The Poet Realized
An Interview with Ruth Fainlight
was born in New York City in 1931 to an English
father and an American mother, and has lived in England since the age of
15. She has written numerous collections of poetry, short stories, opera
libretti and translations, in a lifetime of writing that has included
friendships with both Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath (the two were young
mothers, as well as writers, together), Robert Graves, Jane and Paul
Bowles, and many other poets and novelists. Her more than a dozen
collections of poetry, published over five decades, distil her quiet,
passionate vision into poems that are crystal- clear, rooted in the
everyday, yet also very much of the spirit. She has just finished a
translation of the three Theban plays of Sophocles, which will be
published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2009.
I went to visit Ruth in the large, book-lined flat in west London where she has lived for almost forty years with her husband, the writer Alan Sillitoe. We had decided that we would conduct the interview as an informal conversation, although I had e-mailed her some questions the previous week. Armed with our notes, a digital recorder, and espresso made by Alan (“he does the drinks”), we got comfortable in the living room and began.
* * *
Just look at all these tulips! You’ve brought these today, and my
daughter brought those yesterday . . .
it looks as if there’s been a wedding——or a funeral!
I wrote a few little notes, just in response to some of the questions you
Maybe we could start with a bit about your writing life.
I started writing as a child. When I was 10 or eleven I had poems
published. It was during World War Two, and my mother worked as a
secretary for the British War Relief Society. They published a magazine,
and so they were delighted. I don’t have any copies of this magazine. I
have no idea what they were like, but I remember reading some of them on
the radio for a children’s program. I’ve just written all my life.
I’ve kept on writing poetry. I
came to England when I was 15. The assumption was that Americans were all
idiots, so my brother and I were immediately put in the bottom stream, he
in his King Edwards Grammar School for Boys, I in my King Edwards Grammar
School for Girls. I couldn’t believe it! I had been an absolutely
typical teenager——bobby socks, saddle shoes, moccasins, the drug
store, jitterbug, every thing! And suddenly I was put into an English
girls’ grammar school, with a gymslip, school tie, black stockings. I
just camped it up. I pulled my girdle (they called it a girdle, it was a
woven belt, rather nice, actually!) low down over my hips, as if it was
the 20s, and tucked the gymslip up to make it as short as possible . . .
dumb insolence was my
I was very good at school, so when I came top in English and top in
history it just infuriated them. After that I wanted to stay on at school,
but my father wouldn’t let me, it wasn’t considered necessary for
girls to be academic. So in my teens I went to art college. In fact, I got
married when I was an art student. I was 18. At that time I was drawing
and painting. I wasn’t writing so much; but then I went back to writing,
and I’ve just written the whole time since.
ask me to define what my project is. I’d say: I am someone who writes
poetry, so my project is just to be what I am,
which is someone who writes poetry. Does that make sense?
Yes, it makes perfect sense. In your poetry you have a very distinct kind
of tone, or “voice” if you like, and a very distinct way of
experiencing and writing about things. So that does sound like a good way
of describing one’s project: to be this realized person, this “person
who writes poetry,” means that the poetry is an entirely organic thing.
Well I hope it is. I feel it is, there would be no point in doing it
otherwise. It isn’t that it just flows and bubbles out in some wonderful
mindless way! No, of course not. And of course all sorts of anguish when I
don’t write, you know that feeling, “I’ll never write another poem
again” . . .
Wendy Cope said something about not writing anything for months on
end—she said she doesn’t worry about it, she just waits for the next
thing to strike. When something strikes she writes poems, and then when
they dry up again she just goes, “Oh! Wait for the next time now” . .
. I’d never heard anyone
describe it like that before.
No. I wonder if it’s true! [laughs] I mean, when I’m not
writing I’m doing things at my desk I’m translating. I do more and
I’m interested in the idea of translating——in the overlap between
the original author and the translator. When does the translation become a
version? Where do you draw that line? I often find myself not
knowing how to read a
I think I try to make a translation as accurate as I can, but also I try
to make it as much like a poem
as I can.
just finished translating Sophocles, but I had to do it from a crib: I
can’t read ancient Greek—not a word—but that’s how so many people
work, so I suppose there’s no reason to be ashamed. I’ve also done
that with Russian and other languages I don’t know.
biggest project I’d worked on before was a book (her Selected Poems, and
then later a long sequence) with a Portuguese poet, Sophia de Mello
Breyner Andresen. She was an excellent poet; I felt an affinity with her
work. When I’ve done any translation, almost invariably it’s because
I’ve been asked to. In this case a friend of mine, Helder Macedo, a
Portuguese poet and critic was editing a Portuguese issue of Modern
Poetry in Translation, and he was looking around for people to do
translation, and because I know Spanish—close enough to Portuguese, at
least on the page—he persuaded me to do five or six different poets, but
hers were the only ones anything came of, because her work spoke to me. Of
course I wanted to be as close to her
poems as possible, but I also wanted to produce a real poem in
English. So I think what I’ve done is closer to translation than to
versions—because people who have done versions make much freer with it
than I think I’ve ever done. I translated Vallejo too, the Peruvian
poet; with him also I think I stuck pretty close.
