Book Talk S06E02 transcript: On becoming a poet: newspaper days |
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Book Talk transcript : S06E02 — On becoming a poet: newspaper days

Jill Kitson: Welcome to Book Talk on ABC Radio National. This week; Newspaper Days. Clive James and Peter Porter with the second of six programs 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' 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.

Both writers began their careers writing for newspapers; Peter as a cadet on The Brisbane Courier Mail, Clive as a book reviewer for The Sydney Morning Herald. Here's Clive...

Clive James: Peter, when we were finishing last week you told the sad story of how as a journalist you failed to grasp the opportunity of the big story about the fire in the kapok factory next to the brothel, and it occurred to me that a good solid hack jobbing journalist would have realised what the real story was, he would have asked the right question — 'How much of the kapok went into the mattresses that went into the brothel?' But you couldn't be expected to do that because you weren't really a jobbing hack journalist, were you, you were something else.

Peter Porter: Well, apart from anything else, what happened to me in my job as a cadet reporter was I suffered from chronic timidity. This is very odd in a way because at school I hadn't been timid, I'd been rather forward, in fact, I seem to remember, but out in the big world with people who didn't know that Robert Browning was a great writer or didn't know or care what was going on in the more protected world of high-brow literature, I found myself completely gormless and hopeless because they seemed to be so capable of doing things which I couldn't do. I used to, in fact, come back to the chief of staff at the newspaper and claim that I couldn't find the door where I was supposed to be interviewing somebody. And I did get snubbed too; I was snubbed very badly when Sir Bernard Heinze was in town. I was sent down to interview this great conductor and he looked at me when I came through the door and he said, 'Who are you?' and I said, 'I'm from The Brisbane Courier Mail,' and he said, 'Couldn't they find someone a bit more senior?' I found, in fact, the whole business of the newspaper life was absolutely revolting. I wouldn't try that today, but what I think it did force my hand to was to recognising horses for courses; what you're good at and what you're not good at. I certainly was not good at that.

Clive James: Luckily I was never asked to do regular journalism, which you needed a cadetship for in those days...

Peter Porter: I had one, yes.

Clive James: I didn't have that, so I was stuck with book reviewing. I wouldn't have been any good as an ordinary journalist because I precisely lacked the thing you're talking about which is boldness, and I wouldn't have been diligent. But what saddened me was that I wasn't very good at the other stuff either. Literary journalism was by no means an easy path for me. I had read prodigiously at university. I'd cured some of the deficiencies I'd had late in high school, I'd definitely moved on from Biggles and the war books to literature, and by the time I'd finished university (although I read off the course rather than on it) I had read a prodigious amount. My problem was I was trying to get it all into the piece when I wrote the piece and my prose jammed up, and the qualities that I thought I was justifiably well known for, which was fluency in a kind of colloquial ease, all disappeared in this log-jam of ideas.

Luckily I had a mentor and that was the editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, Angus Maude. He also took it upon himself to be the literary editor of the paper as well as the actual editor, and he was a living example of the fact that Australia, although it was no longer in thrall to the Old Country, still had an intimate connection with it. The Poms still had things to teach us, and this remained true for quite some time. In a later period, Michael Davey the English journalist had a huge influence on the young writers of The Melbourne Age, for example, simply because of the way he took care of their grammar and punctuation and made them much more meticulous. There's a whole generation of writers like Robert Haupt and others I could name, who were influenced in a big way by Michael Davey.

I was influenced by Angus Maude, I don't mind admitting it. He looked at my prose with a barely controlled sneer and got out his blue pencil and gradually the whole page turned blue as he started taking out every infelicity and trying to show me that there was a simple line that I could follow. It was invaluable training and that's happened throughout my life as I've needed an alarming amount of editorial attention at crucial moments. I like to think now that I can edit myself, but there were times when I needed it and, boy, that was one of them. I was making a slow start. He actually refused to publish one of my reviews, I remember it very well. I'd reviewed James McAuley's long poem, the one about de wasn't that he didn't like what I'd said, he just didn't like the way I'd said it. He said it wasn't worthy of the subject and he wouldn't publish it.

So these were big lessons and I had to take it right on the chin. And I got better at it, and I remembered ever since that feeling when you have so many ideas you can't get started is part of the process. It's taken me decades but I've learned not to panic. If it doesn't come, the reason it doesn't come is you've got too much to say. Eventually it will clear. Have a drink, see a movie, eventually you'll get there. Take realistic deadlines, don't be in a position where you have to do it by five o'clock tonight if you can avoid it, but the reason why you can't get it down on paper is you've got too much to say. That's an act of faith; it might be you haven't got enough to say but...

