Book Talk S06E01 transcript: The Renaissance artist and the Enlightened despot |
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Book Talk transcript : S06E01 — On becoming a poet: on discovering poetry

Jill Kitson: Welcome to Book Talk on ABC Radio National. This week; on discovering poetry. Clive James and Peter Porter on their careers as poets.

Born ten years apart, Peter Porter and Clive James are two highly successful Australian poets who have lived in England since their early twenties. Peter's first collection of poems, Once Bitten, Twice Bitten, was published there in 1961. In 1988, The Automatic Oracle won the Whitbread Poetry Award. His most recent collection, Afterburner, his 17th volume, was short-listed for the 2004 TS Eliot prize. In 1990 Peter was awarded the Gold Medal of Australian Literature, and in 2002, the Queen's Medal for Poetry.

Clive James's first poems were published in student journals at Sydney University. His first book, The Metropolitan Critic, was published in London in 1974. Since then his writing has produced over a score of books, most of which have never been out of print. They include collected essays, mock epic poems, novels, autobiography, and verse. The Book of My Enemy: Collected Verse 1958 to 2003 was a bestseller.

But neither poet was a literary wunderkind. Clive James opened their conversation:

Clive James: Peter, I don't know if you remember when you wanted to become a writer, but I know that I can't remember, I just found myself doing it. But I always wanted to write for publication. The first things I ever wrote were poems copied out from children's books and I stuck them on the walls so other people could see them. Did you have this urge to go public?

Peter Porter: No, I didn't. I can remember when I didn't want to be a writer, which was right from the beginning. It never was an intention of mine at all. I came from a family, anyway, where people didn't read books. I don't mean they were uneducated or they were silly or they didn't have a good deal of sophistication, but books remained closed to them. There was no real tradition of reading, and so it was school that got me going, and since everything else at school was horrible, writing became better than anything else at school.

Clive James: School was crucial to me, too. I think it would have been more so if at the later stage of high school I'd had one of those marvellous teachers that some writers seem to encounter when they are at school; the older man, often very interested in all kinds of impermissible ways as well as permissible ones, but caring for their welfare and making sure that they read this and that, and looking at their first writings and encouraging them and opening up the whole world of literature to them. Not one person resembling that ever showed up in my school career, so I went on reading Biggles, and I became a world expert on Biggles, and indeed The Saint and almost every one of those action heroes.

Peter Porter: I think that is the background or the education of almost all writers. There are two kinds of work that you take in; one you find for yourself, and that's the Biggles and even in my case, Ion Idriess, Drums of Mer and the like, and the other one is the curriculum. Now, far from being horrified by the curriculum or feeling that it damped me down or didn't lead me in the right direction, I loved the curriculum because it actually introduced me to things. The obligation to read things suddenly became a liberation, and that was something which I particularly liked. I didn't really have a great master showing me but I did have one good master who came back from the war (I left school in 1946) and he came back in about '44 and he was a very good teacher and that was a good thing. But basically my gratitude is to the actual board of examiners, to the people in the state of Queensland who actually told us the books that we were supposed to read. Very commanding but, I found, very liberating.

Clive James: I should hasten to backtrack and say that in my early high school days I had a master (we called him 'Jazz') who was a stickler for English grammar and that was a crucial influence on me. What I would lack later on in high school was the kind of master who would take you through a premonition of the university curriculum. That sort of thing didn't happen. I think in Britain it's called the sixth form system. The sixth form system really means the bright boys really are already at university, and indeed the bright girls nowadays, although there was a time when that never happened to the women.

Peter Porter: I didn't really have my mind fixed on university at all, and in fact I didn't go to university because it was fee-paying in my time and my father had just run out of all his cash, but what I did have was a very strong sense that there was a thing there, a great big temple, a huge storehouse which was called 'English literature', and we were led into it, and we were allowed to plunder it in certain ways...

Clive James: This was at school?

Peter Porter: This was at school.

Clive James: Well, I think you're very, very lucky there. I'm green with envy right now listening to you.