I’ve also done a few Russian poets, again, because I was asked to, and
it seemed to work, particularly in one case. But that was because I had
the best crib of all—the
poet herself. Her English is excellent. So she gave me the cribs of her
own poems. And I’ve had quite a lot of stuff translated by her into
Russian. She’s a well-known translator, it’s been really good. A
two-way thing, a living collaboration.
Who was that?
Marina Boroditskaya. They’re in that anthology, Contemporary Russian Women Poets, edited by Daniel Weissbort and
So she was able to say, this is what I meant by this, I want it to come
out like that...
That’s right. And of course, translating from French or Spanish or
Portuguese I can work directly from the text, and sometimes I can talk to
the poet, which I’ve done in one or two cases. But with the Sophocles,
Tell me how that came about.
I know an American professor of classics, Robert Littman, who teaches at
the University of Hawaii. He said:
really like your poetry, and I know you’re interested in classical
subjects, and I teach these plays and we really need a new translation,
and couldn’t we do something . . . ” So
he sent me the whole play, each play, the three of them, line by line!
Because his wife is English he’s over here for six or eight weeks every
year, and each time, we’ve met.
KEB: So that’s a big labor for him as well.
Robert can say, “you don’t have it quite right yet,” and there’s
nothing I can check it against. But with Marina, at least I can check back
with her, and there is also her literal English version.
I used to spend a lot of time at my cousins’ house, translating Russian
Blok, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Marina Tsvetaeva, all those—out of these huge parallel anthologies my uncle had, with a couple of
dictionaries. I had a Russian uncle, and an Estonian uncle.
Oh, really! So how come you’re not Jewish! [laughs] No, I’m
[We talk about families:
mine, in which one uncle’s father escaped from Siberia after the 1905
revolution and ended up as a hub of the Russian anarchist community in the
Emma Goldman as a frequent visitor.]
My mother was born in what is now Ukraine, but then was Bukovina, a
province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and at about the age of six she
was taken to the USA by her family, who emigrated there in the early years
of the twentieth century. She grew up in New York City. My father was born
in London; his family had emigrated to England from Poland the generation
before. When he was about 20 he went to Argentina and lived in Buenos
Aires for a while, and then he moved up to New York, met my mother—and
in due course I appeared on the scene. It’s strange you mention Emma
Goldman—she was a great heroine of my aunt Ann, my mother’s
elder sister, and during World War Two, we lived with her in Arlington,
Virginia, so she became a sort of totemic figure to me, even though I knew
very little about her.
the alcove near where we’re sitting there is a large, ornate
glass-fronted mahogany bookcase full of art books and other oversized
See, this is my aunt’s bookcase from Sugar
Paper Blue, the bookcase which had all the books of hers that I read.
fact, the poem describes the young Ruth finding a book on its shelves that
would have a profound effect, even though unread:
. . I found what can only be
“a slim volume,” with
in an unknown script and
I don’t remember Aunt Ann
one line from its pages, nor
explaining how she came to
But she told me some facts
abut the woman
who wrote it—the first
time I heard
those words: Anna Akhmatova—
poem includes a line about how the speaker feels that the bookcase’s
“look and contents, I suspect, / formed my taste in everything.”]
That’s an amazing piece of furniture! And so redolent. What memories.
I think it must be German. I think my aunt bought it secondhand in New
York as a young woman and when she retired she took it with her to
Florida. When she died, she left it to me, but it was in Sarasota—she
left me a few thousand dollars, that’s all—and
nearly all that money went into shipping this to England. I mean, it cost
nearly $2,000 to ship it.
But that’s amazing—she
left you the money and you were able
to ship it.
That’s right! It just worked out beautifully.
. . the swagged garlands of leaves swathing
the hips of the female
that surged from the column
like naked caryatids, or
twin figureheads with the
and stern faces of
on the vessel of expectation
. . .
those wonderful figures on the front. It must have been incredible,
growing up . . . the
impression the physical piece of furniture left on you, compounded by the
mysteries that lay within the books—even the ones you would never read.
Yes, that’s absolutely right.
We’ve talked a bit about how we both came to England as teenagers. And
you’ve said the transatlantic experience is awkward. I think most people
agree that it’s awkward! [both laugh] Do you think that your
publishing career has suffered from that?
I don’t know. Sometimes I think what my publishing career suffered from
the most was that before I had anything published, Alan had an enormous
literary success, and was more or less a media ”star.” But it was
probably good for me to have to wait to have my first book published.
[Alan Sillitoe’s first two
books were the hugely-acclaimed Saturday
Night and Sunday Morning and The
Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, in 1958 and 1959—in fact,
two of the first books the interviewer read when she arrived in the UK at
And also my brother, Harry Fainlight. He was younger than me, also a poet,
with an “underground” reputation, and a very important person in my
life. It is only now, reading through the letters we exchanged until his
death in 1982, that I realise just how important our relationship was to
him, also. He never married, never lived with anyone, and was in and out
of mental hospitals all his adult life. A book of his was going to be
published, and he went to the publishers and he said, “Give it back to
me or else I’ll blow the place up!” So there was a time in my life,
probably when I was in my thirties, when it was either, “She’s Alan
Sillitoe’s wife” on one hand or on the other, “She’s Harry Fainlight’s sister!” So I was sort of trapped
between these two facts, which seemed more significant than being
American. Being American was just another
thing. Being Jewish, being American.