Peter Porter: I'm afraid I'm going to do the terrible thing of totally echoing you and agreeing with every word you've said because I feel it's about time in my life that I expressed the gratitude to all the people who have intervened in my own literary writing, not just journalism, not just reviewing...because by now I've done, not as much as you Clive, but I've written at least 3,000 pieces which have appeared in British and Australian journals of one sort of another, which you would call high-brow reviewing, I suppose, but in my case it happened also with the actual writing of literature itself. It's become, as far as anything can become notorious in one person's life, that I started off here with a lot of chaps who had just come down from Oxford and Cambridge who were very clever and helped me.

What I think is interesting, though, about the kind of editing you get from colleagues of your imaginative writing is you never really get put off what you want to say, you only get instructed in the manner of how you're saying it. I've never at any time felt that opposition and criticism would put me off what I wanted to do, but I have always felt that people could see and perceive how well or ill it was done in a way that I myself could not do, and I found that a great help in many directions. But you must also persist, you must also say, 'Well, yes, I quite agree but I'm not going to go along with that, I'm going to do it my way,' and you do it.

Clive James: And sometimes conceit and stubbornness helps in persistence, or it does with me. The biggest mistakes I've made in my life are not listening to criticism early enough. Sometimes it takes me a decade or even two decades to admit that somebody said something right about my work, and I hated him for it at the time. I've only just forgiven one friend for something he said in 1982, but it was a big fault to not admit immediately that they were correct in criticising my work. On the other hand, if I had admitted it too readily it would have sapped my determination and my persistence. Persistence is very important. Just the ability to meet a deadline, for example, takes persistence. I had my first practise at meeting deadlines at The Sydney Morning Herald.

After I'd proved that I could write a book review that somebody wanted to publish, I was offered a job, and that was the assistant editor of the magazine page of The Sydney Morning Herald which came out on Saturdays, and that meant that you edited other people, and that really meant that you were a rewrite man because the material came in free from the public. The whole thing was an adventure in economics; the idea was the public provided the material and you tarted it up slightly so that you could publish it. In effect this meant that you had to rewrite almost all of it, and hopeless manuscripts would arrive — novels filling a whole suitcase, memoirs of allegedly fascinating grandfathers. Occasionally you would get a story that you could make something of, and in making something of the story I actually learned to change other people's prose into something publishable. But eventually I got a crucial idea; I might try a story myself. Until then my range had been confined to poetry which nobody was publishing or wanting to read and a few book reviews which came out in the paper.

Then I got into the idea of getting into another genre and that was the story, the tale. Quite out of the blue I got the idea of telling the story of a billycart race that I'd had when I was a kid. This is an example of your 'newspaper actuality' in that this was something I knew about, I'd been there, and I wrote a story and I called it 'They Fell Among Flowers', about a billycart race which ended in catastrophe, and 20 years later I used it in my book, Unreliable Memoirs. But I didn't know what I was doing. It was a very, very undefined urge. It was a powerful urge but I couldn't define it. I was breaking into fiction and making the fiction out of my own life, and that was a new genre for me. It was published in the Herald and it was quite successful. It was one of the first occasions when I could feel a click, there was an audience response.

Peter Porter: Strangely enough I find it exhilarating lacerating and destroying one's own work. I have a kind of huge impulse to that. I'm thinking, for instance, when it's been already written, in the case of a colloquy such as we're doing today, the editing has to be done very quickly in your mind, but if you've written scripts...I've written lots of radio scripts, and I've actually sat in studios throwing them out. It's what I call the 'higher shredding'. I mean, you spend your time realising what that clichwhich literary journalists will tell you, about 'kill your darlings'...actually, 'killing your darlings' becomes a fascination in many ways and you end up as the Herod of self-laceration. In some respects I like doing it. I really do like thinking that the mind is such a prodigious, such a prolific...that you can get rid of lots of stuff, there's still going to be lots left over.

The editing of your thoughts is really what poetry is about. If you start writing a poem, you start moving in a direction, you usually have a general idea, despite what certain Americans say, that poetry shouldn't be about's almost impossible to write a poem which doesn't have at least a kind of subliminal structure which you are following. And then the opportunities arrive at various points to make it go in this direction or that direction. It is the choosing of the directions, the recognition of the chimings, the recognition of the oppositions, the recognition of how something illustrates...and then the wonderful gifts when the fact that, just because you have to concentrate, something remarkable takes place which you would not have found if you hadn't been doing all this editing.

Clive James: That's why I love rhyme because it forces you to ideas that you would not have had. But I should hasten to say (and again over-agreeing) that without poetry I would never had learned to discipline my prose. Even while I was an unpublished and indeed unpublishable poet, the effort I was putting in to writing in disciplined forms was useful for my prose, I'm quite sure of that. That's how I like to justify all that activity anyway. But I think one of the reasons why my prose was improving (and it really could have used improvement in those years) was that I was steadily writing poetry, and indeed always have; it's always there as the centre of discipline in my writing.

