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DESPERADO - Contemporary British Literature | There are two major directions in 20th century literature: the stream of consciousness and the Post-stream of consciousness, the latter being known as Postmodernism (including Post-Postmodernism as well)...


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British Desperadoes at the Turn of the Millennium

When they clearly understand what I am saying I am happy – whether they like the poetry or not

Interview with Alan Brownjohn


Portrait by VIC (Cristina Ioana Vianu)

: I believe you, Alan Brownjohn, to be one of the chivalrous Desperadoes of poetry at the turn of this millennium. Your poems are at the same time entreating and baffling. You are the patron of the North and of the South Pole of sensibility, with the Equator of scorching feeling in between. When did it first occur to you to breathe into poetry?

ALAN BROWNJOHN: At the age of five, the poems my mother read and/or sang to me (Edward Lear’s ‘The Owl and the Pussy-cat’ remains my favourite poem) and the poems one schoolmistress read to us – these seemed to me to have sharper, clearer, more beautiful images of the world, real or unreal, than the actual world. Mrs. Palmer (the schoolmistress) made the dog in Walter de la Mare’s poem ‘Silver’ sound better than a real dog, a perfect representation of a dog. How wonderful it was that you could hear and see a dog in words and did not have to go out into the street and look for a dog.

Shortly after those experiences I began to realise that it might be possible for me to make the words which would preserve those pictures – and stories – for me, and provide them for other people. That is how ‘breathing’ in poetry began for me. Anything ‘baffling’ comes much later. At the beginning, everything was simple. Not easy, but simple and clear.

LV. Your poems abound in words synonymous with ‘blank.’ It is obvious that, against Eliot and Eliotians, you try to pretend emotion is dumb, although your lines are in fact extremely eloquent, dressed as they are in everyday words. How do you think you reconcile the apparent silence of your poems and the inner turmoil which they betray? Do you imagine that whoever reads you will be fooled by this veil of shy blankness?

AB. I feel sure that I derive some of my understatement (which sometimes borders on the negativity of early Eliot) from Eliot, the poet of our time I first read when I discovered modern poetry. I have always tried, or felt I have done best when I tried, to let the strength of a poem (if it has any strength) emerge at a second or third reading, not a first. I do not believe in violently direct, or shocking, poetry (or prose for that matter). I hope that the inner turmoil – which is indeed there – will be apparent when readers think carefully about what I am saying. So, if you like, what you cite as a ‘shy blankness’ is a veil which I hope the readers will feel persuaded to lift. The idea of a veil irresistibly brings to mind Keats’ great passage about the goddess in The Fall of Hyperion. Veils are used to conceal interesting mysteries which should be clear when they are lifted.

LV. You are a novelist as well as a poet. Do you admit that contemporary literature mixes genres, discovering a kind of fictionalized poetry, which tells a story in terms of small, shy emotions, which build guidelines? When you say you do not believe in ‘shocking poetry,’ is it an admission that you prefer it filtered by fiction?

AB. I am not sure that fiction and poetry have come closer in recent years. There have been superficial changes in the form of fiction, although fundamentally the task of a novel, or a fiction – call it what you like! – is to tell a story; or that’s one of the main tasks which writers ignore at their peril. Poetry must be primarily about catching the essence of something, not necessarily via narrative.

By implication a ‘poetic’ novel has less of a story to tell, is more like an extended poem. I don’t find the fully poetic novel very interesting. I don’t find the indulgence of formal ‘originality’ in fiction very fruitful, unless those basic elements – story, character, place – are still indubitably there (as they were in Joyce’s Ulysses, or even Nabokov, and certainly in Anthony Powell – an Proust! – Saul Bellow and John Updike).
Isn’t the answer simple? Poetry comes in a small, concentrated bottle, fiction is a much larger one, to be drunk more slowly – but drunk completely to obtain the full effect. I make both of items sound like medicines. I don’t mind that. The world can be a sick and strange place, and the arts, as well as giving pleasure, can be medicinal. I won’t get deeply into matters like catharsis...

Would you subscribe to any literary label out of your own free will? I have called contemporary writers Desperadoes because everyone is trying to be their own trend. Can you look in your poetic – and intellectual, on the whole – mirror, in order to say what you see? You are your own trend. Would you venture to give it a name? Or is it like the ‘naming of cats,’ a heresy?

