's oddly continuous with ours, and it makes too much of its break. At least half a dozen poets represented there would fit as happily into ours, and indeed we considered including them. Pre-eminent among those was Peter Reading, whom we had great difficulty representing because he's a poet who works over book length. He has all the instincts of a novelist. We nearly put him in, and I wish we had. Likewise Michael Hoffman: he hadn't yet published his first book, but we knew about him. Then other people like Carol Ann Duffy and Ciaran Carson. Two or three years later, and they would have been in.

The Penguin anthology claims that the poets represented share a common purpose: "to extend the imaginative franchise". How does this ambition affect your own poetry?

That's Andrew Motion's phrase, as I remember, and a very good one, but not one I would particularly apply to my own work. My two collections seem to me to divide very simply: the first book is about secrecy, and the second is about gender. Both of them have the ambition of wanting to make something happen. Auden's line "poetry makes nothing happen" always sticks in my throat, and I've wanted to disbelieve it. While admiring Auden, and seeing exactly what he means, I think that when you're a young poet and you're not comfortable with the society in which you live, it's natural to want your poetry to make some small contribution to improving things.

Critics have sometimes placed your poetry in the Martian camp, but I wonder if the obsession with secrecy and shifting identities in your first volume, Dark Glasses, shares more in common with Paul Muldoon?

That might be true. But certainly there was a period when Martianism was a great influence. Long before I met Craig Raine I saw some of his poems, and had this sense that here was somebody doing something new and different. Before he published his first book I was teaching a poetry workshop, and would bring along his poems as they were being published in the New Stateman and elsewhere. I felt that was what spoetry should be doing. It seemed to me that poetry had got very stale and fuzzy at the edges, and what he had, wonderfully, was the ability to make you see something. While I have reservations about the crossword puzzle, decoding elements of Martian poetry, I liked what Craig was doing a lot. I also liked the longer Muldoon poems not so much the whimsical, even cheeky lyrics which I admire, but have no affinity with, but the thriller-like longer poems. Also James " . Fenton's' A Staffordshire Murderer', which has thriller elements. And I was reading a lot of early Le Carre at that time, and I thought it would be very good for some of the conventions ofthe spy novel to be brought into poetry. Those were the influences on Dark Glasses, with its impulses towards secrecy and denial rubbing up against the' 60s ethos of needing to be more open and honest.

One theme which does connect Dark Glasses to your latest book, And When Did You Last See Your Father?, is what you call in 'The Renunciation' "the strands/ Of family", with all its private etiquettes and tiny betrayals. How has your treatment of that theme developed?

There are two poems in Dark Glasses particularly relevant to the recent book. One is 'The Renunciation', which is set in the home where I grew up. The other is 'Grange Boy', about a boy growing up in a big house and the local children coming and asking for conkers - absolutely what happened to me; but at the end of that poem I go off into my "secret narrative". Andrew Motion had just published a collection called Secret Narratives, and he and I were both interested in stories that weren't quite true stories, that relished their fictionalising. Maybe my new book goes back to that same territory of family relationships, but this time with more candid narratives.

At times you've felt guilty about coming south, and breaking with family tradition. Yet your portrayal of northern culture in your second volume, The Ballad of the Yorkshire Ripper, seems absolutely damnmg.

I have felt guilty about coming south, partly because I had such a strong possessive father, who didn't want me to go away, but also because I had all the inherited northern suspicion of the south with its airs and graces and shallowness. When I first came to London I identified with characters like John Kemp in Larkin's novel, and the Angry Young Men, and the Movement heroes who grew up in the provinces and are always a bit surly and suspicious of metropolitan folk. But I'm disinclined to feel that The Ballad of the Yorkshire Ripper is condemning of the north. The misogyny talked of in the title poem may be more overt in the north, and more enshrined in the dialect, but I wasn't shitting on my own doorstep. I was writing about stuff I could see equally well going on in the south. Peter Sutcliffe came from the same part of the world as me, so I knew his territory. But I'm not holding the north responsible for Peter Sutcliffe; what I blame is a certain hard, misogynistic culture which you can find anywhere.

