John Kinsella interviews Kevin Hart

Melbourne, 22 October, 1995

JK: Let me start by asking how you came to write poetry.

KH: I started to write poems when I was a teenager growing up in Brisbane. From the age of thirteen I was writing rhymes out of school, but I remember a decisive moment in school. One day my second-form English teacher brought in a sonnet by Shelley called ‘Ozymandias’, which we had to learn by heart for homework. I loved it, and started to read all of Shelley. I bought a selection of his poetry and lay on my bed all summer. It was partly an emotional, partly an intellectual, and partly an erotic experience. I was learning French at the time and started to read — or, more accurately, decode — a number of French poets. I read Baudelaire, Verlaine, Eluard, all very slowly, and after Eluard I dipped into some other surrealists. I was born in England, and my parents emigrated to Brisbane because they were afraid of unemployment. There were threats of massive redundancies in the local gas works where my father had a job. My parents had approached Canada, but had been knocked back: my father didn’t have the necessary skills. And so we came to Australia. We arrived in the middle of a Queensland summer. Brisbane was so hot and so sultry, and I was so unprepared for the conditions there, that I would do anything to escape the heat. We didn’t have air conditioning. The only place I could find that had air conditioning was the Queensland State Library. So I would go up there of a weekend. It had a marvellous poetry collection, and I read whatever took my fancy — mostly American poets, now that I think about it. Growing up in Brisbane gave me stretches of free time. I was studying mathematics and science at high school, which could be dispatched quickly, leaving hours and hours for reading in pure mathematics and poetry, my two great loves at the time. The curriculum for matriculation was set by way of genre rather than author, so I was free to read whatever I liked. I discovered Milton, Yeats, Eliot and Dylan Thomas; and a trainee teacher put me on to Hopkins. But I certainly wasn’t introduced to a canon of English writers. (I think it was assumed that this had been done in primary school — the Queensland Primary School reading programme was quite extraordinary — but I had only two years of primary school in Brisbane.) In the Corinda public library I had come across Poetry Australia and Quadrant, and I subscribed to the former. I don’t remember reading much Australian poetry until my late teens. There was Judith Wright, of course, who had reluctantly become a State institution. At home, though, I would read American and European poetry, a little in the original and whatever I could find in translation.

JK: Was that something which came from your family?

KH: No, no. My family are working-class Londoners. I am the first person in my family to have finished school, let alone gone to university, let alone become a professor. All of this has met with bewilderment from my family, and my parents could never work out exactly what I do for a living.

JK: There is a wonderful immediacy in your verse, besides this fine aesthetic legacy. There is something fresh and immediate about it. We have a point of entry no matter what sorts of readers we are, and I’m interested in how one defines readership anyway, we can get to that later. Is that freshness, that approachability, part of your background, or is that a fully aesthetic thing?

KH: My background? You must realise the English working class has very little literature. I heard a fair bit of popular song as a boy, but I had very little by way of literary background. That belonged to the world of the BBC, which I heard sometimes at school. We had a few books at home that represented high culture, but I don’t remember them ever being read. They were like china that was kept for best but never used. We had the King James Bible; and we had, as all working-class families seem to have, a set of encyclopaedias, peddled by some likely lad going door to door. But that was it. The immediacy you mention must come from my habit of perception, I don’t see it as conditioned by class. . .

JK: I’m interested in how that habit of perception evolved.

KH: Thinking autobiographically. . .

JK: In your early work you use haiku, you use imagistic forms of expression. That’s obviously part of this process. How did this immediacy develop: was it a conscious thing?

KH: I would have thought, if anything (this may not be apparent at all in the verse), that I’d grown up in the most introspective way possible. I was a weak child, living in the East End of London, which could be very rough. I went to a couple of tough schools. In one school — I don’t want to dramatise — a boy was shot dead at lunchtime. We were called in from the playground, and had to sit in the draughty hall singing hymns while the police came. In that world boys shot staples from catapults; older boys had flick knives; and everyone was in this gang or that gang. An excruciatingly shy child, I coped with this in contradictory ways, now by being involved in one of the gangs and now by retreating from the whole world. I became sickly, and I used to pretend to be ill so that I could stay home. I grew up educated in a lop-sided way, not knowing my times table and not being able to play games. I read those encyclopedias at home, and flicked through the Bible: almost always in bed, by myself, with the odour of clean sheets and medicines around me. I think my poetry comes in part from all that solitude as a child.