Peter Porter: Well, I went to Toowoomba Grammar School which is not, I suppose, one of the great grammar schools of the world, though it has got a distinguished group of old boys including Eric Partridge, the famous lexicographer, and General Chauvel who led the charge at Beersheba. It was a school which was strangely given to academic work as well as the usual remorseless sporting achievements.

Clive James: I must say I too was impressed by the curriculum. I was impressed that the Australian poems that we were taught to recite — 'I Love a Sunburnt Country' and so on — were about a landscape I could recognise. It only occurred to me that there was something wrong with the kind of things I was reading in my later high school years...I was reading all the war books. I moved on from Biggles and The Saint, I moved on to books about WWII, and it only occurred to me when I was in the train going to school one day and my friend and rival for academic honours at school, John Hamilton, was sitting there reading the poems of WH Auden, and I thought, 'Why is he doing that? Who is WH Auden? Indeed, how do you pronounce WH Auden? Why is he reading poetry?' And I didn't have an answer.

Peter Porter: I remember when I first came across the name of Auden, we all pronounced it 'Ow-den'. We didn't know it had to rhyme with 'broaden'. But I think that what impressed talked about learning poems by heart, or at least hearing people recite them as such, this to me was one of the great important lessons, not in fact because I'm particularly fond of declamation of poetry unless it's on the stage, but it first taught me what remains, I think, the most important thing if you're going to be a writer of poetry, is that, like it or dislike it, the iambic foot is the way the English language likes to arrange itself. That was something which was a lesson which I got at school and it stayed with me ever since. No matter how much I want to write free verse, I find the iambus moving up on me, looking over my shoulder, sitting in my lap, doing something or other, and I think that I owe that to school because at last here was the chance to hear language other than direct dialogue with friends. This was language on its own, language making its own point. I have a gratitude to my school teachers for making me aware of the fact that poetry...yes, of course it has to be in the vernacular, but it also has to have this extra dimension, this particular difference in the measured length of the syllables and the way in which they...

Clive James: I think making us recite actually got the rhythm of English verse into us and it was valuable for that, and I would defend the school curriculum idea all the way simply because of that; what gets into you by osmosis, simply by standing on your feet and reciting what you are set to recite. Some of my first works were poems but my poems tended to be lampoons, but they were metrical and one or two of them appeared in the school magazine. The school magazine was very important to me. Actually, before I went to high school I was in a thing called an opportunity school, which was a kind of prison for people with freak IQs. I published a wall paper, it was a wall newspaper; people gave contributions and I pasted them up and it made me a publisher, I stuck this on the wall. Everything I wrote was copied from something else. At home my mother had a cupboard in the hallway which was half full...from the bottom upwards, it was just a heap of magazines, mainly American — Saturday Evening Post and Colliers — and Lilliput was there too, an English magazine, and there was a story in it and I remember I thought the story would do for me as a plot, so I copied the story. In fact my story had a startling resemblance to that story, and one day some literary detective is going to uncover it and find out that my first publication given to the opportunity school wall paper was indeed a plagiarism. But all that compulsive reading of all these magazines give me the idea of writing something of my own, I'm sure. The idea of originality came later on at high school.

Peter Porter: Well, Auden said, didn't he, that originality is about the last thing you really need when you're starting out, and you achieve originality by deviating from your models. Your models are there to guide you and you can't keep up with them and you become original by failing to be as good as your models, and I think that's extremely important. What worries me now, looking back, was my total lack of loyalty to...I had the curriculum behind me but I had no loyalty to Australian literature as such. This is going to sound extremely extravagant and silly — one of the things I liked about English literature was it's largely written in what I called 'ordinary, simple, duple meter', whereas all these bush ballads are written in triple meter, and to my mind they sound terrible, and I think, on the whole, double meter is always better then triple meter. You've got to be careful about it. Ballads are the hardest things in the world to write, and we were fed a diet of ballads, but that's why I liked the conservative teaching which I had, that we went back to what I would regard as the metrical pattern of seriousness and not the metrical pattern of...I suppose just languidity.

