One of the biggest regrets in my life is that my blog has not yet become a regular port of call for the nation's intelligentsia. Due to some mix up in the way that Yahoo! and Google categorise blogs, my Appreciation Society is rarely quoted in The Guardian's literary pages and it has yet to get a mention on any programme hosted by Mariella Frostrup. Yet as many of you know, I have tried to model my blog on the website that I consider to be the nes plus ultra of 'the casual highbrow'. Clive James might have stopped replying to my emails but I still maintain that he provides a service like no other, embodying articulate argument with a dose of salty wit. Where he goes, I will follow. (Except, of course, where mandated by that damned restraining order of his.) And until I launch my own video podcasts ('Madeley Meditates With...' is the plan), I will continue to post diary extracts and occasional opinion pieces.
Today, however, I take my first step towards my destiny with Sky Arts HD with an interview with a real, living, breathing poet.
Katy Evan-Bush is probably best known to regular readers as Ms. Baroque of the famous 'Baroque in Hackney' blog. On Saturday, I caught the 87 bus into the north east of London to sit down with her to discuss her new collection of verse. In a way, going to Hackney was like taking a trip into the depths of my own psyche. It was not pretty as I got to grips with my own fascination with the poetic form and I should warn you that the following interview is taken verbatim from the tape. I'm sure you'll find it as informative as it is a frank and somewhat provocative analysis of modern poetry. I want to thank Katy for taking the time from her busy schedule and for indulging me and my many questions. I'd also like to thank her picking up the tab for the large deluxe mocha with cream and two flakes which I enjoyed enormously to the detriment of my favourite pearl silk shirt.
RM: First of all, Katy, it's so good of you to take the time to talk to me for my Appreciation Society. I've promoted some right old tat in my time, so it's a welcome break to be discussing something classy for a change.
You've written a delightful collection of verse called 'Me and the Dead', which both Judy and I have thoroughly enjoyed reading with our cocoa at night. It's really helped us relax and Judy has managed to catch some quality shuteye over the last two weeks. I've not heard her snore so loudly since she had her last major sinus infection. However, I wanted to begin by asking you to what exactly is poetry and why should anybody go the trouble of finding the poetry section in their local bookshop when they could be buying 'Fathers and Sons', which is itself extremely reasonably priced, if not already heavily discounted in most stores?
KEB: 'Fathers and Sons', by Turgenev, it's discounted in most stores?? This is wonderful news! Well, the obvious reason to look for the poetry section in that case, Dick, is so they can read 'Eugene Onegin', by Pushkin. Or any other book of poetry really. Poetry is much more interesting than 99.9% of prose. Maybe worth remembering if you ever start a book club. It's about more than sales figures you know. (Though there is still time to buy 'Me and the Dead' on Amazon for Christmas!)
RM: It's interesting that you should say that. In 1814, Byron's poem, 'The Corsair', sold 10,000 copies on the first day. By 1859, Tennyson was shifting 10,000 copies a month of the first of his 'Idylls of the Kings' poems. This year, 'Fathers and Sons' is selling stronger than everything ever written by both Byron and Tennyson. Do you think that chat show hosts have become the poets of the age?
KEB: Ah, Dick, you're really feeling it, aren't you! I suggest you sign up for a local workshop and unleash your creativity. Anyway, I know from all the IQ tests they gave us at school that your question relies for its power on a pattern developing - the downward trend in poetry sales - and that this pattern would be impossible to sustain indefinitely, because you can't have negative sales. I think poetry will be fine even without the chat shows. Though if any chat show hosts are reading this...
RM: One or two, Katy. One or two...
It's hard to think of an upside to death, which makes 'Me and the Dead' such a brave title. Did you ever consider something that was a little less depressing? Judy suggested 'Me and the Chronically Unwell', which, as she puts it, at least holds out the possibility of recovery.
KEB: I may consider that for the next book. The third one is already titled, in fact, and it fits perfectly, as the plan is for it to be called 'Me and the Really Much Better'. Many people have failed to be depressed by my title, in any case - they seemed to think it was about Jerry Garcia.
RM: Both Judy and I loved the first poem in the collection. I think I speak for both of us when I say that it gave us a great sense of community, reaffirming the importance of friendship in our lives. What led you to write that beautiful lyric titled 'Acknowledgements'?
KEB: Dick, I think you and I understand each other. Without the silent bow of the head to those who have helped us on the journeys that are each of our lives, what are we? Where would we be? How could you hope to have a journey at all without the warming hearths, the staging posts that make up the epochs of our lives? You have understood my work here in a deep way.
