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The Poetry Kit Interviews William Oxley

William Oxley

Tell me about your background. Where were you born and brought up?

I was born and brought up in the Middleton-Blackley district of North Manchester, becoming conscious early on of a world at war by virtue of the German bombing in the early 1940's. It was an area which produced in modern times the writer Anthony Burgess, and in the 19th century the now little remembered Lancashire dialect writer Ben Brierley. It was a place composed of three distinct types of living: there being modern suburbs built right next to mill town residential districts and, in between, surviving as patches of almost unspoiled greenbelt, farmland and the odd secretive lane or road of isolated dwellings - some of the latter containing considerable Victorian properties with large gardens. It was as a consequence of this curious jumble of actual landscapes - mill town streets of workers' back-to-back houses, posher suburbia filled with members of the so-called middle-class, and a small salting of old peasant and farmworker stock inhabiting half-hidden cottages in sunken lanes - that my own personal, spiritual landscape was formed.
For periods of my early life I was moved about, by my parents, among all these varied tranches of dwelling space; and if one remembers that the large city of Manchester was readily accessible to those areas where I was brought up, and that that city itself was surrounded more or less by moors, it will be readily understood why I have always regarded myself as an urban-nature poet. I have always written out of the tension and contradiction inherent in that description, much as John Heath-Stubbs once described himself as writing out of a romantic-classicist perspective.
Educationally, I have to declare myself early as a failure. I started school at aged five and left at aged five. This was because I contracted in my fifth year rheumatic fever with heart complications; and, at seven years of age, repeated the performance. I was in hospital so long that, out of sheer boredom - and with the aid of comics - I taught myself to read around my ninth year. This set me on the road, I suspect, of autodidacticism, from which I have never recovered.
During my period of convalescence, however, the Manchester education authority assigned me a private tutor for a period of about eight months, and she it was, by a combination of extreme patience and magic (or the magic of love), awakened my interest in verse. Her name was Miss Cawthorne and she was very old, a retired headmistress. One other teacher, apart from Life and my father, had an influence on me and his name was Professor Hoffmann. This eccentric man ran a private school called The Premier Academy for Young Gentlemen to which, also, young gentlewomen went but that was not advertised. I was sent to this institution having spectacularly failed the 11-Plus Exam through non-attendance at it because of illness. To both of these people, and to all the rest of my education and non-education, I have paid ample tribute in my autobiography, No Accounting For Paradise, published by Rockingham Press in 1999.

Do you come from a literary family?

I did not come from a literary family, but with the father I had I might just as well have done. My father was a genial, eloquent man with a way with words, and one who was staggeringly well-read in the poets and philosophers and playwrights of our language. I say 'staggeringly' because he was a professional boxer, a commercial traveller and a small-time comedian who did comic turns at various venues in the North of England - not the kind of job-description that normally inspires confidence in a high level of literacy. But literate he was; and such a great communicator that he and I formed a two-person debating society for a good many of the years we were in the world together. He would talk with me about anything and everything, and not just money and sex and politics, but about taboo subjects like freedom and love and God and so many more things that never get into the media today. He was a frighteningly broad-minded man...or what he termed 'a freethinker' - that ultimate bogeyman of the politically-correct. Politics, yes, he had them. He got taken up with enthusiasm for the Communist Revolution and nailed his colours to the Comintern for a few years; then became a Liberal; ending his days as a Tory. When asked how he explained this he would always quote Winston Churchill, 'A wise man changes his mind many times, a fool never'. His own actual background was, to use our still class-conscious language, thoroughly working-class. Though I realize, now, looking back to the man he was, from somewhere - nature, his reading, or the God he did not believe in - he was possessed of a refinement of mind and personality that really set him apart from any class.
As for my mother, she came from the merchant classes from which her father had fallen out through booze; and her mother was of Irish farming stock, madly Roman Catholic. Mother was a good mother but of no intellectual disposition, though she was training to be a concert pianist before the money ran out and she had to take a job in an office - which was how she met my father. My mother had no understanding at all of my father's literary and intellectual propensities; but they continued in harmony through their married life largely, I suspect, because everyone 'got on' with my father and she was no exception. Why did everyone seem to get on with my father? Partly, mostly, because he had a tremendous wit and sense of humour; and, also, because, as he put it with regard to his time in the boxing ring, 'I had all the skills but no killer instinct'.