Clive James: We were taught to get on our feet and recite all kinds of Australian poetry at school. 'The Man From Snowy River' for example, and I think one of my few precocities was that I realised, even as I was reciting it, that it had been done and couldn't be done again. That much I did figure out. I never did write a ballad, and it was many, many years later (in fact it's quite recently), decades later that I've actually attempted to write anything in those popular measures. They are quite hard to do. They were a fatal false trail for the young writers of my generation. But what impresses me so much about you [Peter Porter] is you figured so much of this out without a university stage, as it were. So before you left school you were starting to realise the kind of things you wanted to write, for example, which I didn't. I didn't know what I wanted to write. I only vaguely knew that I was going to be a writer of some kind. In fact, I thought I was much more of a reader. What I was terrific at, unparalleled at, was reading vast amounts of sludge in a short time.

Peter Porter: I think basically I was less ambitious than you. I had no desire to write stories and no desire to write novels. I did have a desire to be a playwright. In fact, I continuously insisted that I was going to be a playwright. When it came to actually writing plays — and I have written them — they are almost unbelievably boring and stiff, which I can't understand because I'm such an admirer of Shaw and Ibsen. They were the people who were my models.

Clive James: But you didn't give the public a chance to decide this, you decided by yourself.

Peter Porter: I decided myself that I was obviously no good. But why I didn't feel that way about poetry was I felt that with poetry there was a possibility of achieving something, and of course like you too I was very much the sinecure of the school magazine. I had a look at a couple of school magazines the other day and there was a wince a line, of course, but nevertheless I thought, 'Gosh, what ambition.' I was writing in the school magazine about Voltaire, I was writing in the school magazine about Hannibal, I was writing about people I knew nothing about but who somehow I'd got into my mind as people I wanted to write about. I think it was that sense of not having to write only about what went on around you. People will give you continual advice; the only way to write is to record what you know. My advice would be the exact opposite; write about what you don't know. Writing about what you know will end up as reportage frequently, and I do think there's a lot to be said for the ambition. I mean, if you look at almost all the great novelists, they set out on expeditions that certainly did refer to the world around them, but they also referred to things miles away from themselves, and I think that that's quite right.

Clive James: Yes. While I was still at high school I was very active in Kogarah Presbyterian Church Fellowship, which was my social centre — mainly because it was where the girls were — and if I wore my Kogarah Presbyterian Church Fellowship badge I was able to meet them on Sundays and sit down for discussions of the Bible. I was given the task of editing the fellowship magazine. It was called Fellowship Life, and Fellowship Life was largely written by me because I found it very difficult to get contributions from my fellow fellowshippers; so I wrote it. So it was one editorial after another, and the editorials were mainly to do with spirituality and a modern conception of God. When the minister read one of these editorials he thought my conception of God was far too modern, in fact he thought it was atheist, and he carpeted me, he said that the magazine was going to go out of business pronto and we're going to forget all about it, and with a sense of disappointment I shut the magazine down. But it was already my taste of being published to a wider audience, not just school and so on. I already had that in my mind when I got to university and I met my first poet, and I think I knew instantly what I was going to do with my life.

Peter Porter: I'm glad you mentioned God because he was a very important influence in my case. Nothing to do with belief in God at all, nothing whatever to do with Christianity as such, at least as a faith, but to do with God's command of the English language and his prose capacities. You often absorb things when you're not in the mood to absorb them, so sitting in...we had to go to chapel every day. We were another one of those...what in Australia are genuinely always called non-denominational schools, which means everyone but the Catholics. We'd hear from the Psalms...we'd hear them read or we'd hear them sung...we would hear the Bishop Cranmer's magnificent prose rolling over us, and this, to some direction, somehow you absorb that in a curious kind of way, and it gives you an idea of prose far better than you can ever get by reading philosophers or something because God has always had a very good command of prose it seems to me.

Clive James: Far better than just reading The Sydney Morning Herald for that matter. The King James Bible was fundamental to my education. I don't know if the kids today are encouraged to read the King James version. I think on the whole it's avoided, even in the churches, and it's a terrible, terrible pity because it's drenched with poetry and it gives you the cadences that you're going to be using all your life as a writer.

