John Kinsella interviews Peter Porter (1998)
JK: We’ll just begin with a few general questions. It’s your seventieth birthday on February 16th next year, Peter, you have a collected volume coming out which will collect all your volumes with some new material. Can you chat about that?
PP. Yes I’ve done very little suppression, my motto is ‘Hanged for a sheep, not for a lamb’ and I’ve taken what was in the original first Collected which came out in 1983, so that would be exactly sixteen years ago when the new one comes out. I’ve more or less reproduced everything that was in the first Collected, in Volume I of the new Collected. Then the second book which will be dated 1981 1999, will consist of all the other books up to Dragons in their Pleasant Palaces, plus a new section of completely new poems, called Both Ends Against the Middle, about thirty odd poems. Each book will therefore contain something like about 400 pages. They’ll be in soft covers, not hard covers, but they’ll be available together as a total Collected Poems, inside a slip case. People who want to buy just the second one should be able to buy that separately, or possibly even buy the first one separately. The first one however will be pretty well a duplication of the first Collected Poems that came out in 1983.
In the second volume I have omitted a few poems from later books which seem to me to be very questionable, but I have done very little pruning, I’ve done almost no rewriting, and I haven’t even done much slaughtering in a Herodian manner of the innocents. So in 1999, practically what could be called my ‘testimony’ will be there in these two volumes of the Collected Poems. I might point out for those who already consider me far too productive, to the point of loquacity, that I have at home a collection of unpublished poems about three times as long.
JK: When you say you haven’t done any rewriting, and there’s a relatively small amount omitted, how do you actually view someone like Robert Graves who rewrites substantially. How do you reexamine the rewriting process? Do you think it produces an entirely new poem, or do you think that the poem should exist for the moment it was written in? What’s your view generally on rewriting?
PP: Well, I have a number of views, some of them just amount to laziness of unwillingness, like the dog does not revisit the scene of its vomit or the murderer the scene of his crime, but it’s more than that really. I think there’s something curiously self-regarding about looking at your work as though it were a canon, a canon already as it were imperishably established, or which you have to make an imperishable establishment of. And it fits in certain people’s personalities, and it fitted in very well the personality of Graves, but I was looking through my collection of Graves the other day, and I realised that I have lots of different ‘definitive collections’ of Graves. At each particular moment he seems to have regarded that issue as definitive, but they clash, and they are by no means convincing ramifications, they don’t help the reader.
There’s a lot of great poetry by Graves which he seems to have abandoned, a lot of rather poor poetry which he seems to have esteemed. I think a writer is entitled to do what he likes with his poetry I mean Auden did some tinkering in a fashion which I don’t approve, which I call removing the detonators. Nevertheless, every person is entitled to do exactly what he wants with his own work, but he’s not entitled, unless he really is able to do so, to suppress work, or to stop people from looking at other versions which he has propounded and which are available still. There are lots of amusing stories, like Graham Greene going all round the world trying to catch up with and confiscate and burn any copies of his original book of poems called Bubbles but for a poet who has genuinely made his living or made his career as a poet, the public has a perfect right to judge him by the things he chose to publish at any particular time and he has no right really to exclude them from that. He has every right to create his own canon, but no right to suppress things beyond his canon.
JK: I rather like that. Paul Newman bought every single copy of his first film, I think it was called The Silver Sword. It doesn’t exist anywhere, he bought them all and he burnt the lot of them.
PP: You can bet your life that somewhere on a projectionist’s shelves, somewhere in the United States of America, there is a copy of it.
JK: Which is going to be unleashed upon the world. Will the Collected have an introduction or a preface or -
PP: This time, no. I have to add one point about my attitude to this kind of canonising, that in my short introduction to the Collected of 1983, I quote from once again an introduction to a Collected, this time Louis MacNeice’s introduction to his Collected, where he says that after a certain time, he believed that the writer is well advised to “leave even not-so-well alone”. So that’s been my model. I do think that something could be done, in a kind of wholesale rewriting of your work, but you would need a second lifetime in which to do it. You would need a second lifetime, and you’d be terribly worried that the person who was doing the rewriting was doing it not just to make them better, but out of embarrassment, which leads to priggishness, which leads to bad judgment.
JK: Also, you have to wonder, if you were spending that second life rewriting what one had done in the first, what your faculties would be like for reception and sensitivity, if you were so obsessed with something that had already passed. I like the idea of engaging with the material at the vital moment. I think then it passes.
PP: But even some great artists, especially very prolific ones, have found that they always wanted to press on with the new. There’s a letter of Mozart’s in which he asks his father to send him one of his scores which he’d left behind in Salzburg, and his father sends it to him, and he writes back to his father saying, ‘I hadn’t realised what a good work it was, I had forgotten the piece.’ And I think in many respects when you look back at your past work and I’ve had to do this because of the curiosities of the different shape of book which the new volume will be compared with the old volume, my publisher and I have spent hours cutting and pasting to get the pages right for the new format, which means I’ve had to look at a whole lot of poems which for various reasons I’ve preferred not to look at in the past. And occasionally I feel they were quite good, sometimes I was embarrassed by them, but I feel that to undertake either a wholesale exclusion of that which was not good or an attempt to refine that which was not good would be so wasteful when you’re getting to my age, when you still want to do other things.
JK: Speaking about working with your editor, has there been much editorial intervention, not only in this work, but in your volumes over the years, have you worked with one editor?
PP: No, there has never been any difficulty with my editorial connections whatsoever. My first three books were published by a small publisher in Lowestoft, or the first one was actually Northwood in North London, called Scorpion Press, and they never interfered with my choice for the books, they never even suggested. In fact, in some ways it is good to have some editorial injection. I remember Ian Hamilton telling me once that the trouble with being at Faber is that no-one ever suggested to him that he should leave anything out or put anything in, and he interpreted this that they weren’t interested. I have in the past with my publisher’s editorial directors had a little toing and froing. I actually welcome that, particularly with my present publisher, Jacqueline Simms, who has been with me or perhaps I should say, I’ve been with her ever since The Cost of Seriousness. We do a bit of horse-trading, and I allow her to expel poems which are hopelessly obscure, and she allows me to put poems in which are hopelessly obscure. She tends to want poems which are more readily understood, I tend to want poems which are dark and oracular, but between the two of us, it’s like Jack Sprat and his wife. And I rather welcome that, because although I don’t think that one is ever truly influenced by editorial decisions or critical decisions I remember the days when I was in the Group, and the Group people used to say of me I was a very obscure writer, but I learned to take into consideration what the public want by listening to people. That’s only partly true, but I do think it’s very important for writers to recognise from early on in their careers that what’s clear in their own minds is not necessarily clear in anyone else’s. And that therefore, although you don’t have to take notice of objections raised by editors, it’s very wise to listen to them.