When did you start writing poetry?

My first few poems were written when I fell in love in my late teens with the woman who subsequently turned out to be my muse, though that didn't become apparent for some years. While I was in my teens in Manchester I also joined a group of Shakespearean Players: and, as I always say, if I hadn't been a poet I'd have been an actor. For several years I was completely under the spell of Shakespeare-in-the-Theatre. But as production succeeded production I became aware that I was growing more and more interested in the words themselves and in the patterns which the Bard had made of them, and less and less interested in their performance: which probably explains why I was never given more than small parts in any play, roles like 'the cream-faced loon' in Macbeth or the Archbishop of York in Henry V. I was a minor actor in a number of Shakespeare plays who gradually became drugged and enraptured by the sheer volume of poetry dripping from their innumerable speeches; and, of course, the scenery and the acting going on around me further enhanced the experience. I became a part of the Bard's great book of poetry and theatre, and quite forgot my own existence.

What other books\events most influenced your beginning as a writer?

As with all poets and writers, there followed the encounter with certain seminal books. In fact, no writer of any real competence is not an avid reader of the works of others. For a writer to find his or her self as a writer, absorption in the works of others is de rigeur. For all the academic teaching and all the creative writing classes, unless it is coupled with an addiction to the reading of good literature, such 'training' will never turn out work of lasting value. After Shakespeare's plays which taught me 'poets, lovers and madmen/ are of a single imagination all compact' - the seminal works that stand out were Milton's Paradise Lost and the Everyman edition of Homer's Iliad, translated into beautiful Shakespearean blank verse by Lord Derby. Then came two prose volumes that bowled me over: Coleridge's Biographia Literaria and Robert Graves' The White Goddess.
Like so many people of my generation, and perhaps still, I was mightily impressed too by Keats' great odes to Autumn and to a Nightingale; and my father was very fond of the South African poet Roy Campbell. I mention this as important, not only because Campbell's volume Adamastor contains an unusual number of so-called 'anthology pieces' - especially 'Horses On The Camargue', 'The Zebras' and 'Zulu Girl' - but it also contains some famous epigrams and thus constituted my first exposure to satire which, though unfashionable in our more 'caring' society, appealed to the other, non-lyrical side of my nature. In addition, I was given by my father Campbell's outrageously boastful autobiography to read, and I loved it for its rodomontade and its beautiful descriptions of a childhood in South Africa.
That volume, plus Laurie Lee's autobiographical Cider With Rosie, Vernon Scannell's The Tiger and the Rose, and Kathleen Raine's highly spiritual autobiographies, were in my mind when writing my own life-story much later.
When I was first beginning to get a grasp - or trying to - on the craft of writing poetry, like so many I explored the great modernists, Eliot and Pound: and was much affected by Eliot's two poetic masterworks The Waste Land and The Four Quartets. I have to say that the immense challenge to traditional forms that Eliot's and Pound's work appeared to offer I found exhilarating and difficult. For a taste early shaped by some of the classics and by the likes of Rupert Brooke and Dylan Thomas - to name two other poets whose work appealed to my lyrical sensibility - Eliot and Pound really did pose a challenge. As, in a way, so did two other poets who especially attracted me around that time, Rilke and Hopkins. But I see I am beginning to extend the list; so suffice it to add that while all this furore of influential reading of the poets in my formative years was going on, I was reading the Russian and French novelists, especially Balzac, Hugo and Dostoyevsky, as well as philosophers like Plato and Nietzsche.
I began seriously writing poetry in 1964 after moving to London to take up a job as a chartered accountant. This was the time when spy stories and detective stories were all the vogue, especially the former as a result of the rise of Fleming's character James Bond. I tried my hand at spy stories to no avail; but one evening a poem came to me and I wrote it down with astonishing facility. I can't recall what the poem was or was about, but I remember vividly how easily it came: and that moment proved to be the bursting of the poetic dam in me. From then on I proceeded to produce poems prolifically - and it was to be quite some years before my self-critical faculty caught up with my output...unfortunately.

