Over the next few months I will be running the occasional interview, review and article on writers and poets. These posts will largely be written by other writers celebrating the work of living writers and poets.
We start with an interview with the poet Glyn Hughes, conducted by Ian Parks. You can read Glyn’s poem, Endgame.
Ian I’d like, if possible, to concentrate on your poetry. I’ve been reading Life Class and it seems to me the presiding spirit is that of Wordsworth, particularly in The Prelude. I’m intrigued by the way you approach your autobiography as a sequence of what Wordsworth would have called ‘spots of time’. Could you say something about this – and about Life Class in general?
Glyn Life Class sets off with a challenge to think of it in a Wordsworthian context. That happened more naturally than deliberately …. from having two nature-loving boys hitch-hiking, as we did, to the Lake District. In fact, I still haven’t read The Prelude (or The Excursion), only the well-known anthology parts. I set myself to read it all at an early stage of writing Life Class, then dropped it fast, realising that it wouldn’t do me any good. In the past I have read, re-read, and been greatly moved by other Wordsworth long poems, Michael, The Ruined Cottage, as well as The Immortality Ode, Tintern Abbey, and I love the biography, the idea of the man, so he is inevitably at the bottom of my poetic consciousness. Behind Wordsworth is Milton, and Henry Vaughan, behind Milton is ….. and so on.
My poem began not intending to be long. It was a short memory that I found myself writing while walking in Pendle, and whereas the best way to deal with an unsatisfactory poem is usually to shorten it, I could only make sense by going on. So I did so, and the form of the poem, the sections, emerged quite naturally from what I found I had to write about. That’s how the “spots of time” character emerged. One cannot write about everything, so I wrote about what I felt that I could. It turned out to be a poem that was less about “the growth of a poet’s mind” as Wordsworth wrote, than a lifetime relationship to “the developing muse” and muse-figures; in other words, women: my relationship to mother, my father’s mistress, my wives, and inevitably (when facing that curious “muse” phenomenon) myself.
I think the poem owes a lot to the American poets I properly read at around that time – at any rate in the excitement, assuming it has some, of the form. James Schuyler, Frank O’Hara, Ginsberg’s “Kaddish” etc. I’d overlooked them out of some sort of British snobbery and small-mindedness, even though my friend Luke Spencer had introduced me to Donald Allen’s New American Poetry anthology at the beginning of my career. Then I discovered their collected works in Borders Bookshop in Leeds, and couldn’t stop reading Schuyler in the pub and on the train home afterwards. A 70 year old as excited as a kid. Though Schuyler eventually seemed soft-centred, some of O’Hara’s surrealism irksome, and Ginsberg overblown, they were a thrilling antidote to the strangled feeling one gets over-all from much of, in fact, the most accomplished, contemporary British poetry.
Ian I agree. There’s an inherited sense of reticence and decorum in much of what passes for poetry today. I first came across your poems in Best of Neighbours – your Selected which came out in 1979. Poetry in general and yours in particular seemed to be poised to take off in one of many different directions. In what ways was the poetry scene different then? How did you arrive at the point where you were ready to publish that collection?
Glyn Alvarez’s “Beyond the gentility principle” that I don’t think his seminal “New Poetry” anthology cured. Gentility (“reticence and decorum”) still lurks with us, despite contemporary aspects of poetry that disguise it. The model of English social life is the public school, and at bottom everything is like that, the honours, the choices made …. the Beak to be pleased at the top, the well-groomed aspirants to be Beaks themselves, the bounders and plebs contained by police and custom on the outside; for the plebs who resist, comes the endeavour to take them over. But that’s another story, outside poetry though poetry is as much part of it as any other facet. To break that up a bit, is rare but important, everywhere from poetry to Parliament
Best of Neighbours selection came about because a friend, Tony Knipe, became Director of the Arts Centre in Sunderland and started up the Ceolfrith Press attached to it. It was a selection from my earliest books Neighbours (1970) and Rest The Poor Struggler (1972) from Macmillan plus some extra poems. Then I made an unwise decision (as I see it now) to divert into novels and other prose books. Unfortunately, in a sense, from the Muse’s point of view they were all critically successful . The Muse was playing tricks, teasing me, tempting me down not-quite the correct paths. All the strands of possible directions that I see so clearly now in my poems up to that date, were abandoned for years. .But the prose novels etc were still extensions of the same material.