JK: How important do you see the actual artifact, the book as an object? Does that have any relevance to you, or is it purely a thing of expediency?
PP: Yes, it has a lot of relevance to me, and I have a feeling, almost like key centres in music, that my books belong in different keys. There are some C minor, there’s some F sharp major, and sometimes there are some bowling along D major or C major. But the thing I feel about them is that, although you don’t know it, if a book belongs to a catchment area, a period of say, three to five years, then your mind was going through as it were a different lot of weather from the weather it was going through in the previous catchment area, in the years before that. So when I’ve come to put books together, I have an instinct for which order the poems should go in, and I have an instinct too to turn the poems from a random assembly into something I hope would slightly better distil, slightly better cohere. And the result is, I think, that each book has its own particular air and flavour. For instance if you take my collection called Possible Worlds, which is not one of the favourite collections of most readers, it’s got a quirky, querulous, almost jokey but at the same time quite disturbed tone to it. Whereas if you take what is actually my own personal favourite book of all my books, the one called Preaching to the Converted, which goes all the way back to 1972, that has a tone of almost as close as I get to heavy-weight bafflement and strangely self-inventing forms. That book is as close as I can get to being called a modernist poet, I suppose. It’s got a tone which I like, it’s got big themes and big structures, and therefore not surprisingly it’s not popular with most readers. I had an experience when I was in New York in about 1981, and I went into Barnes and Noble, the shop where you can buy just about everything, you can buy books by the yard.
JK: Everything, yes, including tigers . . .
PP: . . . and I came across a copy of Preaching to the Converted which had been around about ten years, and I bought it immediately, priced quite a high price actually, for a book that’s been around so long two dollars. It’s one of the few of my books that never went into any kind of reprint, so it’s a rare volume, and it suddenly occurred to me that this must obviously be the most difficult book. Other books like Millennial Fables which came out quite recently, is clearly a book with too much adipose in it, one feels that there’s too much there, and it’s the one from which I think have cut. In the new, second volume of the Collected, there are only two books from which I’ve cut very much, I’ve cut quite a bit from The Chair of Babel, and quite a bit from Millennial Fables.
JK: Which poems? Millennial Fables is one of my favourite books, interestingly enough.
PP: Which too, like Preaching to the Converted , has a lot of difficult poems in it.
JK: That’s why I like it.
PP: I cut the very long poem called ‘Clive and Olive’, I cut what else did I cut? I kept some of the ones which are quite obscure, like for instance I’m quite fond of ‘The Worst Inn’s Worst Room’, which is deeply obscure, and ‘The Maria Barbara’. But I cut ‘The Tiverton Book of the Dead’ which now strikes me as unsuccessful. Oh, and earlier on I think I’d cut ‘Millennial Rococo’ which now seems to me to be just a bit of a show-off mess. I cut ‘Goes Without Saying’, or was it ‘Intents and Purposes’? I can’t remember now. But I kept in a difficult poem like ‘Trinacrion Ethna’s Flames Ascend Not Higher’, and I kept in most of the book.
JK: You kept ‘The Long Death’s Door’ in there?
PP: Oh yes, I think that’s quite well written.
JK: It’s a great poem.
PP: It’s obviously a complete imitation of Browning’s ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’ . . .
JK: Yes, I thought it was one of the best poems of the book, I really enjoyed it. Speaking of the poem ‘Nil by Mouth’, have you seen Gary Oldman’s film of the same name?
PP: No, I haven’t, he obviously took the title from the same thing. I noticed that was above my bed when I had my operation in 1993, and so I thought, that’s a good title, and I think it works for a poem even better than for a film, though I understand the film is full of obscenities of one sort or another.
JK: There seems to be a strong link between the way you title poems and the way you title books. Is it always an editorial compromise with the editor, or do you always make the decision which
PP: Yes, it is always an editorial compromise, but I have a great love of titles. The great problem of course is that sometimes one conceives the poem and then writes the poem to fit the title, and the poem is an inadequate base for the the title. For instance in the case of ‘The Last of England’, of course the title is already thoroughly well established by Ford Maddox Brown in his painting. I liked the title, and I suddenly thought, that would make a good title for a book, especially for an Australian who at that time hadn’t ever been back to Australia, from the time he left, at least not from the major time he came over in 1954 And I thought it would be a useful title for a book which was a kind of discontented summing-up of my first years in England, and I wanted also to say that the idea of England is so much better than the reality of England. I wanted to take a stand against what I think was not so well established then but is thoroughly well established now, which is the substitution for a real sense of a country for a hideous distortion which you can sell to the people called ‘heritage’.
So ‘The Last of England’ was the perfect title for me, especially as in the picture you see a couple of not particularly admirable chaps shaking their fists in anger at the Old Country, as the emigrant boat pulls away and heads off for New South Wales. But when I came to write the poem, I had no idea what the poem was going to say. As it turned out, the poem turns out rather well; it’s got a very obscure first stanza and a much less obscure second stanza. I think that the poem is actually worthwhile as a poem, but it only existed so that I could use the title. And I think that this happens in quite a few cases. The interesting obverse of that, or converse of that, is that what most people think is my best book, The Cost of Seriousness, has a title which is not particularly good. In fact, when I told my friend Kit Wright that the book was called that he said, ‘Oh my God, it sounds like the title of some dreadful professorial study of Joseph Conrad.’
JK: Can you talk about ‘Living in a Calm Country’, the title?
