Dan Jacobson: the second part of an interview with Ian Hamilton
This is the second part of a two-part interview. Part 2: ‘The Price’.
I want to ask you about Robert Lowell: as an influence on your work, that is, and only then as what he later became – a ‘Life’, the subject of your first full-length biography. You did and do admire him greatly as a poet, yet in his poetic practice didn’t he trample all over the distinctions, the reticences and borderlines, you set so much store by in your own verse?
Yes. I suppose that is where the whole idea of confessional poetry came from. There are two factors with Lowell: one is that his family is a famous one, he had a famous name. So to have a Lowell write derisively about his father as Lowell the poet did –
I suspect that some of the grandness of the Lowell name was almost a kind of Lowell invention. Or ploy, at least. I know that the Lowells spoke only to the Cabots and the Cabots spoke only to God; but he did get maximum literary mileage out of the connection, nevertheless.
I think that it was in other people’s minds that he was an American aristocrat; certainly when he became a conscientious objector, a huge fuss was made in the press of the fact that he was a Lowell, not merely a poet. There was some of that too with the publication of Life Studies, because it’s a very Boston-based book. The real lapses of taste, the indiscretions, came with his letters later and when he versified Lizzie Hardwick’s letters. That seemed to me too much.
Those unstoppable sonnets.
I’m thinking more of the letters Lizzie wrote to him, which he then turned into more sonnets and then said I’m sorry about this at the end.
Do you see any kind of road not taken for you in the way Lowell went about things? In all those indiscretions and the abandonment of any consideration for others?
Not at all. I don’t like that side of Lowell. Indeed, by the time of the Hardwick thing I’d gone off his work in a big way, largely because of his sonnets, which I thought were atrocious and boring, somewhat catchpenny. He could still come out with the odd line, but something about him appalled me: his messiness, his willingness to sprawl and sprawl. If you met him he’d show you things and you’d say, ‘I’m not sure about that,’ so he’d throw it in the bin and yank another out of his pocket. All of which went against my sculptural instincts, I suppose. And it was just a shambles on the page. He didn’t seem to care what he published – the act of publication was no longer invested for him with any momentousness. Before, with Life Studies, what I liked about him was the spareness, or what seemed spareness to me then. In fact Life Studies was the first book of his I read; I hadn’t read the earlier rhetorical stuff. I went on to that and didn’t like it. So I ended up loving passionately about six poems in Life Studies. I didn’t particularly like the family poems. They were okay but having read his prose essay on the family, it was as if he was just versifying bits of it. ‘Home after Three Months away’ and ‘Man and Wife’, though, really hit me as what poems should be. There are about half a dozen poems that had that kind of impact on me: the passionate speaking voice and intimate subject-matter. The internal rhymes and basic iambic line broken up into free verse sounded like somebody really talking, but it was highly disciplined as verse too. That was my response. Those poems hit me hard. A lot of other things being done at the time were imitations of Lowell. I at once wrote to him saying I was starting a magazine. He condescended to send something which had already appeared somewhere else. But we printed it with a feeling of reverence; I think he was the only living poet I really revered. When I was a student at Oxford I knew almost nothing about American poetry. And then came Lowell: you know, a hero and one who continues to be a hero, at any rate on the strength of those poems. I regret a great deal of what he did in his life and what he was. I didn’t particularly warm to him personally later on, when I eventually met him and got involved with him. Nor did writing his biography make me feel any more warmly disposed. I thought he was deranged by ambition in a way that American poets often are. There was this competitiveness, this obsession with how he rated compared to Berryman. All that shit I couldn’t stand – and there was so much of it. Also I hated all the mania, because I’d been through all that for many many years, albeit at second hand.
You didn’t need to go looking for yet more of it.
Absolutely not. All in all he was a disappointment to me, because my tendency was to treat him as a kind of uncle figure, a wise man, someone from whom I could learn things. To see him being manic was ghastly. I was fond of him, felt protective towards him, but the things he did with his vanity and ambition were appalling. There was a sort of giganticism about everything –
As you say, it’s a very American thing.
You have written amusingly about what a small-time, English contender Larkin seemed to be, by comparison. Some of the same kind of ambition, but so discreetly felt and so discreetly concealed.
You remember Lowell trying to cultivate Larkin, sending him a copy of The Dolphin or something? Larkin retaliated with High Windows and inscribed it: ‘From a drought to a flood.’
What a put-down.
Lowell took it as a compliment.
I’m sure he would. From this costive Englishman.
Yes, a tribute to his fertility.
You carried your preoccupation with Lowell from the ‘Review’ to the ‘New Review’, didn’t you? How did the latter magazine come into existence?
The Review sort of petered out in 1972. It had come to an end effectively around 1968-69, but for various reasons I wanted to get to No. 30, so we did this ploy of a double issue, 29-30, ‘The State of Poetry’, into which we roped every known versifier.
You did one on fiction too, didn’t you?
That was in the New Review. A similar ploy, the last issue, a double. With the Review I just had this superstition: I wanted to get to No. 30. But by then the magazine was on its knees financially, and – in terms of the poetry – everybody was imitating everybody else. A sort of self-parodying was going on, and it had become a bit ridiculous. And the combative side of things had become marooned; by then our little war had been lost, the encroaching barbarians and popsters were now getting mainstream attention, publicised all over the place, and they were a lot better than we were at drawing attention to themselves. I was in London and working on the TLS so a lot of my vitriol was being siphoned off. There was the problem with money too. The printers were saying they wouldn’t print another issue and I didn’t mind too much because I didn’t have anything to put in the magazine. We’d also started doing things like printing opinion columns. Some person we’d long thought of as an enemy would be asked to give his views on this and that. Thus we would have a ‘Letter from America’ by Louis Simpson or some such. So the Review had become more magazine-y than polemical. Something had gone, some genuineness, some verve. Some energy and commitment. It was time to jack it in. That would have been 1971 or 1972. Then I went to America for a year. No. It felt like a year. I went to make some money and spent all of it while I was there.
Was that when you met James Dickey?
He played bluegrass music and he had this lake on his property and was forever showing off his muscles and thighs. At one point he said: ‘Yes, I’m so big, I’m so goddamn big! And no cocksucking English critic’s gonna tell me any different!’ There he was. ‘Come into the house; I’m gonna play you some music, some real music.’ And you passed this table where all his publications were set out on display. ‘Yeah, my pamphlet, preddy good, ha.’ He was riding high on the film of his novel Deliverance which had just come out and in which he played the sheriff, so he was a movie star to boot. Preposterous figure. He’s the only man I’ve ever seen who could take off his hat and throw it and land it precisely on the peg.
I had a falling-out with him in Syracuse NY. Late one night I found myself stuck with him in a bar, while he got drunk boasting to a little claque of students. It was somewhere out on a highway, miles out of town, and I was the only one in the party who had a car –
I’d have thought he’d have had a horse or an aeroplane –
And I said, well I’m going now, and he couldn’t believe it. He said, how am I going to get back to town? and I said: phone for a cab. I was fed up with him so off I went. I really thought he was going to brain me with his mighty fist.
