Interview with Walter Ancarrow
Walter Ancarrow: Let's start with you newest collection, Girlie Gangs. It collects the poems written since your last book, Being the Bad Guy. That may seem like an obvious statement, but there is a tendency in contemporary poetry for books to be divided into sections or to have an overarching theme. You don't seem to do that, so please explain how you organize your books, if you organize them at all (and I mean beyond alphabetically).
John Whitworth: I started putting poems in alphabetical order in my previous book. I got the idea from Auden. I try to alternate long and short poems, an idea I got from Larkin. I am very derivative. Alphabetical means you can find the poems easily when you are giving a reading. That's if you can remember the title, of course.
WA: Why did you choose "Girlie Gangs" as the titular poem?
JW: I swithered between Girlie Gangs as a title and Dog Days, illustrating them both with a painting by my daughter Katie [who has supplied the artwork this issue]. Enitharmon [John's publisher] didn't like Girlie Gangs but liked Dog Days even less so we went back to the Girlies. I think it's a very good title with a tension between girlie (sweetly-pretty) and gangs. Then they took away the painting in favour of a corporate cover which I actually like better than I thought I would.
WA: I own your entire bibliography—Unhistoric Fragments to your latest—and it is obvious that you've left the Betjemania of your earlier books for metaphysical nonsense poems (which I would compare to "The Hunting of the Snark," but it gets tiresome comparing everything whimsical to Lewis Carroll). "Something Going On" from Girlie Gangs is a good example, as well as "Holy Shark" to be published at KIN this issue. What is the inspiration behind writing these sorts of poems? Or, to pose the question more metaphysically, how did you get here?
JW: Lewis Carroll had a lot to do with it, and I love nonsense. Nonsense poets have to choose between Carroll (hard-edged) and Lear (Tennysonian romantic), or Dry and Wet in the terminology of Maggie Thatcher. I'm a Dry man with flashes of Wetness. There's a marvellous German called Christian Morgenstern and I would say that Rimbaud has divine flashes of nonsense. There now, that's pretty highbrow, wouldn't you say?
The change in my work came with the collection The Whitworth Gun. I found I had backed myself up a blind alley and was finding it increasingly difficult to find stuff to write about. But then I won £50 worth of book tokens and bought David Crystal's wonderful book The English Language, which I heartily recommend to all poets, including your good self. A massive tome.
I found that "nonsense" was a way out, writing what the rhythms and the words seemed to want to say and not worrying too much about intellectual control. Another way of putting it was I got out from under the shadow of Philip Larkin. Poets helpful to me were Stevie Smith, Wallace Stevens, Lewis Carroll, and Christian Morgenstern. Also, certain poems of Rimbaud, poems that defy exegesis, or at least make it rather difficult. I am very sympathetic to what John Ashbery is doing, though he does seem to write the same poem over and over. But then possibly I do too.
WA: Let's go back to "Something Going On" and "Holy Shark." Calling them nonsense poetry was an assumption on my part. Do you consider them to be nonsense or how would you categorize them? And if I may be so blunt, what is the "point" of them, which is not to ask their meaning, but rather their reason for being?
JW: I think "Holy Shark" and "Something Going On" are religious poems, though I wouldn't have said so when I wrote them. I haven't ever thought of myself as a religious person but, after all, I was brought up in the Church of England and my father was, as the end of his career, the Lay Secretary to the Archbishop of Canterbury; and I went regularly to church while I was at school. This was partly because the Church Youth Fellowship was where I met girls, but not entirely. We have these wonderful old churches, all much older than the USA, dotted all over the countryside with sheep outside and trees and streams winding by. Religion is in the air out here in the sticks at least.
The Shark is obviously God, isn't it? Or at least a god: powerful, unknowable, cruel, Jehovah or Allah or the Aztec chap, rather than Christ who is a genial soul, or so I have always thought, not the sort of chap who would punish you for lewd thoughts or telling risqué jokes or even fiddling your taxes a bit. Do you know the Revenue sent me a letter saying I never had to pay tax ever again? So I fired the accountant (bless him) and saved £300 a year at a stroke.
As for "Something Going On," if there isn't something going on then we poets, me and thee, are wasting our time. We should press on with the day job or write the sort of novels that can be made into movies. But there it is, the something. I wrote a poem, which I think you have [we do: "The Sacrament of the Water"], about the Swedish film Let the Right One In where a boy falls in love with a vampire. It's a film about this something going on, about the otherness of love. If you haven't seen it, then do so at once. There's an American remake which manages to miss the otherness entirely, even though it follows a lot of the Swedish one almost frame-for-frame. Extraordinary how they could do that. With all that money and intelligence. It makes you think that Europe still has something to offer.
