Book Talk S06E05 transcript: On the art of being seriously entertaining |
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Book Talk transcript : S06E05 — On the art of being seriously entertaining

Jill Kitson: Welcome to Book Talk on ABC Radio National. I'm Jill Kitson. This week: on the art of being taken seriously entertaining. Clive James and Peter Porter in the fifth 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 for 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. He's now the author of over a score of books, most of which have never been out of print. They include collected essays, novels, mock epic poems, autobiography and verse. The Book of My Enemy: Collected Verse 1958 to 2003 was a bestseller.

Clive and Peter have long found each other's poetry seriously entertaining. Here's Clive:

Clive James: Peter, at the end of the last program I was busy putting the boot in to my first collection of poems which is called Fan Mail and was reviewed like the plague. I more or less implied that I agreed with the critical opinion but you reminded me afterwards that there was some good things in it and it was very nice of you, and one of them, I think, (if it is good) was a poem called 'To Peter Porter, a Letter to Sydney'. You were in Australia at the time and I wrote a letter to you, and among other things I said:

'I miss your talk, not just because of savouring its bracing lack of artificial flavouring, but also for the way that Grubb Street scandal is spiced by you with thoughts on Bach and Handel, and whether the true high point of humanity was Mozart's innocence or Hayden's sanity.'

Now, I'm still quite pleased with that, and why? Not because it's poetically very brilliant, because it's actually so. I was actually writing the kind of poetry that had the news in it, what you would call 'newspaper actuality', and I think for me that was the way ahead, it's just that I didn't spot it at the time, and I think that's frequently so in your career, that you're on to a good thing and don't quite realise it.

Peter Porter: Yes, I worked, almost, the other way around. My first book of reminds me what Auden said about his book called The Orators, he said, 'Written by a man who appeared at the time to be on the edge of a complete mental collapse, almost mad, almost fascist.' My first book of poems would have been considered a bit on the jocular side perhaps by Jeremiah the prophet but only by him. I had to begin with the most gloomy aspects of life because it seemed to me that that was where the energy of my own particular imaginations came. Later on, of course, I tried to do some of the things that you do. I've tried to write verse which is in the speaking voice.

It's interesting...I was just looking at a selection of Dryden which Auden did, and he points out that Dryden wouldn't have been able to do what Pope did which was a most peculiar...almost a run into madness...but what he could do, he could write verse in exactly the manner in which people speak to each other, and I think that that is a great gift. It's something which poetry...or poetry (I should say) in the English language...unlike a lot of the continental poetry which tends often to be very arcane and hermetic. It has this 'man speaking to man, woman speaking to woman' tone to it, and that's something of course which I had to learn because I started off oracular and got a lot more human.

Clive James: It's actually a tradition which goes right through the 19th century too, doesn't it, with... vers de société they used to call it, didn't they, with writers like Praed, and then it goes well into the 20th century when you get up to Auden. Some of Auden's greatest poetry is public poetry in the sense that you could read it out at a meeting, like 'Letter to Lord Byron' and...this is great stuff; it's full of news, it's written in the speaking voice, and I always thought, yes, that's great stuff, I love anything that sounds like that. It just took me a while to realise I should be writing it. That's what I was doing in the mid 70s.

I wrote a long poem called 'Peregrine Prykke's Pilgrimage' which was a satire of the London literary world, and I'd produced that as a stage production at the ICA with Russell Davies playing all the different poets and Martin Amis playing Peregrine Prykke. Martin was very young at the time. I was the narrator. Anyway, it had a kind of success...a scandalous success, and The New Review printed it, and it began an annual event where I'd write one of these long poems each year, and then I overdid it. I went too far, and I wrote four of them in four years, and the final one I wrote about the royal family called 'Charles Charming's Challenges' led to a stage production which was probably the single biggest catastrophe of my career.