But anyway, there I was getting ahead as a published writer and then I did this story about the billycarts and I got the sense of an audience, and the question starting arising of how I could make a living as a writer, not just as the magazine page editor of The Sydney Morning Herald. I got the idea that I couldn't really do that unless I moved to Britain because I think a lot of us in those years (this is the late 50s, ten years after you left) still felt that the opportunities lay abroad, that there was something constricting about Australia. Nowadays if we say that we run the risk of being called unfair, but I think it was generally true at the time, was it not?

Peter Porter: I think it was. I think you ought to say a little bit more about something which I don't have any experience of, which is what I would call the high-brow end of university education, because writing about billycarts is one thing, even if it's written in the style of Henry James, but the point is nevertheless that at university people become acquainted with what you might call the dernier cris, you become aquainted with what really is going on in the world of serious literature, and that can be a very daunting experience. I didn't have that because I had to try to pick it up from reading overseas journals and reading books, reading poetry books, reading books of novels. But I think in some ways we're overestimating the practical side of our careers — that we wrote for newspapers — and underestimating the extent to which we were preoccupied by what was the high level of seriousness which certainly would have been present at Sydney University.

jc: I must rush in there and say that the dernier cris was the last thing you ever heard about on the curriculum. Sydney University was still wedded to the idea that literature petered out in about 1926. I think EM Forster was the most modern writer we studied, maybe the very, very late DH Lawrence. So the idea of being affected by contemporary literature — what was actually being written in the world at the time in the late 50s — didn't really crop up. That left it as something which the students could discover, which I think was very important. In fact, we had to discover quite a lot of modern poetry. The teachers would mention Auden and Spender and Day Lewis but anything after that we had to discover for ourselves, which I think was very handy in that the sense of discovery is always valuable, and I think the ideal teacher will always leave the possibility open and the student discovers what needs to be discovered. But it's simply not true that we shaped our own early writings when we started to write to what the university had taught. On the contrary, it was what the university hadn't been teaching that interested me.

Peter Porter: We see the great contrast to the way they teach in universities today (I go into them often enough), and it seems to me that everybody now is expected to immediately know what's new...

Clive James: That is the danger that the universities in my day avoided...they didn't keep up to date and that was crucial because if the university keeps up to date there's nothing left for the student to find out, there's no sense of rebellion, no sense of rebellion is possible. You can't go on and on ever further into literary theory, it already contains its own rebellion. The course at Sydney University was conventional. The emphasis was heavily on reading established writers, and in retrospect I'm all for that. I actually didn't read them because I was a bad student, I read them later. But the idea that the university should teach what was actually going on in the world was anathema, and rightly so in my view.

Peter Porter: It's very difficult in my experience to actually not be influenced by the things that you read. It's even possible, by a marvellous fluke of the generosity of human perversity, that you will start writing in imitation of somebody who you dislike a lot and whom you can't stand in general terms, and trying to come to terms with not being able to stand that way of doing that is actually to suddenly find yourself writing like that person. I've done this on a number of occasions of looking at, say, Rainer Maria Rilke, the German poet, and at first finding everything in him distasteful but then being suddenly attracted by the sense of the distaste, and then following that through and finding a way of putting it into English, as far I could. And I think it's possible to do this with a whole range of things. I think we are not only influenced by that which we love, we're influenced by that to which we are opposed to.

Clive James: I loathe Brecht. I learned to loathe Brecht watching his interminable, dreary ideological plays, and then I transferred my loathing to his poetry, and he devoted himself to poetry all his life. But loathing his poetry was a bit harder than loathing his plays because these phrases kept popping out, and this is where the poet really scores; a poet can actually say something that even his enemies are forced to admit is well said, and Brecht could do it. There was one phrase, 'I am at home in the asphalt city', 'In der Asphaltstadt bin ich daheim', and I looked at that and it went into my head like a bullet and stayed there...if a bullet can stay and fester, it did. I've had many cases where a repugnant writer has said something that I can't get out of my head, and that's part of your education. I suppose one of the things that you aspire to do is to write something that people have to remember even though they would rather not.

Peter Porter: It is unfortunate though, one of the sources of disaffection among poets is that they are really valued for their phrase-making ability. Sometimes people say to me at poetry readings, 'What's the purpose of poetry?' And I say, 'To give novelists and playwrights titles.' That, in some respects, seems to be...our aphoristic summing-up capacity is what limits our art to some extent. I don't think it does, but it limits it in the interest of the public. I mean, the public knows Kipling because of all the thousands of phrases which he has given them; they don't know him really as the constructor of whole work.