He was a strange man. I’d gone to his house on the way to the airport and a cab was coming to get me. When I left he gave me a rib-crushing bear-hug and there were tears running down his face. ‘Oh, it’s been so good,’ he said. And when I looked back he was leaning against his doorpost, his head in his hands, as if he’d just lost his nearest and dearest. And I’d been there only two hours. But that poet had big emotions.
So you came back to England?
I’d left the TLS by then and was pretty much at a loose end and didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t have a job, so ended up reviewing and was generally in financial trouble. I didn’t care too much; but then, shortly after Encounter stopped publication because of the revelations about the CIA involvement in its finances, another idea came up. Some of those figures like Stephen Spender, Frank Kermode and Stuart Hampshire wanted to start a counter-magazine.
I don’t think ‘Encounter’ had folded by then.
No, it hadn’t but Spender had left. Spender was a big figure in the CIA controversy. So the projected magazine would be a counter-Encounter in the sense that it would counter what remained of Encounter. There were endless meetings about which duke or millionaire would provide the money.
I went to one of them.
Did you? Anyway, by that stage, I had been dragged in as a possible editor of this thing.
I know they wanted to get Karl Miller at one point.
But Karl had recommended me and for Karl’s sake I agreed to talk. It was thought I knew how to start magazines.
Anyway, by then I’d been at the TLS, so I did know more about it than they did. I drew up endless documents about how this magazine would go, with the help of a marketing, advertising chap at the TLS who really did know about such things. Then of course nothing happened. Nobody got any money together; meetings at the Garrick Club stopped happening; people went out to lunch with some wealthy person and came back with nothing – just gossip. So the whole thing became half-hearted and you could see it wasn’t getting anywhere. Then it petered out completely. I was left with these blueprints. It was going to be a monthly and I had got genuinely interested in how it could be done. Also I’d perhaps begun to have mild delusions of grandeur, having worked on a periodical like the TLS. In some way I wanted something larger than a little magazine. As it happened, the Arts Council had kept aside some money for this counter-Encounter, not a great deal, but it was just lying there. Charles Osborne, who was literature director of the Council at that point, saw no reason why, if I reinvented the Review as a new monthly magazine, that money – I think about £20,000 – couldn’t go to launch one issue of it. And that’s how the New Review began. A year later, in April 1974, it appeared, coinciding happily with nationwide labour troubles and Edward Heath’s three-day week; and of course it was large and plush – and expensive to buy. I wanted something that looked good. I think now it stands up pretty well in terms of its appearance.
People objected precisely on the grounds that it looked too good for a minority literary magazine.
We didn’t know it was going to be such a minority magazine when we started it. I’d looked at a lot of magazines in America. They have a thriving magazine culture there. We don’t. But I didn’t see why we shouldn’t. I made the mistake of getting a proper professional designer who had lots of expressive ideas and I was too keen on using pictures. Looking back, I think I should probably have done it differently, but I didn’t, so there it was. And it still looks pretty okay to me and has some really quite good stuff in it. Anyway it did come under a lot of fire on all the waste-of-public-money issues – which was bollocks, because public money paid only for about half of any single issue. The Arts Council never did pay for the New Review. In fact, the whole connection with the Council was a bit of a burden, because of the way they doled it out. You were always having to go and see them to ask for some public money to pay for the last issue, so that you could do the next one. The grant for issue three had to go on issue two. But the money problem was extreme; it was the Review times ten. I was the manager of this magazine and I discovered I didn’t know how to run a business. I thought I did. Looking back, that side of it was a complete shambles.
Yes, it certainly was.
A shambles in business terms. In real life terms it required a hell of a lot of astuteness to keep the thing alive, even shambolically.
A lot of dodging and diving.
Oh, a lot of fiddling – nothing illegal, nothing like that – and a lot of holding one’s nerve.
And you managed to keep it going for 50 issues.
Yes, over five years. It ended in 1979. Fifty issues, some of which were extremely good in my opinion.
Well, I published in it, after all –
Glad to have had you aboard.
Did you have any sort of programme for it?
There wasn’t an ideological one but as a businessman I thought there was a gap in the market. The new colour magazines in the Sundays weren’t what they are now. Then they carried a good deal of popular high-brow journalism: long profiles and long articles, any number of which could possibly have found their way into a literary magazine ten years earlier. I got interested in the long essay and the short story: things for which there was no marketplace.
I was going to say that something striking about the ‘New Review’ – and I haven’t been back through the 50 issues –
They’re here if you like.
– was that your initiatives as editor were focused on prose-writers rather than poets.
I’d already decided that there weren’t all that many poets around, possibly three, and I’d lost any wish to make any great impact on the poetry scene except in a marginal, policing sort of way. So the interest in prose and the idea of a magazine that made a difference to something did, I think, appeal to me.
It made a difference to some individuals’ careers.
I was getting in work that struck me as much more sophisticated and literate than the poetry manuscripts I’d been struggling through before. A bad poem tends to be much worse than a bad short story, I found. I was reviewing a lot of novels at the time and was fed up with the poetry scene. And irritated by it. And then one or two things happened: a very good story came in from a guy called Jim Crace. He was just an unknown chap who came from Birmingham or somewhere. Another story came in unsolicited from someone called Ian McEwan. There did seem to be these gifted people out there, so we were up and running. People I knew about, like you and Edna O’Brien, were also in the first issue and there were a couple of new things. What was coming in was nothing like as bad, on the whole, as a comparable pile of poems would have been. Certainly not as pretentious. Often there was a bit of humour to it. I was keen to have some amusing writing, just as I’d always wanted it in the Review. And stylish writing. Also I wanted an effective reviewing department, again to try to make a bit of a difference. There were people I’d come across at the TLS whom I hadn’t been able to use in quite the right way or who’d been anonymous. There were people like Clive James who had appeared in the later issues of the Review. He was terrific and I wanted to use him. I felt I had enough younger people whom I admired, and still had my old chums from the Review, Colin, Hugo, David Harsent; they just carried over and became part of this larger thing.
Did you get any help from the eminenti who’d tried to float a magazine?
None at all. I didn’t really know them. And didn’t admire them, particularly. There was a whole social aspect to that group which I didn’t belong to. And it was clear to them that I didn’t belong. No, I had no contact with them later on.
Another surprising thing about the magazine was that it wasn’t greatly interested in politics. I don’t mean party politics but the politics of culture. When I think of magazines like Eliot’s ‘Criterion’ or ‘Scrutiny’ or ‘Partisan Review’ and the ‘Nation’ in the States, or the old ‘New Statesman’ here, not to speak of ‘Encounter’ – all of them had a strong political-cultural thrust, which your journal didn’t have.