What sort of poetry did you begin writing - what were its main themes and techniques?

My poetic 'technique' that you ask about, developed into a constant oscillation between traditional metrical forms and free verse. To quote from the Prolegomenon to my long poem The Playboy: 'If I have had one aim...it has been to try to combat the ruinous tyranny exerted by prose over poetry...An essential difference between poetry and prose lies in the distinct tendency of the poetic to assume metrical form.'
In the same introduction I speak of having, 'not hesitated to "expand, contract or distort" the line; nor to use rhyme, half-rhyme or no rhyme at all - both internally and for end-stopping purposes; nor to use alliteration, deliberate euphony, or even advisedly that old rogue Prose on occasion: but always and ever towards the one end of generating some rhythm "to create in the listener or reader, a hyper-sensitive awareness of meaning" ... [so] the poet...feels it right to apply, somewhat diffidently, the nomenclature of "irregularics" to his practice: adding that word means, insofar as it means anything, "verse as free as it can be without becoming prose." '
Such I think is still a fair description of my technique, though those words were written 15 years back. When Rilke was asked what he thought were the proper subjects of poetry, he answered 'everything'. Housman said it was 'not the subject that mattered, but the way it was handled' (I paraphrase). For me it is not quite like that. I think that poetry is not about anything but what the poet feels about something, which makes it poetry. I am of the view that poetry - like all art - is an adjunct of life, and therefore must have some universal appeal or it fails. I think that once a poem has been properly created it is out of the hands of its maker, and that's that. So, for me, both reader (listener) and maker (poet) are equally competent judges of the poem.
As for 'themes', they have been many and varied, just like life itself. Having a physical as well as a metaphysical sensibility working strongly in me, one of my constant themes has been to explore the hidden or invisible dimension which lies behind the visible or more obvious reality that confronts us all. So to that extent - or because of it- I could be called a religious poet: though I am of no religious denomination and try to avoid any moralising in my poetry. Love, both sacred and profane, love both romantic and sexual has played a major part in my poetry - and has been called a constant preoccupation or theme. Equally important as the first two thematic preoccupations has been Eliot's 'intolerable wrestle with words' which, in my case, has often led to poems about poetry and poems about poets. While the other major topic has been the urban versus rural theme which has plagued poetry since ancient times.
Having been an urban and a rural, even a maritime, dweller at various periods of my life, there has been a constant tension in my poetry between 'nature' and the 'city'. On one level, I agree with Edward Thomas that 'at bottom all great poetry is nature poetry'; while on another level I know what beauty can be brought forth from urban living, as witness Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal and Eliot's various city-based lucubrations.
Lastly, the sea has been - if not the major theme of my poetry - certainly a frequent preoccupation of it. And, as I suggested earlier, I have tried my hand from time to time at satirical verse - something which earned me a certain notoriety when I edited the magazine Littack in the early Seventies.

What do you see as the 'roots' of your writing?

I feel, and have always felt, rooted in England and the notion of 'Englishness' - which notion would take a whole book to analyse. But I think our language is, in fact, mostly a celto-teutonic creation and when I once wrote a poem called 'All-England Poet', the Celtic imaginative input, coupled with the Saxon centralizing and welcoming framework, went into my idea of 'the English language'. And it is an on-going process of development with now much further input from farther afield like the Caribbean and the Americas and the Antipodes. The great virtue of the English language lies in its capacity for all-inclusiveness: a sort of' democratic response to experience. The same goes for its application to building a literature: English literature has a long and inclusive rather than exclusive pedigree, and has produced some of the finest poetry ever written. But the real miracle of it - of English poetry - is the way in which its universalizing inclusivity has not prevented the creation of excellence and high standards - which is more than 'democratic' processes in other fields can always claim.
Finally, given the narrowing tendency among some recent academic poets and critics who seek to confine the definition of 'Englishness' in poetry to that modest strand of modest achievement embodied in Thomas Hardy, Edward Thomas and Philip Larkin, I utterly reject such narrowness. Chaucer, Spenser, Donne, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Pope and Tennyson are just as much embodiments of the so-called 'central English tradition of poetry', as ever Thomas or Larkin. Indeed, Yeats, an Irishman, or Dylan Thomas, a Welshman, partake of that 'Englishness' just as well as any of the rest of us who use this language. To suggest otherwise, as for example Edna Longley has, is nothing more than an attempt to politicize something whose real development is beyond politics and abides only in the realm of truth.

