When I was an ‘MA in Writing’ student at the University of Glamorgan back in the mid-1990s, I came across the work of John Powell Ward. I may have found him before I began my MA work, because I invited him to come up to the Literary Society at the Ucheldre Centre, Holyhead. But when it came to choosing a poet to write about for the critical part of the MA, I knew it was this poet I wished to write about – I was captivated by both the way he used language and the themes he touched so deeply into. The paper I wrote – ‘”Language of Light”: The Poetry of John Powell Ward’ – went on, a few years later, to be published in the journal Welsh Writing in English, Volume No.7
You can find out more about John’s work by going to the Literature Wales database here.
Let us begin at the beginning, John, with ‘the Word’ – language itself and its crucial relationship to us and us to it. In fact, you have written widely about the alphabet and the book I first found by you and went on to know very well is A Certain Marvellous Thing where the alphabet itself is fore-grounded in poem after poem, an alive medium shot through with ‘light’. One poem says:
My love is letters.
May they endure for ever.
(‘The Word Processor’).
Hold this poem up to the light.
How beautifully the words shine.
Like a stained glass window should.
Letters shimmer with angels’ haloes …
(‘From a Phrase By Janet Montefiore’)
and in ’Afterword’, you write: ‘Letters are made of twigs, limbs, grit, icicles, electricity, splinters of grass, bones; individual daisies in a whole landscape, flowers, insects, petals. The lyric poem is soaked in letter-sounds, and swims inside their liquid chances’.
Do these extracts provide you with a way of opening up our discussion?
It’s true that I have spent quite a lot of time with alphabetical letters. But that is because few others have. It just seemed a neglected resource. Like everyone else I respond to all poetry’s components; sentences, metaphors, rhythms, whole poems, and human meaning and feeling.
But letters are beautiful. They have to be; stable, equable, restful; complex enough to interest us yet simple enough not to distract or weary us; and for our whole lives. Why do people treat them so roughly? I can’t see how anyone can write “the 20th Century” (what’s that capital for?), when “the twentieth century” is so easeful a trisyllabic pairing. “20th” is a mess, like the horrific “from 2000-3”. Was 2003 so bad a year it must lose its name? And where has “to” gone to? Steven Pinker has said that alphabetical signs are entirely arbitrary and that, so long as we used them consistently, a star of David, a smiley face and the Mercedes-Benz logo would serve just as well. He is sadly mistaken. Alphabetical signs have emerged from long gentle use and survived everything that history, culture and revolution has thrown at them. Our alphabet today is almost as it was in Roman times.
I am also it seems a religious poet (your opening sentence is near-biblical…), but never thought I was, nor did it consciously. But the language of Christianity – King James Bible, Book of Common Prayer, the psalms and greater hymns – resonated all through our family childhood and teens. The creation-myths of virtually all primal and tribal societies contain the three same elements; water, light, and language. Surely the religious poets of our era have been the greatest: Eliot, Yeats, Auden, David Jones, R.S.Thomas, Elizabeth Jennings, Geoffrey Hill, and others. But of course all those go back a bit now. Where it stands today, I don’t know.
You’ve made a number of fascinating points, John, so let me frame some questions in response. Your love of language itself comes through loud and clear in your poetry, and I do so like the way you seek to honour our human ‘medium’. In your poem ‘Motif’, you say: ‘All the words broke in/Agony … Perhaps we had pushed and/Pulled them till the blood ran’. You have had a long concern for the way we ‘use’ language. Words need to be nursed by ‘patient tongues’, you suggest in that poem, in order to be brought to life. Can you expand on how we do this? Is it the work of poets, say, to ‘nurse’ the language, or is it something you imagine more widely? Clearly since writing that poem, things have got a whole lot … should I say ‘busier’? … in terms of how language is ‘used’. I mean, since then, text messaging has come in big time, for example: abbreviated forms of communication via the mobile phone and email, and everything has sped up! Do you see that as a deviation and indeed desecration of language? Or a natural evolution?