And how did you break through that?
Just—determination. I just kept on writing, and—yes. Yes.
had a very spotty American exposure. Several of my books have been
distributed in the United States, by the distributor Dufour—my
first two books done by Macmillan, in the late sixties, and the three most
recent from Bloodaxe, but they got very little attention there.
I’ve been poet in residence at Vanderbilt twice, in 1985 and in 1990.
The first time I was there, the editor of the Carnegie Mellon poetry
series did an American edition of one of my books, Fifteen
to Infinity, and that’s the one American publisher I’ve had, for
that one book. And for two or three years I had poems published fairly
regularly in The New Yorker.
I can just imagine your stuff in The
New Yorker, it would work.
Well, then it stopped. But the prose piece I wrote about Sylvia Plath and
Jane Bowles, which was in the Times Literary Supplement—Alice
Quinn, the [then] poetry editor of the New
Yorker, got in touch with me, because she’s also the editor of the
journal of the American Poetry Society (Crossroads)
and asked if she could use it there.
I thought that was an amazing article. In fact I was in tears at the end
of it, but that’s a bit by the bye. It has all the immediacy of
friendship. It must have been really hard to write.
Thank you. It took such a long time to get round to it. I keep getting
asked to write things, or say things, about Sylvia Plath, but I won’t.
Absolutely. I mean I go to give a reading or something like that, and they
say, “won’t you talk to us about Sylvia,” and I say no, no. I can
think about it, and write something, which I did then and I might do at
some time in the future, but I certainly won’t agree to be asked
questions and say something without having the possibility of stopping
myself or thinking about it first.
anyway, there was my New Yorker
phase, which I thought of course would go on forever—one always does
think everything will—and then it doesn’t. And it was great, because
people all over the world see The
New Yorker, and also because they pay so well. [laughs]
used to do a lot of readings in America. It’s dried up a bit in the past
ten or fifteen years.
Do you think they see you as an English poet?
Oh, I don’t know what they think!
I’m very interested in your series of Sibyl poems.
Now, that again I was asked to do, by the American sculptor and
print-maker Leonard Baskin. I was so grateful to him for suggesting it,
because it’s the sort of thing I was fascinated by, and had been reading
about all my life. But I hadn’t sat down to write a whole sequence of
poems. We met through Ted Hughes—Leonard and he collaborated on several
books of poems and prints, and of course, Leonard’s jacket for Crow
established the image for every reader of the collection.
As a sequence it builds in power: it becomes a kind of collage as you read
it. You get this amazing multi-faceted feeling. I’ve sat and read them
one after another, and it’s very strong. And I’m relating the idea of
the sibyls, who can see and say things others can’t, to the idea of
being a poet—speaking things as a poet.
Introspection of a Sibyl,
the last poem of the sequence, where
I have the Sibyl say how lucky that they don’t burn her, but look after
her—it’s awful when I read through my own poems and see that I have
this theme running through: what do I really think a poet is? There’s
one, for example, about the idiot child that can somehow manage a poem.
Then there’s a poem from very early on, which isn’t in the Selected:
it’s called “The Cripple’s Mother,” and it’s about a mother,
pushing a crippled child—and again, I can see that this is my image of a
I love this poem:
similar absorption . . .
guard this ruined life
decorate the spectacle,
attention . . .
think that’s kind of a common feeling. Among poets: I think that most
people who write, especially poetry, have always felt that they’re
Different, and not quite as good! Most of us have had that experience at
whatever level of not being able to—comply with expectations. Or always
seeming to say the wrong thing at dinner. [laughs]
I also relate the poet figure to the shaman, or someone like that—the
village wise-woman or maybe idiot, the person who is marked from birth and
is both more powerful and less powerful.
Because the poetry is the power, but what you can show in daily life, so
often . . .
. . . is less!
And what the sibyl poems add up to for me—just one thing, not all that
they add up to—is that there’s a specifically female aspect of this
over the centuries it has been more dangerous, being a woman, to have
certain kinds of ideas and say certain kinds of things: literally they
used to burn women. I guess I’m asking: if you’re female and you’re
writing, especially this kind of stuff, do you think that’s more risky
than if you’re male? The way I put it in my notes was, “do we run
special risks? Saying things people might not want to hear or might not
want to see?”
If you think of the position of women in the world, absolutely, one has to
agree. But the whole business of the relation of the sexes, and attitudes
of men to women and so on, it’s just so appalling,
[both laugh] isn’t it?
Yes it is! And it never goes away.
You’ve covered it from different angles in a few of the questions, about
feminism, etc . . . When
James Joyce writes that something is “scrotumtightening”—-I read
this cited recently as an example of a wonderful literary breakthrough—I
say, it is inconceivable that this extremely masculine writing—is
regarded as a breakthrough.