How did you first go about getting your poems published?

My first poems that ever reached print were in a little magazine called Scrip. I first learned of the existence of such periodicals via listings in a copy of The Poetry Review I picked up in a bookshop in the early Sixties. Unfortunately, also through The Poetry Review, I saw an advertisement for a publisher which, I now realise, was a quasi-vanity press; and I sent them a collection over which they enthused and accepted it for publication. It was a nicely-produced book but I had to invest around £150 in it - they having persuaded me that was the way things were done with poetry. As they marketed the book properly, and as it was a well-known imprint then, and one that had published a number of poets of some reputation, I have to describe it as 'quasi-vanity'. But when one is young, one gets taken in by all sorts of things.
Shortly after publication, the editor of a long-running little magazine wrote me a letter pointing out that it was not 'the done thing' to have a collection of poems out before one had had poems published in a range of respectable magazines - so that alerted me to the mistake I'd made. After that I learned my lesson. But I don't regret the affair entirely because it was a book that gave my father great pleasure, and it was my only book he saw in his lifetime.

How does the way you make a living influence your poetry?

The way I have made, or make, my living has never influenced my poetry. I qualified as a chartered accountant in the early Sixties, worked in the profession for 13 years after qualifying, then abandoned it for the sake of poetry, 'throwing myself on the mercy of the Muse' whom, Kathleen Raine told me, 'would always provide'.
Since 1976 I've done various odd jobs - bookkeeping, working as a gardener in an old people's home, delivering the odd lecture on writing and sold the occasional poem, given poetry readings - and survived. It's all in my autobiography.

Can you describe your most effective working method? Do you wait for inspiration, or sit down every day with the intention of writing?

On the whole I 'wait for inspiration' when writing poems; very, very seldom have I tried consciously to write a poem. But with my long poems - a volume of which was published in 1994 - the process has been slightly more complex.
Some of them - most in fact - began life as short poems but then grew and grew. As I have put it on other occasions, to write a long poem it is necessary to develop a rhythm. And that is like getting into the swing of any long work, say, a novel: so that one returns to the work regularly and quickly picks up the rhythm from where you left off. In revising you will, of course, add or delete lines or whole episodes of narrative: but the macro-process of the long poem is no different really from the micro-process of the short poem.

The long poem seems somewhat out of favour these days. Why do you think that is? What are the features that attract you to the form?

The long poem is not that 'out of favour' with poets. It cannot be, given the number of long poems which have been published, especially in booklength form, over the past fifty years in Britain. Indeed, in a sense, the long poem has never been totally out-of-favour. As Grevel Lindop put it in his paper to the first meeting of the Long Poem Group, 'It is possible that questions on how the long poem continues to survive may be looking at things from the wrong end...the long poem's survival doesn't require explanation in itself because the long poem is the norm for poetry. What requires explanation is how, in our time and place, we've come to think of short poems as the norm.'
How long poems have come to be thought of as not the norm, or have 'shrunk', so to speak, has something to do with their having to compete with prose for the restriction on space which became inevitable with the transference of the word from speech to writing: the movement in societies from an oral to a written culture. But, despite the advent of writing, long poems have continued to flourish - often in a closet and private form, rather than a public form - and that is, so to speak, 'a fact of poetry'. The long poem, whether narrative- or discursive-driven, tends to incorporate within its framework many of those attributes - like the lyrical or the elegiac which govern and shape the shorter forms of poetry. Indeed, it has been my experience of writing long poems that they have tended to grow out of shorter poem-intentions. Several distinguished practitioners of the genre have made suggestive observations about the long poem which cast light on its raison d'Ítre - e.g. Hugh MacDiarmid who said, 'Short lyrics...are incapable of measuring up to the requirements of our age.'; or Tom Scott who wrote, 'The long poem...is to poetry much as the symphony is to orchestral music'.
For me it is a sustained, complex development of the multidimensional tendency at the heart of even the shortest poem; or, in scientific terms, the fuller life developed from the smallest cell. The attraction of the long poem is that of the most fully developed and capacious poetic vehicle capable of prosecuting the most sustained spiritual and imaginative journey that the intellect can make.