The magazine was not there to promote a position. But that isn’t to say we didn’t cover topics I was interested in, like psychoanalysis and South Africa. There was a lot about America. Watergate stuff. And on Lord Lucan. On hostage taking, that Dutch train hijack . . . We had huge pieces on these, as well as on the IRA and their bombings.
But you yourself didn’t have a line?
I was very keen on this documentary idea, descriptions from people who were there when things happened.
Do you not feel now that the magazine might have been stronger if it had had a position?
No. We had as much of a position as anybody else in terms of British politics.
Wordsworth once said that he’d spent more of his life thinking about politics than about poetry. Has that ever been true for you?
I used to do a certain amount at Oxford: go on marches, and sit down, anti-this and anti-that. I fell in with a crowd of New Left people who seemed knowledgeable and I had some regard for their intelligence. But there’s a certain shiftiness about ‘political’ people. I was much more interested in what I knew to be the case. In most political situations I didn’t know what the case was. I was reading a lot about the 1930s then – and what seemed to me the worst sort of position was to be stuck with a line. I was also reading a lot of Orwell – with admiration.
Orwell was associated with an attempt to start a magazine at one point. It never came to anything much. It lasted about four issues.
Well, if it had lasted it would no doubt have had a political position, but it would have been concerned with the truth; it would have been pragmatic and independent. And I think that was the atmosphere of the New Review – or should have been. A fear of big resounding lies.
Your reference to your immersion in the 1930s reminds me that a name that hasn’t come up here is Auden’s. What did you make of him? Were you already aware of him in Darlington?
I’d come across odd things in anthologies then. He’s wonderfully memorable and skilful of course and I have a high regard for him but no real fondness, if you see what I mean. He’s one of the greatest technicians of the last century, if not the greatest. He could do anything.
Did he write for the ‘New Review’ at all?
He died in 1973 and the magazine started in 1974. We had pieces about him. John Fuller was a great admirer. I’m not sure if he wrote of him in the magazine but there were things about Auden. We also had a lot of literary reminiscences in which he figured.
Speaking earlier about the business side of the magazine, you made light of it – after a fashion. But the sums of money involved must have been frightening –
They became enormous. It was partly my megalomania at the outset. Although the New Review was famous for not paying its contributors, that only became the case in the end.
But you had to pay the people who supplied that high-quality paper.
Yes, and as a result we had to give up paying contributors. I overextended the office and took on people to do things, mostly part-time, but they still needed to be paid.
The debts just went on piling up?
Yes. The way they do. And of course I didn’t get a salary for doing any of this. It was all down to me: I was the sole owner, and for years afterwards I was paying the bills, paying the rates, empty rates on this office we’d been thrown out of virtually. And mysterious bills would arrive from way back. It wasn’t a proper company; it couldn’t go bust. It was a company limited by guarantee like a society. And the guarantors had ‘limited liability’.
Who were the guarantors?
Me – so the liability was not in effect ‘limited’.
Yes, all I had to do – or so they said – was guarantee £10, but this turned out to be no fence against creditors. There was this pretence of the New Review being a big magazine when it had, in fact, reverted to the little magazine spirit, as it were. So we stopped it. Well, it stopped itself rather. It was out of control and I was hating it at the end because all I ever thought about was money and not the magazine and what to put in it.
There was never any interest from anybody to take it and make it – ?
It was debt-ridden. I couldn’t see anybody buying debts.
It had goodwill in the quarters that mattered to me.
I meant goodwill in the business sense.
I know. I was speaking in the literary sense.
What happened to you after the ‘New Review’ closed down? Presumably you were doing very little writing while all that was going on.
I did a lot of journalism, because that was what I lived on. I was reviewing television for the New Statesman on a weekly basis and that was basically my income. And fending off creditors and generally not doing much myself. And I was 40, this was in 1978. I had no idea what I was going to do, less idea than I had had earlier. I knew I didn’t want to do another magazine. But that’s about all I knew how to do.
You didn’t want to go back into employment, like with the ‘TLS’?
It had been so long I don’t think I would have lasted five minutes. There was also a certain amount of ‘who cares?’ in my feelings. And then came the suggestion that I write the Lowell biography. And that became the next thing.
The magazine was finished by then?
Yes, finished in 1979. Well, it finished effectively in 1978 but it was closed down in 1979. And Lowell had died in 1977. By 1979 I was in a ‘position to consider my options’. And the only one that came up was the proposal that I write the Lowell biography.
The suggestion came from the States?
It came from various quarters. Which it had to, because there were two warring camps: the English and the American. I was looked on favourably by both for some reason and I knew people on both sides. Jason Epstein at Random House was very keen that I should do it. But I had to get a letter from Lowell’s last wife, Caroline Blackwood, and then get a letter from Lizzie Hardwick, to whom he’d been married previously. She knew I had a letter from Caroline. There was a ‘which-side-is-he-on?’ anxiety right from the start.
You’d never thought of yourself as a biographer before?
Not a biographer. I’d written studies, including a biographical thing about the poet Alun Lewis years earlier.
I remember that: it was the preface of the collection of his stories and poems you edited.
Yes, it’s quite a long piece. It took ages and involved the conventional sort of research, going to see his widow and so on. I’d done that many years earlier. But I remembered quite enjoying doing it and also I’m a bit of a squirrel and browser. I had done a fair amount of what could be described as literary history and of course I was attracted by the Lowell project because he’d always intrigued me.
You’d known him for some time by then.
Oh yes. I knew him quite well.
I remember you once showed me a cheque for £20,000 he’d written out in one of his manic states: this was supposedly in settlement of a boozy lunch for the two of you.
There was a good bit of stuff like that. Well, I was very involved with various phases of his illness. Lowell was around a lot. He saw the New Review office as a sort of literary centre. I hated most of what he was writing at this time and said so in print. It didn’t seem to make any difference to him.
Where did you review it?
In the TLS. He used to sit in the pub in Greek Street, next to our office, surrounded by admirers, and he was in his element. It was somewhere for him to go; he was lonely in London because he was used to being a big shot socially in New York.
And in Boston.
He was a figure, particularly in the late 1960s. He went on marches with Norman Mailer, he helped to start up the New York Review of Books. In fact it was some of his money that started it up. But in London he knew hardly anyone. Anyway, he was around our office a lot. Then he died, very suddenly, aged 60. As he had said he would. His mother and father had both died at that age. He always said 60 would be the end for him. The people who proposed the biography came up with enough money to keep me for a couple of years – and I needed it. In fact I did finish the book within a couple of years, which now seems to me very speedy. But one moved fast in those days. I had access to almost everything, once various barriers were broken down and trust established, particularly in America, where everybody at first was very suspicious and where most of the research had to be done.
I’m sure your being English actually helped you in the States.