Everything that men write, if you think about it, the way they go on and
on about their cocks, and their scrotums, and their sexual attitudes . . .
[laugh] and yet if a woman says anything similar, she’s a
bitch, a ball breaker, you know, it’s amazing. Women are supposed to just smile . . .
. . . or write about something else. But you haven’t done that.
No. It’s because I write out of myself, and I’m a woman, so everything
I write is a woman writing. And if James Joyce is regarded as a
pioneer—O! pioneer!—because he writes “scrotumtightening,” all as
one word (which would make a great email address, don’t you think?),
well, bully for him! And yet of course, he is a wonderful writer—so many
examples of tenderness and empathy.
You use lipstick really well in poems. I’ve cited three mentions. It’s
one of the most common objects we have, one of those little almost
unregarded parts of daily life that get forgotten. You have a lovely,
evocative poem about the contents of your mother’s handbag, which I
Do you mean the little one called “Handbag,” or the long one called
“The Crescent?” “My stick of lipstick is worn away . . .
that was the first thing I noticed / about my mother’s
I meant the little handbag one, where you just mention the lipstick and
the other things as well:
mother’s old leather handbag,
with letters she carried
through the war. The smell
my mother’s handbag: mints
lipstick and Coty powder.
love that, handbags are so redolent. You know, Wislawa Szymborska.
Yes, she’s wonderful.
I love her work, and she has a wonderful poem about a handbag. She’s
addressing her sister; it’s similar to what you were just saying about
poets being both more and less, and having the “little idiot face”
that you show the world. The poems says (this is how I remember it),
“You have a proper lady’s handbag, and mine always has poems in it.”
Like Anna Akhmatova carrying Tsvetaeva’s poems around in her handbag. I
mention that in “Sugar Paper Blue.”
You wrote amazingly about going to see Akhmatova. You were in the flat
below hers, it must have been such an intense feeling. And in fact, that
poem is largely about this “idiot face—you trying to be a good guest
while you were tantalized by the presence of Akhmatova upstairs. Akhmatova
carrying Tsvetaeva’s poems in her bag is like your mother with her
letters, and even like your memory of being in that flat.
Yes, and I wanted to get up there, and I couldn’t. She was nearly at the
end of her life then.
And there’s the university question . . .
Do you think university is any real use for a poet, especially a
female one. I never finished my degree and I’ve always wondered the
extent to which that hampered me, especially when I was very young.
Because women don’t, or didn’t, get taken seriously, especially a
young, pretty woman . . . that’s what I imagine university does for women writers, it
just sort of bolsters you . . .
Yes, I suppose so . . . well
I never had any of that either. I mean, I got married when I was 18, and
then I ran away with Alan when I was 20 . . .
so I never got to university. We lived in France and Spain till I
was in my late 20s, and that’s when I knew Robert Graves. That’s the
nearest I ever came to having a mentor, or a university tutor or anything
like that. And it was so fantastic. We’d go into his study, and he’d
be working on a poem and he’d show me what he was doing. Not working all
the way through like in a creative writing seminar, but just the few
things he’d say, it was invaluable. It only happened half a dozen times
maybe over four years, but it was terribly important.
In your list of questions you asked about things like that, and have I
ever been tempted to a Ouija board: No. James Merrill—[laugh] No, I
really enjoyed The Changing Light at Sandover but I’m definitely
not James Merrill! Ted Hughes was very keen on astrology, but I’ve never
Somehow he could get away with that—I think a lot of people, if they
tried to write poems about astrology,
you’d be saying Oh my God,
get me out of here! But he has a way of retaining that robustness that
doesn’t make you want to reach for the joss stick.
we are interrupted by Alan, and when we get back to the conversation
it’s about children.]
I only had one child, our son David. But I have an adopted daughter, who
is a niece really . . .
You know, my eldest will be 19 in two years, if he says to me at 19,
“I’m going to live in America”—I mean, how did my mother let me do
You wouldn’t be able to stop him. And I ask myself, why did my parents
let me get married? Or—why did they put me in a position where that was
all I would accept? But then I think—I was such a monster!
My sister was the ultimate rebellious teenager, and our family was very
liberal, it was hard to shock anyone. She did the most rebellious thing
she could imagine doing.
Married a truck driver!
Nearly—he was a shoe salesman who worked in the mall! His mother, who is
wonderful by the way, cleans behind the fridge every week!
I’ve never cleaned behind the fridge. Do you clean behind the fridge?
No . . . I’ve cleaned
behind my stove.
Yes, well I’ve done that. Maybe twice, in thirty years. Tell me Katy,
I’ve heard you read your poems. That’s the only contact I’ve had
with your poetry. You don’t have a book, do you?
talks about the anthology The Like
Of It (Baring and Rogerson, London, 2005), which featured six London
We all met in Michael Donaghy’s workshop.
He was such a nice man. And such a sad death. [Donaghy died suddenly
following a brain hemorrhage in September, 2004.]
It was very hard. We were getting most of our information at that early
stage from John Stammers . . .