Yes, our western culture does seem to have shifted (at present) to see language as signs that are arbitrary (the Pinker idea), yet in your poems, you seem to speak of language as being a more deeply structured organic medium, asking the alphabet ‘to be the bits/And pieces, the twigs and leaves’ (‘October’). Can you say more about language as you see it (Pinker doesn’t have the last word!) and this may well tie into you being a religious poet, which is certainly how I wrote about you in ‘Language of Light’. What are the links, as you see them?
Certainly I think language must be cared for, and consciously. But I’m not sure writing good poetry cares for the language. It’s the other way round; cared-for language enables good poetry. And that may be true negatively too, so that if everyday language is both sloppy and dull that can prevent good poetry. Ezra Pound thought good poetry “purified the dialect of the tribe”, but he meant for the already literate and gifted in the said tribe; it didn’t much help everyone else.
Equally text messaging, e-mails and the like. I’m not sure that is the problem either. At least, not unless people try to write e-mails in full-blown prose which then gets mixed up with shorthand language. You say “abbreviated forms of communication”; quite so; but shorthand has been used by secretaries and others since the first typewriters appeared, and it has never really spread to the ordinary printed page, whether quality or tabloid.
Rather, it’s the ordinary daily prose which deteriorates, and that is only rectified by parents, teachers, good editorials in newspapers, and so on. Why did people start saying “meet up with” and “miss out on” when meet and miss had worked fine for decades? Because they’d Been To America, or heard about it. British Rail changed “passengers” into “customers”, just maybe for sales reasons (I still firmly say “passengers” to railway staff). Grown males who “pop” upstairs or “pop” down to the hardware store. The easy isms; ‘elitism’, ‘escapism’, ‘consumerism’. Infantile language (google, pop, say sorry); say-nothing language like “appropriate” or “he’s only doing his job”; pressure-language, cartoon language, scatological language, motive attribution, and the rest by the ton. But I suspect, underlying all this, is the vacuous cornflake patois of ‘hard-hitting’ tabloids and cheery ads. What it has done to our minds for half a century now is anyone’s guess.
Well, I guess its whole persuasive purpose is to turn us into consumers -?
Absolutely. There has always been less-good language, but never in such multiple quantities, as to spread like a foam or fungus right across almost every bit of articulation we try for. One might expect not much poetry to get written in such a climate, and what does get written is likely, understandably, to move off into a rarefied world of its own; there are few Philip Larkins indeed.
Language at root comes from elsewhere. You ask about my idea of language, and language and religion. In the west at least, a very small number of signs (twenty-six) are distributed and re-distributed thousands of times over so that every item, object, thought, nuance, feeling, qualification, relation, or anything else and their connectors – and, of, but, when etc – can be expressed, in uttered sound or written mark. In so going forward from pictogram or hieroglyphic our alphabet becomes the most tenuous, precarious, near-ephemeral sign-system there could be (except bar-codes or something, which are not attractive). According to philosophers Hans-Georg Gadamer and Susanne Langer this is “miraculous”. If “miraculous”, then as ancient societies have usually thought, maybe language really is the best link we have between our earthly condition and whatever other more primal or final condition may pertain beyond or beneath us; and ‘The Word made flesh’ means something again.
I’d better stop there, and hope all this makes at least some sense. But in case it’s too metaphysical or abstract here are a couple of poems. The first shows – I hope – that alphabetical play and a deeply tragic subject aren’t incompatible. The second, “Instants”, was made largely from examples used in my book on poetry and the alphabet, The Spell of the Song. It seemed an interesting exercise.
We need our children to remain children.
These few will do that for us.
When we die they will still live.
The small bright faces on the sideboard.
Why is our earth out of joint?
There is an answer but not here.
Weeping just audible, near silent.
Threat, torment, fear have the tongue.
Women bear, and then they bear.
To die at four being not thinkable.
Waifs, petals, feathers.