Peter Porter: It's also important to point out to people who say that it's necessary to get dogmatically right and the reason why we don't have the King James Bible is because we have to explain to people these difficult concepts of Christianity, but the people who wrote the King James Bible were even more interested in what they thought were the difficult concepts of Christianity, therefore it seems to me a terrible mistake to try and iron out the wrinkles. You can't do it. Theology is a wrinkly business and you have to absorb it through the best minds that took it on. Considering we now live in an age of faith, from George Bush onwards and Tony Blair onwards, it's a pity that this sense of faith hasn't extended to a faith in good language.

Clive James: When I think of my last years at high school, I try to be careful not to underrate the importance of indirect influences. At school we had to do a Shakespeare, and of course having to do something is always a bit of a turn-off for active young boys, but even I recognised that there was something wonderful about the language. I was Lady Macbeth and I had to stand up at my desk and recite the lines, and I think my performance was seared into the memories of my entire generation. But it was nothing like the influence on me of the Shakespeare films by Olivier, and it was in that period that I saw Hamlet, for example, and just one line which wasn't delivered by Olivier, it was delivered by whoever was playing Horatio — 'Good night sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to they rest' — and I started going around saying it and imaging myself wearing tights, and my use of language started to wear tights. My mother noticed there was a strange new poise in the way I addressed her. The Hollywood movie of Julius Caesar was a big influence, especially Brando. I actually learned Mark Anthony's speech just so I could lean against a marble pillar and talk like Brando. There weren't any marble pillars available but I pretended the front doorjamb was one. This wasn't happening in school but it was happening during school. It was part of the information that I took with me when I got to university, and it was the qualities that I wanted to concentrate when I too became a writer, which I decided to do instantly when I met my first writers. There were the poets roaming around the university campus. I needed them; I needed contact with other writers to find out what I was. What impresses me about you [Peter Porter] is that you didn't really, did you?

Peter Porter: Well, I did later when I came to England where I got to grow with a group, and I got to really enjoy the idea that you could talk to other writers and you could have them look at your work. I mean, the more they criticised it the more encouraged you became. The more they dumped on you, the more you realised that it was worth persisting because there were people taking it seriously. That didn't happen to me at school or even after I left school, not until I came to Britain. But one thing I do feel very strongly is the reason why kids at school, despite the fact that they may not come from a background where people do read serious literature, one reason why you like the classics, one reason why you like Shakespeare and all the great writers is because they are so marvellously unhappy and melancholy and full of disaster, and it gives you such pleasure when you're feeling the same yourself — hopeless, disaster prone — and then to read Alexander Pope saying, 'Thou great Anarch, let the curtain fall, and universal darkness buries all,' you think, wonderful, this is exactly what I want to hear. I want to hear the opposite of a blessing. I want this wonderful cursing of life, and that's what literature can give you. It can be invigorating and it actually encourages in the end, I think, your moral personality.

Clive James: I think that might have been my problem at school, and I'm always complaining about the last years of high not the absence of an inspiring teacher, but I was just insufficiently alienated. I didn't have the gift you had of feeling special and unhappy. I had a very conventional mind. I've still got one, I think. I think it expresses itself reasonably well but a conventional mind is what it is, and it wasn't until I got to university that I realised that being a writer was something I had to do.

Peter Porter: But I also think it's true to say that all good writers, all writers of any tolerable literature of any sort are 95% conventional because the conventions are those of the tribe. No matter how original you are as a writer you've got the same tribal material to use as everybody else has. It all has to come out of the big kitty of language which is there for all of us. I don't divide people up into conventional or unconventional. I do think occasionally somebody turns up who is strikingly different from everybody else but that isn't always the best writer, and it seems to me frequently that people who start off conventionally grow into a degree of authority, which couldn't be more obvious than in the case of Shakespeare because a lot of the early Shakespeare is sort of gildedly conventional. Later on he suddenly becomes, I think, still conventional but magnificently brokenly conventional. I think in the end persistence is what shows what happens.

