Poetry is essentially about the unspoken – and even about the unsayable. No obscurity is (or should be) gratuitous.

No locutions that secretly intend to remain ultimately obscure.

All poems are ninety percent suffering and ten percent inscription.

To ask whether a poem is good is rather like asking whether a woman is beautiful.

Poetry is not poetry unless its meanings are infinite.

Poetry as a kind of impatience, as intuition coalesces into links.

Poetry is the flight of thought from thought.

The poet as capricious realist. A harp struck dumb by wind. A seer more than a sayer.

In such poetry there is an irreducible tissue of message, an irreducible residue of the personal.

Poetry may be the language of wisdom, its obscurity the tantalising of a higher sphere.

Poetry – the rare expansion.

Poetry, e.g. Eliot’s poetic drama, shames people through recollection of their own forsaken sensibility. The conspiracy against poetry, against religion. False visions of life.

Poetry: a sort of hidden corridor between one person’s memory and another’s.

The world of poetry is not the poetry world. Poetry’s all in a dwindle really.

It’s as much as I can do to write them [poems]. Anything else is beyond me.

Trespasses: if any of it is superfluous, all of it is superfluous.

Instructions to filial readers: You are to think of oak, mahogany, teak. You are to think of brass and copper. You are to think of firelight and the sound of a ‘cello.

Every thought is legible now as I become more fluent in the crumbling tongue of poetry.

Poetry: a wild bee swarm.

Nowadays two kinds of poetry contend: the rhetorical mode – the droning tapestry – and the testimonial mode of confessional authenticity, the art of the artlessly brave.  The word as flesh – the muse-of-language’s own tendencies to eloquence – has almost gone.

If you want to express yourself, then Kleenex tissues serve the purpose better than writing paper.

Beware when a vein of self-importance unites with a certain strain of self-expression.

I have watered the planet with my songs; I have softened its crust with my tears.

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Translation is a poetry of glimpses.

In poetry one can translate the poem’s thought, but not its thoughtlessness.

Of course most poetry does not translate completely or even a little. But as poetry itself becomes more hypothetical, what is to be preferred between a hypothesis and the ghost of a hypothesis?

I was once at a day conference in Cambridge with Josef Brodsky. He was discussing the specific translation of a Mandelstam poem, the difficulties, the possibilities. Few people can have understood the matter as well as Brodsky. Nevertheless the audience preferred to move to the more general level: the theory of poetic translation. No doubt they found it easier, more abstract.  Yet Mandelstam’s ‘Wolf’ poem remains one of the pinnacles of twentieth century poetry, even if that relatively sophisticated audience continues to know less about it than it might. It was deflected, cheated. The theory merely cleans up after the circus has left town.

A first principle of translation: Don’t make readers break stones! I have in my mind’s eye a row of well-disposed readers of poetry, chained together, breaking up rocks under the hot sun. Raise them hammers high! But be sure these guys are going to escape just as soon as they possibly can – and they are never, never, coming back. So the rules of translation are: don’t translate something you don’t understand, make a decision about what it means, build in interpretations, incorporate all information needed for a complete understanding, give the poem the propositional contours it needs; meaning should never be sacrificed for any reason whatever. Write in English the sort of independent poem that you think the author might accept as the fulfilment of his or her poetic aims. Rhythm and metre have different meanings in different traditions and low-level mimicry of local features usually entails unacceptably high costs. A crib is not a translation. Even a topically inaccurate translation (such as Mandelstam/Merwin’s Mounds of human heads…) can transfix the reader who will fall utterly in love with it and go to her grave reciting it in her heart of hearts.

A poem should have its own darkness, as a resource – like a fuel store or the captain’s map case. As Cocteau says,

Translation of poems. Obscurity translated: something always remains. Excessive clarity translated: nothing remains.[1]

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Questions of form in poetry seem to me to have to do with things like length. The question of the whole and its parts. Is the whole grand and are its parts small? Are the parts free-standing or subordinated to the whole? What is an optimum size of segment, verse or verse-paragraph? What is the right balance between imagery and argument?

In their classical heyday the Persians thought of poetry as a string of pearls, a concatenation of small morsels, interchangeable,  with order unimportant (topical autonomy).

Questions of rhyme and metre remain, but even these local questions are overshadowed by considerations of the relationship to speech: Is this natural, is it speakable? How would one say this? What is its tone?

In ‘Where the waves come from’ I rejoice at my discovery of a Mozartian form.

Poetry growing in the crevices like the lace of Alpine waterfalls (Hilton Park Rank services, Waterloo station).

Poetry and pressure make a kind of unholy matrimony in my life which I don’t begin to understand. Poetry as resistance. The poem as tranquillity recollected in emotion.

Imagination: a kind of unified sensibility. The sense media are as one. A metaphor is a kind of disembodied thought. We are swimming to the lighthouse.

Imagination is vision released from the moment — what you see, together with what you saw and what you expect to see. The prism whose drops of colour are clutched at by those without jewels.