But leaving that aside (and I only wish I could, I only wish the memories would clear from my brain) what I had done was get in a kind of groove where I was writing poetry about public life, and although, when I look back on it, I probably overdid it so it looked like a false trail, it did actually set the tone for the work that I've done more recently.

Peter Porter: You may remember that when 'Peregrine Prykke' was published I had just at that moment written a poem, a 120-line long poem, in heroic couplets in honour of William Shakespeare. Now, writing poems in honour of William Shakespeare is about the most supererogatory thing anyone could ever do, but we were all doing it, partly to help Sam Wanamaker get the money for his Globe Theatre. But my poem was called 'Exit, Pursued by a Bear', which of course is the famous stage direction (not written, probably, by Shakespeare) for The Winter's Tale. But I was so impressed by the heroic couplets in 'Prykke' that I actually suppressed my poem...I revived it later.

Clive James: I had no idea.

Peter Porter: It was something I felt that I was...

Clive James: My poem impressed you? I want to hear more of this.

Peter Porter: It's definitely what I did. In a sense I think it was because I was still being too editorial, whereas what happened in 'Prykke'...and I still read it with great pleasure, I still take it down from the shelf and read it. I mean, I won't praise necessarily the three that followed 'Pryyke', but 'Prykke' I think is, in its way, a masterpiece. It is written in the natural tone, which is what is so attractive about it, and it's full of jokes, whereas my poem in honour of Shakespeare did still have a little tone of holiness and respectability about it and I don't think one should do that. Encomia should be written in the lightest possible tone.

Clive James: I think it was probably the jokes in my 'Peregrine Prykke' poem that made it a theatrical possibility, and I couldn't complain for lack of attention. Year after year in those four years I was writing one of these things and getting published, often excerpted on the front of The Sunday Times review section or The Observer review section, putting it on as a theatrical event...I couldn't put my hand on my heart and say people were ignoring me as a poet, but what they did do was use that as ammunition for ignoring my seriousness. Because I was obviously trying to be an entertaining and amusing and public poet, therefore I couldn't be a serious one, and that put a hole in my reputation that took in water for the next 30 years, in fact it still is. I'm still fighting it.

Peter Porter: The same thing, in a curious kind of way, happened to me. I started in the opposite direction, as I've already explained. I started off as a poet of almost unbelievable seriousness in the sense that I thought that the apocalypse was upon us and that any moment we'd be overwhelmed...nothing to do with what today people would find. It wasn't to do with terrorism, it wasn't to do with world politics, it was to do with the inner soul of man...

Clive James: That's just exactly what I loved about your stuff. As I was freezing to death in Tufnell Park in 1962, your lines about the Pope; 'High above Rome, the Pope also waits to die.'

Peter Porter: 'In a room with wireless', it goes, yes. It ends of course with a line which is one of my favourite self-aphorisms, and since I'm in this boastful vein I'll just quote it. It goes, 'of all God's miracles, death is the greatest.' Now, that for sonority takes a lot of beating. It is, however, exactly the kind of line that you write when you're young. Possibly you also write that kind of line on your death-bed, but in between you do try to write a few things a little bit more specific and a few things which take into account the quotidian dangers and not just the overwhelming fact that every single one of us is going to die and there's not a person alive now who'll be alive 100 years from now, and so on and so on.

Clive James: Isn't it marvellous, though, how a single cadence from a poem can catch you and stick with you for years and become the model of what you want to do. It was in that very poem about the Pope dying, 'the Pope also waits to die. God is the heat in July.' And the way that line turned over, I want to do that, and decades went by and finally I caught myself doing it. But there's a marvellous thing that you used to quote from Dryden...

Peter Porter: This is almost might be what Dryden...Dryden didn't mean it this way because he'd come to the end of a famous masque that he wrote, but in essence it could be the justification of all those experimental stars in poetry which we all of us look at, sometimes with envy, sometimes with resentment and sometimes with downright disapproval...

Clive James: We must discuss that disapproval quite soon.