RM: One of your poems is called 'A Later Letter on Art', which begins: 'and some of artists I met were so technique I could not / stomach them'. A beautiful line but one that raises an interesting question. Is poetry an art of the stomach or the brain? Is it about rationality or appetite? And, if the stomach, would that be the upper or lower intestine?
KEB: You've been talking to Stephen Fry again. Upper.
I do think you're onto something there though, because poetry is of course about the stomach. The brain comes into it too, I know, but the stomach is where our raw food is transformed into that heat which fuels us and becomes energy. It becomes something wonderful - life itself. In poetry, the raw material of experience is put through a similarly transformative process to become something that fuels us in our lives.
I think this can even be more true of poetry than of prose, because in poetry, both writer and reader are freed from fiction's mundane 'what happened next' straitjacket. In a poem you can be true or make things up, you can simply make an observation and leave. You don't have to stick around for 200 pages trying to decide what colour a character's front door would be.
RM: I might be misreading your collection as a whole based on the second poem, 'The Only Reader', but you seem to be very interested in geese. Do you think that geese can tell us something profound about our lives?
KEB: Well, they know when to go south. They know how to make a formation and stay in it - an example of group dynamics that someone should try and explain to my kids. They're iconic, too, the Canada geese as they fly overhead - they seem make the air move with them, it really feels like something's happening. You want that kind of thing in your life. They don't mess about, do they.
In my poem, of course, the goose turns out to be the harbinger of the poem itself, almost the soul of the writer, or the reader. It's a poem about renunciation, really.
In fact, the poem started out much more humbly. This is an example of how things can change in progress. I started it one day in a bad mood over one rejection slip too many - I think the total at that point had reached 5,746 - and the original working title for the piece was the much more snarky 'Letter to the Editor'. I changed it after I saw what I'd written, it just didn't seem right anymore. And I realised that, although I still felt annoyed, I had written something that was true to how I really felt and that went deeper than my annoyance.
RM: You write about quite a few animals. Just off the top of my head, I remember you mentioning a moose, a mouse, a giraffe, rabbits, sardines, doves, a bear, a cow, a wolf, a bull, a kangaroo, a duck, a pig, pigeons, buffalo, lots of deer, sheep, some dinosaur, three otters, and, of course, the geese which we've already talked about. Judy also thought she spotted a beaver in there as well but I think she was just misreading one of your metaphors. My question to you is this: John Clare famously wrote a poem called 'The Badger'. Have you ever thought of writing a poem about a badger?
KEB: Have you seen what happens to that badger of Clare's? I might try it. I might make something nice happen to a badger. I'm a big admirer of Clare. He's famous for writing 'nature poetry', but his poetry is actually quite political - he wrote about the enclosures, for instance - and the badger poem is about the stupidity of the villagers who hunt the badger down, chase it through the streets and pretty much torture it to death. Animals look pretty good compared to those humans.
RM: Katy, I hope you don't mind my asking but how tall are you?
KEB: Taller than John Clare, and much taller than a badger.
RM: I only asked that because John Keats was a small man and so was Alexander Pope. Do you think that small people make the best poets? And might it have something to do with their having a different perspective to the rest of us? Do you know that Pam Ayres is only four foot three but rhymes like a monster?
KEB: Yes but I bet she can't think of a rhyme for monster (DM: 'hamster', 'roadster', 'York Minster'?). I think small people find it hard to see at concerts and plays, or even in a crowded tube train, so they have to find something else to think about. Maybe that's it. I was always tall for my age until I was about 11, and I suddenly stopped growing.
My other hero, the essayist Charles Lamb, was also very diminutive. But I think people were smaller then. They weren't taking vitamins and eating meat every day, were they.
RM: Would you agree with my theory that technically speaking, Shakespeare might have been a midget, and do you think that this possibly accounts for his high forehead which we see in the Droeshout portrait in the first folio?
KEB: Dick, you're going to have to think of a new theory. I know someone who's working on the theory that Shakespeare was Marlowe's sister.
I think it's fair to say he's no taller than average, though. He just doesn't look tall, does he. How tall are you?
RM: I’m a glorious six feet and two inches, which means I have trouble sitting in any seat designed for the average human spine. But enough about me. What did you learn from Stephen Fry's excellent primer on poetry, 'An Ode Less Travelled'? Have you ever penned an alexandrine? And, other than superheroes, do you like men in capes?
KEB: I have penned alexandrines, I've even let them out of their pens and herded them into new pens.
And 'An Ode Less Travelled', really? Well, I learned that Stephen Fry writes poetry; I think we deserve to see some! And I learned that he thinks that "this is an embarrassing confession for an adult to make."