PP: Well, that, I made that up, that was just my own sort of invention, I thought it was rather a good because I’d been to see these pictures in Tuscany. Once a thing’s painted it’s calm, and I thought, even if it shows a massacre of the innocents, the blade is still lifted, the blood isn’t on the floor. I’d been particularly struck by this ridiculous little saint in San Gemignano who lay down on a plank aged fifteen and never got off it again, the saint of the town. And I thought, one’s own body, one hopes, will be as calm as possible, and that’s the calm country we actually live in rather than the other country. A title ideally should be slightly piquant, also it should be informative, but above all it should have a suggestion of an atmosphere, a suggestion of a feeling for the book. I find that a lot of people like very very drab titles, like you know ‘The Visit’, or ‘The Return’ or ‘Snow in Bromley’ or something. Whereas I’ve always gone in for even in my very first book, ‘Once Bitten, Twice Bitten’ it’s got titles like ‘Syrup of Figs will Drive Out Fear’ and that kind of thing. On the other hand I don’t go for I do sometimes but not very often the completely jokey titles which that very serious poet Wallace Stevens does. I mean ‘The Comedian as Letter C’ well that’s not I suppose such an obscure title, but a title like, ‘Mountains Covered in Cats’ . Stevens’ titles are decidedly jokey. The poetry’s not, but the . . .
JK: You were speaking about and titles are part of this what your readers would find pleasing or not. Do you see yourself as having a particular kind of reader, and do you see your ‘audience’, whatever that may be, having changed over the years or in fact changing? And finally, do you see the Australian reception of your work as being different from, the English reading of it, or the British reading?
PP: Well, to try and answer those questions in order: I’ve never had any real concept of who my readers are. I’ve always thought that they possibly don’t exist. I’ve always felt gratitude to people who’ve shown interest and I would even , although it may sound almost unbelievable, extend that gratitude to people disliking the books. At least having read them. Over the years, of course, you do pick up readers, precious few, but you do pick up readers. And you begin to get to be someone who a particular kind of reader perhaps goes for, and the problem there is that readers themselves are often influenced by shorthand judgments of the kind of poet you are, which also accumulates over the years. For years and years I’ve been talked of as a social poet and a satirical poet, and the opposite of a lyrical poet, and the opposite of a pastoral poet . I tend to agree with William Empson that everything is pastoral, but . . .
JK: Well, you certainly write urban pastorals. I’ve written a whole essay on your urban pastorals, so I’d agree with that.
PP: Yes, but the problem is I was a reviewer of books, not in university places or academic circles, but purely with the popular press, or the highbrow Sunday press, for so many years that I’ve been guilty myself of relegating people to ghettos of easily assignable state.
JK: You mean, those places where all academics want their books reviewed?
PP: Yes. Well, the thing is, I do feel that my reputation in the world has been misplaced, in a way, largely through fairly glib critical summings-up. I would however modify that by saying that over the years I think I’ve come around to, or people have come around to, seeing me rather like one of those late Latin poets who was basically a discontented philosopher who has no claim to be a philosopher. So I think that things have in that sense got better but of course the mode in which all your work is received will depend to large degree upon the most powerful part of it. Since my first wife died and laments for her, which were not as many as people thought, were printed in The Cost of Seriousness, and then there has been a return to that, even as recently as Dragons in their Pleasant Palaces, which contains a poem called ‘Anxiety’s Airmiles’, which clearly has that pattern in it I’ve been seen as concentrating on death and bereavement, and that’s done something to remedy the perception of me as a sort of journalistic commentator. But of course, that too is not a characteristic mode necessarily.
I don’t know whether the poets you admire are the people whose work you will see in your own poetry. I’m a tremendous admirer of Browning, a great admirer of Auden, a great admirer of Rochester, and who does not admire Shakespeare? I like poems of ingenuity, poems of skill, poems of cleverness, poems which use words in ways other than the Wordsworthian ‘voice of true feeling’. In other words, I like poems to have a kind of plot of their own over and above the kind of worthwhile feelings of the poets.
JK: You’re sounding almost LANGUAGE poet there!
PP: Well, yes, but I think that the trouble with that is that they have such a narrow vision of what that kind of thing is that they tend on the whole simply not to give enough the bones are all right, but there’s hardly any meat to chew on, and there’s hardly any marrow in them either to use a disgusting carnivorous metaphor.
JK: Well, I’m a vegan, so . . . So to get to the third part of the question, the reception in terms of Australia and England, and indeed America.
PP: Never in America at all. I’ve only ever had about two reviews in America which showed the slightest interest in me. Let me state bluntly right from the start, I don’t exist in America. Oddly enough, someone who now does support me a little is somebody who also gave me the worst review I ever had, and that’s the American poet Carolyn Kizer, who once reviewed me saying that I was the very epitome of everything that was bad about modern British poetry. She didn’t know I was Australian of course. But then later on she came round to thinking that I was all right as an Australian . . .
JK: That’s interesting, as a British poet you weren’t any good, but as an Australian poet you were.
PP: Well, that appeared to be so, she might deny that, I don’t know, but that’s how it seemed to me. I don’t have the right kind of mind for America at all, I don’t know why that is. It doesn’t seem to go down in America. What does interest me is the way in which my reception in Australia has changed. And it hasn’t changed just because I’ve been there more frequently and made friends with people, and I’m now seen to have been all along an Australian, and not just a renegade Australian living in England. There has been a more genuine appreciation. And in fact curiously, it is the Australian critics and Australian reviewers who have led the way in seeing my poetry as as it were intellectual and philosophical rather than as social and satirical, as the English have seen it. The English have seen me either as a social-satirical poet who laments elegiacally death and family and that sort of thing, but the Australians see me almost as an ideas poet, and I always have to stress firmly that poets are not philosophers. I detest philosophy. I think philosophy as such is so codified that it is unworthy of the attention of an intelligent person. And that therefore that what poets do is think. Thinking and philosophy don’t seem to me to be the same thing at all. And I think that Australian critics, have on the whole I’m talking now about either those who have written longer articles or just reviewers in papers have directed the attention in my work to its thinking quotient. I don’t mean that thinking is in any way a purposeful thinking or a systematic thinking, but the fact is that thinking is a passion, and reason, far from being a tool of logic, is another passion. And that therefore I think to some extent I’m rather grateful for the way at the present moment Australian critics of my work have concentrated on what I think are some of its more interesting aspects, rather more than present-day British critics do.
