Our conversation began in July at a café on Little Clarendon, the narrow, colorful street that is the site of our yearly catch-up. These exchanges often begin with books or tales of recent travel and leap to the next association at will. The interview was completed through a series of emails exchanged between September and October; the challenge, of course, was to pin down what is usually free form, and direct our meandering style into something more accessible to an audience, though no less candid or idiosyncratic.
Jamie McKendrick, with whom I was fortunate to study at Oxford University, was born in Liverpool in 1955, and lives in Oxford where he works as a translator, a freelance teacher and reviewer. His six books of original verse include The Marble Fly, winner in 1997 of the Forward Prize for Best Collection; Ink Stone, shortlisted for both the T.S. Eliot Prize and the Whitbread Poetry Award in 2003; and most recently Out There (2012), which won the Hawthornden Prize. He writes literary journalism of unusual diversity, attentive to the verse of different nations and also the visual arts. Editor of the Faber Book of 20th-Century Italian Poems, he has translated a range of Italian verse, fiction and drama; his work on Valerio Magrelli won both the 2010 John Florio Prize for Italian Translation and the 2010 Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize. Archipelago, his translation of Antonella Anedda’s verse, was published last year, and he is at present translating the entire cycle of Giorgio Bassani’s Romanzo di Ferrara.
McKendrick’s encyclopedic knowledge shines through in this interview, as does his modesty regarding his own process and achievements.
It’s always interesting to consider a collection’s opening word. Out There opens with ‘If’, suggesting its interest in possibilities, as one ‘if’ invariably invites another. The interplay of certainty and uncertainty drives the collection. Can you talk a bit about how the collection came together, and the period of time over which you worked on it? How did you settle on the central question or principle?
It’s a good point – at some level I must have thought of it, as the second poem also begins with an ‘If’. Both begin with the logical format of the ‘material conditional’ (‘If p, then q’) and both are concerned with the idea of nothing – which has scientific, religious and philosophical aspects. In none of which I claim any expertise. I think I’d been reading Frank Close’s brilliant book The Void, though I always get lost with physics. The void, in the writings of Simone Weil, has some precise contours, if that’s not a paradox – it represents, as I understand it, an inner space which should be defended from the imagination (in her terms not a good thing): ‘The imagination, filler up of the void, is essentially a liar’. Again indicating something intentional, there’s another poem close by in the book, also involved with space, ‘A Safe Distance’: which begins ‘If the moon were closer, quite apart’, but this one abandons the ‘material’ – or immaterial – conditional. But that’s a relationship poem in a spacesuit – the ‘us’ of the poem being the speaker and the addressee not the earth and the moon.
So that’s three ‘ifs’ in a row and I haven’t ever started a poem before in that way, having a visceral aversion to Kipling’s ‘If’, so the speculative tone, the logical propositions of these poems are a significant factor which, placed at the beginning, have implications for the whole collection. After the first seven or so poems concerned with space, the collection comes back to earth with a bump with two poems about flooding, and from then on things are more terrestrial.
The poems in Out There are occasionally in conversation with other writers, philosophers, and texts – St. Augustine, Johnson, Anselm and so on. Do you find that responding to writers/readings is often a useful generative exercise?
This depends very much on the poem. The quotation from Samuel Johnson’s dictionary which I use as an epigraph for ‘The Gate’ was a serendipitous find when the poem was effectively finished; the same is more or less true of the quotation about nothing from Anselm of Canterbury. But in at least two cases the reading generated the poem. This is true for the epigraph I used in ‘Epithets’, a saying about various Spanish cities (Toledo la rica, Salamanca la fuerte… etc) which prompted me to try something along those lines about my own native city, and also for ‘The Perils’ where the poem very much grew out of a passage from St. Augustine. In that case it’s almost a found poem. I’d like to think it works though as a kind of détournement. Augustine’s list of the dangers which surround us is a kind of blackmailing argument for faith; mine is meant, at least in part, to send up that argument. One reviewer who took it in absolute earnest reproached me for a lack of imagination or originality. Since most of it was copied from St. Augustine I wouldn’t make huge claims for either of those things, though one or two touches are my own – such as ‘land is deeper than the sea’. A very obvious geological fact, but as it’s one I’ve never seen expressed before there might be a touch of originality.
It may indeed be a lack of imagination that makes these kind of prompts useful – I’ll let Weil’s idea stand as a defence! – but I think poems often arise in response to things heard or read, as much as to things seen or felt, so they enter into a continuum of language, and if they’re any good, they can subtly alter that continuum. Another recent poem, ‘The Hunters’, has taken its first and best line – ‘We that have been hunting all the day’ – from Thomas Heyward’s A Woman Killed with Kindness, so this may be becoming a habit. Someone told me the other day that it was an established medieval convention to start a composition with a borrowed line, so I’m glad to have stumbled on a venerable tradition.