These poems, which begin to be born into the light of day, were conceived without the possibility that anyone would ever read them. The veins, the ore, the threads of interconnection, were not conceived – or were not contrived – at all. Now I watch their birth with awe and fear, seeing much for the first time. Will their hidden inner architecture hold true – as others’ reading begins to eat into them?

Bringing a poem, brimming and slopping, to the page, aghast, as with a dream, at what is lost.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to make a living by my pen. But after all, what does the market want but consumable writing? And I want the kind of writing that burns and burns and is not consumed.

Poetry is the friable face of life. Each and any movement truly seen is a poem already ignited, a smile after a long blank of reflection.

My current poetry has dwindled to impotent intensity.

Rhyme? My poems ring, they echo, they clamour.

‘Rathbone Market’: a tattoo, a tantrum, a tarantella.

People who should read more of the poetry of others do not, but concern themselves exclusively with their own; while those who should by rights concentrate on what they have to bring to the breadbasket of the world, waste time on the trifling efforts of others.

As regards poetic form, I am rough and ready, but also quite traditional, in the sense that one has to belong to what is authentic.

Being an unpublished poet is rather like being a sex-starved adolescent.

I write contorted prose and congested poetry.

The poet sways between Gnosticism and mysticism, but prefers enigma to obscurity. The enigmatic Gnostic.

My poetry: it’s all ecstatic to some degree.

All writing, even the most casual, requires a gathering of the whole self.

Poetry is fundamentally a revelation of mind.

Trespasses: never was so much silence created by so few words.

There are those who have nothing to say, and therefore imitate: as TS Eliot said:

A true disciple is impressed by what his master has to say; an imitator – I might say, a borrower – is impressed chiefly by the way the master said it. If he manages to mimic his master well enough, he may succeed even in disguising from himself the fact that he has nothing to say.[2]

People who write about themselves merely lack imagination.

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Such is the peripheral and tenuous nature of my connection to the literary world, when I send out an e-mail advertisement for my new book of poetry, each answers according to their bent. Thanks for telling me about your new book and, by the way, what do you think of Letterland nowadays (JC)? And by the way, how is T [your daughter] (SB)? And by the way, would you like to buy one of my watercolours (CC)? And by the way, did you know that R [my teenage daughter] writes poetry (CR)? Most do not reply at all: in their welcome silence, they are the kindest. On Amazon, I find that those who buy my Trespasses are those who also buy books by Margaret Snowling or Gavin Reid (dyslexia). All this cuts. I resolved, because of such disheartening experiences with family and friends, to give out no copies at all this time (Trespasses was often not acknowledged, even when it arrived on the doormat). Farah nevertheless pledges a copy to my sister, so I have to bail her out by signing and sending a copy of The Deer of Tamniès. I am, as the Economist said recently of Samuel Beckett in a rather good article (16th March 2006):

[…] the opposite of a self-promoter: intensely private and fearful of fame, he was more of a self-demoter.[3]

So this little effort of advertisement (as CC describes it) is forced, contrived and minimal. These are just the people who might be interested in poetry, or in me, or both. So dare I place any trust in what the bereaved and kindly CR wrote, after he received his copy?

The Deer of Tamnies came yesterday and I have been taking dips in it. It’s excellent – I don’t know what PK … can have been thinking of. Yes, I might have quibbled – here and there – but the general impression is of complexity, authenticity, discipline and delight. No doubt I have learned to appreciate some of the poems you showed me all those years ago, and that I failed to twig to then. So don’t worry if the world is slow to catch on – it will happen in time.[4]

By then, all these frustrations and humiliations – in the vale of soul-making in which ‘the poet needs constant discouragement’[5] – will have been forgotten by smoothing time.

With writers, one can always tell which ones stare at the wall and which ones stare out of the window.

Poetry is like that St Elmo’s fire [6] that plays along the back of Leviathan, startled from the depths of the night sea to haunt for decades the dreams of sailors.

Much of creativity is drifting. The fishermen hope that something will drift into their nets. But the fishermen themselves may be adrift.

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My words are dead. People instinctively don’t listen. I am the one to whom nobody listens.

Words that in their reckless excitement forget they are mere words.

He who cares just for words ends up with x-ray vision.

Words occasionally gesture beyond themselves to the ethos which, it is implied, sustains the shared understanding: “proper”, correct”, “reasonable”, “appropriate”. The appeal, beyond the jury-box, to the bench.

Inappropriate: now that’s a very interesting word. It enables one person to condemn another’s behaviour while concealing the moral source of his own. Unacceptable similarly draws a safe line without saying why. The judgement without the standard.

Happiness belongs to the domain of the unsayable.

A trail of words on a dry page.

Those who live by the word shall perish by the word.

Words are cold. They come from somewhere near the base of the skull and hover in a trough until a similar resting place opens up in the recipient. Who wouldn’t rather have a stave of flowing Fauré?

Dogma, elitist, mysticism … words or bricks? The twentieth century has given us sets of words that are worried to death, more weapons than words. We are ushered towards their irresistible, saturated meanings which, nevertheless, we seek to escape. Élitist seems now to mark a vacuity similar – if inverse – to that of vulgar a century ago.