JK: This sudden rediscovery in the late ‘80s and ‘90s of the Porter oeuvre has a lot to do with the acceptance that Australian language and literature is part of an international phenomenon, and you’re now seen as the person that’s broken those barriers down for us, so you’re actually put in the vanguard. Secondly, Australian critics tend to see you as one of the few if not the only Australian poet who’s managed to weld together the to use a cliché the Romantic and Augustan sensibilities in Australian poetry, whereas before they’d been very distinctly separate.
PP: There’s still of course a lot of hostility, not just because I live abroad but also based on the fact that my sensibility is not the commonest form of sensibility amongst Australian writers. I mean, I still get reviews rather like the one Fay Zwicky gave me once years and years ago, where she said, Bring him back to Australia and rinse those cloudy skies out of his eyes and let him live in a bit of Australian sunshine and stop being a miserable, gloomy person
JK: Says Fay!
PP: Well, she’s not very cheerful, no. But there are still quite a few people who, to put it at its very best, because I think I respect this, they say they just can’t see what it’s about. I remember reading a poem of George Fraser’s, G.S. Fraser, a Scots poet years and years ago, where he talked about going for a job in Glasgow to some vulgar editor of some dreadful newspaper, and he said he could see the editor looking at him and wondering what his sort of person was for. I often feel that in Australia people look at me, they’re not hostile, they just think, What is he going on about? The things I write just seem to them to be so remote from what they’re interested in that they just shake their heads in bewilderment.
JK: This sort of removal in some ways has proved an advantage. As Australian writers are ready to become more conscious that a profound factionalism has existed in Australian verse over the last period of time, if you’re actually seen as being outside that factionalism by many, unaffected by a political angling on publishing and so on . . . That may not be the case in England, I don’t know.
PP: Well, it is and it isn’t in England. I started off in England and very few people knew I was Australian. I mean, the clues were in the poems, but they didn’t read them very carefully, and so for years and years I was considered completely part of the English poetry scene. As the English have become more and more aware of my Australianism, they’ve become less and less interested in me, which is the opposite of someone like Les Murray, because someone like Les, and not only him but a lot of Australian poets can enjoy what I call the exotic attraction.
JK: Oh, absolutely.
PP: I mean, there’s a difference between, you know a galah and a wren. And one bird is more garish than the other too. So there is that side. But I was never brought in from the beginning as Australian, and the more and more they see me as Australian, the more as more they see me as inferior in Australianness to the Australian poets they’ve now become aware of.
JK: One way of destabilizing that is to have the Australians strangling their galahs, and that really upsets them, which is closest to the truth of the matter. Given that reworking of the exotic myth of Australia that is beginning to put your poetry into a much broader context, also from the English reading point of view, because once they’ve learned that Les Murray’s view of Australia is Les Murray’s view of Australia, and is not what all Australian poetry is about, there will be a reevaluation and valuing of your work in England as well.
PP: Well, fortunately, I don’t know if it’s a whole chapter, but there’s quite a considerable section on my work in the forthcoming The Deregulated Muse there’s a very panoptic view of modern English poetry by Sean O’Brien, and Sean of course completely ignores the Australian side of it, because he only treats me up to about The Last of England, and he sees me as an integral figure in this change of emphasis in English poetry which is now his cornerstone. So it would be a whole range of people, like Ian Duhig, Simon Armitage, the new kind of British poetry Of course, it’s not the only new British poetry. So there I’m seen as a sort of founding father, and that to some extent goes back, or reinforces the way I was seen when I first started out here. But in between of course and Sean would be the first to acknowledge this is the Australian background. It’s like show-through or print-through, that the Australianness has come through the later poetry, not in subject-matter necessarily, but that people begin to recognise that my view deviates from that of the standard English. It also deviates from the standard Australian view, but it certainly deviates from the English view. I mean, ‘Australian’ is after all a term which no Australian can bestow on an Australian. The term ‘Australian’ has to be bestowed by someone who is not Australian.
JK: Absolutely, you’ve hit the nail on the head in all contemporary literary theory, and that is that a destabilizing of a central reading is how we actually develop new language and new poetics. So you fit also from my point of view as a critic in the Australian context, you fit perfectly into that picture of rewriting our poetry by looking at how our poetry has been written from outside the environment and vice versa.
PP: I think I have to admit, though, that I have a natural tendency as a conservationist nothing to do with keeping wallabies in the ground.
JK: But you do want to do that too, let’s just make this point!
PP: But in that sense
JK: Peter Porter, Friend to the Environment . . .
PP: But I’m really a traditionalist in that sense, and I’m less of a tortured traditionalist than someone like Gig Ryan who’s really an avant-gardist but who would like to be a traditionalist. I think I have been held in some suspicion by the more avant-garde. For instance, with the kind of poetry that was being written in Australia, from about 1965 to about 1980, I was certainly a persona non grata in that period. You wouldn’t get many people praising me who were adepts of journals like The Ear in the Wheatfields or whatever it was called. You know, Hemensley and all those guys wouldn’t think . . .
JK: You know, this is really interesting, because your biggest supporters during the ‘years of denial’, if you like, by the Australian poetry community re you being an Australian poet, were the so-called ‘generation of ‘68’, were Forbes and Gig Ryan and that whole crew. These were the people who always believed in your work, and their common statement was that you were the master craftsman, that you actually knew how to construct a poem, so you were a model, so you were a poet’s poet during that whole period. So I find that rather ironic that that whole discourse which excluded you culturally, in terms of technique and craft, you were entirely part of.