Turning to your new poem ‘The Urban Field’, the subject of this interview – in this modified Italian sonnet, the speaker describes horses as ‘philosophically’ surveying passing vehicles. I love the turn in the second stanza, ‘Of course it could be they just like the trees / that line the road and act as their / umbrellas’, which, after an initial deduction of the scene, offers a more likely alternative. Did this poem come to you after extended reflection on the same scene – grazing horses as seen from a café – or was it a more deliberately crafted connection between the speaker and the animals?
I might prefer the poem if the café didn’t exist, the horses didn’t exist and – why stop there? – if the speaker didn’t exist. Then I could have made everything up, and no-one could accuse me of writing about my uneventful life. But, as it happens, most mornings I go to a local Portuguese café, sit outside by the busy road, and most mornings the horses are there. Like the oxymoronic title, ‘The Urban Field’, they seem beneficently out-of-place.
For as long as I’ve gone there, it hadn’t crossed my mind it could be the setting of a poem. But writing an article about translation and immigration, which noted the remarkable number of languages spoken in the café, I found myself writing this instead. It strikes me that poems are often acts of truancy, an escape from work. Maybe if I’d done more work in my life, I’d have written some more poems. Though now I think about it, this is the third poem I’ve set in a café – the first is an elegy called ‘Beyond’ written in 1999 – so that shows a certain constancy of lifestyle… or a narrowing of subject-matter.
You seem to express distaste for the poem’s autobiographical origins. Is the autobiographical or ‘confessional’ something you avoid in your own work?
Ambivalence rather than distaste. An uneasiness for me is the way the speaker seems to take over. The octave is ostensibly about the horses, and I suppose as a kind of ‘turn’ the ‘I’ appears, but then really takes centre stage in the last two lines. Why should the reader care if that ‘I’ is ‘Feeling [his] age…’ or feeling ‘bereft’ for that matter? Or care whether the speaker seems to have given up smoking, apparently too late? For whatever reasons I mostly avoid this feature of the personal lyric – I either find it unavailable or burdensome, and don’t feel comfortable, as here, being at the centre of things. But then again it’s sort of unavoidable in the lyric and pretending not to be there doesn’t solve the problem. Also, self-pity isn’t likeable in anyone but it’s almost worse in poets. On the other hand, if it can be somehow dramatized…
Many readers and critics have disliked the moment in Shelley’s ‘Ode to the West Wind’ when he writes ‘I fall upon the thorns of life. I bleed.’ It’s almost become a touchstone for the kind of melodramatic self-pity a poem ought to avoid. I’ve always thought it was fine, a slightly camp moment, but he has my sympathy and I believe in his former ‘skiey speed’ since the whole poem has enacted it. Something similar goes for Hart Crane in St. Sebastian mode: ‘I could not pick the arrows from my side’ – a line Yvor Winters splendidly compares to Racine. I’m not conscripting these two great poets to make any claims for this poem, but just to suggest the kind of thoughts that can crop up when you’re worrying if something works or not.
Is there anything about the poem’s form that is still in progress, or that still troubles you?
I never like ending a sonnet, or any poem for that matter, with a clinching, rhymed couplet. Also the language is flat and plain, as intended, and that risks making it dull: ‘philosophically surveying’, ‘mode of transport’, etc. Though there’s a small spark with the ‘b’s and ‘f’s, the alliterative ‘breathless, bereft’ at the end, which sounds like swearing – if only it were more like Hardy’s ‘blast-beruffled plume’!
I’d say this was stylistically more low-key than is customary for me. But sometimes the drab and gray have an appeal, as – in painting – the gloomy, restricted palette of Gwen John, for example, does.
What elements do you value in the poem?
What may have finally reconciled me to it is that the ending – ‘my only field the page’ – which looks like a lament for a life of reduced possibilities, may actually be read as defiant, even positive – that the page on which a poem appears is infinitely expanding…
Yeats says that ‘Even when the poet seems most himself… he is never the bundle of accident and incoherence that sits down to breakfast; he has been reborn as an idea, something intended, complete.’ But what if you’re writing of a man, in this case, who is sitting down to breakfast, then might there be a way of including some of that accident and incoherence? Stray thoughts, memories crossing over observations… the kind of poem James Schuyler could certainly make seem ‘something intended’ but would at the same time have undercut that vatic element in Yeats.
Sometimes when you write a poem you’re painfully aware of the poem you failed to write. Another poet with this matter might have included the multilingual conversation in the café, the history of that ‘field’ in a flood zone, the creepy chain-brand hotel behind, clad in Cotswold stone, that seems generated by a computer programme. Practically none of which gets into mine. But exclusions in poems can also be ghostly presences, and maybe the horses are history. It’s some 6,000 years since horses have been ‘domesticated’, and now, though of course not entirely, they’ve become obsolete for work and transport. So the horses ‘philosophically surveying’ the cars is so blatantly anthropomorphising that it stands as a sort of sad joke.