JK: In what I call your “summer poems”, there is that cleansing notion, that purity that comes with the sun, even though it’s unpleasant and it’s crushing, it had a purity about it because of that sort of sickly environment. Is that trying to ward that off; is there any consciousness of that in those poems?

KH: I came from England to Australia at the age of eleven. Arriving in Brisbane was a staggering experience; it was as though my parents had taken me to a forgotten world, a city off the map, a place where things had been let go. Everything seemed exaggerated, stretched out of shape, including the names of places: Indooroopilly, Woolloongabba, Yeerongapilly. . . Light and heat seemed to live in those names. There was a lassitude there, in Brisbane, people just. . .

JK: You actually say, in one of your poems, “Maybe we should just sleep”; you have this idea of sleeping entirely through the summer till the heat passes.

KH: That’s all you can really do in Brisbane, I think, in the summer. [Laughter] Now that certainly made me snap to attention as a boy, because it was so different from London. There was no need to defamiliarise, the place was already bizarre — both the nature and the culture. It felt as though someone in the Town Hall had got onto a knob marked ‘History’ and turned it way down low. Brisbane not being part of a fashion world didn’t worry me (it worried my sister, though). It was as if there was no time in Australia. The humidity and the heat seemed to clog up the flow of time; in a way it was a perfect world for an adolescent. And with that kind of torpor there is a supercharge of sexuality, which filters into poetry. . .

JK: In your verse there’s an interesting combination of the erotic under the eyes of a god, or maybe an anti-god, I’m not quite sure, because in many ways there seem to be a denial going on. The poem “The Beast” comes to mind, a savagely erotic poem, in which — it’s not a Catholic guilt as I would expect — there’s a kind of take-me-as-I-am-or-else type of feel about it. Could you talk about that?

KH: It wouldn’t be Catholic guilt because I didn’t grow up as a Catholic.

JK: Yes, I realise that.

KH: You could say I was brought up to be a lapsed Anglican. As a family the Harts had no pronounced interest in religion, and that was mainly due to my mother. My father had strong, unfocussed religious feelings, but my mother, who had a very powerful will, was dismissive of religion. ‘We’ll find out when we die’, she used to say. There were two despised groups in the East End of London, one was the Catholics, the other was the Jews. It was only much later when I returned to London as an adult that I realised my family had both strains. And in an unforseeable way I repeated that: I became Catholic and married a Jew.

JK: I think that’s the most fascinating combination you could ever have.

KH (smiling): Particularly when it has been repressed for a couple of generations. . .

JK: It’s very bizarre.

KH: What’s truly strange is God, not religion. To say ‘God’ is to explode immanence. Now that’s extraordinary.

JK: An explosion to signify the transcendent. Could you comment on that in relation to the concept of the Word in your verse? Can you expand on that?

KH: There’s a sense in which poetry answers to the absence of the Word, the unique master word that underwrites all other words. Not even the word ‘God’ can do that, for as soon as you pronounce the divine name it divides like spilt mercury. As soon as it enters the world, the Word is lost. Writing poems is a search for that Word. When you begin a poem you have a line, a metaphor, a rhythm; but almost immediately you glimpse the endlessness of language, how it functions without the benefit of your consciousness. You write the words, and certain words seem to take over, even to the extent that they write you. This is the moment of fascination that Blanchot talks about. You can give yourself up to language almost completely at this point, and high modernism explores this — think of Gertrude Stein, the later James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett — or you can try to recover yourself and go on, limping a little. But any recovery is partial: you come up with words, not the Word. That is why a poet ends up writing more than one poem.

JK: This is a direction I’ve been wanting to take. Are you familiar with the American L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets at all?

KH: I’ve read several of them, not all by any means. The one I warm to, if he is indeed a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet, is Michael Palmer.

JK: Palmer talks about the good and neat in the poem, I was going to ask: how do you? The lyrical I of the poem, the self’s persona if you like, how do you see that in relation to yourself as a poet? Do you separate the small me of the poems off from yourself; is there a demarcation point between you as the artist and you as the represented persona in the poem?