PP: That’s true. I used to have great arguments with John about how far technique in poetry was visible. I used to sometimes say to Forbes, John, you can’t go all the way with O’Hara, you can’t really in the end elevate that concept which the academic critics called sprezzatura. You can’t take the gentlemanliness which at one time was a gentleman’s gentlemanliness and now is insouciance based on a superiority of gesture. I said, that’s all very well if people know that your sort of lightness is the lightness of a highly intelligent, well-informed person. But too many readers are only going to see the lightness, and they’re not going to see . . . Too much Surface Paradise, and too much jokiness, and too much flimsiness ceases to be stylistic and it just looks like a worn-out old sheet, you can see through it. And I used to rebuke John, I said, “For a man of your fastidiousness and your ability, you don’t actually allow the technique to show in the poetry.” Now, you could say that was a good thing, you should never have technique showing, but I’m not sure of that. I’m not sure that it is such a good thing. And I think sometimes some of John’s more casual pieces are so casual they just look like anything somebody might have scribbled on the back of a menu. Therefore I am a bit inclined, I admit, in a rather heavy lucubratory way to like the wrestling to be visible.
JK: How about the Group? How much did the other members influence your work?
PP: Well, we’re doing this interview and talking in Cambridge, and the Group actually began here, before I joined it. It was a direct result actually of a couple of undergraduates at Cambridge in the early ‘50s, Philip Hobsbaum at Downing, who was a disciple of Dr Leavis. Genuinely a disciple, one of the few people I’ve known who actually tried to follow and was not simply joining the Leavis party. And Peter Redgrove who was reading Natural Sciences at Queens. Peter is one of the most original and peculiar men I’ve ever known, original in the sense of really creatively original. And although he came up to be a scientist, he could perceive the Blakean background of science and move to literature.
He actually founded a magazine here called Delta which operated for quite some time. Its subsequent editors included not only Hobsbaum but also a man who became a very famous playwright later, Simon Gray. But they all believed in the principle that literature was discussable. They believed more or less I suppose what people believed in Ancient Greece, a sort of peripateia where you wandered around and discussed things. It wasn’t a house of correction, and it wasn’t a unit of conspirators. It was just people who believed in certain . . . I suppose they took a moral view, though Redgrave was much more galvanic than moral. Anyway, when they both came down from university, which would have been about the middle of the ‘50s, about 1954 or ‘55, they tried to . . . They’d had a similar kind reading group in Cambridge, and Hobsbaum decided to start it again in London, and at that time he had a flat, in central London, right off Edgeware Road, on Kendal Street.
And it so happened that when I’d been here in England in ’53 I went back to Australia in ‘54 I had got to know an American woman who had the surprising credentials and background of having been related to both Robert Lowell and T.S. Eliot. Her father was Samuel Eliot Morrison, the Harvard naval historian her name’s Kate Morrison - and Kate had been very kind to me and tried to get me to get my work published, which was completely turned down by everybody. When I came back to England in November 1954, I went to a party and Kate was there, and the first person I met was Kate’s just recently married husband Julian Cooper, who’d been up at Cambridge with Hobsbaum and Redgrave and company, and he told me that this group was going to reconvene in London. So I went along, and I got in really in the background, almost immediately that the group started again in London. One person who’d been semi-affiliated to the group in the early days was Ted Hughes, though he never liked coming. Ted is not a man to debate poetry, certainly not his own. Anyway, that’s how it all started.
They were very helpful to me; the good thing about them for me as an unknown Australian, whom no-one knew anything about at all, was that they took me on and regarded me as an equal and they were all bright young boys down from Oxford and Cambridge, and there was never the slightest moment of academic snobbery. They just simply included me. And we were all of us aspirant, we started off originally by just reading out bits of work to each other, but it became quite quickly given a kind of shape, and this was entirely due to Hobsbaum really. Hobsbaum then moved to south of the river, to Stockwell, and the process began, and it really lasted from about 1955 through to its collapse in 1966.
The seasons were roughly those of the academic year, and people who wanted to read their poems and have them discussed would submit them to Philip, and Philip would have them reproduced in really plummy old roneo’d sheets, which would then be sent out, and you would get them through the post, or if you were there the previous week, you would be given your sheet for the following week, and people would then simply come along. They were very strictly maintained, the readings, there were two special rules. One was, that although the poet read the poem he was not allowed to intervene and explain what he meant. If he objected violently to the criticism he had to shut up till the end. He couldn’t say, Oh but I didn’t mean that, he couldn’t say, But I said this. The discussion had to be exclusive of him until the end of each poem discussed.
Hobsbaum usually led the thing, but everyone was expected to contribute. Of course naturally as it happened some of us were brilliant at it and others of us were not so brilliant. I mean, far and away, our most discursive and brilliant commentator was the late Martin Bell, who had an incredible ingenuity to find things in poetry that nobody else could see. All of us just sat and listened as our work was discussed. In my case it was probably very effective because it was the first time I’d ever had anything by way of a feedback, a collegiate reaction. Because growing up as I did in Brisbane, one wrote in a kind of complete isolation, one’s friends did one the favour of reading one’s works and saying, God, that’s awful. Actually early frost and I don’t mean the poet can be quite useful, because it can harden the roots and stop you from thinking I’ve seen more good writers ruined by encouragement than by discouragement. I’m not arguing of course for discouragement.
JK: No, I understand.
PP: But the people in the group were so various in style, I suppose the one thing about them was that they didn’t have any of the snobberies attached to what I would associate with university views. They were aware of the reputations, but that wasn’t the main consideration. What I admired about Hobsbaum he was a difficult man who I’ve quarrelled with quite severely since that time but he was the only man I’ve ever come across, especially one who trained directly under Leavis, who tried to apply Leavis’ principles to completely unknown work. I’ve always found one of the things you notice, and you notice it even when you come to more modern controversies attached to things like theory etc., is that no matter how radical the system, the work that is considered seems to belong to an ever-shrinking pantheon. If you look at Leavis’ books, who did Leavis discover? He never discovered a writer in his life. Even Lawrence was discovered by the people he detested, not that they they made Lawrence, but you could even claim that the people whom Leavis loathed, like the Bloomsbury-ites, actually helped D.H. Lawrence and got him ahead in a way that Leavis didn’t.
JK: Leavis hated much more efficiently than anything else, that’s what he did most effectively, especially the last ten years of the nineteenth century.
PP: The great thing about Hobsbaum was that he believed that the quite severe, puritanical almost Roundhead principles of Leavisism could be applied to writing by Jo Blow just off the press. You didn’t have to start off as famous as George Eliot before you were thought worthy of being considered in the Leavis manner.
JK: How much did he rule the workings of the Group?