I wear my quarantine of silence.

To abbreviate is to exaggerate.

Only the young have the gift of time, by which they immerse themselves self-forgetfully, open to every influence, in what they read. Write only for them? Or for the youthful of every age?

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It is the business of art to undress people.

A lamp or a pear? A pear or a lamp? The dilemma at the root of Western art.

I have a favourite passage from The Magic Mountain:

“I am extraordinarily relieved,” she said, breathing out, as she spoke, the smoke she had inhaled, “to hear that you are not a passionate man. But how should you be? You would have degenerated. Passionate – that means to live for the sake of living. But one knows that you all live for sake of experience. Passion, that is self-forgetfulness. But what you all want is self-enrichment. C’est ça. You don’t realise what revolting egoism it is, and that one day it will make you an enemy of the human race?”[7]

This reveals, in passing, a consumer attitude to culture and works of art. The artists produce the honey; the wealthy bourgeois sniff, sample and swallow it.

This is not how I think of poetry. We are briefly here, on this planet, talking to each other. Though mired in individuating circumstances, we delight to engage each other with stories, jokes and wise tips. Poetry is the best way of saying something, sometimes in English, a major language of the planet. Before we “snuff it” (favourite phrase of Katerina Anghelaki-Rooke’s) we want to pass on what we have learned about

[…] the art of living

to which all other arts minister.[8]

In my case, this is: Follow the golden thread … the thread, that is, of love. I write, not to look for love, but because I have found love. I write with love. I tread the path to the heart.

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Modernism had become a glass house in which everyone was throwing stones.

Wincing on broken glass of two World Wars, the harlequins scream, “Art! Art!” for their diamond world.

Reading and writing, the breathing of minds. Reading is chewing and the strong jaw lines an argument.

What is dying is not the book, but the reader.

Romanticism degenerates from good, formal structure to what is, in effect, a long haggard wait for the next impulse.

We write to win love, not for ourselves, but for our works.

The medium of the written word permits one to annihilate people without being sent to prison.

How soon and how inexorably does time reduce the trembling reputation to inertia, the sounding name to silence, the valiant memory to the stiff fungus of amnesia.

Two images of creation.  In one, trees are hacked down from a virgin forest, dragged to the river and are gently poled downstream to a mill.  In another, a watcher waits beside a broad forest pool to the surface of which, at intervals, by gravity, mysterious objects inexorably rise.

Most views of art are simplistic and the word itself is unfashionable, embarrassing. It has already lost its semi-sacred tone, with which it was originally invested by Arnold and other high-minded Victorian agnostics as an escape route from the Christian religion; indeed by the 1890s it had already been brought into disrepute by scampering aesthetes:

Though the Philistines may jostle, you will rank as an apostle in the high aesthetic band
If you walk down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily in your medieval hand.[9]

Today, there is as little sense of high art as there is of high culture. Nevertheless, it is only the noblest achievement that need concern us. In any successful artistic transaction there are three parties, not the two – artist and medium – of popular belief. In addition to the skilled operator and the purposed work there is a third, unexpected party, the undisclosed and emergent character of the objective work of art. To this there are really only two possible attitudes — resistance or surrender — and only in the case of the latter does the true autonomy and power of the authentic work of art make itself manifest.

This is often an inconvenient surprise to the artist, incompatible with his or her intentions, and makes necessary the abandonment of old or the invention of new technical resources. The reader, auditor or receiver, too, may find the results awkward and offensive but, though there is no progress in art, there is always evolution within the continuing flow of tradition and second thoughts are often better than first ones. Thus time, too, is needed to cool the lava and settle the contours of what is truly original in the work of art whose power derives from its autonomy and where the rôle of the artist is subservient.

One can quite see that all this has more than a little in common with personal religion.


[1] Jean Cocteau, in Cocteau’s Past Tense: Diaries vol. 2. tr. Richard Howard. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988, p. 140.

[2] TS Eliot. From ‘American Literature and Language’, in To Criticise the Critic. London: Faber and Faber, 1965, p. 54.

[3] ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better. But watch for the laughter behind the nothingness.’ From The Economist print edition March 16th 2006.

[4] E-mail 18th March 06.

[5] Robert Graves.

[6] ‘St. Elmo’s fire is an electro-luminescent corona discharge caused by the ionization of the air during thunderstorms inside of a strong electric field. Although referred to as “fire”, St. Elmo’s fire is in fact a low density, relatively low temperature plasma caused by massive atmospheric electrical potential differences which exceed the dielectric breakdown value of air at around 3 megavolts per meter.’ Wikipedia.

[7] Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain (1924), tr. H.T. Lowe-Porter (1928). Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1960, p. 594.

[8] From A song of ascents, in The Deer of Tamniès, Baltimore: PublishAmerica, 2006; available at: http://www.publishamerica.com/shopping/shopdisplayproducts.asp?catalogid=12797

[9] Bunthorne’s solo in WS Gilbert’s comic opera, Patience (1881).