I think he’s a very good poet.
One or two books of his came into my possession at one time—I
think when I was a judge for some competition. I read them and thought,
okay, I want to keep them. I went to hear Ruth Padel talking about Gerard
Manley Hopkins at the London Review of Books shop, and Stammers introduced
it. Just the way he presented himself impressed me, and I looked at his
The book, The Like Of It, was
conceived as a sort of memorial to Michael.
Well, as it happens, in my book there’s a memorial poem about Michael
and also about a good friend who died, and about my grandmother. They are
different kinds of memories, and for her there’s an image of a brass
candlestick: “The worn brass candlestick / on the kitchen shelf . . .
/ is her memorial . . . ”
There’s a similar image in one of Michael’s poems, “The Brother,”
where he inverts the goblet into two faces, like the old optical illusion
picture. And that’s about the brother he never had. A potent image.
Speaking of Michael Donaghy, I like that you quoted him, saying the old
formalists never went away. Exactly. If you think about Walt Whitman well,
the formalist vs. non-formalist wars were going on in the middle of the
People my age and younger seem to think it all started in the sixties,
with the Beats, but even at fifteen I knew the Beats read the
Metaphysicals. And then there’s Charles Baudelaire’s early prose
poetry. The battle lines were drawn long before, say, Thomas Hardy and
Of course. And the reason I mentioned Whitman was that there is a direct
line traceable from Whitman to Ginsberg. And Creeley: think of Robert
Creeley and the Black Mountain poets, and look at the Imagists, in 1910,
and Mina Loy in the twenties! It has been going on at least since the
second half of the nineteenth century.
If you want to be even more extreme, you can take it all the way back to
Milton—he didn’t rhyme, though obviously he wrote blank verse, not
free verse... not rhyming was very
political to him.
When I was 15 and went to an English grammar school, I adored Milton. That
was a wonderful firm basis for me, reading Milton at that age. And Eliot,
I used to walk around chanting Eliot to myself: “Every streetlamp that I
pass beats like a fatalistic drum.”
I know! [laughs]
Well, this interview is going out to an American audience, this is for an
American journal—and my take on the situation in America versus Britain
is that I think America is more polarized. There seem to be more poets in
Britain who feel comfortable with writing in either loose form, or form
that doesn’t advertise itself as form, or formal sometimes and not
sometimes . . .
Whereas in America you have formal people, or . . .
I know some wonderful poets in the USA writing in form, and they get
branded “New Formalist” and then that’s it. Joshua Mehigan’s one;
he’s wonderful. I met him in New York one time, right after buying my Collected
Poems of Lorine Neidecker, and I had also just got James Merrill’s Collected
Prose in the Strand, and Josh said he didn’t think he knew anyone
else who would own both those books. But I think Neidecker is amazing!
”There is no layoff / from this condensery” . . .
She is, yes.
Now, let’s see where we are with all these questions
. . .
Well, you ask about libretti. A composer, Erika Fox, asked me if I’d
write a libretto for a chamber opera, for a series commissioned by the
Royal Opera House—called The Garden Venture. I found a story that
she liked, and I wrote it and showed it to her, and she accepted it—and
then she went away and wrote the music.
Oh I see, so you didn’t have to change something you’d written, to fit
. . .
No, but afterwards I just wanted to change one line. In one exchange. And
she said, “No you can’t change it, I’ve already written the music
for it.” So I said, “Well look, if I give you something with exactly
the same number of syllables, and more or less try to get the same vowel
sounds as much as possible, will that be okay?” And she very grudgingly
accepted my alternative . . .
That’s like writing acrostics.
That’s right. And then for “The European Story,” also for the same
series, the composer, Geoffrey Alvarez, had read the poem and he said he
thought he’d like to work on it. But I didn’t really change it very
much, I just cut it up into personifications and vocal exchanges.
third libretto that I wrote, I did for a television series, “Without
Walls,” and this time I worked more with the director, a documentary
filmmaker, Celia Lowenstein. We talked about it, and she had a subject she
wanted. She wanted it to be like an opera, actually, very interesting,
totally non-realistic. It’s called Bedlam
Britannica, about when they emptied the mental hospitals—which they
did in New York as well, and the people were turned out onto the street .
. . So again, we just talked
about it and I wrote something and gave it to her, and she gave it to a
composer she’d worked with on other films. He and I had hardly any
direct contact. So I’ve had different kinds of experiences. But in each
case the words came first and then the composer wrote the music. I can’t
imagine it would even be possible, to write the other way round.
I had imagined a scenario more like what you just described with the
syllables, where you get a composer saying, “No, no, this isn’t going
to work, I need fewer sounds here!” You can imagine them saying
“I’ve got this scheme—and you’re not fitting it.”
Yes, I can imagine that. Maybe I was lucky. The nearest I’ve come to
working in that way is the Sophocles translation, because I’ve had to
make that very accurate—line for line.
My “Jocasta’s Death” sequence is in Moon
Wheels and several people have commented on how good it is; in fact
it’s also very accurate.
So that constraint has actually forced great precision, would you say?