I used to think I was entirely lacking in the religious sense. I read a lot of Shaw and Orwell, standard socialist stuff for a clever boy who grew up in the 1950s and '60s, and in the company of these men (splendid men!) religion seemed rather absurd. But lately I am not so sure. Is it possible for a poet to have no sense of something numinous, something else?
WA: I think it is possible, but that the "something numinous" must be switched with something else—science, for instance, is also awe-inspiring and mysterious. You have a number of science fiction poems. Do they inhabit the same mental space as your religious ones or do you find writing them to be much different? Both the scientist and the priest look up into the sky and wonder who or what is looking back.
JW: Science may be awe-inspiring, pictures of distant galaxies and so on, but it is not mysterious. Only the stuff we don't know, the stuff that isn't science, is mysterious. Science is essentially a series of ways for doing things. Science makes the car go, or the brain, and we know how it does that. Or someone does and can fix it if it goes wrong. I can get my car fixed, and last year I got my heart fixed, through car mechanics and human body mechanics (surgeons), excellent and important people who deserve whatever they earn. I am not particularly interested in knowing how these things were done because however much I know I can't do them myself. Ordinary people used to be able to fix cars, but we can't now. The way the brain works is Science. The way the mind works is not. Some people think it will be Science one day. I do not think that. Why not? For sundry weighty reasons, as Macbeth says...
Scientists are very trusting and credulous people. They believe what other scientists tell them—through a sort of Trade Union solidarity, I suppose. If you attempt to argue with a scientist about God, I mean the sort of scientist who is also a card-carrying atheist, you won't get very far because he has no idea what you are talking about. He thinks you "believe" in a chap with a long beard who made the universe in seven days. He also thinks that a phrase like "big bang" is magic, like "abracadabra." He thinks that giving something a name is explaining it: "'Doctor, I hear voices in my head telling me terrible things.' Ah yes, that's (whatever he happens to be calling it). 'But, Doctor, how can I make them go away?' You take the red pills and then the blue pills. 'I've done that, Doctor, but they are still there.' They can't be. You are deceiving yourself and wasting my time. Or, worse, you are MAKING TROUBLE. I must lock you up until you stop doing that."
My science fiction poems are in no way different from my supernatural or my religious poems. All are creative fictions. "The poet never lieth because he in no way affirmeth" or words to that effect, said by Sir Philip Sidney. I used to read science fiction quite a lot. The only practitioners who interest me now are H. G. Wells and Philip K. Dick. What they write has little to do with science. Their tales are parables for their time. Which is still our time. I like your image of the priest and the science fiction writer looking at the sky and wondering who is looking back. It is arresting and suggestive. You will notice how little science there is in vintage Wells. He speaks of crystal balls and his machines run by magic.
WA: You read at the Sarah Lawrence Poetry Festival last spring, and during one of the panel discussions you mentioned writing down a line that popped into your head—I believe it was about monkeys swinging from trees—and basing the whole poem off of that one line's sonic properties even though you weren't sure of the line's meaning. Can you elucidate?
JW: Well, I often start with a line. I never start with an idea, or I nearly never do. Poems are made up of words, not ideas, just as paintings are made up of paint, not subjects. I don't care too much about meaning, but a lot about sound and image. Meaning is where prose lives. "A green thought in a green shade." What does that mean? Or, come to that, Larkin's "Such attics cleared of me. Such absences." Or Wallace Stevens' marvellous incantation about Tehuantapec ["Sea Surface Full of Clouds"]. You can always find some critic who will tell you what you mean, longheaded, longhaired chaps, as P. G. Wodehouse might have said. I was a bit of an intellectual in my youth, but I hope I have got over it. I recently found a paperback by Nietzsche with annotations by me. I couldn't even understand the annotations. David Hume is my idea of a philosopher these days.
WA: Though sound is very important to your work, and you have poems that begin to teeter into pure aural bliss, you have not written anything purely sound-driven in the manner of the Futurists or Edwin Morgan's "The Loch Ness Monster's Song." Why not? Do you feel linked inextricably to rhyme and meter and traditional lines and the semblance of sense?
JW: I have written purely aural poems but mine are never as good as Edwin Morgan's. Rhyme and metre is where I live. I've thought of another poem which I love, "The Lord Chancellor's Nightmare Song" in Iolanthe. W. S. Gilbert is a hero to me. The Mikado is the greatest opera written in English since Handel, though admittedly there isn't much competition.