KH: In writing a poem the writer’s ego is put out of play, insofar as it can be done. The empirical ‘I’ is quietened in the act of attention required to write a poem in the first place. What emerges as the ‘I’ in a lyric is someone else, neither I nor not-I. In the emptying out of the self something is glimpsed that can’t be emptied out.

JK: You deal constantly with the notion of the shadow through your work. Can you give us a brief summation of what the “shadow” is? There’s the poem, “Your Shadow”, one of the many shadow poems. You are as always standing on the brink of something new, and your shadow waits behind, and it will follow you across the earth until it brings you home. There is a duality here; it is part of you. It is necessary, but it retains an independence, it is separate from your earthly manifestation, your physical entity. Can you explain that dichotomy?

KH: I’ve never fully understood those shadow poems. When I wrote them — a fair whack of them back in the early eighties — I found that in some cases it was the shadow speaking to me, not me to the shadow. When that was happening, the shadow always referred to itself in the third person. And I’ve never fully been able to work that out. You know how it is: you don’t understand a poem for a while, then it starts to make more sense as time goes by. Even now I don’t understand those poems fully. I remember they came to me with the force of necessity, but I have no idea where they came from or what the need was.

JK: Yet they seem to be so controlled. There seems never to be a loose word or never a loose notion, and they always lead somewhere. They can be pulled to bits — a lot of poetry can’t, yours can be, you can find references and you can find associations, so I find it most unusual that you should say that.

KH: Well, I hope they cohere; when I work on a poem the revisions concern the structure of feeling, rather than the poem’s conceptual matrix, which tends to be intuitively clear to me when writing. Afterwards, it may not be so plain. But I’m not sure that poetry yields knowledge. It has a lot to do with understanding and misunderstanding, though.

JK: You are not sure that poetry yields knowledge. Do you think it’s desirable that it yield knowledge, if it could?

KH: Only very great poetry yields anything like ‘knowledge’: Shakespeare, maybe Dante, but not much beyond that.

JK: Harold Bloom would probably argue much the same.

KH: He’d certainly argue passionately for Shakespeare’s originality. He maintains that Shakespeare fundamentally changed the way in which representation occurs in the west. Even with Bloom, though, it’s not knowledge so much as representation. And he’s right. Poetry makes us consider the how as well as the what, and in changing the how great poetry also changes the what.

JK: Do you go through the process of removal from your poems, so that once they’re written they seem incredibly foreign to you — that moment of intimacy that you have in the writing process is totally negated and lost, and it’s a matter of rediscovering that intimacy?

KH: Yes, when reading early poems it is as though I’m reading them in an afterlife. The poems are recognisably by me, but they’ve achieved such an independence that they welcome me then forget who I am. I like that.

JK: In the New and Selected, among the new poems, there’s a fascinating sequence called “Nights”. It seems to be from anothe time entirely. I guess I’m right in assuming that. It doesn’t seem to belong radically with the poems in that section. It’s quite different stylistically and the voice is very different.

KH: That series of poems was written over the same period as the others.

JK: Yet that’s not how it seemed when I read it.

KH: It’s written over that same period, but the experiences it relates were gathered over twenty years.

JK: The voice is different — maybe it’s just because it’s shifting through different things, and it’s a very constructed voice. Can you describe the writing process?

KH: Yes, I can. But you won’t believe me.

JK: I might!

KH: I wouldn’t believe me, if I heard the story. I was reading through an anthology given to me by a friend of recent American poems, and there was one that I saw called ‘Glose’: a particular form I’d never come across before. I looked it up and discovered how the form worked. And I thought, I’ll try writing one and see what happens. So I tried writing this very elaborate poem, this glose, and it wasn’t going well. Then I saw I’d written several lines in different parts of the draft that were quite surprising. That’s interesting, I thought. So I took them out, and they made a couple of quatrains by themselves. And that was the start of the series
 
JK: Over how long was it written? There is an incredible sense of shift in it.

KH: Three months, something like that. I’d have to look at the drafts.

JK: It wasn’t a matter of pasting together, written one year, then later on. . . ?

KH: No no. That’s not what I do.

JK: So all the poems in the new section were contemporary with each other.

KH: Pretty well, yes. I started the translation of Sappho in 1977 but only finished fifteen or so years later.

JK: Now, your volume before this came out was the Golvan Press book Peniel. That’s a book that is written entirely in three-line stanzas and has a most distinct sense of poem about it. How did that come about?