You're involved with the Long Poem Group. How did that come about? What is the Group trying to do?

The Long Poem Group came about in this way. In the early Nineties I published my volume of Collected Longer Poems, and Sebastian Barker his booklength long poem The Dream of Intelligence. As a consequence of these two events we were invited to debate 'the epic revival' at a literary festival. As there seemed to be quite a lot of interest in the topic, judging from the audience response, it occurred to me afterwards that it would be useful to continue the debate more widely. So I thought up the founding of a group, but felt it should be coupled with an occasional newsletter in order to ensure that the debate and, therefore, the group could remain a strictly open-ended one. In this way it would be possible to ensure the widest possible participation by like-minded individuals who might not - for geographical and other reasons - ever be able actually to meet.
Sebastian agreed with me that this was the best way of sustaining the debate among as many people as possible. And as my wife was willing to sponsor and print The Long Poem Group Newsletter - which has so far run to nine issues - under the aegis of her magazine Acumen, we have managed to continue the debate for over five years.
I should also add that Douglas Clark, an early member of the group, has further facilitated our work by having all issues of the newsletter on his website from the start at http://www.bath.ac.uk/~exxdgdc/lpgn/lpgn1.html.

How do you decide that a poem is finished?

Just occasionally a poem attains to a rhythmic completeness and you kind of sense it is perfect, finished. In such poems the sense and aural concomitants hit such a state of harmony you know it is truly inspired, and you also are left with the feeling that it's right: 'the best words in the best order', as Coleridge put it. But there is another working category, and that is where you work long and hard with a body of words that are reluctant to relate, in which cadences are half-formed or don't agree; in which you know you are not saying what you wish to say with quite the accuracy and truth to feeling, nor in quite that ineffably 'poetic' manner which will distinguish the expression from ordinary prose speech; but which can be overtaken by a frenzy of rightness (inspiration) and the poem suddenly is there, all the disparate bits cohere.
However, for the vast majority of my poems I have to admit dissatisfaction; so that I was never happier than when I read Paul Valéry's 'a poem is never finished only abandoned'.

How important to you are formal workshops, or getting the opinions of other poets about your work-in-progress?

I've never attended a formal workshop. But since coming in contact with a small private group of poets in London called 'The Tempest Group', at which I have been a guest on a couple of occasions, I've come to appreciate the value of them. In the last decade I have increasingly sought the opinions of other poets and editors and non-poets about my work-in-progress, and feel I have greatly benefited from it. Also, for many years my wife, who, as I've said, edits the magazine Acumen, has been a thorough critic of my poems, and that, too, has been of great benefit. Poets more senior than myself, especially Dannie Abse, have also helped me a great deal towards honing my own faculty of self-criticism. Doubtless, if I had had a proper or normal formal education, given my interest in poetry from early on, I would have been taught the principles of practical criticism sooner. But that was not to be. The first poet I came into contact with who demonstrated a severe critical attitude towards his own work was Robert Graves, who often re-wrote poems that had already appeared in book form, or disposed of them altogether. This greatly impressed me.

To what extent if any do you collaborate with other artists?

A few of my poems and two of my books have been illustrated by artists, but I can't say I've ever collaborated with other artists; nor with musicians. But this is something that might change; I'm not averse to the idea. I heard Peter Porter give a talk on a collaboration he had been involved in, and it sounded very challenging and fruitful.

Who do you write for? - Do you have a particular audience or person in mind?

I write for anybody except myself. I'd like to reach the genuine, general reader who is well-read. I would hate to think of my sole readership as being composed of fellow-experts. Ugh! Poetry is love and love is universal. Let it not be intellectualized, even though of all the art forms poetry is the one that best expresses the human intellect. 'Reason and imagination in harmony' (to paraphrase Coleridge again) makes the best poetry, and, as Sir Philip Sidney said, 'Look into thy heart and write'. The reader deserves no less than stuff produced this way. I hope I get something across to 'the reader' (or hearer).