Except for the taint of Caroline. But in the end, yes, it worked out. I got to like Lizzie and she got to like me and began to sort of trust me. I didn’t like Caroline anyway so that was okay. I thought Caroline was awful. I couldn’t understand why he’d wanted to be with her. Lizzie, according to everything I found out about her, was a much more noble individual. Anyway, I felt sorry for her about those letters he turned into verse.
It makes sense that you should have moved into biography, but only retrospectively. You would hardly have predicted such a move.
I would never have predicted it but it didn’t seem that odd to me at the time. It didn’t at all. In fact it seemed exciting – I mean the politics of it and the morality of it, which I had also encountered with Alun Lewis. With him the question was whether or not he had killed himself. All the evidence suggested he had. But there was a living widow and a living mother who were completely committed to the idea that he didn’t. So I had to proceed very obliquely there. In the Lowell case there were all sorts of issues. For instance, he’d had affairs with people who didn’t want it known. So what did you do? Tell the truth or bear in mind their feelings? Also there were the children of the last two marriages. Did I need to say this; did I have to say that?
Did you have any problem with the libel laws?
No, none at all. There was just this delicate human stuff. And Lowell was so indiscreet. One was used to the idea of the biographical quarry having to be hunted down. In his case, he flung it all in your face; and much of it was untrue because of his mania. A lot of sorting out was needed. You had to brood on these matters.
It was later you had a brush with the law?
So I did, with Salinger. After the Lowell book came out and was successful in its way people started wondering who I should do next.
I remember your telling me that Sylvia Plath came up.
I had the idea of doing her without the last months, you know, of drawing a decent veil over the last months. They weren’t too keen on that.
What other suggestions were there?
The most serious one was Pound. The idea of going from Lowell to Pound . . . !
Who suggested it?
Before or after the Salinger?
Before. There was a brief period of talking about Eliot, lunches and so on. But I didn’t want to become a jobbing biographer. There had to be some point to it.
There had to be a personal attachment. Not that you didn’t have that with Eliot’s work.
It was hardly as personal as . . . Salinger had always been a passion of mine. You know, from adolescence onwards, as with so many people. Eliot was different, although I had a huge admiration for him.
So you wrote the Salinger book.
Yes, I did the Salinger and that of course raised all sorts of questions, so then I wrote a book about history and biography, Keepers of the Flame, which is the book I’m really most fond of.
It’s an outstanding book. It’s so funny about the people it deals with and at the same time so thoughtful in its consideration of the whole biographical enterprise. The theme – all those literary widows and heirs – gave you so many stories to be sardonic about. And sometimes to be charitable about too. Such a heap of material.
Oh, I could have done it all over again on quite other people.
‘Keepers of the Flame II’. When did you become an admirer of Salinger?
At school. I was a pretty sad schoolboy . . . I think every book I’ve written has some strong autobiographical element in it. That seems to me okay. It saves me from being a jobbing biographer, I think.
That’s what I meant by the need for a personal attachment or engagement. You have to deal with something of your own story in the life you are writing.
I also have the feeling that the people I am closest to are dead writers of the past. Those are the people who are watching over you, keeping you up to the mark.
People you are answerable to.
Yes. Answerable to them if you make any sort of claim at all. You are up before the highest court. Do you feel that?
Yes I do, though not in those terms. There’s a phrase of Edmund Wilson’s which has stuck in my mind. When he started to write, he says, his ambition was to earn ‘the freedom of the company’ of the writers he most admired. He wasn’t speaking only of his contemporaries – far from it. And I thought: yes, that’s it.
Certain writers, although you revere them as writers, don’t have this overshadowing or overbearing presence. I wouldn’t be that interested in Yeats’s opinion of my work, whereas I would be interested in Matthew Arnold’s.
Is there anyone alive that you feel about in some way as you do about such writers from the past?
The whole idea of the companionship of past writers is enacted in the head and on the page, so there are people I still think of as alive, as it were, in certain poems and pieces of writing. But literally alive? No, not . . . well, you and Karl.
I’m flattered that you say so.
Oh, I think it’s probably true.
The words ‘overshadowing’ and ‘overbearing’ which you used a moment ago make the writers of the past sound so forbidding. Like inspectors at school. Isn’t it more a matter of trying to be in contact with them, to communicate with them, or of hoping that you can do so?
Yes, you want to live up to their standard, rather than the standards of any current critic.
And you no longer feel like that – because you evidently did feel so at one time – about Michael Fried?
Well, one is avid for heroes when one’s young; especially among one’s contemporaries. Everybody has memories of that. Somebody like Francis Hope, for example, who died young in an aircrash, used to dazzle me with his cleverness. He’d been to a better school, probably. He seemed hugely clever in ways I wanted to be clever in.
I remember watching and listening to Francis, when he was working under Karl at the ‘New Statesman’, acquire some of Karl’s speech mannerisms, his rhythms, his delivery, the lingering stress on particular syllables.
Karl was a bit of a hero to all of us, and particularly so in the editing; I was mightily intrigued by him and I learned from him.
If we could hark back to magazines for a moment, I’d like to know what you made of ‘Encounter’ coming to an end – supposedly in disgrace, because of that CIA-rap. Wasn’t the fight going out of it anyway, because of the ending of the Cold War?
I thought Encounter a very good magazine. At one time everybody wanted to be in it. It had such a range of good writing.
Its Anglo-American sponsorship – CIA or otherwise – gave it a large a pool of talent to draw on. And the editors knew pretty well who was worthwhile carrying and who wasn’t.
I used to look forward to Encounter. I can’t remember before or since a magazine that I looked forward to more.
You’ve spoken of the Lowell biography, and of your great dislike for Caroline, and the difficulties you’d had with her and others in writing the book. But your schoolboy worship of Salinger, which led you into your next biography, resulted in worse trouble still – what with his rage against you and the involvement of the civil courts in the whole affair. I wonder whether you have anything to say about all that now and how you felt then about finding yourself becoming briefly famous or notorious as a result.
Well, I didn’t like it very much. It was embarrassing. The bottom line was that someone I had hero-worshipped was turned into my worst enemy. Well, not worst enemy. But publicly that’s how I was seen.
He saw you as his worst enemy.
Yes. Hamilton v. Salinger. Those were not words I’d ever imagined seeing. Not in my wildest dreams.
That was how the proceedings were styled?
Or the other way round. It became a law-journal case. In some respects the law was changed as a result. Every so often I get congratulated on the outcome.
This blow you struck for freedom –
Freedom of snoopery, yes.
In the biography itself you incorporated some of the embarrassment you felt at finding yourself in this situation.