Well, you had to have the precision, so that was the constraint.
Well, no, it’s not completely true that every line of my translation is
the exact equivalent of every line in the original Greek.
It can’t be, syntactically.
But within a speech, all the original material is there and it is all more
or less in the same order. And it has to be the same number of lines, of
course. If there are ten lines in a strophe there have to be ten lines in
the English version, so you have to stick pretty close to the original.
You can’t introduce different concepts, and the images have to be the
Well, while we’re talking about collaborations—synaesthetic ones, as
it were—you’ve also collaborated with visual artists. There was your
work with Leonard Baskin, for example.
Yes, I’m still very pleased with that. And then there was my
collaboration with the American printmaker, Judith Rothchild, who lives in
France. I met her when we had a house not too far from hers, in Languedoc.
Her mezzotints for the poem sequences, “Feathers,” “Leaves,” and
“Pomegranates,” are masterly. We worked in different ways for those
books—one of them was already written, and she made the prints from the
poems; with the other two, she showed me prints already done, and the
poems were inspired by them. The “Sheba and Solomon” collaboration
with the Brazilian sculptor and printmaker Ana Maria Pacheco began when I
visited her studio when she was Artist in Residence at the National
Gallery at the end of the 1990s. She showed me a painting of Sheba and
Solomon and said that she was fascinated by the subject and wanted to
continue with it—and asked if I would be interested in writing some
poems and maybe we could make a book out of them. And that’s what
happened. So you see, again it was suggested to me.
[Watching KEB write on notes] Oh, you’re left-handed? Like me.
All the best people are.
That’s exactly what I say when anyone comments on it—I say all
the best people...
I’d like to end with this question I sent you about Shelley’s famous
quote that “the poet is the unacknowledged legislator of the world.”
I’ve recently been asked how I would apply that quote to our current
century, and I’m wondering how you
would answer that?
I don’t believe that poets are legislators at all! The only poems which
have that kind of effect are either national sagas, or doggerel, or things
like that. I believe much more with Auden that poetry has no . . .
it makes nothing happen. No, nothing happens because of poetry. Or,
the only things that happen because of poetry are if you have some sort of
nationalist theme, which leads people to go out and shoot each other. And
that might happen. Think about
the Finns, when they were part of the Russian empire for so long, and then
revived their sagas, and Sibelius wrote the music, that had a big effect,
didn’t it? And I don’t know if it’s very good poetry. Or very good
That’s interesting to me, because what you say is the opposite of what I
answered to this woman . . . I
wrote almost a whole essay on it.
I’d love to read it.
I was a bit embarrassed in the end, because she had asked ten people ten
questions each, and I think I wrote more than all the other people put
together! My take on it was that the key word there was
“unacknowledged”—and that “legislator,” etymologically, is a proposer
of laws. I said some grandiose things—
I talked about how every civilization that comes to us,
historically—that we know about, that is—many civilizations, virtually
all we know about them is their poems. As you’ve said, the epic poems,
largely. But I can’t think
of a civilization that wasn’t made into a civilization by the way it
organized its verbal traditions, or its myths.
Oh dear. I withdraw my answer. You’ve convinced me.
I also said, and I’m really, really terrible at quoting anything—that
it doesn’t need to make
anything happen, because it makes people experience things in a different
way, and that’s a small way of making things maybe more likely
to happen, and then I quoted Joseph Brodsky where he says that if a
civilization or a society doesn’t read poems and can’t thus determine
the real meanings behind words then they deserve all the despots they get,
But when you think about how the Germans were regarded as the most
cultivated people in Europe in the nineteenth century, and then all those
concentration camp commandants listening to Schubert .
It’s shocking. Shocking. It can’t make anyone good, that’s the
Practically every tyrant and mass-murderer has started out thinking he’s
an artist, a writer or a painter or something. Mussolini was a poet. And
now Karadzic in Yugoslavia. And at the beginning of the century,
d’Annunzio, in Italy. Hitler was a painter. Mao was a poet. He wrote
quite good poetry. I remember, to cheer me up after a miscarriage,
Christopher Logue gave me a little book of Mao’s poems in translation.
Christopher Logue, I think he’s marvellous! I’ve met him once—that
was about maybe a year and a half ago.
Was he okay?
I’ll tell you this. He was flirting with me so outrageously that I
couldn’t believe it. And he was the most attractive man in the room. He
was absolutely sparkling.
Oh, I’m so happy to hear this, you’ve no idea, because I haven’t
seen him for four or five years, and someone told me only the other day he
wasn’t well . . .
Well, I’ve heard someone say socially that he gets very tired . . . it was a striking remark. But he didn’t seem tired!
I’m so glad. Christopher used to live very near here, and he’d come
over for coffee about three or four times a week, we’d see a lot of him.
And then he got married (nothing wrong with getting married!) in his late
fifties, and they bought a house in south London, and we hardly ever see
him now, just because of geography.
I think his work is amazing.
Yes, so do I! His Homer.