KH: Once I finish a book I like to have a spell when I think about what I’m doing, and put my writing into question. I don’t want to write another book which will simply confirm the other poems I’ve written. So I like to think about what a poem is doing, that elusive poem I want to write but never can. And so there’s often a period of emptiness, of unease, from one book to the next. Then, slowly, I start again, settling scores with myself or with a self I want to be. It comes only from writing, from trying to write. The first poem which worked for me in the months after Your Shadow was called “Gypsophila”, which in fact opens the book. And there, I found, was embodied the feeling, the rhythm, I had been looking for. I had an idea that the poem I wanted to write would have a certain scent, and I could sense that aroma in the poem as it was being written. “Gypsophila” sent off paths I wanted to follow. Those hidden paths became Peniel. One track was the form taken by all the poems in the book. The next poem I wrote, “Facing the Pacific at Night”, was also in tercets; and when I revised it it came to be nine tercets. I became interested in what had happened. Was it a co- incidence? And I thought, well, writing blank verse for twenty-seven lines is formally attractive: what if I set myself that limitation? What if I use this almost transparent medium, twenty-seven lines of blank verse, to explore other areas I’ve been leaving in the shade? So I wrote some poems which I’m sure I would never have written otherwise.

JK: Like “American Journal”? That’s got a lively little jazzy rhythm about it that doesn’t occur anywhere else in your work. Formally it fits in with all the other poems, but rhythmically it’s quite different, and it leaps out at you, and there seem to be these detours that you wouldn’t normally have made. In the process.

KH: That’s true. There was room for leaping about in that formal space. For the first twenty poems or so it was a very liberating experience, I was going in directions I’d never explored before, intensifying times and spaces that had been flat before. Then I got fed up with the formal requirement. I was going to write fifty four poems for Peniel, but I cut it short at twenty seven. Each one took me a long time to write.

JK: Gig Ryan once said to me that everything that needs to be said about a poem should be said in a poem: discourse outside of that is a contradiction. A poet shouldn’t talk about their writing because it devalues the poem. Do you think this relates to your position as a teacher? Can you make pronouncements on other people’s poems and not your own, or do you think that it’s a valid thing to explore, in the company of others, your own work? Summing up, (a) is poetry teachable as a general rule and should it be taught? and, (b) how would you feel about teaching your poetry yourself?

KH: I’ll start with the second one. I never teach my poems. The only time I talk about my poems are in circumstances like this. Nor do I teach Australian poetry, for the simple reason that it’s my backyard and I’m too involved with it. The fact is that I teach almost no poetry at the moment. There’s a course I sometimes run called ‘Poetics’, and there the students and I read Wallace Stevens, John Ashbery, Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore. We don’t try to interpret their poems, we look at how the poems are put together. It’s a course in how poems are made: about funny things that Stevens does in verse, how he varies a metrical foot here, how one trope changes into another, why he uses roman rather than arabic numerals to mark sections of poems. When you approach poetry hermeneutically, this kind of thing gets forgotten. And that’s a pity, because the oddities and details of a poem can tell us a great deal about poetry. Metre and rhetoric are important parts of poetics. They are teachable; they might be the only aspects of poetry that are. I tell students in the first seminar, we’re not going to consider what any of the poems mean. We’re going to consider only how they’re written and the effect that has on our reading. I don’t want us to have any ideas about interpretation, I say. Save them for another class! (It never works. But the failure is instructive.)

JK: You mentioned earlier that when you were doing the translations of verse from French sources at first it was decoding, because you had little of the language at that stage. Do you see the reading of poetry generally as being a process of decoding through various cultural and plateaus of knowledge that you possess? You decode through what you know. There’s no set method of reading. It’s a matter of decoding through your own environment, if you like.

KH: You come across poems at different times of life, you know different things at different times, and you ask different questions of poems at different times. I spend a good deal of time teaching students to read Hegel and Heidegger, Kierkegaard and Husserl, amongst others. And inevitably some students use this information, usually a weaving together of hermeneutics and poetics, to read poems or narratives. Some poems blossom in this kind of light, others wither. One kind of analysis will help in reading Mallarmé but will hinder reading Burns. Great poems have multiple ends; they call for different contexts. There is no ‘method’, but there are many ways of proceding, and some of them can be learned up to a point. Why do we read a poem? Because it opens an old wound. Or because it closes a wound. Or because it does both at once. Or because. . .