PP: Oh, not that much. He had a powerful personality, and he used to swing a pencil like this, ferociously. But no, he was up against very some pretty considerable intellects. Because he had Redgrove, who had a remarkable mind, he had Martin Bell, who was the best-read poet I’ve ever met, he had George Macbeth, who was not only very intelligent but highly sophisticated, he had Teddy Lucie-Smith, also enormously sophisticated. So he had all these people to cope with. Oh no, he didn’t rule the roost. These were all members of the group regularly, during its hey-day.
The group broke up eventually. Philip left London and went up to work under William Empson at Sheffield, to do a PhD, from where he went to Belfast. Where, incidentally, he founded another group. And his chief discovery was Seamus Heaney. And from Belfast he went to Glasgow, and he’s just recently retired as English professor there. He always wherever he went maintained this principle. So he was more of a Liszt, finding composers, than he was Warwick the Kingmaker. He wasn’t someone who arbitrated amongst reputations. He was genuinely always looking for new talent. Later on, I think that ability to spot the new talent atrophied, and his ability to spot the new talent was, it must be admitted, I think, curiously subtracted or somehow reduced by a very rigid code of what he thought was good. But he had the ability to actually apply the rigidities to work which the other part of his personality could recognise were good. So in order to praise Redgrove he had to completely misread Redgrove.
JK: I understand.
PP: There’s a lot to be said for misreading people actually.
JK: Well, isn’t that what theory is about?
PP: So that’s what the Group did. The Group showed me it didn’t change me I’m as obscure and as strange now as I ever was but it did show me that there is such a thing as recognising that what the imagination puts into your mind is not necessarily clear until it’s been sieved a bit when you put it down on paper.
JK: How do you apply those kind of principles that came from this interaction and that you’ve developed over the years of writing to the process of anthologizing? How do you apply it to selecting other people’s work? How much does a cultural framework, how much does a reading of a culture affect your work? Or how much is it literally applying these rules to each poem in its own right?
PP: It’s very different to answer questions like that, because an anthologist making a book for a commercial publisher is not doing the same thing as a leader of a discussion group in a seminar.
PP: I think one kids oneself. I am a far more biased person than I ever want to admit that I am. But I have got one feature which I consider though other people may not to be a redeeming feature, and that is, that I rather like the things that are not like me, I rather like other people’s flowers, as it were. And I often find myself attracted by things which appeal directly to a sense of pleasure and jump the hurdle of a stylistic sympathy or understanding. I think that’s probably what Eliot meant in his slightly over-quoted phrase, ‘A poem may communicate before it is understood.’ I would even go further and say that a poem is never fully understood, though it is often fully appreciated. I think that an anthologist of course can never be totally free of bias. What he will do is that he will try to allow the pleasure principle to do his selection for him, rather than any abstract or moral or philosophical or stylistic guideline outside his taste. In other words, curiously enough, an anthology based on one’s taste is less exclusive than an anthology based upon any specific set of co-ordinates which are built in to a cultural view.
JK: If you take Les Murray’s Oxford Anthology, because I want to specifically talk about your Oxford Anthology of Contemporary Australian Poetry. If you look at Les Murray’s anthology, there is quite specifically a politics at work there, he trying to present a certain national “identity” of Australia.
PP: Well, I’d say yes and no to that. I think that’s true of his selections from about the First World War onwards. I think his selection of the nineteenth century is brilliant.
JK: I agree.
PP: Because his taste there enables him to escape what is the curse of looking back on emergent literatures or emergent civilizations is the curse of Fustian, the curse of selecting things because they were the best at the time, the curse of selecting things because one wants to honour pioneers. And I think there Les has shown fantastic taste. A good example is that he chooses from Henry Kendall a remarkable poem about that obscure wind-battered island in the southern Indian Ocean called Kerguelen. It’s an extraordinary piece of Swinburnian writing. It could almost be a piece of Swinburnian hendecasyllabics. And he spotted it. He’s also spotted, not in that anthology but in his religious verse anthology, I think almost the best poem that Slessor ever wrote, which is the one about the Reverend Samuel Marsden. It’s a superb piece of Calvinist rhetoric. I think Les has got natural good taste, but when he gets closer to the present it tends to get overwhelmed by his polemic and by his special pleading. He’s like the Wise Men following a star, except it’s taking him into an unwise place.
JK: That’s a great line.
PP: I tell you what’s wrong with my anthology, it’s quite simple: I didn’t spend enough time on it, because they didn’t offer me enough money, and I didn’t have enough facilities. I am not an academic, I have a lot of faults, I come out into a rash if I go into a library, I loathe the gathering
JK: Before you demean the anthology any more, it is the best non-partisan anthology of contemporary Australian poetry available.
PP: It would be better if I’d been able to read more books.
JK: That may well be true, but in terms of its aesthetic it doesn’t discriminate against types of poetry.
PP: No, it doesn’t.
JK: It’s friendly to post-modernity, it’s friendly to modernism generally, it’s friendly to formalism. So that idea of being part of a literary community, but still being separate as well, physically, do you think that that was an advantage? In some ways it was a disadvantage in terms of not being able to get hold of certain material, but maybe from the point of view of selection?
PP: Well, in retrospective, it might be considered an advantage. At the time it felt like a hideous disadvantage. And it was also done in spurts, that is, from the time it was first commissioned until the last big flurry to get it ready for the press and I couldn’t extend it any longer sometimes a whole six months would go by without my adding a single person to it. It’s swings and roundabouts I had read a lot of Australian poetry, not as much as some people have, but more probably than some people who teach it in universities. On the other hand, I have to earn my living by paying journalism, and so consequently there are long periods when I simply can’t spend time doing the thing>
My attitude towards styles also changes form time to time. I think that by the time I was finishing the anthology, I was a good deal more open-minded than when I began it. I think I began not as counter-reformation, not with a traditionalist urge, but I think that my view of Australian literature was more traditionalist, until I began to read more widely in it, when I began to appreciate in fact that it was full of rather audacious writers. I would rather use the word audacious than experimental. And I was struck by how original and clever and strange some of the Australian poets were. Therefore I was rather pleased when it got reviewed by Robert Potts in the TLS saying that it contained more poems that he liked than any other anthology that he’d read for a ling time. He even said it made him cry.