Tiny things, intercede for us.
let’s death him
once below a time
she is all fools
they could drink time
he was very married
we went on falling upwards
and Adam said I must work
and Eve said I must minister
and the serpent gave a bad apple
and God said it was good
Mary’s eyes are red
Mary’s eyes are blue
the hammer hammered and the comb combed,
the inventor invented and the talker talked
the sweep swept but with no hazel birch,
and never once the iron spade stopped pounding
Thank you, John, for these two from your Selected and New Poems. The first is very typical, I would suggest, of your ability to tackle such big, emotive subjects with economy and compression.
In formal terms, the impact of this poem is greater for the concision. You achieve this effect partly through one of your formal approaches, where you use the same letters – in this case, WT – to begin each couplet. Can you say how you came across this approach, which is very much a style of yours? Was it something you happened upon, or does it have any links with the early Welsh poetic form ‘cymeriad’, where the lines of a verse begin with the same word or letter?
The second poem is also very much your style – linguistically playful, patterned, touching into Genesis. In poems such as ‘Instants’, does the poem emerge from adopting a playful orientation? Is the poem language-led or are you feeling for some meaning within? Both/neither?
I remember back in 1996 seeing the title poem of your collection Genesis on Seren’s flier advertising the forthcoming book and I virtually paced up and down waiting for it to come out, so struck was I by the beautiful brevity of that poem! How much has Genesis and the story of Eden influenced your poetry, would you say? And what about science’s stories? You have poems exploring scientific ideas too, don’t you?
Many poems imagine our globally-warming world dystopically:
… still wondering
If even Solomon’s wisdom could suffice
To save the human venture that began
In Eden; its art, its buildings and its law …
(from ‘Hurry up Please, it’s Time’)
How optimistic are you for our future? (Big question!)
I was quite involved in the nineteen-sixties concrete poetry movement, which then fell away somewhat. So later, in the eighties actually, the question began to be of how the alphabet could be enrichingly highlighted in more orthodox mainstream poems; quatrains, couplets and so on. That makes it sound more planned than it was, it was more hit-and-miss; but I do remember as the starting-point stumbling on the “rhyming initials” idea via a poem called ‘Spelling’, where even the successive stanzas were in alphabetical order – far too over-the-top! But it went from there. It’s not really so new. Rhyme, alliteration and assonance all highlight letters and their sounds. But what I tried for was to make it deliberately arbitrary, so as to give any poem’s meaning, feeling, and story, something to strive against.
Certainly some Welsh-language forms influenced me – as far as I could understand them with my deeply minimal Welsh; but we had done a special issue of Poetry Wales on Welsh traditional forms, and the Welsh-language poets associated with that were very helpful to me at that time – Alan Llwyd, Euros Bowen, Brian Martin Davies and others.
Yes, of course – you were editor of Poetry Wales 1979–1980, weren’t you?
Yes I was. But I’m not sure about “playful”. It often gets said about this kind of work. But that’s what I meant about “Dunblane” – if you give a poem even an arbitrary structure, it becomes an object, and so – I hope – a memorial, in that particularly sad case. It’s like a painter putting an untidy landscape into a rectangular picture-frame. Puns for me are often far too playful, and you need to be a Shakespeare or an R.S. Thomas where such word-play is subtle and, sometimes, at first near-invisible. I do like your question about whether such poems are “language-led” or come from “feeling for some meaning from within”. That puts the contrast exactly. Sometimes a chance cluster of words, and indeed their letters too, can touch deep chords with origins in yourself you weren’t aware of at all, and so you search around for some shape for their meanings, or some meaning lurking in their spellings and shapes.
Yes – exactly.
And you ask “both or either?” In that example ‘Instants’ it was both. And a confession here; of course you have to go looking, but a lot of it is sheer luck. (Sometimes shocking ‘luck’ – one poem ‘October’ came from the appalling deaths of three most dear people – within the same fortnight.)