JK: A poem can’t purely satisfy itself. It must reckon something. It can’t just be a self-contained environment, that comments on its own process?

KH: It can, but I think they tend to become a bit arid. Poems have a desire, and they have a desire for us.

JK: I like that, the poem having a desire for us.

KH: It doesn’t know the us, though. It doesn’t know who it desires.

JK: Can you expand on that?

KH: Well, any poem is directed outward; it has an intentional structure. It’s a relation with something not already given in consciousness. A poem always tries to transcend itself, to go beyond the poet’s consciousness. That said, poems can’t have a unique destination. One might write a love poem for a particular person, but the poem will always have the possibility of being read by other people, even inspiring love in them.

JK: Should the same poem mean entirely different things to different people? Can the same poem mean something to you at one point in your life, and have an entirely different meaning at another point in your life, or does its meaning remain entirely constant, it’s just a matter of how the audience, the reader, uses the material? So the material is constant but the way of reading changes.

KH: You’ve condensed the history of Western aesthetics! There are three different ways in which we can construe a poem. You can regard it epistemologically, as an act of knowing. Poetry gives us some knowledge, but it’s usually fairly trivial. As Eliot said, ‘Birth and copulation and death’. Then, you can consider poetry under the sign of ontology, namely, it may or may not give us knowledge, but it changes our being. I think this is what most people think about poetry; it increases our vision, it changes or even ‘raises’ our consciousness. And third, poetry appears in terms of desire. Now if you consider poetry exclusively under the signs of epistemology and ontology, what you get is an aesthetic object. Then the presumption is that its meaning or its truth remains constant. We vary, the poem doesn’t. Under the sign of desire, though . . .

JK: We fetishize it?

KH: It’s more that we succumb to the illusion (I think it’s an illusion) that the poem is an object, and we fetishize words on the page. If you consider poetry as given to us under the sign of desire then the poem is not a thing but a relationship, and like all relationships it changes. As anyone knows who’s been reading poetry for a number of years, you fall in love with a particular poet, and you fall out of love. There are poets you encounter when young who become unreadable later: think of e. e. cummings. So I think what happens, what generates the possibilities you raised before, is that poetry gives itself under all three of those signs simultaneously. It gives us knowledge, although from my point of view it is usually trivial; it can change our being, and one hopes that it’s for the good. (I’m sceptical, though: did reading Goethe stop one Nazi from gassing one Jew?) And finally poetry involves desire. There’s a wonderful line by the great French poet René Char. He says that poetry is the realised love of desire that has remained desire. The poem has embodied desire but hasn’t exhausted it; the tensions can never be overcome, certainly not by resolving them into ambiguities, ironies, paradoxes and the like. Poems desire other poems. Again, this is what Harold Bloom would say: poems desire other poems which are the embodiment of desire and we have desire with respect to them.

JK: This is like the politics of Australian poetry, which would seem to dictate that poems desire only themselves!

KH: There is always a self-referential moment in a poem. The L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets try to use this moment to generate the whole poem. They are entranced by the vision of language spinning meaning without authorial control. There is a consciousness in the poem, but it is not the ego of a guiding authorial self. So the poem is, as it were, a not-I speaking.

JK: Exactly. With the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, despite this self- emulating self-deductive nature, there’s a social consciousness and a social conscience as a sacred thing. Now, as to reconciling how the thing in itself can embody an outside social consciousness; how do you reconcile these, because they are separate entities?

KH: Language is a social phenomenon. . . Poets don’t mint words, though some poems dip them into the void so that they seem brand new.

JK: In your translations, are you interested in the end product or the original product, if you like, the poem you’re translating, or the process of translating-decoding — or are they both relevant?

KH: I only translate when I feel a strong attachment to a poem and sense that it could breathe in English, and even blossom here. Many of the poems that first moved me, that sent me looking here or there, were written in English, French and Spanish. It was as though I was extended an infinite line of credit by other poets and other languages. After a while, some psychoanalysists will say, the unconscious will begin its work and whisper that something must be repaid. But that can’t be done: once you think in terms of debt, the debt is impossible. How can you repay your parents for your life? How can you negotiate the delicate frontiers of accident and fate? I’ve never seen translation quite like that. I translated in my twenties to help open a space where I could be myself.