Clive James: They also value phrase-making because of the thousands of poets who can't do it, and especially on the contemporary scene. On any given contemporary scene, but especially the one we have now, there are many, many, many poets who can't make phrases. They write poetry with a capital P but they don't do the essential thing that poets do...or I think it's the essential thing that poets do but maybe I'm old fashioned.

Peter Porter: Well, I find it hard to imagine a poet who didn't have this phrase-making capacity because...

Clive James: I could list you 100 right now...sorry, I didn't mean to burst in there.

Peter Porter: But the satisfaction of writing a poem, of course, has something about it which is curious to all forms of art. I say 'curious to all forms of art' to distinguish it from, say, a review in a newspaper. It has a kind of impulse; it starts, it goes through and it concludes. One of the things which is so valuable about that is that even if you are having trouble with what you're writing you can return to the particular point in the particular arc where you can mend it and go back and get it right. I thought to myself the other day that the one privilege which poets enjoy is knowing that what they have to do is their own responsibility and they're not going to really matter in terms of what happens in terms of Rwanda. They are really responsible only for what happens in the verse which they're working on at the moment.

Clive James: Had you published your first poems in Australia before you left Australia?

Peter Porter: No. My first poem was published in a Cambridge magazine and I was already 30 or something, and it was done because I got to know some Cambridge writers who took me on. My first poem ever in a public arena was broadcast on the BBC in 1957, and I remember hearing it and thinking, 'that voice...heavens above! It's one of those 'lock up the spoons' voices,' and alas I have that voice still. It was extraordinary to suddenly hear myself. I was amused also, the other day, to listen to a recording made in Sydney in the early 70s of my reading some of my verse, and discovering that in the 1970s my voice sounded more English than it does today. Today it's gone back to its Australian inflections almost entirely. I think the introduction of yourself to yourself is one of the great pleasures and great miseries of literature.

Clive James: I was getting to know myself fairly well as a writer by the time I left Sydney because I was doing a bit of publication in the university magazines in Sydney and in Melbourne while I was already working as a professional journalist. I'd seen the university magazines as a good forum and I would pelt them with my stuff because they had a fairly wide circulation. I could call myself a published poet in that sense but otherwise it was still a private matter. I was on the ship to England, I was in the Sunda Strait just near Malaya when I saw some porpoises in the water and I wrote one of the first poems that I later on, in the 80s when I put my collection together, called Other Passports, one of the earliest poems that I kept was about these porpoises. I think I could say it now:

[reading from Swallows in leotards... to ...shot silk sea.]

Peter Porter: Careful, it sounds like Craig Raine.

Clive James: That's not fair.

Peter Porter: That's a Martian poem.

Clive James: It's not fair on me because I wrote that long, long before the Martians arrived on Earth and before Craig started doing his stuff.

Peter Porter: The point about it, Clive, is there is a touch in it, and I know this sounds derogatory but in fact it's a touch of admiration too, a touch almost of 'Goblin Market' by Christina Rossetti. It is the lushness and the languor of the way in which the language is used. This is what, after all, Wallace Stevens said poetry should have — essential gaudiness — and it's got to be essential and not just gaudy. I think there, because every one of those images does tell you about porpoises in the water, especially a scene from a ship, then the essential is there, but so is the gaudiness, and you have to have in poetry...poetry has got to be at least (as Ezra Pound said) as interesting as prose, and it's got to be a lot more 'shot silk' than prose, I think.

Clive James: I'm bound to say I was extremely pleased with it. It's a very Australian poem I now realise, especially in my misapprehension that the word 'dazzling' had three syllables in it instead of two. When I got to England I had a suite of four poems about porpoises, so I wrapped the four poems together and sent them off to Encounter, and I learned my first lesson about publishing in Britain because they came back like bullets and it was going to be a lot harder than I thought, I found that out quite quickly. I sank into poverty in London and I was very lucky ever to come out of it.

Peter Porter: I think it's true that unless you are perhaps Auden or Ted Hughes or Les Murray you go on getting rejected. Here I am, I've been publishing poetry for over 50 years, and I still get many more poems rejected than I ever have accepted...

Clive James: Oh, same here.

Peter Porter: But what I also like to do is I don't like to stand on dignity. I send poems to tiny magazines that don't appear anywhere and sometimes they accept the poems that I think are best and sometimes the grander magazines accept the poems I think are worst. But I never quarrel with editors; not out of fear of offending them and not out of fear of being neglected and dropped by the public, but because they're choosing, and their capacity to choose and the reputation that they give their magazines by this choosing is where you wish to shine.

Clive James: I'd agree with that except that I'd say curse an editor by all means...don't quarrel but you should curse them. I mean, blame the guy and then send him another poem.

Jill Kitson: Clive James, ending that conversation with Peter Porter, the second 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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