I see what was behind work up to Best of Neighbours as twofold. There was the feeling, mystic I suppose it could be described as, for nature that had always been with me. It banged up in its flight against an increasing knowledge of humans’ effect upon nature: the exploitation and greed. My feeling was like that of a hurrying creature slamming into a dark wall of knowledge. I was confused by that wall, that trap, trying to understand it – (the confusion that is the stuff of poetry.) It came into focus when I moved from delightful (then) Cheshire to the mid-Pennines, which though not yet quite post-industrial, yet almost wallowed in its scars, its mess, its perverse pride in that – in a setting of this hugely thrilling moorland landscape. Secondly, there was my other puzzlement and distress, of a dead marriage to a woman I was still deeply in love with, whom I could not break with because we had a child. In the world of my imaginative life, these were connected. So writing about one, affected the other. Perhaps that is the key to the heart of those early poems.
You ask how the poetry scene differed then. Surely there was far less poetry published, but it was more from major publishing houses – yet paradoxically it was taken less notice of by journalists. So, since then, poetry like all the arts has not only gained (if it has) but suffered (I think) near disastrously by taking over for itself the journalistic modes of thinking; by what appeals to the readers of journals. Journalism and poetry, while both being important, are opposed in their literary modes. A whole strand of the most liked and widely know poetry of our day is in fact versified journalism, an “opinion column” piece and that’s what makes it popular.
The Internet is making a difference in ways other than the much spoken-of “e-books”. Facebook encourages thousands of creative writers who wouldn’t get a look in otherwise to publish their work to, I suppose, thousands of “friends”. It offers instant advertising for innumerable poetry events,readings, magazines and causes. This in itself encourages, not just the dissemination of poetry, but the writing of poems of a different kind.
At the same time, before the energetic and wonderful entrance of “others” into the scene, mainly women, it was then much more stuffy. It was still assumed to be in general a chaps’ affair, and a white chappy at that, and mostly a gentleman. This despite the evidence that in the whole tradition, the important poetry came from beneath, not down from on top.
Ian Twenty-five years separate Best of Neighbours from your next collection, Dancing Out of the Dark Side which was published in 2005. I’m interested to know what was happening in terms of your poetry during that period. The gap is certainly significant. Was the ‘poetic imagination’ at work? Were you writing poems but not releasing them? Or were there no poetic impulses at all? What was your experience of coming back to poetry again after such a long period?
Glyn The ‘poetic imagination’ was active enough. In that period I published 6 novels, 2 autobiographical/topographical/travel books (anticipating by years Sinclair’s “psycho-geography”, I think, with e.g. Millstone Grit – which incidentally is to be re-issued) and 5 radio plays, as well as painting pictures, writing sporadic poems, and travelling, plus holding 3 Arts Council Writer’s Fellowships, bobbing about “doing readings”, re-building a house, divorcing and re-marrying. All of these involved the ‘poetic imagination’. I was living the literary life, caught in its hubris, being watched, winning some prizes or having some worthy near misses …. at the same time, doing the worse things for my literary career, being disputatious instead of diplomatic, absent from the London market place (living in Greece), occupying myself with house-renovation ….. writing prose. Ted Hughes ascribed his fatal illness, his cancer, to spending 12 years (wasn’t it?) on writing prose …. his Shakespeare book.
One should never regret anything …. a human being isn’t in a position to, not being God, so not having a conclusive perspective on it all nor a true sense of wholeness. My limited view, though, was that writing prose was unsatisfying in the end ….. too many words! I’ve never really been fit for any job in life other than writing and painting, but writing didn’t make me the money nor the living I’d hoped for, even though I got good and plentiful reviews and prizes. I put so much work into and spent so many years on each book. Philip Hobsbaum asked me, why on earth, if I wanted to write novels, didn’t I do it as a minor activity to support my poetry, as Robert Graves for example did? I found it very difficult to write both verse and prose in the same stretch of time, the essential rhythm being so different. Verse to become poetry involves, among other things, a constant preoccupation with it ….. not necessarily writing all the time, but living its rhythms in one’s inner world constantly, so that when you come to write you are not too distracted with testing your forms too much, they appear to come naturally, out of your being.
It was a good and close friend, the playwright David Pownall, who took me aside (actually, a walk along the river in Guildford) and seriously talked to me about my “true vocation”, and he was quite right. I had misfired with myself. Nothing in writing was so difficult as getting the engine running again, however. It had completely seized up ….. it was very frustrating. Career wise it was difficult too: most of my original poetic colleagues had retired, were dispersed, were on some lofty cloud of poetic distinction, or had given up writing, or were passe, or were dead. Editors or their acolyte sub-editors had not heard of me so didn’t read what I sent in sympathetically or carefully. Which is how one starts off a career as a poet, but it was – is – hard and heart-breaking to re-start that way. Still, one does it if one has to.