Well, the first version of the book got as far as page proofs. That’s how Salinger came across it. It was just a straightforward biography, making generous use of his unpublished letters, all passed by the Random House lawyers – somewhat to my surprise. But I thought they knew what they were doing. I was of course glad to have all this stuff which I’d discovered at Texas University. Next came the bound proof copies, incorporating quite long extracts from these letters. Then came the lawyers and various court cases which resulted in Salinger ultimately getting an injunction to stop the book being published. So I wrote another book about the whole thing, quoting as much as I could from the letters in the form of paraphrase, but mainly turning it into the story of a biographical investigation. I’d gone from a writer like Lowell who was voluminous in his personal testimony to a writer about whom nothing at all was known. My theory at the outset had been that Salinger was a fairly whimsical person who would enter into the spirit of this; over the years he’d gone in for a certain amount of games-playing with his image, in the sense that he printed falsehoods about himself on dust-jackets, teased people’s curiosity to some extent. So I thought he would think: what fun – and start a cat and mouse game with me. Of course it didn’t work out like that.
It was a genuinely paranoid response that met you?
Well, he was genuinely indignant and outraged. And, of course, the more I know about him the less whimsical he appears to be.
Considering what’s been published about him since by others –
That’s what I mean, his daughter –
And his girlfriend. Compared with them your enquiries could hardly have been more considerate.
I couldn’t have been more mistaken about him. So then the book came out in this heavily revised form. And that was that.
As a matter of publishing curiosity, did the legal carry-on do anything for the book’s sales?
It must have done something. It wasn’t a big seller, 25,000 copies, something like that. The case had had lots of publicity on this side of the Atlantic but the book still fell like the usual stone. It was such a familiar story by the time it appeared I don’t think anybody felt like reading any more about it.
Did you make an appearance in court?
No, I had to give a day-long deposition, as he did too. So he was lured out of his hiding-place. I didn’t come face to face with him.
And you weren’t in the court room at any time?
No. Nor was he. I don’t know who appeared in court. It went to the Supreme Court, I think, whatever that means. It was all unpleasant. One makes the best of it, saying, oh well, I’ve got this amusing book, this sometimes amusing book. On the whole, looking back, I’d sooner not have done it.
You wrote that you felt mortified because it was so remote from what –
It was not what I meant at all.
Apart from the odd reference to the case nothing has followed from it? You’re not being asked for help by other would-be Salinger sleuths?
Oh, there’s a certain amount of that. I back away from it.
Can I ask you about another biography, the most recent in fact, the one on Matthew Arnold? You said that for you there had to be an autobiographical element in any such book, an engagement of a personal kind with the writer and his career. I’m not the only person who’s wondered whether – with all the differences allowed for – you didn’t feel there to be a parallel of some kind between the course of Arnold’s career and yours.
I think there is a thread running through all the biographical books I’ve done. What’s at issue is the idea of a life given over to creativity; and the belief that because a person believes himself to be possessed of some profound and special gift, he has certain rights to live his life in a certain way. I suppose the real question is: what price do such persons pay and what price does the world pay for this gift which they think they have, which they claim to have, and perhaps do have? Lowell seemed alarmingly and repugnantly, overweeningly, to believe that he was a great poet; so he thought he could pretty well do what he liked. And everybody around him seemed to agree.
At times I felt that some people around him insisted on his greatness almost as much as he did, because if he wasn’t a great poet then they were landed with this pathological case. They had to believe that it was worth paying what you’ve just called the price.
For some of his friends it was almost a privilege to be allowed to pay that price. Lowell’s own preoccupation was only with great people. And he knew that there had to be the necessary, less great people to help the great ones to break through. That’s how he saw life, and a lot of damage, a lot of suffering, was the result. He was oblivious to most of it and, so far as he did know about it, well, it was okay because that’s what geniuses do, that’s the price the world must pay for having them. I could see that there are elements of this which make sense. Writers I have known, and indeed I myself, have traces of it; but one tries to suppress them. Also I am repelled by that sort of manic, tyrannical self – partly through my own personal experience of it with other people in private life.
How do you see what you’ve just said in relation to Salinger?
Well, with Salinger there was also a sense of specialness, a sense of I Am. He, Salinger, just adopts a different method of distancing himself from the mob. His method is tantalising, almost mischievous, but it also has a certain regal aspect. His relation to the world is almost as odd in its way as Lowell’s, although not as actively destructive.
And is also vindicated in his case, as with Lowell, by his being an artist?
Yes. And it is up to us to puzzle out this wondrous personage, just as it was his right to disdain the rough and tumble of the daily marketplace and to bully book editors and repel biographers. If biographers did penetrate his defences it was also his right to get up on his high horse. The two personalities – Lowell and Salinger – seemed very different but they had similarities too, which interested me. Neither struck me as fulfilled people. ‘Genius’ gave them certain rights but it also had its penalties. In there lies the question of how you are to live if you decide that you are special. If you decide that you want to devote your life to the pursuit of that specialness, how do you live? How do you do it non-fraudulently? And this, I think, led me towards Writers in Hollywood, the book about writers who sold out in some way. That’s a book about those who are unable to cleave to the high road. How do you stick to it? Should you stick to it? Can you do it and yet not do it too? I got interested in people who started off as serious poets and playwrights and ended up churning out shit in Hollywood for money. I couldn’t, in my heart of hearts, deplore it since I’d done a certain amount of that kind of stuff myself. Not least, I should say, with the Salinger – one of the reasons I didn’t abandon the assignment early on was that I’d have had to pay back all the money they’d given me. It just wasn’t on. I wouldn’t have been able to function. I’d have had to do even more book reviews, and even more crappy things, if I didn’t do this crappy thing, if you see what I mean. I’m trying to think of the way in which all this leads forward to Keepers of the Flame. Certainly in the Lowell case, and in Salinger’s too, there is an idea that greatness involves immortality, no less. Immortality, the idea of it, would be the excuse or reason why you’d be prepared to make certain sacrifices. The quest for ‘after-fame’ is tyrannical in itself, or can become so when you try to organise your immortality in advance, or when somebody tries to organise it for you. Writers surround themselves with flunkeys and acolytes who will always be ready to assist. Often these are widows.
They, too, are entitled to be tyrannical, to use your word, and in so being to seize their own portion of immortality.
Yes, the hem of the garment. In Arnold, one finds an idea of two lives, the workaday life you have to lead and the quest for literary immortality. Arnold would have had to pay prices of various kinds if he had carried on being a full-time poet. All his background, and his father’s as an esteemed educationalist, were dead against it. The question for Arnold was: how much do you give to the world in a real, effective way, day to day, and how much do you say: ‘I haven’t got time for the day-to-day world because I have this bigger thing to give to it. So leave me alone.’ The question for him was how to lead a poetic life without turning into a monster, or without making terrible compromises that might sap whatever creativity he had in the first place. And let’s not forget the debilitating stress for such a person of wondering whether he is any good at it anyway. The one thing you have got to be is sure of yourself, or pretty sure. What if the truth dawns on you halfway through your creative life, as it does in the quotation I put at the beginning of the Arnold biography, which moves me a lot. Do you remember it? It’s just a few lines. Here it is:
It is a sad thing to see a man who has been frittered away piecemeal by petty distractions, and who has never done his best. But it is still sadder to see a man who has done his best, who has reached his utmost limits – and finds his work a failure, and himself far less than he had imagined himself.