Does poetry have to be 'simple' to get an hearing?

Milton: 'poetry should be simple, sensuous and passionate'; not just 'simple' to get a hearing. And, as Eliot pointed out, as long as a poem has a coherent surface, such will carry across to the reader any depth that is beneath the said surface. But never write down to anyone - that is simply to insult the audience, as Cyril Connolly wrote in his marvellous Enemies of Promise (which every aspiring writer should read). Nevertheless, it is as well for a poet to make a study of the different degrees (of degree not kind, as the lawyers say) in which language functions in the arena of silence (the head) and the arena of sound (the mouth and ear). Because differences do show up between a composition written for the page, and one primarily written to be spoken aloud.
At the present time such differences receive rule-of-thumb recognition in the phrase 'performance poetry'.

Which of contemporary poets do you find most interesting?

I have to say I am utterly fascinated by contemporary poetry, and spend uncounted hours reading it because I am a print-addict, and huge numbers of books, pamphlets and little magazines come my way. In the end, though, it is poems rather than poets who appeal, if only because no one poet is always consistently good or, even, always exciting. So naming names would be misleading. However, having said that I do not wish to be misunderstood. What I mean is: if I give approval to a poem by Carol Ann Duffy, Kathleen Raine, Sheenagh Pugh, Dannie Abse, Michael Donaghy, U.A. Fanthorpe, Glyn Maxwell, Peter Russell, Ken Smith, or any one of dozens of other contemporary poets, that would not mean I give approval to all their work. I don't, and can't. What I can say is that, yes, I do have my favourites; and, yes, I've received countless hours of pleasure reading contemporary poetry; but, equally, I've often been depressed by the poor quality of stuff coming from even good pens, and have often despaired of the state of poetry in our time. But then Ben Jonson did in his age, and look how good we think the Elizabethan-Jacobean poetry was?

Does poetry have any influence outside poetry?

Poetry, like all the arts, adds to the imaginative dimension of existence. Save for the arts and poetry, 'life's a bore and then you're dead' as a car slogan I saw put it. As the misquoted Auden said, 'Poetry makes nothing happen', but it certainly adds a light and excitement to the mundane.
Its influence outside poetry is magical and powerful because it is always on the side of truth. And Keats thought truth was beautiful; and Christ said, 'Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free'. But what 'truth'? it will be asked. Poetry is truth to feeling; and it gets out into the streets and the fields and preaches the articulacy of feeling.

What are you working on at the moment?

I have recently been working on a long series of poems under the provisional rubric of London Visions; and been struggling hard to convert them from a series into a sequence in the hope of making a more coherent collection of them for the future. I am also assembling a Selected Poems for my publisher; and will be publishing a children's story - or short novel with verses in it - called Firework Planet later this year, with brilliant illustrations by the artist Emily Johns. She is the daughter of John and Susan Rety whose many years of good work for poets at the Torriano Meeting House in Kentish Town is legendary. However, as I have just been appointed 'Poet-in-Residence for Torbay', as part of the government's 'Year of the Artist' scheme, with the brief to bring poetry to a proven cultural desert, I don't think I'll be working much on my own poetry for some while. I'll be a camel carrying poetry in its hump instead of water.

Selected Poetry Bibliography:

  • The Dark Structures, 1967. MITRE PRESS (Out of print)
  • Notebook of Hephaestus, 1981. LOMOND PRESS
  • The Patient Reconstruction of Paradise, l991. ACUMEN
  • In The Drift of Words, 1992. ROCKINGHAM PRESS
  • Cardboard Troy, l993, STRIDE PUBLICATIONS
  • Collected Longer Poems, l994. SALZBURG UNIVERSITY PRESS
  • The Green Crayon Man, 1997. ROCKINGHAM PRESS
  • Selected Poems (new and old) 2001. ROCKINGHAM PRESS.

© William Oxley, Ted Slade August 2000