WA: In you biographies, you often mention being oldish, fattish and other dishes of -ishs. You also write in rhyme. Has time swallowed its tail so that an old rhyming poet is now shocking and unexpected? Certainly free verse is no longer new or rebellious, though these things may not matter to you at all.
JW: If I am rebellious I am meekly rebellious. I am the person who says the joke out of the side of his mouth but keeps out of trouble. I like going on blogs under an assumed name and annoying people. What people? Oh, those who ought to be annoyed, politicians and "serious" journalists—the modern equivalent of Shaw and Orwell, now I come to think of it.
I write in rhyme and metre because... because that is what I do. That is the way poetry presents itself to me. I can't write it any other way. I'm not at all sure I would want to, but even if I did want to I couldn't. I am not an intellectual though I hope I'm not stupid. I am not happy with ideas at all or at least ideas in the philosophical sense. What a dreadful century the 20th was for horrible ideas, Marx and Freud and all that allied junk. I shouldn't be saying things like that because I can't back them up, not being an intellectual in that way. But I know I'm right. Who is the greatest 20th century novelist, the heir of Proust? P. G. Wodehouse, I think. You remember that Flaubert wanted to write a novel about nothing. Well, Wodehouse succeeded—about 50 times. Don Quixote—Bertie Wooster. Elsinore—Blandings Castle. I wrote a poem about Wodehouse. One of my best, I think, but it hasn't gone out into the world. I'm waiting for a competition with big prizes and Wendy Cope as judge. And that one's coming up in the spring. Do it, Wendy!
WA: Vladimir Nabokov said that a writer must have "the precision of a poet and the imagination of a scientist." What does John Whitworth believe a good writer, of prose or poetry, must possess?
JW: There must be a figure in rhetoric to describe Nabokov's formulation "the precision of a poet and the imagination of a scientist." Nabokov has exercised a strong spell on me ever since I read his works extensively when I was in my 20s. I read the whole of Proust in translation because Nabokov said he was the greatest influence on him. I tried for years to write prose according to his model, not a good idea I think. A good writer of prose or poetry must have a vision and he/she must take endless trouble. Like Nabokov himself and the great Wodehouse.
As I get older I find myself getting quite agreeably madder, like Blake and Yeats and Robert Graves. Larkin couldn't do this. That is why he ended with nothing new to say, poor man.
WA: Speaking of getting older, is there a Collected Works of Whitworth planned for the future?
JW: There isn't, as far as I know, any publisher dying to produce a Collected Whitworth. I keep thinking I will come into fashion but it hasn't happened yet. For some reason I seem to be better thought of in Australia and America than I am over here. I think the trouble may be that High Seriousness is required here and I haven't got any of that. And there are the poets, Geoffrey Hill, for example. Lovely beard but what the hell is he on about? I really haven't the faintest idea. Have you?
But on the other hand a Collected Whitworth sounds a bit final and though I have gathered to me a lot of the accoutrements of age—heart surgery, an inability to sleep right through the night, peeing a lot, rustling the newspaper and going "Tch! Tch!," a desire for grandchildren (come along, daughters mine!)—I don't feel old enough to be Collected. Selected might be nice. Selected by Sam Gwynn or Les Murray or Wendy Cope. Nice people I know who write poetry I like.
WA: Which two poems of yours must be included in that selection?
JW: Two poems? Well, a lot of people like that one "The Examiners." Sam Gwynn put it in an anthology and I do like it. When I wrote it I didn't know what it meant, but now I see more clearly that it does mean something. Then there's the one about being 80 which won £5000. That's a goodie too. They're both read on the internet by a marvellous gravel-voiced person. But my favourites at the moment would be... well, there's "Walking the Dogs" which is a longish love poem and shows I can still do love poems like Ben Jonson (there's a poet for you!) in spite of my mountain belly and my rocky face. And there's "Little" which is a shortish poem about children and Death. I got that into the TLS, which is a very intellectual place indeed, though the pay is mingy. Or minging, I think that's the word among the young round here. I don't know if they are my best poems but I know I don't write any better than that. Actually, I find it very difficult to recite "Little" without bursting into tears, which is very unprofessional of me.
Love and Death. They are the big guns really. That's what we do, we poets, write about Love and Death and try to make it different every time.
All artwork by Katie Whitworth
John Whitworth is one of those fattish, baldish, backward-looking, provincial poets in which England is so rich. His tenth collection, Girlie Gangs, was published by Enitharmon in 2012 to international acclaim. Well, Les Murray liked it. And Walter Ancarrow in America. You might also consider Writing Poetry published by A & C Black, one of those how-to books; it has run to a second edition and is pretty good, though he (the poet) would say that, wouldn’t he? He once won £5,000 for a single poem. Listen and marvel.