A very painful quotation, I find. To have that perception visit you perhaps half or a third of the way through what you imagined your life was going to be . . . I think in some ways Arnold had that self-doubt. Paradoxically it also helped in several ways to make him a good poet.
A couple of minutes ago you put a sentiment in the mouth of an unpleasant imaginary person, a writer of a particular kind: ‘I’ve got this gift and therefore the world must yield itself to me on my terms.’ Something like that. It’s an attitude you perceive strongly – though it showed itself in a different mode in each case – in both Lowell and Salinger. What you’ve just said amounts to saying that you were attracted to writing about writers you admired and yet who in important respects repelled you.
The kind of lives to be afraid of falling into. But I suspect other biographers write about lives they consider to be exemplary or admonitory. Would I have liked to be like this, would I have done that? One wants to give something to the world and if what you give to the world is, say, some or a lot of poetry then a) it may not be any good and b) the world doesn’t want it anyway. Is that enough for you to go around putting on airs? Aren’t there other things you could give to the world? I think Arnold felt that powerfully because the world needed a lot of what he could do for it.
And there was a lot that needed to be done.
The idea of a society in need of education was of great significance to him. I think all this comes back to something I mentioned earlier on: that there are two ways, as it were, of dealing with culture – one either protects culture from the mob or takes culture to the mob. The kingly or lordly attitude is one way: I make these wonderful objects and don’t you come and mess about with them or misunderstand them. Or, on the other hand, you say: I can make you a better person if only you have the wit to take a look at this. And there are more humble and unsung ways of contributing to the common welfare. Which would one rather have – a good school or a good poem?
The personal engagement which you have with all your biographical subjects arises then – in part anyway – from a deep ambivalence about the activity of writing as such, let alone about the nature of the persons who do it.
The airs and postures that attach to the activity and the sky-high hopes that are attached to it – about all that I certainly do feel ambivalent. Think of whole lifetimes devoted to an objective that may be worthless because of a lack of talent anyway. And because it doesn’t do anything . . . I think my new book, Against Oblivion, goes into all this too. It’s a 20th-century Lives of the Poets. The idea captured my interest when I looked at Johnson’s Lives of the Poets. I saw how few of the poets he deals with I had ever heard of. But in their day they were all famous enough to be included in his book.
And no doubt regarded themselves and their work with immense seriousness.
Yes – although perhaps a good deal less seriously than a full-time poet nowadays would. They were all vicars and that sort of thing. Poetry was just something one did. Presumably they didn’t go around making quite such a fuss about it, or construct their entire lives on the premise that they were special, set apart.
From which another question arises: one which has a direct bearing on the claims of ordinary life against the claims of art. I remember your saying to me once that your biography of Arnold was not going to be one of those in which a chapter opens: ‘June passed uneventfully . . .’ In saying that, weren’t you yourself selling the claims of ordinary life short?
I imagine I meant that if there were no documents I wouldn’t know that June passed uneventfully, not for certain. Also I would want to avoid writing, ‘Arnold sweltered in the June heat’ – that sort of thing. You may know for a fact that temperatures in London were higher than they’d been for twenty-five years. But if we don’t know for certain that Arnold was in London and we don’t know for certain that he sweltered, then we shouldn’t say it. And, anyway, who cares? If he didn’t write anything or do anything that is relevant to our purposes, do we need that sort of stuff? By ordinary life, I don’t mean whether one put the cat out in June or forgot to. There is an ordinary life, an ordinary world, which we all have to engage with. And the truth is that the more creative the person the less successful their practical relations with that world are likely to turn out to be.
Well, I don’t know if you should generalise in that way. After all, Larkin the librarian –
No, I don’t think one can.
Or Eliot the publisher. William Shakespeare engaged very successfully with the workaday world.
As for your ‘Lives of the Poets’, which you’ve just finished, can you tell me which of the poets are in it?
Well, they’re pretty much the ones you’d expect. They are all dead and they were all of sizable reputation in the 20th century. Even though I hadn’t heard of perhaps two-thirds of Johnson’s poets – and there were 52 of them – when I came to compile a list of people who absolutely had to be in the book of dead 20th-century poets I was up to 52 in no time. Yet history seemed to be suggesting that of those 52 essential inclusions only a half a dozen would be left in a couple of hundred years’ time.
Winnowed down pretty severely.
So who’s going to do the winnowing and how will it be done? Some will be unjustly winnowed and some will be justly winnowed. We could get down to winnowing right away. There’s an essay by Donald Justice on ‘Oblivion’, about how reputations disappear. And the subject has a lot of pathos, in that he talks about lives spent devoted to creative objectives with all that that involves; and yet some of those so devoted are doomed to be, at best, of middle rank, doomed to be respectable minor figures from a particular, not very long, period of history. I think the underlying question arises: is it worth it? Of course that depends what ‘it’ is. In the case of Lowell some people would say it wasn’t worth it because they don’t value his poems highly enough. It so happens that I do value some of them very highly, but I value them for the discipline that he managed to bring to the work which was largely absent from the life.
Let’s go a-winnowing. You are doing some of it in the book you’ve just described. And then somebody else will come along and winnow your winnowing. Of course that somebody else can be as prone to misjudgment as you might be.
Probably the only way to know you are right is to be around in two hundred years to find out who people are interested in.
Can you see a parallel between your interest in inquiries of this kind and Matthew Arnold’s turn towards writing criticism and carrying out his inspectorial duties – because he felt, I suspect rightly, that his lyric gift had deserted him?
It either deserted him or he felt it wasn’t substantial enough to maintain a fully engaged ‘poetic’ life. Therefore he had to do other things he believed in. And he had to earn a living. The question of how to live and to survive and at the same time to hold to the idea of a ‘poetic’ life has always interested me, as I think it interests all writers. How do you do it? How do you pull it off?
In moving towards biography you must have felt that journalism was insufficiently rewarded to provide a living and also that its bittiness was in itself too limiting? That it just wasn’t serious enough?
I’ve always taken journalism pretty seriously and thought a healthy literary journalism to be very important. I think I would have been happy to live by just writing literary essays. I’d have been happy to pen the odd lyric when I felt I had something to write and otherwise to write essays of one sort or another, not necessarily literary essays, prose essays, non-fiction. And if I’d had a private income that’s probably what I would have been happy to do. I wouldn’t have taken on great things that involved legging around libraries, but biography was well paid – and I didn’t have a private income.
For a time in the 1980s didn’t you present the BBC TV programme ‘Bookmark’? Successfully too, as I remember?