Oh, I know! It’s—
Of course, thinking about our earlier conversation, he titled a whole
volume of War Music after a
shade of lipstick: All Day Permanent
Red. I think it was Revlon. But mostly men don’t get that.
think you could safely call War
Music more of a version . .
Oh yes, that’s definitely a version! [laughs]
I think it’s some of the best work that’s being written now.
I agree. I’d love to do the Sophocles as a version. But having just
finished this—I mean it’s taken me two or three years. Who knows.
Maybe I will do it some time, maybe I’ll write my own Antigone.
I was so struck by that story when I was in school.
I’m just reading through Oedipus
the King today and yesterday, I’m going through it
finally—changing a dash to a comma, making a few changes where my
expression of something may be a bit stiff—and meanwhile back in
Honolulu, Robert is writing the notes and the introduction.
want to read the three plays straight through. I haven’t read it through
at one read yet, as a trilogy.
way Sophocles wrote them, he wrote Oedipus
the King, then Antigone, and
then much later, Oedipus at Colonus.
But the story sequentially is Oedipus
the King, Colonus, Antigone. I think I prefer it to be presented that way, in a
straight narrative line. The argument for putting Oedipus at Colonus at the end is it was the last one that was
The scholarly argument.
And it ends of course with Oedipus being not taken up to heaven, but the
earth opens and he goes down into the underworld. It’s a strange death.
Like Don Giovanni.
Yes, exactly. But after that, Antigone goes back to Thebes and she tries
to bury the body of her brother, Polyneices, and everyone dies. And
that’s the end!
Yes, that’s the way that makes dramatic
sense . . .
I’d love to have it performed: Oedipus
the King was read by a group of actors, summer before last, at a
theatre in Ealing called the Questors. They read through it and said
it’s terrific, and really playable.
I reread Jocasta’s death, and each time,
it really gives me a thrill—I think I’ve really achieved something
there. The messenger comes back and Jocasta rushes to her room, and
Oedipus goes in, finds her, pulls the brooches out of her dress, stabs
them in his eyes, and it’s all there in that speech. And it’s
thrilling, “She says modestly
. . . ”
I look forward to reading it.
And I look forward to reading your piece about poetry, and unacknowledged
legislators. I mean, to me, poetry is just as integral to being a human
being as religion.
But there are a lot of people right now saying that religion isn’t
integral to being a human being! Haven’t you noticed that?
No, I mean that I think religion is a construct of the human mind. I’m
not talking about believing in God. The instinct is to make up some story
to explain everything, otherwise it’s just too much to have to
face—the absolute meaningless chaos of reality.
So we make our meaning. That’s what poetry is.
That’s what poetry is. You’ve expressed it much better, but you
understood. So those are the two absolutely basic things. And do you know
that when people are in states of agitation or distress or high emotion,
their language becomes cadenced? Poetry is the most primitive way of
I can’t imagine poets not being the unacknowledged legislators of the
world, because that’s just how I see the world anyway! In my world
they’re more like the acknowledged legislators!
Well, they’re not the
acknowledged legislators. It’s just that having to admit, and accept,
that poetry makes nothing happen . . .
It’s like being hit on the head, isn’t it?
But Auden finishes that poem by saying something like, “poetry is a way
of happening, a voice.” So it doesn’t make anything happen, but
. . .
. . it just is.
It’s a happening. It’s a present tense.
You know, I just wanted to ask you something about . . .
Well, you’ve seen me being childlike.
I have to say that when I met first met you, at the Oxfam reading, what
struck me about you was an amazing openness, and your enthusiasm.
There were all these people sitting there po-faced, saying, “oh yes,
hello, nice to meet you,” and you were just having a really good time!
You were asking lots of questions and were very interested. It’s just
what you’re like.
I’ve been struck by a couple of other things. Margaret Drabble chose Burning Wire as one of her books of the year, and she said that one
poem in it, to her mind, was the poem to read if you feel like you’re
getting old. It’s called “The Dream.”
You remarked on that. In the dream I was an old Japanese wise man.
Yes, I find this interesting because several people have said you write so
much about getting old, and you do write really well about getting
older—clearly. You’ve written really well about being all different
ages. You’ve got that one poem, “August”—
Oh yes, a woman who is “already thinking / that she’ll soon be forty .
. . ”
poem has a description of this woman: “Her hair is set, her face is
powdered matt,” and describes her “thin and rather mournful little
mouth with lips . . . carefully
painted . . . always looks
Well that’s how I feel about getting old! That’s me! It’s tragic. I
feel like part of me is that woman, walking through the park with too much
How old are you?
I can just remember it. You know, my mother never stopped being 39, and I
could never decide if it was more tragic or comic.
I don’t usually tell people my age. My kids say, “Mummy, how old are you?”
Don’t they know?
They do really.
Well, one year, filling in some form or other, I put down my date of
birth, and that’s it—everyone knows how old I am now! [laughs]
Just make sure you never put it in, because once you put it in once,
was so haughty, thinking, “it’s ridiculous, all the men have given
their ages, and the women are all concealing their age, and that’s
beneath me.” So I put it in.
That’s a good reason.
but then afterwards—! [enormous
“What have I done?”