JK: You deny the minor aspects of Fate, if you like. You would not allow for a sense of things happening because they have to. The poem is written because it was inevitably going to be written. It is read because it had to be read that way...?

KH: When you look closely, absolute chance and absolute necessityare reverse sides of the same coin.

JK: Getting back to the New and Selected: instead of being divided into your volumes, your past volumes, it is divided into periods of poems. Why is this?

KH: First of all, I retouched everything in the book. Sometimes I rewrote quite considerably. Other times, I just fiddled around a little. So perhaps no poem is exactly the same as when it first appeared in print. Second, I’ve included some poems which I wrote at the time of The Lines of the Hand or Your Shadow but didn’t publish. I don’t draw any attention to that in the book.

JK: The notion of light is extremely important in your work. Can you comment?

KH: I suppose images of light come up frequently, I hadn’t thought about it before.

JK: So there is no conscious reason. But there is a lot of light there.

KH: Light is the best conductor of mystery. And the sun is the best image of that deepest mystery, the unreturnable gift. The sun seems to give without hope of return.

JK: You have a poem called “The Gift”.

KH: There are a couple of poems called “The Gift”. I don’t know if the other one is in the New and Selected Poems. It’s a translation of a lovely lyric by Borges. The other poem called “The Gift” concludes Peniel. In is own way, it tries to understand what it means to be given something, perhaps everything.

JK: The gift there is an indifferent gift. It’s not a case of it all being performed for me.

KH: That is why it can be received as a gift. You say, Wonderful!

JK: Of course you do. What do we make of all this, as Bob Adamson, would say! What do we make of all this. . . Sorry for interrupting you!

KH: No, your interruption was a good one. The impersonality of the gift, the fact that in the poem you don’t know who sent it, is part and parcel of thinking the event as a gift in the first place.

JK: Light is associated with, but not central to, the notion of desire in your poetry. Whereas there is a sense of desire associated with heat. There’s another duality there. There’s the spiritual one, it’s the heart, the heart of light, and there’s the warmth, the sense of touch, the impression left by touch, which comes with warmth. So there’s a duality there. How are spiritual love and physical desire separated off? It’s rather intangible, but I think these things are all linked?

KH: They’re not separate, they’re part of the same world. To be sure, there’s evidence of a dualism in my writing. It’s a deeply engrained Western habit of perception; but eros is the best image we have of agape.

JK: One doesn’t need to love to desire.

KH: One doesn’t need to love in order to desire. And more than that, one doesn’t have to have a need in order to desire: that’s the logic of capitalism and pornography. Love presumes a need, a felt need to fill the chasms in the self.

JK: Earlier, you were talking about the good. What is the good? How do you find a good — I assume by its twisted opposite — the wrong, the bad. How does one form a moral code? and is that necessary to poetry anyway?

KH: In The Republic Plato talks of the good beyond being. And there is the most profound truth: the good resists any form of totalisation, any commodification or fetishisation. Emmanuel Lévinas tells us, in some very beautiful pages, that great poetry always manages to unsay itself. It resists the inevitable slide toward Culture and Literature. A great poem protects its vulnerability, even after many, many readings; it is transcendent, even though made wholly of words. This resistence to imminence is the good. Poetry is a sign of it, though only a sign.

JK: When you talk about the notion of good in a poem and the way it works, you’re purely speaking about that once you’re outside the poem. Does a consciousness of this exist in the composition of a poem?

KH: There’s no poetry without a suspension of the outward man, I’d say, and no poetry without the failure of that suspension. There is no resolution of that conflict, just as there’s no overcoming the struggle between fascination and clarification. The important thing in composing a poem is to maintain complete and utter attention, to respect what unsettles and doesn’t seem to come from the person sitting in the chair with a pen in his hand.

JK: The modern poet would agree with that.

KH: It is common in earlier times as well; people call it inspiration.

JK: There’s a “deceit” going on here, I should say, in the sense that through interviewing you I’m really trying to direct what you say. The deceit is insofar as I’m actually trying to place you back in your poems. I’m trying to force you to re-enter the poems and the the poet of writing them. Do you think that’s a dishonest thing to do? and against the general good?

KH: No, not at all, if only because the liminal moment when one starts to write is one of the most marvellous there is.