JK: That was the Dennis Haskell? poems, he said it brought tears to his eyes.
PP: In some respects, it opened my eyes, as well as opening the eyes of some readers perhaps, as to how much idiosyncratic good writing was being done in Australia. And I would stress the idiosyncratic. Because Australian writers seem to be needful of jerseys to wear, you know they have to belong to this group or that group, it’s only when you get down to it do you realise and I imagine that someone like Forbes would be the first to agree with this that they are an idiosyncratic bunch. They don’t actually wear those jerseys so comfortably.
JK: And those jerseys don’t fit anywhere else in the world.
JK: You’ve done quite a few anthologies, new writing and others. Did you take that experience into this anthology, or was it entirely separate?
PP: Oh no, they’re not entirely separate. I rather like anthologies, though I deplore their effect to some degree, especially on one’s own personal taste, because I’m the kind of person who anthologies don’t treat very well. I don’t think that necessarily means that I’m therefore a bad anthologist, it’s just that I’m not very happy with the way other people have anthologised me.
JK: Present company excepted.
PP: Of course, of course. Some of the people I admire are great anthologists. The late Geoffrey Grigson is my ideal of a really good anthologist, widely ranging, very bigoted in some respects, but able to overcome his bigotry because of the sheer expanse of his sympathies in intelligence even if not always stylistically. And I think that anthologies of the past are always easier to do. It’s notable, for instance that in the Oxford book that Les Murray did, which covers of course the whole of Australia’s history from the foundation to the present day, unlike mine which only goes from 1945 to the present day, that Les becomes very uncomfortable the closer he gets to the present day, because he finds it harder to cope with his strong sense of . . . I mean, for all he’s Roman Catholic, he’s actually part of Cromwell’s New Model Army, and he’s always putting on his steel breastplate and going out to fight, not for Cromwell’s God but for the Catholic God. And in some ways this makes him extremely unfair to many of his contemporaries.
JK: In your introduction to the Oxford anthology -
PP: Which is a very messy introduction
JK: you talk about your reasons for starting at 1945. Do you want to say a bit about that?
PP: Well, prejudice really. Because I thought I found out in reading that this was wrong but I thought there had been so much rather bad verse written in the first fifty years of the century, that it was nicer to stick to the present. Where anyway I thought that my ability to judge was rather better. But I also think looking back on it that it wasn’t a bad idea, because I do think that the Second World War was unknown to most Australians today who wouldn’t even know when the Second World War was, probably a great watershed in the country. The First World War was a watershed for the whole of European civilization, by which I mean America and Australia as well. That was the great watershed. But there was a secondary watershed, and the modern world, the world which now is known as international organisations, multiculturalism, the United Nations, is a direct product of the war with Hitler. That war which also brought in also concept the concept of racial destruction, genocide. And brought with it for Australia a belated sway of nationalism. Australia has always had nationalism. People can point to the turn of the century when The Bulletin was maintaining a very nationalist view of Australia. But I don’t think that of Australians themselves, and certainly thinking of my family, who possibly didn’t like Poms, but who never had any sense that Australia’s loyalty belonged anywhere but with the British Empire. And I think in many respects that from 1945 onwards we’ve entered that Australia which had been prefigured certainly in my early days in the 1930s by the Americanisation of our culture. We’d become completely American in terms of popular culture, though we still remained British in terms of high culture.
JK: Especially in Queensland, where so many American troops had been bivouacked.
PP: That’s right, they were there at the time. From 1945 onwards, Australia as it is now seen, both from the good aspect of Australia right through to the Crocodile Dundee aspect of Australia, was born. Other people prefigured it, the Jindyworobaks may have prefigured it, but I think I was right to choose 1945. It did allow me of course also to exclude Slessor, on the grounds that I think that he’s far too prominent in Australian literature already. Not that he isn’t good, but that he’s such a founding father and this applies even more to Brennan, who I don’t think is much good at all. Australians fall back on Slessor both as an example of someone who’s good as a modernist and someone you can trust as a bloke, and I think in many ways that has misled a lot of people.
If we had to have one Australian poet who I think is a real founding father of Australian verse, I would not choose Slessor, I’d choose Francis Webb. It seems to me that Francis Webb had another advantage, he was international and he was nuts. He was mad in the sense of being a tortured human being, not mad in the sense of irrational, but mad in the sense that he embodied in himself what I think is the great strain in Australian life. I don’t think I could walk down a Sydney street without hearing someone shouting obscenities at me. Now London is a very mad city. Big cities are mad. But there’s a sense in which Australia is an edgy country, a very unsettled country in the mind, not unsettled on the land. And I think that post-1945, is seeing the emergence, the print of the nation, as it’s now at last being printed. In a way that it wasn’t in the nineteenth century, that it wasn’t in the first half of this century. You might almost say, I think, that Australia begins to be Australia after the Second World War.
JK: Moving on to your most recent book, Dragons in their Pleasant Palaces, it’s recently won an Age Book of the Year Award. First of all, I’d like to talk about what this prize represents, particularly in Australian culture.
PP: Let me say straight out, there are far too many of them in Australian culture. I sometimes wonder where they’re going to get the judges from, the judges are going to get called up, next time, for the prize. But having said that, it ought to be said that yes, it did win that prize, but it was actually shortlisted for about five others, none of which did it win. And whether it was as good as the ones that did win it, I don’t know. But the problem is that if you live overseas you will find it a bit difficult to win prizes in Australia, prizes in Australia are I know this is very unfair and it’s exactly the sort of thing you’d expect an expatriate to say, but it’s a bit like the bit in Lewis Carroll, “The Caucus Race”, everyone shall have prizes. I’ve judged prizes myself, quite a lot of them. I remember the late Philip Larkin, having an argument with him, we were both judging a prize, and he had a principle which I think is the way of getting the worst possible choice. He would list all the judges’ preferences from one to six or something, and then he would put them all together, and choose the person who got the best achievement, either more people liked it or many people out it at least fairly close to the top. And so you ended up having a book winning the prize which was nobody’s favourite. So I always worked on the principle, I’d rather have a book which somebody was very keen about rather than a book that was anodyne enough to be nobody’s unfavourite.