That was a dispiriting period for me, though it got me interested in Hollywood figures who were also beguiled by the screen, as I suppose I was to an extent. Whatever people say about TV being all to do with money there was always a bit of stardust in it. I could see people around me wanting that stardust and could also see that maybe I wanted some of it too. Not enough, however, to hang about for hours in some field waiting to interview a third-rate novelist.
Do you think the notion that it’s beneath the dignity of a serious writer to cater for something like television has simply vanished? That people with literary ambitions nowadays believe it to be one of the perks of the job: there they are, or there they feel they should be, on the screen, well-sprinkled with stardust?
I’m sure there is a commercial appetite to appear on television in order to sell books. And the appetite to be a ‘celebrity’ too, if you can manage it. But in a way it comes back to your view of what you are up to. Somebody like Melvyn Bragg, as I’ve said, sees his role as bringing culture to the masses via television. Those who find this appalling would say it isn’t culture you’re bringing to the masses, it’s some cheapened version of culture. The real thing, they would say, needs to be protected from the masses. About that kind of purism, there is also something slightly repugnant.
I quoted you earlier on the subject of Larkin’s worldly ambitions. He had them all right, you said in effect; the trouble is that compared with those of the Americans they appeared to be so small.
Do you feel that your own output of poems . . . ? I’ll put that another way: have you ever dried up completely?
Your exiguous oeuvre notwithstanding?
There’s a difference between what you write and what you publish. That’s as it should be. So I do a lot of ‘penning’ in odd moments but most of it is just unpublishable. One wants to keep this area, as it were, as free of taint as far as one can.
You’re deeply exclusivist, then, as well as being so interested in those who are not?
The one might follow from the other, in the sense that you can believe that none of what you do is going to make a difference. So you might as well do your best to ensure that whatever you produce makes a difference to yourself.
What do you mean by ‘making a difference’?
Well, it won’t alter the world or make the world a better place because, as Auden said, poetry doesn’t make anything happen.
So you’re not thinking of the ‘poetry world’, the poetry lit. business, when you say it won’t make a difference?
I’m not thinking of the poetry world. I’m thinking of the general life of human beings.
The community –
I don’t know about the community. It’s just the sense that what you are doing matters, and is felt to matter. Which I think it probably should and, in an ideal world, would. It connects with the feeling that one’s poems aren’t as good as they could be and will inevitably fall short in some way; and that even if they don’t nobody will notice, because people don’t read poetry. So one might as well cherish some platonic idea of the perfect poem and not go around publishing in magazines some version of a poem that you already know is inferior; that you already know is not as good as you could make it. Only publish what you know is as good as it can ever be, allowing always for a sort of private footnote that it’s still not good enough. Then you might be getting somewhere toward the correct view of how to live as a poet.
You were never attracted to going into academic life?
I think I might have been. I just fouled up my degree.
That was when you were a lad. I’m thinking of later on. I know there was a move at one point to get you to come and do some teaching at University College London. And you wouldn’t hear of it.
I remember on one occasion I simply asked you to come and give a single graduate seminar at UCL, and you wouldn’t even do that. The possibility was also raised that you might come for a more extensive visit. And you were pretty shirty about that too.
Oh, really? I’m sorry about that. I don’t remember. When the New Review started, was just about to start, I was offered some job at Princeton, but I went for the magazine. I felt then that I had made a decision between these two worlds. The academic one didn’t suit me. I hadn’t got a taste for it.
What about your time at Hull University?
That was a sort of fellowship in poetry.
When Douglas Dunn was there?
Yes, Douglas was there. And Larkin. In fact it was Larkin who fixed it all, I think. I was supposed to sit in an office in his library, waiting for these young poets to bring me their work so I could appraise it. I think about two people came in the course of the year, with what looked to me like the lyrics of pop songs. And once you pronounced that these weren’t quite up to what they could be, you never saw them again. So there was that side to it. On the other side there was the English Department, which couldn’t understand why money was being spent on somebody sitting around in the library doing next to nothing. So the next thing I knew I was having to give a series of lectures on Yeats or somebody – proper lectures which I had to mug up the night before. I came out with all this off-the-cuff rubbish about Yeats, and students were sitting there taking notes. I thought: is this all true? Have I had time to work this out properly? The place seemed to be full of time-servers and charlatans of one sort and another, and I just didn’t get on with it, and retreated to my office and waited for the next non-poet to arrive – who never did. In the end I went back to the TLS, and wrote an art-icle about it, and made myself even more –
Even more eminent – certainly in Hull. ‘Enemies’ was the word I had in mind.
What were your relations with Larkin while you were there?
Friendly, very friendly. He was rather avuncular. I’d met him many years before. In 1964, I’d gone up to Hull to do an interview with him for the London Magazine. I think it was the first interview I did with anybody, and we had a quite good time. He was funny and relaxed. Then he visited me once or twice in Oxford, when he was off on one of his miserable summer holidays and was passing through. So we always got on quite well. He liked calling in on . . . set-ups . . . He liked set-ups. I’d just got married, and had this domestic set-up, and he liked dropping in, and being treated as the visiting uncle who’d sit miserably by the fireside . . . He seemed rather cosy. I noticed it again when he used to go round to Douglas Dunn’s house in Hull. For all his thing about solitude, he was quite – on that level – gregarious. He wouldn’t want to go to parties, or anything like that, but he liked dropping round solo to a domestic set-up where he was valued and an honoured guest.
That’s rather touching.
Yes, it was.
I remember being struck, the few times I met him, by how courteous his manner was.
Extremely. And he was always most kind to my first wife, Gisela, and to Lesley, Douglas’s first wife, who was very fond of him. Those two had a really good friendship. He was strange: you know, the old-style visiting bachelor-uncle, much valued in the family, who just wanted a bit of respect and attention –
Worthy of high regard, and yet somewhat forlorn.
Yes, then going off to his lonely bedsit, while they tucked themselves up in bed. ‘Oh well, never mind.’ There was something touching about him. The other thing I remember about him was that he was immensely tall and very deaf. I don’t speak loudly, so I could never be sure he heard anything I said. We used to go and have a beer in the bar, and I’ve really no idea how much he heard.
I remember being surprised when I first met him not just by how tall he was, but how big generally . . . He had such big hands.
Everything about him was big – big head too. He had a slight clown’s face. He could look very clownish sometimes. He had a strange, boyish smile.
Did you ever talk about poetry with him?
No, never. That would be absolutely out of the question. I really don’t know what we did talk about – not very much – him probably, or some magazine, or money. He was always very supportive of the magazine-type things I did, and occasionally gave me things to print, but he was just generally kindly. We lost touch a bit later on, after my Hull experience. I think he had an institutional loyalty to the place, and I don’t think he thought I’d –
Played the game.
Which I hadn’t. I’m not sure there were many more Fellows in Poetry after me.
You made a thorough job of it, didn’t you?