I thought, well, you know—“This blow for equality’s all very
“Now I’m the one who looks old!”
People are frightened of you when they know how old you are. But actually
I feel much better about being old now than I did ten years ago. If
you’re in your sixties people are frightened of you, but now I’m
turning into one of the ancients, so it’s all right—I can be a
laughing ancient now.
Do you think people are frightened of you in your sixties?
[laughing] I don’t know! Don’t pay any attention to what I’m
What I was getting at, really, was that the thing I feel comes across
really well in a lot of your work is more a kind of child
thing. For example in your poem about the blue blankets—that was
just so evocative. About being sick, and that special relationship you
have with blankets when you’re a kid!
That poem brought back to me my favorite blanket from when I was little.
In Sibyls and Others, the book
that’s being reissued, is a poem I didn’t put into my Selected,
and that’s a blanket poem. It’s about when you’re lying in bed, and
you pull the blanket right up, in front of your eyes, and all the little
hairs are sticking out and you try to make words out of it? Did you do
I had a blanket my grandfather brought back from Wales, it had a woven
fringe—all the little threads were twisted up, so you had a space, and
then a fringey thing, and a space, and another fringey thing. I spent
many, many hours of my childhood in bed untwisting them.
And did they then twist up again when you stopped?
You could twist them up again—but by the time I left home it was looking
a bit frayed. I don’t know where it is now, I should find out if my
mother still has it.
I hadn’t seen those blue blankets for ages. Until my parents died. Then
we had to clear out the house and I found them again.
So your poems have an amazing sense—and they give
an amazing sense—of being very much in touch with what it feels like to
be a child. A lot of people can’t remember when they felt that way, and
I have a strong sense that you remember.
Well it’s not that I remember—I think it’s all just coexistence.
You still feel like that.
It’s all still here. I’m still in my crib.
Generally, who are the contemporary poets you’re interested in?
Well, if I can give you the names of two North American women poets who
are at the extreme opposite ends of the stylistic spectrum—on the one
hand, of the formalists, you have Gjertrud Schnackenberg—
I love her.
Oh I’m so glad!
I saw her read at the Voicebox, about three years ago. She was completely
I’m a great admirer of hers. Have you read that book, The
Throne of Labdacus? It’s in the Bloodaxe edition. Labdacus was the
grandfather of Oedipus.
the other extreme, I’d go to Anne Carson. Have you read The
Autobiography of Red?
I’ve read parts of it. I have it at home. I’ve read the
Beauty of the Husband.
There’s an earlier book, called Glass,
Irony, and God, and the section “Glass,” I think that’s it, is
about her and her mother, and the Bröntes.
Yes! That’s wonderful, it’s the first thing I ever read by her.
The Autobiography of Red was the
first thing I ever read. But her latest book, Decreaction,
I don’t know.
I loved that one about the Bröntes. It was atmospheric, and strange.
Oh, it was brilliant . . . and
I also thought the Autobiography of
Red was, as well. It really knocked me back.
Who else are you interested in, maybe who’s in England?
I was thinking, the two other women poets whose books are being brought
out by the Poetry Book Society in this back-to-print series are Penelope
Shuttle and Sarah Maguire—they’re both good. Sarah Maguire has a new
book out, The Pomegranates of
Kandahar. And I admire Alice Oswald and Kathleen Jamie. And Elaine
Feinstein, and Eavan Boland . . .
And you said you admire Christopher Logue . . .
I think Robin Robertson is very good. I definitely admire his poetry.
A bit brutalist.
There’s a poet, she doesn’t write any more, but I think she’s still
alive—she published two books in the sixties, and her name’s Rosemary
Tonks. I thought she was wonderful.
Oh, I love her! But you can’t get her books. You know who absolutely
loves Rosemary Tonks?
Stammers. I noticed there’s an epigraph from Rosemary Tonks in one of
his books, and I was really delighted, because nobody ever talks about
I reviewed both of Dorothy Molloy’s posthumous collections (Hare
Soup and Gethsemene Day,
both Faber). Have you read them?
No . . . I’ve read a few
reviews of them.
I’d have been interested to hear what you thought about her work. There
are a lot of things I think aren’t quite working in her poetry, but
she’s got a very strong style. I think I’ve even internalized some of
her rhythms . . . I’ve
noticed myself doing different things, and I notice myself saying, “Oh
my God, that’s the Dorothy Molloy coming out.”
Really? That’s surprising . . . And
another person whose poetry I think is good, and who you probably don’t
like, is David Harsent: you must read his book, Marriage.
And Alan Jenkins. Also, I read Oliver Reynolds when his last book came
out, some time ago now, and I thought he was really interesting.
trying to think of exciting women poets . . .
publishing in England . . . just
out of loyalty to the gender! [laughs] Let’s see . . .
I got a very good book from Bloodaxe by the Finnish poet Tua
Forsstrom. She read at Poetry international and was terrifically good,
reading; I haven’t had a chance to do more than skim the book, I’ll
show it to you.
this point Alan came in to propose tea, and we thanked each other for a
very enjoyable afternoon’s chat.]