All the other kinds of poem you don’t or can’t write have to be banished in order to write the one that you can.
On the subject of ‘kinds’ of poems, is there a particular type of poem you see yourself as writing, or one that you refuse to write? Is there a particular subject you would prefer not to explore?
Reading a number of vanguardish accounts of the typical ‘mainstream’ poem, especially in Britain, there’s a caricature that emerges of the poem as an unexamined bit of personal or domestic life, in the form of an anecdote with a moral at the end, as though writers of an alternative tradition spurned all personal experience and never lived in houses, only caravans and yurts. As early as the 1970s, we find Andrew Crozier’s bleak diagnosis of this type of poem: ‘the authoritative self, discoursing in a world of banal, empirically derived objects and relations’. Here the key, disapproving word is ‘banal’ though competing with it is the quasi-philosophical ‘empirically derived’. This sort of stuff has been influential in some sectors of the academy and we now have theses written which avidly spot ‘empirical markers’ as proof of the failings of contemporary ‘mainstream’ poetry, as though there were something pitifully unrigorous and cramped about deducing things from the world by way of sensory impressions.
I find this style of analysis snobbish and unhelpful, and it makes me think a poem that offended all these negative judgements would be an interesting one to try to write. Well, it’s certainly been written from Thomas Wyatt to Thomas Hardy and way beyond. Hardy’s ‘During Wind and Rain’ makes it clear that the domestic can be a prime site of the uncanny and the catastrophic. What I’m saying is that even if I have my own reservations about the type of poem that criticism describes, I find the proscription as annoying and limiting as Kingsley Amis’s remark that ‘Nobody wants any more poems about philosophers or paintings or novelists or art galleries or foreign cities or other poems.’ That, too, makes one want to write a poem to contravene the injunction: a poem about a philosopher viewing a painting in an art gallery. Now I think of it, I have written a poem about the philosophers Aranguren and Valverde in their respective foreign cities, Madrid and Barcelona, (‘Ethics & Aesthetics’) only I neglected to set it in the Prado.
Well, this is arid ground and the caricatures go both ways, but the argument seems claustrophobic and disabling, so at the moment in the most cordial spirit I’m wishing a plague on both their houses.
As to your second question, I haven’t set up any prohibitions of my own about the kinds of poems I’m prepared to write. There are areas such as family I’m reluctant to write about, but I’ve overcome the reluctance on occasion. I like the idea that you can make a poem out of any material, even scraps, or rags and bones.
Does the poem draw from any other literary sources?
I was flattered that the first person who read it thought that it was subversive of Larkin’s ‘At Grass’. Though I know that poem well, I hadn’t even considered this until it was mentioned. Larkin’s poem looks at old horses, mine at a seemingly old person looking at horses who appear ageless. There are many poems about horses, but the only one that I vaguely had in my head was ‘Horses’ by the Orcadian poet Kenneth Muir – ‘The light flowed off their bossy sides in flakes…’ – but his horses are mythical and apocalyptic, mine more mundane. His is a lament it seems to me for an Edenic youth and… well, mine seems more of a complaint about aging.
Animals appear in many of your previous collections, often inviting some sort of analogy. Can you speak more about the role that they play for you as a writer? Is there a particular author whose mention of animals you find particularly memorable?
Yes, there’s a fair-sized menagerie, all considered, and it may be, as you say, that they are often inviting some sort of analogy – presumably with the human – though I’d have to think about that on a case-by-case basis. I like the idea of animals having an autonomous existence in poems, but as with these philosophical horses most of us feel an inevitable urge to understand them in human terms, to anthropomorphise. It may be inappropriate, and some people get quite angry about this impulse, but it could also help to establish a kind of kinship, a sense that we occupy this space with them and have no right to abuse the power we have over them.
This is all a bit general, so it would very much depend on the poem. I’ve written, for instance, three poems about moles – not animals that I have any special fondness for. Even that presence goes back a long way – I notice Dante in Purgatory has the mole stand in for bleary partial-sightedness. Anyway, the first of mine, ‘The Best of Things’, is a cheerily grim piece about cannibalism; the last, ‘King Billy’s Nemesis’, is a poem about republicanism (a mole reputedly caused William of Orange’s horse to stumble and led to his death); and a poem, in my view the most interesting, called ‘A Mole of Sorts’ which, as the title suggests, may not be a mole at all – it’s a ‘digging creature’ that causes destruction, that may even be death. It’s a dream animal who speaks.