There's a funny moment in the title poem when the narrator breaks off from his gory descriptions: "But rest 0' that ah'll leave,! out of respect to t'family/ an' cos it makes me 'eave." But that humour covers up the risk of writing graphically about victims whose families are still alive.

Yes, I felt a bit uncomfortable about the poem from the beginning, and I wish now I'd shown it to more people before I published it, so I could have been more prepared for the shit hitting the fan. The poem first appeared in The London Review of Books, which has a fairly intellectual readership; there was no picketing outside the offices. Then some Leeds journalist who had seen the book mentioned in the Chatto catalogue rang me up, and he'd already been busy ringing round all the relations for quotes. They hadn't even read the book: just the title, and the idea of the subject being done, was enough. There are those shocked by the idea - and I've learnt this about the new book too - of writing about people who aren't normally written about in books, people who may be still alive, but with no public life. Some of the relations of Sutcliffe's victims felt offended, because they felt that newspapers could write about the murders, but no one should make a work of art out of them. A couple of years later there was a very clever student stage production of 'The Ballad of the Yorkshire Ripper'. The cast was overwhelmingly male, but with one woman who took the walk-on parts. At the end of the piece, as people began to applaud, her mother - who came from Bradford - stood up to denounce her for taking part. I'd say to anybody, "Read the poem" - is it gloating, is it gratuitous, does it ennoble the Yorkshire Ripper? And even if it did, there would still be a case for it existing artistically, unless you believe in censorship. I thought the poem was making a moral point. I would say that, wouldn't I? But it's true: it didn't exist to be controversial, it existed to address a serious Issue.

You mention that people took offence at turning Sutcliffe's murders into artwork, but isn't that similar to a point you make in And When Did You Last See Your Father? where you use the word "indecent" to describe the artfulness of making poetry out of your father's death?

It's not that I think poems would have been more indecent than prose; Ijust couldn't write poems. There have been so many very good poems about difficult fathers, dying fathers or dead fathers by my contemporaries that there wasn't the space for me to do it: I felt I'd be going over familiar - or familial - ground. I thought of writing fiction but then I decided that there wasn't any point in making anything up. I was suspicious of art at that time, although I'd like to think now that there is an artfulness in the book. What concerned me was truth, and there seemed a kind of pointlessness in the constraints of poetry, or indeed of fiction. In the face of screaming pain and anguish, art can sometimes seem indecent in its frivolity and fingernail-paring stance. I wanted the art of my book to be its truth-telling. Maybe this connects with Sutcliffe, because there seems a kind of frisson available - and maybe more than that - in knowing as a reader that what you're reading actually happened, hasn't been invented, is true. It's something we're too sophisticated to experience in novels any more. Similarly if I'd invented a serial killer, there would have been no charge in the poem. People had read the newspaper reports, but now they were going to get something unexpected - a ballad; brusque, unsentimental, unbiased.

You once wrote that you would abandon poetry if you ever lost faith in its ability to make something happen. I wonder if And When Did You Last See Your Father? is therefore a farewell to poetry?

I didn't think of it as such. It could well be, of course. The truth is, I haven't written poetry for some time, and seem to have lost whatever it was that made me want to write it - maybe it's faith in what it can do, or faith in what I can do. Maybe it's the more practical thing of being at a certain age. People do have periods of drought - Michael Longley went for twelve years before the publication of Gorse Fires. Having a full-time job and three children - perhaps those have driven my poetry out. It's very tough to retain the space which poetry needs, because it's a different kind of writing from journalism or even getting up each day to crack on with your novel. Having said all that, I'd be sorry to think it was a farewell. It may happen again when the right challenge comes along. I'd be disconsolate if there was no chance of it coming back.