I think all poets understand the way ‘chance’ or ‘luck’ (serendipity) works when writing poetry – we pick our way between the art and craft of the writing process, balancing as we go.
True. And we could ask how that affects your big-issue questions …Genesis, Eden, science, our future? I wish I knew – where luck comes in, how all these things link up, and what the future holds for us anyway. But two rather obviously ‘scientific’ poems called ‘Once’ and ‘Science Fiction’ both grow out of the Eden idea – or at least so it seems re-reading them now. So maybe there’s a connection there, although actually those two poems feel a bit forced to me now. Maybe science searches for the origins that the Eden story gives us mythologically, and ‘genesis’ means much the same; cognate with genetics and what is ‘general’ at all.
And the future, well, that looks in the other direction, not what is past but what is to come. The world does often seem to have run away with itself, in our present era. I think I’m optimistic, so long as the world’s population issue can be solved. But that’s a big ask too. And there’s a downside. The “loss of Eden” thing – it’s certainly poignant at the level of myth too, but in practice often refers to something very simple and obvious. After countless millennia of living close to nothing but land, cattle, fruit, weather, wild animals and at most a few huts and ponies-and-carts, millions of humans now suddenly (historically suddenly that is) inhabit an environment of electronics, blocks of flats, a mechanised comfort-transport on railways and in the sky, and food pre-chosen, packaged and displayed which we just pick off the supermarket shelves and take home to freeze till we want it. One does wonder sometimes just what the urban public would do if the food, water and overhead cables were all cut off at once. Perhaps the former longstanding gene-stock is still there latent in us, and would jump to the rescue; but where are the skills?
Your poem ‘October’ moves into the heart of shock and grief, bearing witness to those three October 1993 deaths with real lucidity. It’s a very moving poem and there is much to discuss in it! In this poem, you make it clear that ‘The details here are/True’ and you create a powerful impression of receiving the news of these, as you say above, ‘appalling deaths of three most dear people’. There is a real sense of the narrative ‘we’ receiving the news – each time via the phone – and the impact of this news is all the stronger for the way it is contained in your short quatrains which again use repeated letters as here:
His voice high-pitched and thin.
His son in Auckland who driving
Had stopped to mend a tyre was
Hacked down by a van on a country
Road at night […]
Groping from the car all three made
Grief’s very image, in our rooms
Gave vent and clung then calmed.
Grass and low dunes held us […]
You balance the actual ‘what happened’ with a sense of poetic compression and there is movement backwards and forwards between biographical detail and autobiographical impact and reaction. Can I ask you then about your view on autobiographical writing and the way you draw your own life into your poetry? Is it consciously autobiographical? (I know you write on a wide variety of themes and not all your poetry is autobiographical.) I personally am attracted to poetry that achieves that fine-line balance between the writer feeling present in the poem along with a sense of something more. I feel you achieve this – what do you think? I also notice that you move in this poem (though it occurs in other poems too) from the personal to the more than personal, finishing with a prayer-like plea:
Please planet please, save us; be
Placated by our late desperation.
Pardon our fateful expanse, our expense.
Here is your concern about the ‘world’s population issue’ you’ve just mentioned. This final stanza comes after a profound confrontation in the poem with mortality, with modernity, with the way ‘we lack old wisdom a new way’ and the fragility of not just every particular human life – the chance element of life – but also perhaps dearly held ‘theories’ that can seem to ‘evaporate’ in the face of shocking events, finitude and impermanence: there is, even, ‘no endless earth’. Equally, there is no way of stopping ‘progress’: ‘We can’t unknow what has been found’. This seems again to touch into the Edenic myth – we have well and truly eaten of the Tree of Knowledge, both for better and for worse (you describe the world as being ‘stressed like a bridge’) – so what I suppose I am building up to are two questions. (i) You seem to suggest in your poetry that the very act of bearing witness, of moving in close to these feelings, can bring about a kind of insight, redemption and greater sense of connection and even love: ‘How utter is one’s love for these unpublic//Persons and single casualties’. Is that how you experience it? (ii) Elsewhere you suggest (in ‘Elegy for the Accidental Dead’ – a sister poem, in my mind, to ‘October’) that
If poetry means anything at all, language lingering
In the memory as chance of healing help,
It must be attempted …
So can we talk about writing as a ‘therapeutic’ act in at least some cases? Have you found it to be so? And, of course, I suppose we all know the way reading can be therapeutic in its deepest sense, ‘language lingering/In the memory’…?
