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
German bombing in the early 1940's. It was an area which produced in
times the writer Anthony Burgess, and in the 19th century the now little
remembered Lancashire dialect writer Ben Brierley. It was a place
three distinct types of living: there being modern suburbs built right
to mill town residential districts and, in between, surviving as patches
almost unspoiled greenbelt, farmland and the odd secretive lane or road
isolated dwellings - some of the latter containing considerable
properties with large gardens. It was as a consequence of this curious
of actual landscapes - mill town streets of workers' back-to-back
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
Do you come from a literary family?
I did not come from a literary family, but with the father I had I might
as well have done. My father was a genial, eloquent man with a way with
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
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
formed a two-person debating society for a good many of the years we
the world together. He would talk with me about anything and everything,
not just money and sex and politics, but about taboo subjects like freedom
and God and so many more things that never get into the media today. He was
frighteningly broad-minded man...or what he termed 'a freethinker' -
ultimate bogeyman of the politically-correct. Politics, yes, he had
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
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
His own actual background was, to use our still class-conscious language,
thoroughly working-class. Though I realize, now, looking
the man he was, from somewhere - nature, his reading, or the God he did
believe in - he was possessed of a refinement of mind and personality
really set him apart from any class.
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
an avid reader of the works of others. For a writer to find his or her
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
with an addiction to the reading of good literature, such 'training'
never turn out work of lasting value. After Shakespeare's plays which
me 'poets, lovers and madmen/ are of a single imagination all compact' -
seminal works that stand out were Milton's Paradise Lost and the
edition of Homer's Iliad, translated into beautiful Shakespearean blank
by Lord Derby. Then came two prose volumes that bowled me over:
Coleridge's Biographia Literaria and Robert Graves' The White Goddess.
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
the Prolegomenon to my long poem The Playboy: 'If I have had one
been to try to combat the ruinous tyranny exerted by prose over
essential difference between poetry and prose lies in the distinct
of the poetic to assume metrical form.'
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
framework, went into my idea of 'the English language'. And it is an
process of development with now much further input from farther afield
the Caribbean and the Americas and the Antipodes. The great virtue of
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
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
its universalizing inclusivity has not prevented the creation of
and high standards - which is more than 'democratic' processes in other
fields can always claim.
How did you first go about getting your poems published?
My first poems that ever reached print were in a little magazine called
I first learned of the existence of such periodicals via listings in
copy of The Poetry Review I picked up in a bookshop in the early
Unfortunately, also through The Poetry Review, I saw an advertisement
publisher which, I now realise, was a quasi-vanity press; and I sent
collection over which they enthused and accepted it for publication. It
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
the book properly, and as it was a well-known imprint then, and one that
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
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.
qualified as a chartered accountant in the early Sixties, worked in the
profession for 13 years after qualifying, then abandoned it for the sake
poetry, 'throwing myself on the mercy of the Muse' whom, Kathleen Raine
me, 'would always provide'.
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
have I tried consciously to write a poem. But with my long poems - a
of which was published in 1994 - the process has been slightly more
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,
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
has never been totally out-of-favour. As Grevel Lindop put it in his
the first meeting of the Long Poem Group, 'It is possible that questions
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
because the long poem is the norm for poetry. What requires explanation
how, in our time and place, we've come to think of short poems as the
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
my volume of Collected Longer Poems, and Sebastian Barker his booklength
poem The Dream of Intelligence. As a consequence of these two events we
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
felt it should be coupled with an occasional newsletter in order to
that the debate and, therefore, the group could remain a strictly
one. In this way it would be possible to ensure the widest possible
participation by like-minded individuals who might not - for
other reasons - ever be able actually to meet.
How do you decide that a poem is finished?
Just occasionally a poem attains to a rhythmic completeness and you kind
sense it is perfect, finished. In such poems the sense and aural
hit such a state of harmony you know it is truly inspired, and you also
left with the feeling that it's right: 'the best words in the best
as Coleridge put it. But there is another working category, and that is
you work long and hard with a body of words that are reluctant to
which cadences are half-formed or don't agree; in which you know you are
saying what you wish to say with quite the accuracy and truth to
in quite that ineffably 'poetic' manner which will distinguish the
expression from ordinary prose speech; but which can be
a frenzy of rightness (inspiration) and the poem suddenly is
all the disparate bits cohere.
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
a coherent surface, such will carry across to the reader any depth that
beneath the said surface. But never write down to anyone - that is
insult the audience, as Cyril Connolly wrote in his marvellous Enemies
Promise (which every aspiring writer should read). Nevertheless, it is
well for a poet to make a study of the different degrees (of degree not
as the lawyers say) in which language functions in the arena of silence
head) and the arena of sound (the mouth and ear). Because differences do
up between a composition written for the page, and one primarily written
be spoken aloud.
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
Save for the arts and poetry, 'life's a bore and then you're dead' as a
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.
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:
© William Oxley, Ted Slade August 2000