Peter Porter: Dryden's line begins:

All, all, of a piece throughout;
Thy chase had a beast in view;
Thy wars brought nothing about;
Thy lovers were all untrue.
'Tis well an old age is out,
And time to begin a new.

Now, there you see, the line 'thy chase had a beast in view' makes me think of all those avant-gardists I know who say there's nothing left in the old literature, it's gone. In other words, chasing this beast of accomplishment in verse is, to their way of thinking, a complete waste of time, the beast is gone.

Clive James: Well, it probably is in their case, but I'm actually saddened by the cases of some of the poets. At least one of them you favour; you actually like John Ashbury. I thought John Ashbury had an immense talent and started writing some wonderfully accessible poems, like the one about Daffy Duck, and then he discovered a manner in which he could just go on and on and on. Because he had no 'beast in view' he could say anything, and by saying anything it would sound as if he meant everything. I really don't think there is anything to it. I think that generally impressive but unspecific manner is lying there waiting as a tempting trap for every poet now.

Peter Porter: I think in Ashbury's case you can put a case for what is good about him and another one for what is bad about him. What is good about him is he actually gets into his poems a very great deal of what you might call 'unpoetic material' which more serious minded poets, including the likes of the solemn Geoffrey Hill...would never get into his poetry. And Ashbury does really belong to the world of those New York diners and the take-away stores, and at the same time of course he knows all about classical literature. The bad side is that he has no sense of when to end a line. He has a very strange kind of rhythm and he puts in too much. I mean, I think he is the Robert Browning de nos jour. I think that he writes entirely this lucubrative verse which is brilliant when his mind is turning over well and not brilliant when his mind is not turning over well.

Clive James: But I don't think we'd be talking like this about Ashbury and about other poets that we disagree on unless we were searching for a common object &mdash: which is a means of expression, which encompasses every possible measure, which leaves nothing out, which not just brings in the world but brings in everything that poetry can do. I think poets have this as an ideal, and the way I shaped up as a poet in the mid 70s was I was just doing the comic stuff, or was seen to be doing the comic stuff, and leaving out the serious stuff. In fact, when I was at home and brooding I was writing serious poetry flat-out, and I had been all the way through Cambridge. My problem was that most of it still wasn't very good. It was very kind of you to pick up on one of the poems I wrote in my Cambridge period, and it was a poem about Cambridge, about a frozen pond and ducks on the frozen pond, and you very kindly picked up on this poem and you put it in an anthology. Which anthology was that? Best Australian Verse...?

Peter Porter: It may well have been, yes.

Clive James: I tell you, that was a big moment for me. That was my arrival as that kind of non-comical serious poet. Without the anthologies I think I would be nowhere.

Peter Porter: I think it's good there to hear some praise of anthologies because most of us, I think, rather dislike anthologies in the sense that we pick up an anthology, for instance, in which you are represented, perhaps even quite well represented, but you think, oh no, but that's not the best thing I've written, other things I've written are better. And this is the interesting point about poetry's perception in the world outside; you have absolutely no control over what people like and don't like. I always find that the poems that I love best of my own work are usually absolute duds in the ear of the public, and vice versa; some of the poems which the public esteems I don't enjoy so much. But then that's the perversity of writing because I think all of us look at a poem we've written and we say to ourselves — is this the poem I was going to write? The happiest moment is when it's not the poem you were going to write, it's something better. But the bad moments are when you have killed it off; you have simply had a brilliant idea which you are not up to achieving.

Clive James: What did Auden call that? He called it the fair notion...

Peter Porter: ...fatally injured.

Clive James: The fair notion fatally injured.

Peter Porter: And I think most people's work is full of that stuff. I've now got to the point, when I want to write a to be very sceptical of my excitement in wanting to write it because I think the more I want to write it, the more I'm going to make a muck of it. I think basically what is good is when something strikes you, some sort of instinct strikes you, and before you've even given any thought to where it might fit in to the glorious terrain of your canon, you get it down on paper, you get it done. It's the doing...this is why poetry is not a spectator sport. It's the enjoyment of writing that is, unfortunately, greater than the enjoyment of reading.