Then, the experience of cancer over the past two years has been, not merely a distress, but also a huge spiritual gift, profoundly connected of course to poetry – but perhaps that is something we can come to later.
Ian Yes, I would like to return to that later in relation to your most recent (unpublished) poems. You’ve talked elsewhere about the ‘raggedness’ of your career as a writer. I was wondering if there was something that ran through the poems; that gave them cohesion and continuity. Jules Smith, in his excellent piece on you for the British Council, suggests that ‘human conflicts are an essential subject’. How far would you agree with this statement? How might it apply to the tensions in your poems?
Glyn “Human conflicts” (and sympathies!) are an essential subject for me, yes …. is there a writer for whom they are not? Their tensions run through all my poems. Sometimes conflicts are autobiographical and visible on the surface. Sometimes the “personal” in a poem is like the bed of the river over which the subject of the poem or novel flows. I rather like that form of writing. Sometimes human conflict is dramatised as my sympathy (or distaste) for the conflicts of others … either in a historical context, or in relationship to a natural environment, or (even more likely) both. That would be more my mark, I think, that brings the poetic ouevre and the novels together. The other “essential subject” is and always has been what we call “nature” … that I don’t quite share with everyone. A great many (English especially?) writers today are urban, even exclusively urban. Or sub-urban.
That “raggedness” is something that I should ponder. It has seemed to me that, whenever I came across an obstacle for one talent, I would pick up the traces from another one that I believed I had. When writing grew difficult, I would start painting again. When poems became difficult, I would turn to prose. So much time would be lost in catching up to where I had been before I had abandoned one or other of these art forms for another one. It has baffled me very much, like wheels dropping off a cart all the time, constantly halting progress to mend them.
I have a weakness for seeing myself negatively (that’s upbringing for you!). Yet I have been thinking more positively lately about how one individual, poet, scientist, philosopher, might with benefit break through this human need for sheltering within categories. Aren’t physicists now making their huge advances through discoveries that break down the boundaries of our simplified thinking about space, time, and materiality? As humans we can recognise that we are bafflingly limited by our “categories” — or, by what William Blake called “the prison of our senses five” – simply by the fact that we cannot comprehend infinity; that, being time-bound, we cannot comprehend a Universe without a beginning nor end, even though intellectually we can prove to ourselves that so it is. Quantum physics, “string theory” and all the rest, is quite beyond my capacity, but like everyone else I can read newspapers, and I don’t think it is merely because I am searching for it, that they seem to very often report physicists’ empirical evidence that coincides with the poetry and “mystical” thinking running through the Ages. As Carl Jung said, wherever as a scientist he looked into the human psyche, he found that a poet had been there before him.
Perhaps I am reaching ahead of myself here. What I am getting at, is that at a very much simpler level than that of the boundaries of thinking being gloriously breached by physicists, we can look back over the history of poetry and the arts and see the limitations of its being bound within categories – all that typifying into styles that we are taught is “the history of literature” and art, for the sake of simplifying the teaching of it. Look at any period of the history of art, and one sees later how much greater it would all have been, had for example the Baroque not been thus, had the Romantic not been so, on and on. In fact the shining lights of all periods have in common that they do not fit the categories, they are too big for them. Yet, despite these exemplars, in our own times we find ourselves constantly being confined by categories that we assume define us. We baffle ourselves against our own, home-made, prison bars. As, when I look back, I feel perhaps I have been doing for much of my life. Strange. Just this week, I have been reading about the American musician, John Cage, who currently has an exhibition running at the Baltic gallery in Newcastle, and I read about him with a great deal of sympathy now for his heroic trust in chance – in other words, in a phenomenon that simply does not allow the artist to be bound by temporary and contemporary assumptions. What a relief!
So that’s the way I am at present trying to look at the “raggedness” that superficially seems to characterise my career. All in hope of having sufficient time remaining to make one sense of it all. I am at any rate painting and drawing again with some relaxing of the tensions that used to accompany “deserting” writing for that purpose.
Ian Which brings me finally to your most recent, uncollected poems, and Endgame in particular. How far are these new poems a departure from what has gone before? Perhaps you could say something too about process. How does a poem like Endgame come to be?