Not deliberately. The betrayal was to go back to London and write about it in a jokey kind of way. As I thought in an affectionately jokey way. But, of course, I don’t know if there’s any such thing, if you happen to be on the receiving end of it. So that didn’t endear me to Hull. Had I had any ambitions in that direction I suppose I would have made a better fist of it, or tried to, during that year.
Can we talk about another part of your writing life I’m curious about? Don’t look so apprehensive.
I’m just trying to think what other part there could be.
Your writing about sport. Do you feel – this is such a banal, plodding question, but you’ll have to be forbearing – do you feel there is a common factor between your obsession with poetic excellence and your obsession with sporting excellence?
Well, I suppose, just that.
Would one really rather score a wonderful goal than write a wonderful poem? Or do they have a lot in common? My admiration for certain footballers does have a lot in common with my admiration for certain poets, on the ‘How did he do that?’ level. Something that simply takes your breath away, and yet is a combination of high discipline and spontaneous instinct, in a highly competitive situation.
So there is competitiveness in it?
Well, yes, there’s an element of that, of writing a better poem than someone else, or scoring better goals. Or as good as.
Do you really see the writing of poetry as an inherently competitive activity? I’m thinking of the act of writing, not of the reputation you might gain by doing so. You kick a goal because you want to win, that’s the whole point of the activity. But when you write a poem – ?
Hm. Spectator sports, with rather larger crowds attending the one than the other. No, Jimmy Greaves, my all-time hero, was exactly the same age as myself, so while Greaves was doing it, I theoretically could do it too, I wasn’t too old. But then it became clear to me, when I was 38, that this wasn’t going to happen. The players I admired were 23, and I was never going to be 23. But by then I’d acquired enough knowledge and expertise to make soccer another thing I could write about. It wasn’t until Paul Gascoigne came along that I found another player whom I had those Greaves-like feelings about. Here was somebody who took your breath away. How did he do that? Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to do that? Where did it come from? The football was so highly sophisticated and intelligent, and yet the player, in Gascoigne’s case, was such a fool in many ways.
Like some good poets, are you suggesting?
There’s a mystery about the origins of the gift, and the application of the gift involves a level of intelligence or discipline that you don’t always discern in the personality. And the same is true of poets I’ve known. But I wouldn’t push the analogy too hard. Soccer for me is just a hobby. So far as there is a parallel, in poetry real competitiveness wouldn’t be with contemporaries: it would be with figures from the past. It’s not about wanting to be more famous than Seamus Heaney. It’s more that there is a level of excellence to which you should aspire. Are you up to it? Some figures have this gift, and some don’t. In sports, yes, it’s quite clear who are the geniuses and who are the ones who are just quite good, who’ve been well-trained . . . That’s probably true in any sport, and probably true in literature too.
You spoke previously about feeling yourself answerable to certain figures of the past. Now you seem to be saying that that ‘answerability’ is a kind of competitiveness, too.
Well, aspiration involves competition to some extent. Am I anywhere as good as that? Could I be, if I gave it my best? But I don’t seriously suppose that feeling answerable to standards set in the past need involve competitiveness, not in the way that might apply to wanting to win some sort of cup. The prize-business I find silly and irritating, and genuinely don’t have any stake in. I don’t do any of that sort of ‘being around’ as a poet, giving readings, and so on. In fact, I don’t greatly like the company of poets, because the poetry business is all they’re inclined to talk about – readings, reviews, and stuff like that. I can’t stand it. It’s all on such a low level, and none of the poets – or very few of them – is any good anyway, so it hardly matters. The best tend not to be bothered with all that crap. No, there are standards that were set in the past, and if you don’t aspire to them then you may as well not write poetry at all. If you take this role on yourself then you take on certain responsibilities too, of emulation or aspiration. If competition comes into that, as I think it must, then so be it.
Are there particular poets whose voices you hear in what you write?
I can certainly hear the odd trace of Larkin, the odd trace of Lowell, the odd trace of Snodgrass. Poets I’ve been enthusiastic about – Arnold, certainly. And there might be others who would be obvious to others but not to me.
Can you think who they might be?
Yes. Or prose writers to whom you might owe some of your cadences?
No, but I’d always be ready to have an influence pointed out to me, if it were there. There’s no sort of imitation that I’m aware of. I would try to get rid of it if I were.
It’s not imitation I’m talking about, but a manner of speech that has somehow infiltrated one’s own voice.
I’m sure there are, but then it could be from some teacher at school or someone I read in the school magazine.
You never went in for poetry in other languages? Or did you?
Reading poetry in other languages, you mean? I’ve ploughed through the odd Penguin.
No, I mean reading them in the original.
I don’t know any foreign languages well enough to be able to read poems.
You never had the impulse to acquire a foreign language?
Oh, very much so, but I think I would have to acquire it a lot better than I’m likely to if I’m to respond to poetry in such a language in the way I do to poetry in English.
Still, there might be things there for you that are worth responding to.
Well, there might, but I can’t think what these would be, because poetry has so much to do with language, with music, with the way the language is spoken. I like the spoken voice, and I don’t know enough about the spoken word in any other tongue.
And reading prose in translation – have you done much of that?
Yes, I read a fair amount early on – Thomas Mann, for example, and I’ve had flirtations with the likes of Camus, and so on. But I’m not a great reader of foreign literature. These days, alas, I mostly read what I get sent to review. I’m all too aware of missing out on vast areas of verbal activity.
Have you had spells when you read novels with anything like the intensity that you read poetry?
No, not that I can think of.
Since you were talking about emulation and aspiration, I’m wondering especially about the capacity that reading has to fire ambition. Reading novels can be particularly provocative in that way. You read about ambitious people and the work they do and the cities they live in and the love affairs they have, and you think: I’d like to do that or be that . . . or at the very least to write about that as if I have.
I envy novelists that sort of content. I think that content is the problem. One wearies sometimes of the contentlessness of one’s own poems, in terms of their quotidian detail, detail which you’d feel obliged to deal with as a novelist. I’m not sure I could do it. I’m not very good at describing things, anyway.
You spoke rather dismissively earlier of your visual sense.
I have a rather melodramatic or pinpoint visual sense. One thing strikes me. You can ask ‘And what did the rest of the street look like?’ and I wouldn’t have a clue. I’ve no sense of direction, for example. I am always getting lost.
Have you got any further thoughts on the combination in your poems of the impulse to confess and the impulse to conceal?
I think we all have a quarrel in ourselves between divulgence and concealment. You want to say what happened, but not necessarily who it happened to. The mysteriousness can itself contribute to the effect of the poem. Sometimes four different people may think it’s about them, when it hasn’t really been about any of them. The Lowell poem ‘Home after Three Months away’ is actually addressed to two people, but neither of the two knows it was also addressed to the other. He fixed it pretty well, so that it could apply to either. And he got away with it. No, I don’t think I’ve got anything more to say about that. Well, there are probably a lot of scandalous things I could say –
About your own life or other people’s?
The intersection of the two.