Those actual lines you quote from ‘October’ refer to a most harrowing occasion with two of our lifetime dearest friends, and I really don’t want to comment further here in cold prose, or in any way risk getting it into a merely “literary criticism” context.
But your own summary is right; the writer “feeling present” themselves, but also “something more”. That’s certainly what is entailed and I’m most grateful for the fullness and care you handled it with. Roughly speaking, the feeling-present – “moving in close” – is what any poetry, indeed any writing or any art, has to have; as Yeats said, you may have worked on it laboriously for ages, but if the result isn’t like the most immediate first response, you may have achieved nothing. And the “something more”, well, if the poet’s or artist’s first responses turn out to blossom into and enable the great regions of insight, redemption, love, then the right end has surely been reached; the traveller has arrived. Your detail on the process is right too, I think. “Fine-balance”, “poetic compression” and the “movement back and forward” between personal feeling and objective detail – all those are needed in writing about such a fraught set of events as ‘October’ came from. I wouldn’t care to deal with so intense a topic very often; but of course, they don’t come up often either.
On autobiographical poetry more generally, early on it was a bit of a problem. I’ve never thought I personally would much interest the general public but I did love the poetry of nature, and tried to write mainly of that – only to find that, unlike the great nature poets, I’d forgotten to include people. Wordsworth and R.S. Thomas teem with other people, as of course do Chaucer and Shakespeare. There is admittedly a meditative philosophical kind of poetry which can be approachable by being genuinely inner, but that would have to be always gentle, modest, compassionate, even when others aren’t present in flesh and blood.
Your final questions touch on deep waters. It sometimes seems here as if we’re approaching the inexpressible – or at least, the poem itself (if you’re lucky and it’s even half-worthwhile) is the nearest you can get. The exact point where “moving in close” to a sense of life, tragedy, wisdom, the old and the more recent, then turns into love, connection and so on, is something we maybe wake up to after it has happened, rather than during it. You can’t look direct at the sun, and total darkness is invisible by definition. As Emerson said of nature and Keats of beauty, they’re not really there till they’re gone. This would no doubt be the faith-moment for the religious and the existential-moment for the secular, which overlap of course, either way it’s our condition. So I would apply that to the therapeutic question too. The poet may experience a healing, but only when the work is done and the poet feels passably satisfied and emptied but also fulfilled. Healing during an event is commonly physical, it might seem; painting, sculpture, and non-art things like gardening, swimming etc. Some years back I was doing some amateur painting, and if that was going well (not too often in my case …) there was something like a calm, an equilibrium, which was to do with the mind feeling its energies and hopes were moving quietly out, via the body; brushes, colours, fingers and thumbs, on to the paper. But you were referring to what expresses a resulting personal love for real hurt people, a rather different thing. And with those two poems, ‘October’ and ‘Elegy/Accidental Dead’ (yes certainly they were connected, even over the four-year gap), the sheer grief and shock were poetic material, raw substance; it may sound callous to say so but they were. The hope was to do something for such people. Even if poetry that comes that way isn’t great, people appreciate that you have wanted to write it down, you’ve tried to assimilate it all and share it with them, send it back to them.
So, I wonder if it is ‘callous’ then if the intention is to offer something – a poem, some words, some solace – to others? Everything is poetically ‘raw material’, I suppose, even tragedy, but there is a long poetic history of the ‘Bard’ voicing the tribe’s grief, of recording victories, brave deeds, loves, wars, sorrows, of offering praise and also consolation -? Maybe it is a natural human urge to ‘give voice’ in the face of life’s slings and arrows and, as poets, we do that by ‘composing’ -?