Clive James: I wonder if I ever would have developed even persistence if I hadn't have had Sydney University. One thing Sydney University had for me, of course, was publications that already existed. There was the student newspaper Honi Soit and there were the annual magazines, and I immediately started to fill them with my products. I was pretty hard to resist actually. I had an armful of the stuff. There was space to fill and I had the wherewithal to fill it, and of course a great way of filling space in Honi Soit was actually to become the literary editor which I eventually did, and thereby I could commission pieces from myself. The literary page started to fill up with works by Clive James. It was my real experience of publication and I think I actually got better at what I did by publishing. I was never a private writer in that sense and indeed still not. I write scarcely anything and keep it back. I think getting into print is part of the process. I have never have liked the idea, for myself at any rate, of the private poet, and you've never been a private poet either, have you?

Peter Porter: No, I'm certainly very much against self-editing, self-holding back. I think everything one thinks is basically material for one's writing. I don't believe in suppression of anything, but unfortunately most of us have self-censoring mechanisms which have been acquired in the process of growing up. I remember, for instance, going to do a reading once in Northern Ireland, and I thought, I can't read this passage; it's got sex in it. And someone said, 'Don't worry about the nuns, it's the Presbyterians you have to concern yourself with.' But in fact I knew that my own brain had a Presbyterian censor in it and was actually trying to do something about making my work seem a little bit more couth than it was. And that's not good, that's something to be got rid of.

Clive James: When I looked back in the 1980s on the poetry that I'd written in Sydney University in the late 50s, I found very little to keep. The stuff I threw away was largely metaphysical junk. It was designed to be incomprehensible in order to increase my prestige, and the only thing it succeeded in being was incomprehensible. But the stuff that I thought actually worked and was worth keeping did have this...the thing you call 'newspaper actuality'. It quite often tended to refer to Sydney, actually. I wrote poems about what the morning looked like from Cremorne in Sydney Harbour, and I kept that poem because I managed to capture what the warships looked like when I was a kid, and I had something about the 'dawn taking the wraps of white chenille...'Chenille was a very fancy word, probably we even pronounced it wrong, but I thought the clouds on the harbour in the morning looked like a chenille bedspread...'from the warships coming into their own cold steel...' I was terribly impressed with myself when I wrote that, and it gave me the ambition, that kind of writing, to try and do something professional. So I'd managed to acquire, possibly by over-production, a certain reputation at Sydney University, and The Sydney Morning Herald very flatteringly asked me to do a book review. It wasn't a very important book, a history of hot-air ballooning or something, and I found great difficulty in doing it. I couldn't produce a piece of prose that the paper wanted to publish, and it was my first big disappointment in my own abilities, and I realised with a shock that there was rather more to this business than I'd thought.

Peter Porter: My first publication of course was, as I think I mentioned earlier, in a school magazine, but when it came to publication in real terms, something that the public might like to read, it was utterly humiliating and diabolical, because I became a newspaper reporter when I left school. I was a cadet reporter on The Brisbane Courier Mail, and believe me that was no Athens of the North. It was not just because I was writing stuff which I myself was bored by, I was writing stuff which the whole newspaper industry thought was dreadful and I was chucked out very, very quickly. It taught me an important lesson. I do a lot of journalistic writing these days, but I had to learn that literary journalism is not the same thing as daily rounds journalism, which is entirely different. I was sent out to a big fire in Stanley Street, South Brisbane, and the chief of staff, who was a very worldly man, said to me, 'It's in a kapok factory next to a brothel.' And I said, 'Oh, really?' I found it quite impossible to write about this at all. I was just so bad as a newspaper reporter. It forced me back onto what I can only call high-brow journalism. The lesson was really a hard lesson to learn, and I think a hard lesson to understand about yourself. You suddenly appreciate that you're not the realist you thought you were; you're actually no good at many things which other people can do extremely well, and you're forced to find something more arcane which is what I've been spending my life doing.

Jill Kitson: Peter Porter, ending that conversation with Clive James, the first of six programs about their careers as poets. Peter Porter's latest collection of poetry is Afterburner, a Picador. He edited The Best Australian Poetry 2005 for University of Queensland Press. The Book of My Enemy is the title of Clive's collected verse, 1958 to 2003. His latest collection of essays is The Meaning of Recognition. Picador is the publisher. And that's all for this edition of Book Talk.

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