JK: Am I writing you through doing this?

KH: Oh, definitely.

JK: Through interviewing you? Suggesting you maybe?

KH: Well, inevitably. This happens in any human encounter.

JK: The prayer as poem? The prayer doesn’t need an audience of people.

KH: That’s right. In fact, it should try to exclude it.

JK: Right. But we discuss poetry in the light of being read. Where does the prayer fit; what is the prayer poetically?

KH: Prayer is the greatest irruption of immanence that humans can perform. It is poetry taken to the limit, speech turned toward the unsayable. To speak to God. Imagine that! But what can one say to God? At its deepest level a true prayer says nothing at all, simply ‘yes’ and — as Jacques Derrida has reminded us — ‘yes’ to that ‘yes’. Of course, a prayer can be overheard, or read by anyone once it is committed to paper. And the destination of a prayer can be bent this way or that, even in the act of meditation itself. One speaks to God, but also of God, and sometimes of ‘God’.

JK: In your poem, “Three Prayers”, it seems to me that you are making a prayer, but — and this is what poeticizes it — to me you’re also discussing the very practice we’re talking about. About the making of a prayer and about where it sits in terms of the poetic and in terms of language. For example, you start off by saying, “Master of energy and silence / Embracer of contradictions”; you have direct access if you like. You’re making direct access. Later on, in almost a humanising, quite a sensual way, and in a very personal and familiar way, you’ll say, You do not speak to me of death. You do not pester me, like some. Far too busy with the universe, Sometimes not busy enough, Searching out our softer parts, Trying to squeeze yourself in: Showing off your famous night sky Like a child with a new drawing. There’s that wonderful humanity and sort of humanising aspect about it, where the master of energy has become the familiar person in the room you’re sitting next door to on Sunday afternoon, having a chat with. Can you talk about that process? How prayer has shifted into something quite familiar and very familiarly poetic, as the prayer has become the poem?

KH: People sometimes think that the spiritual world is distinct from, and even distant from, this world, ‘the company of flesh and blood’, as Wordsworth so memorably put it. But the spiritual world is within this one: not as a secret, but as a radiance. To think of the spiritual world as a secret is to court idols, and the only virtue there is that God appears in the cracks of idols. There, often enough, is the first moment of glimpsing the radiance. We find it through God’s grace and our attention. Poetry is one form of attention, and poetry does not lead us to another world: it shows us this world, this relationship, this chair, this ivy on the outside wall. That! is says; its what is almost completely absorbed in saying that!. But its how can change our lives. Prayer is attention taken to the limit, though a poem can become prayer, even despite itself.

JK: Do you find a need as a poet, as the Romantics did, as Walpole and Gray did, making their tour of the Alps, for the Mont Blanc kind of thing; do you find a need to recharge the spiritual batteries, or the creative batteries, to remove yourself from your immediate writing and intellectual environment, step aside and physically look back? I know that in your poems you have those moments, often in the garden, or somewhere close to your home, where you capture a part of Arcadia, if you like, that separation. You cross the boundary in some way and you capture a glimpse of pure Nature, if you like, and then you go back into the world and you rejoice in the fact that you’ve had that glimpse. Do you consciously do that, or are they given moments which you can’t construct in the same way as the Romantics would hope to have done?

KH: I think the Romantics were more interested in themselves than in nature, and the romantic sublime both threatens and confirms a unique self. And yet the romantic problem of how to present the unpresentable is still with us. Neither modernism nor postmodernism has taken us outside that field. What are the great unpresentables? God and the soul? Yes, indeed. But also death. There is no greater force of negativity, no more powerful urge to create, than the thought of death.

JK: This is where Weil would say every separation is a link. Working on the principle that the more we go through the processes of disassociating ourselves from the one truly unknown, that is death, the closer we’re moving towards it as a matter of avoiding it. Part of relocating ourselves around that central actuality.

KH: Rilke regarded the creative moment as an ecstatic relation with death. But death forbids us to look directly at it. To speak directly of death or God is the most difficult thing of all. Who was it said that sincere poets are always bad?

JK: I’m not sure. There are many who could have!

KH: I suspect that one can speak of death or God only by looking to one side of them. You must not try to get the origin of the poem in focus, you must try to lose the origin in the way the poem requires of you.

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