Does the making of art generate love, or is it itself an act of love? I don’t think I could write a poem about my own bereavement or pain. (Any I’ve tried have failed; you’re too close to it and borne down under it. Hopkins did it in Dublin, and Wordsworth twice, when his brother and his daughter died; great poets can do it, I imagine by being larger overall than their experiences taken severally.) With writing poetry, any good feeling I have found has come, less in therapy, more in success – when it feels successful – and a good-shaped verbal item has appeared. If I’m extraordinarily fortunate it could even be therapeutic for someone else. This is difficult, and I’m finding it hard to convey it all. Does it answer your questions?
Yes, John, thanks – you raise some interesting issues and, of course, they are difficult to address, as you say. I must admit, I’ve read some brilliant poems written out of grief where the person feels fully present, yet the poem doesn’t ‘die to the personal’, as it were. It speaks out of the self but beyond it too. There are so many balances to be had when writing a poem!
Speaking of poems on the theme of death, can we talk about a rather lovely recent poem published in Temenos 13 ‘Seventy’ (2010)? You have written over the years a good few poems that begin ‘And then she …’. These seem to be narrative poems, very forward-moving and intriguing. I’ve very much enjoyed them over the years. In ‘Seventy’ the ‘she’ dies. Do these poems tend to rely on imagined or fictionalised scenarios? Has it been the same ‘she’ in each poem? I hope I’m not being intrusive asking you about this! If you’d rather not talk about the poem in particular, perhaps you could say something about the ‘And then’ poems in general -? You also have some ‘And he …’, ‘And I …’ poems, so it seems to be an approach that suits certain content, perhaps?
And then it would be interesting to hear how you feel your own poetry has changed (if you think it has) from, for example, The Clearing poems (1984) through your Selected and New Poems (2004) to the Variations on Four Places of 2009?
The “And – “ poems came all in a rush. They seemed to start from something not in the poem but there just before it, if I can put it that way. (Raymond Williams sometimes started lectures that way; he’d come in and say, “Of course, you can’t expect the current ideology to go on just like this …” and he’d go from there.) These poems had the same punctuation mark throughout – what George Macbeth once called “a forest of commas” though I’m not sure how much he liked them. They ran dry as quickly as they had started.
But you’ve puzzled me here, because I can’t find a single “And she – “ poem anywhere. Except for “Seventy” itself, which came much later, and does have internal full stops. (We do have a family illness but “she” is now doing very well, mercifully.) Maybe you’re thinking of various poems which have a “she” hanging about and only seen rather mistily – I’ve only just noticed this myself. There are a couple with a “he/she” motif; someone I got talking to on a train; ‘Britomart’ (from Spenser), and one poem which has recently appeared in Poetry Wales called ‘Springtime’ where “she” could be a real person, the muse, or springtime itself. Oh yes and two poems about apples which contain “my sister” when I haven’t even got one. So where all that comes from I don’t know. But there are some more specific ones too, naturally – including, sadly, the suicide of a family friend.
I guess I’ve built up my impression over many years of reading you, so I may well be harking back to the poems in The Clearing too! I do like that ‘And’ way of ‘entering’ though – and the Raymond Williams anecdote is fascinating. It’s like continuing a conversation or stream of thought, rather than starting one anew.