Glyn Endgame began as a poem about a specific lane of my childhood. It was the one direct connection (apart from the canal towpath) from the council-estate of my childhood – Oldfield Brow, near Altrincham, Cheshire – into the countryside. After a mile it spread out into the delta of lanes and footpaths that fascinated and freed me. It is the most important road of my whole lifetime, and one of my earliest memories of beauty. It must have been an original track from the farm on which the housing estate had been built. Revisiting it towards the end of life, it was as mysterious and delicious as ever. But this was a time when mortality had struck, for I had survived the cancer ward. Of itself, the poem grew without forethought into a metaphor of my gratitude at being in life, my sense of beauty and of being one with nature. Also it was written on an upswing of gratitude and joy for the people who had sustained me through illness. I had an epiphanic realisation of how kind and loving so many people have been throughout my life. The great beauty of Oldfield Lane linked itself with the beauty of kindness I have received. The title came when I had almost finished the poem, and I realised consciously in what way I was connecting the beauty of the beginning of life with the beauty of its end.
The book that I have ready for press, A Year In The Bull-Pen, details as you might expect the experiences of this year of cancer. On the wall at the foot of my bed during my first days in hospital was a clock, and I dreamed that in its place was a huge scroll, unrolled to show runics which I must understand so as to unravel my fate. I was woken arbitrarily, as happens in hospital, and it came to me instantly that there are three parts to my recovery. One is medical care. The second is my mental/ psychological approach – I must defeat cancer in myself, through my attitude of mind. Most important, is the third, a spiritual matter. I realised the extent to which I had neglected the spiritual (as poets so very often do, these days). Everything changed for ever (I hope) from this dream. I had a new, or long neglected, task. As Peter Ackroyd put it in his book on William Blake that I had been reading: “his own close and earnest study of spiritual matters was preceded, as is so often the case, by private loss”.
Bull Pen is an ironic name for a male cancer-ward, of course. It is also the name of the stone hut in the Ribble Valley on which I had just acquired a lease before being struck by illness. For me – spiritual life being connected to nature – recovery meant what I gained from the intimacy with nature in this Ribble Valley regio. In practice, writing a sequence detailing the events of the year; poems about salmon mating in the brook and the emerging parr, lambs, etcetera; and, with the cancer at the bottom of everything I saw, felt and wrote, also specific metaphors of memory and mortality, as in Endgame. In my stays in the Ribble Valley, I felt cured and lifted, as I knew that I would be. I would want to kiss he leaves on my arrival. And the act of writing in itself intensifies the senses, so writing became truly a matter of life and death – spiritual life and death, as well as of the body.
I have just come across an interesting quotation from Cocteau: “Children and lunatics cut the Gordian knot which the poet spends his life patiently trying to untie.” Again and again as a poet, one tries to link up the circle of earliest childhood to the end of life. Perhaps, after that, there is a different circle in another Universe.
The green lane, higher deeper than it is wide
and so narrow that only the most narrow carts
could rattle along in tune with the dry song of the yellowhammer;
the iron grinding on stone through almost a tunnel
so that even from higher than the shafts one could not look over –
there were many such lanes. This one survives
the same as in earliest years when it led me,
a fallopian tube of childhood snaking from home.
Perhaps the first green of hawthorn was the most beautiful?
Or was it specks of white stitchwort buds
dropped, (it seemed), on banks of thickening grass?
The campion and ragged robin that were blood specks, emerging too?
But what about summer when the hawthorns flowered,
followed by berries, smaller though heavy like blood-coloured
testicles of stallion or bull? What about that?
Or the yellowhammer that bounced onto the hedge-top from the field?
In age it is the same, drawing me excitedly
even as the sands of delight sift through the hourglass.
As chaos storms above the stillness within the mind, I experience it now,
the eye of my silence watching as always,
the ear of silence listening.
At the end of the lane
being lost is of no account. Leading anywhere or nowhere,
it spreads through a land stacked with primrose, cowslip, stitchwort.
And here I am – as I recall the young ghost that is still me,
welcomed by light and by whatever has bloomed at the door,
or seems to have done so, overnight.
(For of course flowers bloom in the sun,
and restore themselves in the dark, where it must be done;
a comforting thought.) So here I am
in the not stark but beautiful lanes of endgame
whether leading anywhere or nowhere, yet they spread into lands
that are anything but desolate. On the contrary beauty abounds.
There amongst fields and nameless lanes
are small shelters,
and someone runs each with kindness. Don’t ask for more.