You could say this is Ted Hughes territory, with his monitory fox, but dreams of animals are a very widespread phenomenon. In our dreams, in mythology, in religion and literature – from Dante’s ‘lonza’ (an invented kind of leopard) to Kafka’s ‘ungeheures Ungezeifer’, which turns out to have a number of beetle-like traits, they keep recurring. This fact alone would suggest our kinship and closeness, our inter-dependence – they appear to us with threats, warnings, reassurance, as guides or witnesses – they can, as in life, be images of terror or beauty or both. That goes for hybrids or chimerae: I’ve also written of sphinxes, hippogryphs and an unspecified, Biblical creature called ‘The Chilazon’.
Animals are an interest that goes way back for me – as for most of us, I imagine. The first book I treasured was an Animal Encyclopaedia which began with the Madagascan arboreal, the Aye-aye, a creature I’ve yet to write about. And one of the first ‘grown-up’ books I read was Ralph Bucksbaum’s quite technical book about invertebrates, ‘Animals Without Backbones’. Insects and cephalopods were my main interests, but there was also a lot of ghoulish material on parasites. Insects, since, have been a recurring topic for me, from the post-Chernobyl ‘Ill Wind’ in my first book, which refers to the mutation rates of the fruit fly, to ‘The Fly Inventory’ in my most recent book which is a catalogue of flies in art, literature, mythology and idiom, interleaved with personal encounters.
About 20 years ago I gathered together an insect poem anthology from everywhere and even wrote most of the introduction. It almost saw the light of day, only both of the interested publishers chose more generalist animal anthologies in its stead. I still think mine was better! The kind of book you could give to an eccentric loved one, or an enemy. Quite a number of the poems I most admire were in – from Donne’s ‘The Flea’ to Dickinson’s ‘I heard a Fly buzz – when I died’. I also wanted a section for arachnids to include, among others, Dunbar’s ‘fell Scorpioun’ and Frost’s ‘Design’…
The Italian sonnet is a form you manipulate masterfully. What is your relationship to traditional forms?
While compiling my last book, Out There, I had a fleeting worry there might be too many sonnets, particularly in the early part of the book. On reflection, though, I decided the form functioned as I wanted it to in that context – the context of vast tracts of space for which the containment of the form offered an extreme contrast. The epigraph is from the Commedia where Dante looks down from the Heaven of the Seven Planets and sees the earth: ‘L’aiuola che ci fa tanto feroci’ – which I translate, loosely, as ‘this little patch of earth that makes us all so fierce’. L’aiuola, it’s been convincingly suggested, comes from Latin ‘areolus’ (a small area) – a diminutive, then, much as ‘sonetto’ is, so I began to see the sonnet form itself as a little contested zone.
It’s a very testing form, but I find the length suits me. In any short poem, any line or phrase that’s slack or a filler is cruelly shown up, and the sonnet certainly works in this way, which is useful, but it’s something about the sonnet’s 8/6 divide, the ‘subtle imbalance’ I think John Fuller called it, that attracts me. So in a way you’re right it’s the Italian prototype, however modified, that I’m most drawn to, and one of my objections to this one, as I’ve said, is that it seems to have been tugged against my will towards the English form with its rhyming couplet at the end.
My own relation to the sonnet is a precarious one – mine are often unrhymed or sporadically rhymed or rhymed in a way that goes against the expectations of the form. This may reflect a lack of competence with or confidence in rhyme, I’m not sure. I love the basic shape but I don’t especially aspire to writing suavely or mellifluously within the form – I want it to have rough edges, or even not to look like a sonnet. The Brazilian poet Drummond de Andrade’s ‘Oficina Irritada’, which I long ago translated as ‘The Spleen Factory’, represents an unpleasant kind of ideal in this respect:
The same might be said of my relationship to other traditional forms. I can see the attraction of them, but have to find a way of not being boxed in by the expectations they raise. In that I think I’ve sometimes succeeded, sometimes not. That’s the particular challenge of the sonnet: that, however Pound tried to sweep it away, it’s been the formal repository of some of the greatest poems in Italian, French, German, Spanish, Russian, and a host of other languages. And even contemporary English has sonneteers of no mean stature, who really have used the form masterfully, or inventively and re-invigoratingly.
Though they’ve all the rest of the field to graze in
the horses stand at the iron railings by
the main road and philosophically survey
the mode of transport that replaced them.
It seems a silent vigil at their own demise.
Of course it could be they just like the trees
that line the road and act as their
umbrellas, parasols and scratching posts.
Apart from one sleek foal I can’t distinguish
young from old – they all seem ageless visitors
from another age. I sit out in the café opposite,
sharing the traffic fumes, and puffing at
this ridiculous ‘vapour’ cigarette. Feeling my age –
breathless, bereft, my only field the page.
First Published by Prac Crit.