AB. One does not get a chance to dispute literary labels (or one does, but one disputes them in vain!). But I cannot complain about any that have been applied to me, for example ‘post-Movement,’ to describe poets who followed the 1950s ‘Movement’ in British poetry, were influenced by its attitudes and forms and yet were crucially different. When I look in my mirror – or look over past work and try to understand what I was doing and, more significantly, whether I understood what I was doing –, I see (or I think I see) a label like ‘moral concern’ stuck to it, and under that heading, ‘attention to detail’ and ‘striving for truth’ and ‘irony’ and ‘comedy’ appearing in the smaller print of the list of contents/ingredients. I don’t think giving a name to trends is a heresy – it’s inevitable, anyway. Of course we more and more need the labels so as to gain a grip on the volume and variety of what is being written – with the labels in our minds we can then start to read, and think, and differentiate for ourselves.

LV. What is your relationship to T.S. Eliot’s poetry? You quote him here and there. On the other hand, your concealing (though apparently candid) verses seem determined to push him away. You reject, I think, Eliot’s codifying concentration of emotions. You choose to deal with emotion in what looks like everyday words. Yet, whoever reads you carefully realizes that you do have your own tricks. Are you the generation that inaugurated the reaction against Eliot? Have you made your peace with him? Do you still read him? Do you think he would enjoy reading you? Or approve of what you do? Do you care?

AB. T.S. Eliot provided my own introduction to modern poetry – I read the first cheap edition of his poems while on holiday with my parents in summer 1948 or 49 (whenever it was it was my last full holiday by the sea with them). Eliot made an immediately overwhelming impression, an excellent illustration of his own dictum (only found much later) that ‘true poetry can communicate before it is understood’ (quoting from memory). His rhythms and images (diluted versions of them) were in my own early verse, only gradually yielding to influences like Dylan Thomas and William Empson (a very little) and Philip Larkin (much more). I took up Eliot’s diffidence, and have never wholly lost that, in poetry or fiction. My ‘everyday’ words are my own kind of code, I suppose – Eliot’s reticence but not much of his tone. I never consciously rebelled against Eliot, and I don’t feel many later poets have (as they did against Yeats, for example). Probably most poets just left Eliot aside and listened harder to other great poets of their period. I’ve never felt I had to ‘make peace’ with Eliot – I’d never had his politics or religion, so there was no intense acceptance followed by a rejection. He is just always there as a magnificent, exemplary poet (I do still read him and would like to think he would have time for my work if he were still alive). I still find – unfashionable view, increasingly, his criticism valuable also, the rather puritanical drift of it!

LV. Do you think you belong to any group at all, or are you alone in the world of literary trends?

AB. I feel I am ‘post-Group’ (the London ‘Group’ of the 50s and 60s) and post-Movement.

LV. What present poets do you relate to? Whom do you value, whom do you feel akin?

AB. As an older writer I look mostly to my own seniors – but get pleasure from the work of younger contemporaries in England/Britain like (some are fairly new names) Paul Farley, Douglas Dunn and Seamus Heaney (both ‘of course’), Ian Duhig (a wonderful and serious intellectual joker), Conor O’Callaghan, Paul Summers – some are very new poets I’ve been reading recently.

LV. How far from Eliot have you travelled? Can he be said to be the skeleton in the closet of your poetry?

AB. We don’t revere Eliot enough nowadays!

What is the future of poetry, in your opinion of a poet at the turn of the century?

Poetry has a future as long as it retains a tough core of imagination and honesty and doesn’t surrender to either ideology or populism (populism is now the greater danger).

If you were to start all over again, would you still be the writer you are, or do you have new strategies in mind?

I would simply try to write more, and better, and concentrate on creating. There have been too many distractions!

What is your major expectation from your audience? Have your readers ever made you feel happy you are a poet?

When they clearly understand what I am saying I am happy –whether they like the poetry or not.

LV. Has your attitude to language changed, as compared to Eliot’s or Joyce’s?

AB. I don’t see language as a vehicle or opportunity for experiment – but as a means of understanding the world and the things in it. Heaney has a good sentence about poetry ‘as a representative of things in the world’ – very simple, terribly true.

LV. Is reading still popular or do you feel drowning in a world of screens and scripts?

I don’t let myself be drowned by screens and scripts. I know very few poets who do that. In the end, you are alone with the words and ideas, however you put them down on paper or screen, and however you transmit them to an audience. (I believe the book will always be with us.)

(1997-1998, London-Bucharest, by mail)


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LIDIA VIANU | Desperado - Contemporary British Literature


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