Clive James: But hold hard, Peter, because there is something worse than looking in an anthology and seeing your poem and thinking, well, I could have done that better. There's something far worse; there's looking at an anthology and finding your poem is not there at all. That's the point I'm raising now, because it still matters, because if your poems aren't out there, if they're not seen, then you don't exist, and it's one of the cruel facts about poetry, as about painting and about music; it's got to be seen and heard. It can't be a purely private event. Incidentally, if you want to set yourself up as the kind of poet who's ignored, there's not only a reputation to be had, there's subsidies to be gained, and there are grants. You can spend your career being a poet who's ignored, it's a self-fulfilling prophesy, but we don't really want that, do we?

Peter Porter: There are very few poets though who are ignored in every direction. One of the most desired positions today is to be the extreme avant-gardist admired by a coterie of about 30 people, all of them extremely important, all...

Clive James: We promised we wouldn't talk about JH Prynne. It is JH Prynne we're not talking about, isn't it?

Peter Porter: It is indeed.

Peter Porter: It could even be Geoffrey Hill in a slightly different way, that he is admired almost by academics because he writes what they would write if they actually bothered to write poetry.

Clive James: It's true. He's also admired by me for his occasional phrase because Hill simply happens to be talented and a talented poet can't write worthless poetry beyond a certain point. The thing about someone like Prynne, who we're not going to mention, is that I can't find a single phrase that I want to remember, and yet there's a whole career there, and especially in the United States there are a lot of poets like this. They publish what I call shrapnel poetry, the poem is scattered all over the page the way that ee cummings's used to be, except when you put ee cummings's poems back together they turn out to be good sonnets, and these are just fragments. I wonder what the stuff is doing there on the page, and the answer is that it's fulfilling the editor's criteria of seriousness because you can't look at that stuff and say that it's not serious; that it certainly is. But it provides me with absolutely nothing to enjoy, and against my will I realised gradually that that was its intention. There is always a future for the kind of art that can't be enjoyed. It happened in music; wasn't Webern like that?

Peter Porter: Music is a good parallel because there's something in music which I might sound quite good if you use it as a metaphor, but as a description it is not; it's what I call 'paper music'. That is to say, it's music on paper. Once it's been played...the sounds (of which the signs on paper are the indicators) are awful and have very little coherence. I think the answer to this for ever is there is nothing wrong with complexity and there is nothing wrong with simplicity, but those two have to be handled with equal dexterity. I think that when you write a poem that is almost without any of the points or hooks with which the mind can engage, then you are writing something which is just 'paper music'.

Clive James: It is an indication of how important poetry is to those who find poetry important, that you can have a poem which means nothing whatsoever, and yet people will feel it's not only worth doing, but worth reading and worth talking about. People are serious about this art, those who are, but more people would enjoy this art if every poem had to pass the test of being publicly entertaining. Should we ask it to do that? I tend to ask it because it's the kind of poetry I like to do, but I can think of lots of poets who couldn't pass that test and wouldn't want to.

Peter Porter: If you look back on the history of literature, you surely would agree that there's hardly a poet who not only has survived but is considered significant who did not entertain in his own or her own time. Now, 'entertain' doesn't mean, of course, make them fall around on the floor, it means that what they have written has some effect on the reader, and not just an effect which is entirely due to what you would call the music of poetry. I'm very sceptical of this idea that sound alone is what matters in poetry. This has been proved by a number of people by taking works which are well-known and substituting similar sounds for the work without the meaning. Meaning has a sound and I think that's extremely important. I have not consciously written a meaningless line. I have consciously written lines of which the meanings are not exactly germane to each other, for which I would say that there is a school of writing of poetry which is the poetry of the non-sequitur and it's not a good school. We've all of us been guilty of that...perhaps you haven't, I certainly have.