As to the poems changing from one collection to another; well, I seem to switch modes from time to time. No great poetic consistency then, alas. But poetic momentum can take you forward into many new ways of doing things. Back in the 1980s after quite a long silence there were two collections (including The Clearing which you mentioned) which consciously aimed at conventional adult poems on plain serious matters, with formal rhyme-schemes and a somewhat deliberately “educated” lexicon. Unfortunately the result was too often just plain congestion. It needs much practice I guess, over some years. But a few weren’t too bad, I like to hope. Then I suppose I got restless about the alphabet again, which led to the three collections beginning with A Certain Marvellous Thing. Those had the “rhyming initials” we mentioned earlier, and a few other effects which came up. It was a change from concrete poetry, good to be using the alphabet overtly within otherwise conventional poems. And some successful, though too many not. But then there were the “new” poems in Selected and New, a rather mixed lot, but some I was quite happy with, luckily. Finally there was Variations on Four Places, which started one evening when I suddenly wrote a sixteen-line poem from some kind of depth-unconsciousness. Random images came, and the trick seemed to be just to keep them varied. So I wrote another, and another, and … The result was a whole sequence. Why, I don’t know. It just happened that way.
That’s a marvellous testimony to writing out of, as you say, ‘depth-unconsciousness’ – of following a process rather than leading it (as it were).
And, for the present, that’s it, although there’ve been one or two other things and maybe one more collection to come.
I’m glad to hear there’ll be another collection. There was also the exhibition you did in the Hay Festival 2012 – can you touch briefly on that?
And then, as we draw to the end of our conversation, perhaps you could make some more generalised comments about the things that ‘John the person’ cares about – twenty-first century religion, for instance, or religious poetry? You have two ‘religious’ poems in the new Scintilla 16, but what is the state of play, would you say, with regard to what we might call religious poetry today? And what issues continue to concern you that you perhaps can’t, won’t or don’t write poetry about?
It wasn’t the Hay Festival proper actually; it was the Hay Poetry Jamboree, a kind of ‘Hay Fringe’ but quite legit with well-known poets. It was a chance to display my “Poetry or Type” folio, last seen as a framed wall-hanging exhibition, but now letting people actually turn the pages and see individual pieces, with a brief talk and reading attached. On religious poetry, I think after R.S.Thomas a shift is possible. He may have been the last, for a while anyway, to write easily in the George Herbert tradition – poems addressed directly to God, like a prayer for help, or sudden impulse to something like gratitude. But now, for the “believer” (curious notion) the godhead may more be felt as something unnameable pervading reality, within which ambience the poem is written. It is all round you and evenly distributed, as in the famous Irish blessing “may the sun shine warm upon your face, may the wind be always at your back” but at the end “may God hold you in the palm of his hand” – a bit ambiguous, that last bit! – yet as final, as ultimate. Writing religious poetry is certainly exceedingly difficult. Could hardly be otherwise.
As to other and wider issues, this is complex and mixed. Are there any poems about being an office typist, or working in a hardware store, or in the lawcourt, or oil-prospecting in the Arctic, or an MP agonising about interest lending rates? Perhaps there aren’t and couldn’t be; poetry offers the gaps, the human micro-experiences, at its best with breathtaking verbal imagery. Via the press of course it is less the hard graft of the dull workplace day-to-day and more the sensations that make big stories; paedophile scandals, corrupt banks or police, shattering earthquakes or civil wars, or controversy over things like new factories knocking out local communities. But that’s all even further out still than poems on a quiet relationship in a bedsit, or something noticed from a park bench, or how one hour goes by so quickly. I can’t complain – living a largely nature-and-farm life I don’t see these big hefty things myself either, although motorways and airports creep in sometimes. But not only poetry is affected. I’ve just read Julian Barnes’s novel The Sense of an Ending. It won the Man Booker prize. Well, he’s professional enough to elicit shades of human meaning and half-felt nuances to full effect. But you had to ask, do these people do any jobs? Sell anything, manufacture, drive anywhere? It was all “relationships” all the time. His Arthur and George was a huge novel, brilliant, and so solid in scope. All this may be another way of asking why there are no longer epic poems, the modern Odyssey or Paradise Lost. Derek Walcott made a fair shot at it with Omeros. Perhaps someone else is trying – right now.
Well, I’m pretty sure you’re right, John.
Though I could continue to ask and you could continue to answer, perhaps here is a good place to close? So: thank you.
Thank you too – so much, and for all your support for so long.