No 85 - 2009
Interview with George Szirtes
George Szirtes was born in Budapest in 1948 and came to England as a refugee in 1956. His thirteen books of poems include, The Slant Door (1979, winner of the Faber Prize), Bridge Passages (1991, short listed for the Whitbread Prize), Reel (2004, winner of the TS Eliot Prize) and New and Collected Poems (2008). He is also the prize-winning translator of a number of books of poetry and fiction from the Hungarian. A study of his work, Reading George Szirtes, by John Sears, was published by Bloodaxe in 2008. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1982 and is associate editor of The Liberal and of Atlas magazines. He currently teaches on the MA in Creative Writing at UEA.
You have a tremendously wide range of written work; poetry, translations, articles, essays and librettos. When something attracts your attention, at what point do you know it will be a poem rather than something else?
That is not too difficult really. Librettos and articles generally have some external origin. Someone asks me to write them, and I generally do my best to oblige. I wouldn’t confuse either with a poem, though libretti do contain verse and, sometimes, set song. I usually spend a long time preparing those then write very fast, rewriting afterwards. I can’t write slowly. Articles and essays require organisation of a different sort, generally of reference material and broad ideas that might then spring off more specific ones. Nice to see where they lead.
Translations are again set and commissioned, Novels are just for getting on with. Poems vary. There are some poets I simply can’t do. I don’t fully get what they are doing. Once I know I move relatively fast again. Novels go in fits and starts.
Poems are a feeling waiting for a first line. They can be summoned on good days.
I am interested in your process: can you say what triggers or calls into being that first line, or what it is that allows you to summon them ‘on good days’?
The trigger for the first line is usually an impression of something over and beyond the normal. It might be unusual in itself, or simply ordinary but somehow more intense. Triggers vary in type of course, but it is as if the act of perceiving a trigger - and, to some degree, we half-consciously train ourselves to perceive such things - were a kind of opening into latencies behind the first impression.
Triggers are, for me at least, also various forms of escape from the general insensateness of life, the usual life that demands concentrated attention on business of one sort or another. It’s probably not surprising then that my first poems, such as they were, were, almost always, diversions from duty. Studying physics at school for example, I’d stop doing my homework and start a poem. A concentrated effort in one direction seemed glad to jump tracks into another. Or maybe the substantial burden of the one became the potential substance of the other: a kind of equivalence and of course the attention was partly in and through language, the language not required by any of my academic subjects: physics, zoology and chemistry.
Again quite personally, because I am aware that other poets feel quite differently, I have often found that being asked to write about something can trigger exactly the same process. A commission is, for me, another form of opening. The burden of conceiving a subject from scratch is shifted to the given subject. It is as if a certain undetermined, direction-less, stored energy that might have remained trapped and indecisive (approaching, in extreme cases, the condition we call ‘writer’s block’) were delighted to take whatever outlet happened to be on offer.
The given is often the surprising, and surprise is important. For that reason I have never liked the smell of poems that seem to know from the very start where they are headed. I suspect they are not real poems, the genuine poetic act being marked by a series of surprises, presented by, negotiated in and discovered through language.
You use poetic forms with skill and, it seems to me as a reader, have a relaxed relationship with the formal elements of poetry. Do you feel form facilitates the conditions that allow the series of surprises which signal “the genuine poetic act”?
Yes, I do feel form offers surprises. My argument for it would be based less on issues of tradition or completion (that some would call closure) or even the part-mystical case put forward by some of the New Formalists, that meters approximate to key natural or body rhythms, though I think there is something valuable in that perception. I would argue from language. The normal speech act treats language as though it hardly existed, or was in some way transparent. You want to say something: you say it. Language in poetry, I feel, is more physically present. It offers resistance. You have to negotiate it, like a strong wind blowing in your face. Rhymes, meters, stanza forms, almost anything that constitutes opposition or constraint, brings the sheer materiality of language to notice. You cannot entirely have your own way with it. In negotiating it you are taken where you might not otherwise go. So you discover it as you go. There are many analogies I could use to illustrate this, but if I were to stick to the idea of the strong headwind, then the act of writing would be like tacking when sailing. That tacking, that negotiation, improvisation and surprise route is, I suspect, at the heart of the poetic act. The act need not necessarily involve any specific set of formal problems, maybe the sheer awareness of the wind is enough. One thing of which I am convinced: poetry is not a matter of having something to say then saying it.
You have drawn comparisons, on your blog, between poems and photographs; particularly “of the lyric poem as the capturing of a landscape or event as lit by lightning” and explain further that “it comes about through the perceived sense of connection between language and the sense of reality. The connection feels electric. The two poles of what we say and what there is seem, briefly, to coincide.” This seems closely connected to the importance of surprise you note above; it also suggests an urgency about writing poetry. Can that urgency be denied? You clearly lead a very busy life: how do you manage the demanding energy of a poem waiting to be written?
It is odd how these images occur in the mind. The lightning-lit landscape or event isn’t one I have used before but once it appeared it seemed perfectly convincing. The image came when I was looking for ways of explaining to a huge group of students how they might read a longer poem, as opposed, say, to a novel. It has been suggested before that the long poem is essentially a series of short poems strung together. I am not sure that is right in every respect, because epic poetry clearly has a strong sense of narrative flow, so when E.V. Rieu, for example, translates Homer as prose, it seems perfectly natural. There do remain, of course, those transitional passages between main episodes, that are less intense, but those exist in prose narrative too. In lyric poetry we expect language to do more with less. We expect intensity of effect and a long poem that is not essentially epic will probably consist of a series of brightnesses with minimal use of functional connecting verse. The analogy I wanted was between poems as photographs and novels as feature-length films.That is not perfect since clearly there is a sense of happening in lyric poems: something is different by the end, so the idea of seeing something in the conditions of an electric storm presented itself. You see figures moving or fleeing or dancing, and everything is bright, then they’ve gone, leaving you only with the sense of significance. That lightning, I argued, was generated by the power gathered in language as density, as materiality, as a substance. You can feel the air thicken before a storm. It’s like that.