Put it this way: we must separate prizes as bestowers of fame, recognition and even possibly people buying books from the poet’s need for money. I think that a healthier society which Australia did have for quite a while during the ‘80s would be where the poets all got money, they didn’t all get prizes. Les Murray put forward an idea which although hopelessly impractical was one that I approved of he said everyone should get a grant to be a writer. But then of course you have to then work out how you’re going to decide who is a genuine writer and not somebody who simply put in to become a writer because he wants a grant. The problem of how poets earn a living is totally different from the question of giving prizes. Of course prizes now have bigger and bigger money attached, because the bigger the money the more attention from journalists . . . I’m not talking about Australia now but about Europe. There are prizes now which are quite ludicrously rich, including of course the Nobel Prize, which is a nonsense, because how can you judge amongst different languages? Les got something in Germany.
JK: The Petrarch Prize.
PP: Odd that the Germans should call it the Petrarch Prize, it’s not the Goethe Prize. Shows how little confidence they’ve got in their own literature. And there are quite large sums of money attached to these. Personally I would accept a prize called the Third Rate Hacks’ Handout Prize, provided it had money in it. It seems to me that what the writer needs is security of money, not security of reputation.
JK: Talking specifically about the book, first of all the title, ‘Dragons in their Pleasant Palaces’.
PP: I took that from Isaiah, as it says in the book. People don’t seem to understand that it means that it means that dragons are eating up the nasty people who live in their pleasant palaces, it doesn’t mean that dragons live in pleasant palaces. The ‘their’ refers not to dragons but to us.
JK: The poems in the book are taken from the period between Millennial Fables and . . .
PP: Well, largely. There are one or two hangovers, for instance the last poem in the book which a lot of critics have quite liked, the jokey but basically serious poem called ‘Death and the Moggy’ had in fact been rejected from Millennial Fables. I looked at it again and rather liked it, so I put it into this one.
JK: We talked about mortality and death in your poetry. There’s ‘The Dance of Death’, there’s ‘Men Die, Women go Mad’, so it does have a presence.
PP: But that presence is probably running through my work like Brighton rock, at all points and not just recently.
JK: When it actually came to compiling the book, was this a case where the concept of the book came first and you basically constructed it, or is it one that came later?
PP: Well, for my last three or four books, perhaps since The Cost of Seriousness, I’ve always been aware that I need a balance between those poems that are centred in Europe, those that are centred in Australia, and then the third category, those that are not centred anywhere except in ideas. ‘Men Die, Women Go Mad’, for instance, opens with my credo against William Carlos Williams. “No ideas but in things”, says William Carlos Williams. And I say, “But things aren’t words. And understanding clings to limitation’s symbol. The caged bird sings.” And so a lot of my poems are based on ideas, because I do believe that an ideas has a palpable presence. And I think that Williams is wrong to think that ideas should be replaced by chairs, tables and trees. Or even such other things as there might be.
So the book is really a negotiation if you look from the way it goes though, it starts off in generalities, with a generalized poem which derives from Kafka I was reading Kafka’s Aphorisms at the time that I wrote it then it goes on to what I’d seen when my cat was being killed by the vet, and also this beautiful marble statue by Stefano Maderna in a church in Rome. It then goes on to Hardy; and I wrote this when I was reviewing that enormously long biography of Hardy by Seymour Smith. Then I was reading Auden’s juvenilia. So you can see it starts off in a general tone, then it goes straight on to Australian poems, and two of them are directly written about Canberra, one of them ‘Breakfasting with Cockatoos’ and the other ‘Mobile Pool Cleaner’ are both Canberra poems. Then I change again and go back into generalizing. Then we’ve got a key poem, ‘The Western Canoe’, which as one reviewer pointed out it was a very good review by Martin Duwell in The Australian pointing out that this poem is really a mixture of Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon and another book I can’t think what it is. The whole idea is a joke, but it ends seriously, in that he manages to quotes a review quite rightly what the King of Brobdingnag did say to old Gulliver which was, “From your own confession to me, human beings are the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to walk upon the surface of the earth.”
Then we go on in general, there’s a historical poem about the two cultures, which is Dr Leavis’s nonsense. And I did actually come across a statue of Fibonacci in the Capo Santa in Pisa. And then I was talking to David Malouf about his trip back to Lebanon, where his ancestors came from, and that more or less gave me ‘Dragons in their Pleasant Palaces’. Especially as my daughter at the time was studying in North London University, and I more or less got from her, Where are the science students gone to media studies?
JK: Speaking of media studies, one thing that is very noticeable in this book and it edges towards it in Millennial Fables , but it’s far more obvious here is the subversions of popular culture, where you’re working through . . .
PP: Yes, well I’m an elitist in a sense.
JK: But you’re playing with it far more, and very humorously as well, whereas your ironizing in earlier poems tends to twist around more classical . . .
PP: Yes, perhaps in my old age I’m getting more up to date. ’Fat and Salt’ comes from when I was standing in a bar in Durham with a university man, who taught there, and he was an Irishman. And he was eating pork scratchings, and he said to me, “The two most beautiful words in the English language: fat and salt.” And then ‘Anxiety’s Airmiles’, I was still thinking of my first wife’s death and then ‘Miracles’ is based upon a trip to south Italy, and then the fact that my wife’s younger daughter just had a baby. ‘Deaths of Poets’ is just a sort of literary fantasy. I love John Ford’s work and I didn’t like T.S. Eliot’s essay about it, so I took that on. These cultural poems are because I’m fascinated by people who didn’t meet up with each other. ‘Collateral Damage’, there’s a full explanation of that in the epigram, that poor old Beethoven was a horrible mess of a man but a great artist. And then there are playful things, like ‘The Tenor is too Close’, I actually observed this.
JK: This is Porter’s notes, this is great.
PP: ‘ . . . Needlework’ is just a joke. I like the fact that what we call the ‘id’, the ‘ego’ and the ‘superego’ gives a nasty kind of official tone to it, whereas in German, oddly enough Freud does not use these Latinate words, he calls them das ich, das es and das überich. So he keeps it in the vernacular, which I think makes it rather different, and less fulsome, less forceful.