Clive James: I think, as the English critic Herbert Read pointed out during the Ern Malley case, Australia's most celebrated literary hoax, the two hoaxers who invented the fake poet thought that they were writing completely worthless and meaningless poetry under his name, but in fact it wasn't within their capacity to write something worthless and meaningless because they were talented. You may set out all you like to write something meaningless but it will mean something. The idea that poetry can be just sound is very quickly killed by considering one line...take a line like Yeats's great line — 'Man is in love and loves what vanishes, What more is there to say?' That's a great line partly because of what it means, and a man who was a cabinet maker could write an equivalent line saying, 'Man is in love and loves what varnishes, What more is there to say?' and it sounds almost the same but it means a lot less. So meaning, of course, is part of sound, and sound of meaning.

Peter Porter: I think the difficulty when one sits down to write a poem is that...I never have any real anxiety about whether I'm going to get the meaning right, but I do worry about the phrasing and the organisation of the sentences. I believe that the master key to poetry is syntax. Syntax is a word that doesn't have very many plaudits going for it. It means the nuts and bolts of language, and this is particularly important in the language we all write in because we don't have many rules and the principles whereby we put words in particular order is the whole essence of the art. I mean, a Roman poet doesn't have to worry about anything like that (or didn't have to since there are not many people writing in Latin these days) for the very good reason that every word was related to every other word by strict grammatical structures, therefore the order in which you put them down does not govern the meaning of the sentence, whereas in English the order is everything. This is something which we ought to, all of us, be more careful about. I particularly feel that the joy of, say, the poetry of John Milton (and sometimes there's not very much joy)...that the joy that is there is totally governed by his absolutely masterly command of the syntactical order of his words.

Clive James: I agree and more than agree about syntax, and indeed grammar, to the point where I think they form a crucial part of the poetry, or at least always have done in the great English poets, right through to Larkin. Larkin's last stanzas...the last stanza of any Larkin poem is characteristically a bravura display of what the English sentence can do; in its syntax and in its grammar it's screwed up to the tightest possible compression of meaning and effect. It's part of the poetry, no question.

Peter Porter: I have a poem which is about the dying ward of a hospital which I called 'The Camp'. I won't read the whole poem but it's a poem of almost meticulous gloom...

Clive James: I want to hear this meticulous gloom.

Peter Porter: Just the last two lines where I say that to end it, to end not just their lives, but to end the poem I say that these people who've been gargling at the spoons that they've been offered for their lovely soup that they can't eat, it ends up saying, 'As grammar is uncoupled from their lives.' That seem to me to be, in a curious kind of way, a sign of the fact where we have gone into the dark where nobody cares about language. It is the grammar being uncoupled from our lives, our train has stopped.

Clive James: And of course you wouldn't want the grammar without the rhythm or the rhythm without the grammar.

Peter Porter: I think that is the subject which is the most difficult of all to discuss. I mean, on those rare occasions when I find myself doing poetry workshops, as they so charmingly call them, I always try to get the people who are at the workshops (who are nearly always poets, they're not just students) to understand what they actually think the rhythm of their poem is about. Now, by 'rhythm' I don't necessarily mean regular meter. What I think is the glory of present-day English writing in America, in Australia and in Britain, is what is left over of the old regular metrical pattern and how that can be adapted to the new sense that the main element, the main fixture of poetry is no longer the foot (you know, the iambus or the trochee) but the cadence. It seems that what is very important is to get the best of the old authority, the best of the old discipline along with the best of the new freedom of expression.

Clive James: The young must be told, and if they can't be told then they must be forced to realise that it's rhythm that takes the poem forward. You can give up rhyme, and there are things to be gained even if you give up rhyme. You can give up stanzaic forms and there are things to be gained, but if you give up rhythm you really do give up everything. It might as well be prose if you do that, and it won't even be good prose.

Jill Kitson: Clive James ending that conversation with Peter Porter, the fifth 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 poems. His latest collection of essays is The Meaning of Recognition. And that's all for this edition of Book Talk.

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