Can the urgency be denied? I don’t want to suggest that the condition of the poet is necessarily to be permanently set in a Romantic attitude, ravished by lightnings. It is the effect of the poem I mean, not the poet’s psychic state or the mode of composition. In arguing to the students I suggested that the phrases we use, such as ‘sheer poetry’ and ‘poetry in motion’ tend to be applied to brief movements or acts of grace. That that is, if you like, our visceral definition of poetry. It is perfectly possible for poets to feel calm, cool, even cold and rational, and, under those circumstances, to write slowly. But the effect they are working towards is that lightning-lit pool of words that seems to correspond with the density of one’s sense of life. That is why Housman felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise, that is why Marianne Moore’s imaginary gardens have real toads in them. That is the magic of the poetic shape.
As concerns my own experience there is, I think, a vague sense of a thickening of the air before the poem begins. The rest is a matter of heading into that language-wind the best I can. It is the way I have always written, from the very beginning. One can train oneself to be aware of the thickening. One can do it by an act of concentration. Because the thickening is everywhere, in any subject, at any moment. It is, as with all art, a matter of intense attention. I started writing poetry as distraction from the pressures of writing up experiments in physics at eighteen. Pressure can go a long way to thickening the available air. I work well under pressure.
The comparison between photography and poetry, as well as the fleeting nature of lightning, suggest freezing a moment in time. Do you see poetry as an attempt to capture or freeze time?
I think I probably did see it that way, certainly through much of my earlier work. Now I would say the photograph analogy - forgive me repeating myself here - is not quite comprehensive enough, because there is, and has to be, movement of some sort in a poem, otherwise it’s just description. So a very brief pocket of time containing everything relevant before and after and during is probably the ideal. I think I could make a case for that in the lyric poetry of almost any time. I think I could: it’s just a hunch now.
You have said, elsewhere, that you write poetry quickly, that you can’t write slowly: it this true also of revision or re-writing? Can you describe your process up to the point where you know a poem is ready for publication?
Revision can take time, indeed a long time, but it depends. I have grown up being my own editor and am not always right. Many times I would have loved a tough but understanding editor to quarrel with. However, one has to be one’s own editor to some degree, probably for over 90% of the process. I read my poems aloud. I read them to Clarissa, my wife, who, though she is primarily a visual artist, has a good sharp ear. And even if she didn’t, her listening sharpens my ear. I usually advise poets to read their work to someone else, just so they themselves hear it with the consciousness of an external presence. Occasionally I will let the computer read one of my shorter poems from Simple Text. In the past I have had friends, other poets, to whom I have showed new work. It wasn’t the group dynamic of the workshop but the sense of one mind addressing another without any social distraction. I have been lucky with friends. One needs a series of them. I do it mostly for myself now and this is, in a way, liberating but it is also risky. However, I am now of the age when I think risks are the best friends. How do I know when a poem is ready for publication? I guess. And hope. And, like anyone else, I suppose, trust to instinct, knowing it is not infallible.
Finally, I’d like to refer to your 2005 T. S. Eliot Lecture: I was struck by the truth of the ice skating metaphor and by the recognition of the moment of stepping on to the ice. You said that, rather than a linear apprenticeship, there is “a particular point at which the nature of poetry is understood for the first time. That first step on to the ice involves understanding both the point of the ice and something of ice’s nature.” As a teacher, do you think students can be helped on to the ice, or can you only provide the signposts towards it?
Yes, I do believe so, otherwise I wouldn’t have been teaching all this time. The fact is I have seen this happen many times over. A lot of my ex-students have gone on to publications and awards of one sort or another, among them a good number who had not considered themselves poets or even readers of poetry when they started. Understanding poetry is like suddenly seeing the point of something that has always been there.
It is an extraordinary experience watching this happen to people and enormously cheering because it demonstrates that poetry is not some minor decorative art or an abstruse science but something bred in the bones. That it is a natural and fundamental human concern.
The point about poetry is that it is as true to life (and by life I mean imagination as well as experience) as we know to be in the medium of language, whether that truth be simple, complicated, personal or public. It doesn’t matter what the context. It is the voice speaking about the world, singing the world as best it can.
The biggest mistake people make about poetry is to think of it as concerned only with specific feelings felt only by peculiarly sensitive people. The issue is not with feeling but with language: the feeling arises out of the language, through the language. People do actually recognise this once presented with it in contexts other than poetry. That is part of teaching too.
The ice image in the Eliot Lecture arose out of Edmund Blunden’s poem, 'The Midnight Skaters', where the pond is murky, deep and dangerous, but the skaters are exhorted to wheel across its thin, brittle surface in full knowledge of its fragility. The ice, in my reading, is language: the deep pond, the mass of inchoate experience in which we might well drown. Dancing on the ice is making patterns in language, making marks on it. Poetry is the pattern that gives meaning to the ice, that confirms and shapes it.
Beginning to hear the world through / in language is the stepping out on the ice. Students can, of course, be helped on to it. But first we must try to give them some idea of what the ice is for and what might be done on it. That is a matter of listening and watching. First we should become good readers: good listeners and watchers.To read well is a prerequisite: you cannot write well if you don’t read well. Reading can be enough for many people. Sometimes I think it might be enough for me. But then it isn’t. I have a vocation. Teaching poetry is not necessarily about preparing students for a vocation. It is not career guidance. It is introducing them to that which they feel anyway.
The poetic vocation is the sense of moving across that ice and wanting to move across it for ever.
Interview by Angela France
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