Actually, in the first paragraph of his Foreword, he talks of poetry as something that adults do "in their idle hours" for 'relaxation and enjoyment', citing things like Agatha Christie's gardening. His slightly problematical example of James Joyce's singing sheds some light on the essentual confusion of Fry's thinking: because of course Joyce wrote poetry. But of course he was a poet.
And in respect of Nabokov's butterfly collecting (Fry: 'he chased butterflies'), this may be a good place to remind your friend that Nabokov was in fact as distinguished a lepidopterist as he was a writer. He wrote scientific papers and was responsible for organising the butterfly collection at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, at Harvard.
He was also very interested in ghosts.
As JD Salinger's character Seymour Glass told us - and I'm quoting from memory here - no one who is doing his real work, or living according to his true nature - I forget exactly how he put it - has time for hobbies.
RM: You try your hand at a variety of forms in this collection. Some with long lines, some with short lines, while others remind me of the butterfly shape poetry of George Herbert. So let me ask you this: have you ever tried to write a poem in the shape of a squirrel?
KEB: There you go with your animals again. You're obsessed! Does your wife know about this?
RM: I think I'm right in saying that you primarily write free verse. Why do you think that most modern poets, with the exception of Pay Ayres and myself, generally shirk away from rhyme?
KEB: It's too hard. It takes a master to succeed, and it takes someone who doesn't mind how they look if it fails. I think you are that man. I do have some things in rhyme, though. I can do it.
RM: I'm sure you've read both 'Fathers and Sons' and my 'Epistle on Jeremy Paxman's Sock Drawer'. However, I have just finished my newest poem, which I've titled 'An Ode To Judy's Biscuit Barrel'. As a contemporary whose opinion I value, what do you think of it?
You sit on a shelf, at the back of my wife's larder,
Just a bucket of fragments and biscuits gone harder.
Figs, rich tea, arrowroot, and then there's the Nice,
Only there's nothing nice in how you entice
My wife's hips larger, my barely noticeable paunch,
To expand from ye miscreant nibbles, taken after lunch.
Is that what you seek, causing disruption to our lives?
Tempting us with the rich salvation of sugar. Like pies,
You seduce my Judy and care little for what comes after,
As bad as Apple strudel or something flaky filled with sultana.
Oh, terrible biscuit barrel, on the shelf above the spuds!
Don't mock me for my simple taste for your rich savoury goods.
It is Judy you're after, so take her instead, let me pass,
Prim and sexy, with nothing to mar my slim yet nubile ass.
KEB: It's very beautiful. Judy must be so pleased. Speaking of rhyme, that 'after/sultana' rhyme is very daring!
RM: Thank you. I am rather proud of that, though I don't think I've got my iambs lined up quite right. But let me ask: do you think an old fashioned believers in scansion such as myself is holding onto a moribund dogma which, at the very least, is a patriarchal imposition of a phallocentric order over the course of the metrical line and, at the worst, an anachronism unsuited to an age of deconstructive tendencies and the post-Hegelian heterodoxy?
RM: I recently read a report on the internet that said that Stephen Fry has bought Ezra Pound's pickled testicles. Collecting parts of a favourite poet was quite the craze in the nineteenth century. Trelawny was supposed to have owned pieces of Shelley's jawbone. If you could own the organ of one poet, which organ would it be and who would be the poet? Judy said she'd go for Shelley's heart but I know that I'd always plump for Milton's spleen.
KEB: Milton's spleen! That's good. Well, I wouldn't want Dylan Thyomas' drinking hand. But if we're talking as collectors here - connoisseurs - I might ask for Byron's frontal lobe.
RM: Excellent answer. I might have to trade up from the spleen.
I confess that normally I only read Clive James' verse, primarily because I'm sexually attracted to older men with copious supplies of good whiskey. Why do you think that people don't read poetry? Is it a fault of people or the poetry? And why do you think Sir Clive won't respond to my emails?
KEB: That's probably why people don't read poetry, you know - they're shy. School just makes them even more shy, and then when they grow up and go in the bookshop, they don't exactly see poetry piled high in the 3 for 2's! I'm always getting people telling me how much they used to love poetry, but they always say they have no idea what to read, or what they'd like. I frankly think that if the industry hyped poetry even a fifth as much as they hype novels, they'd sell tons more of it.
And, you know, as for Clive: you're just too cute! He's probably just shy.
RM: A quality hardback, priced reasonably at £12.99, it's a book would look good beneath any tree this Christmas. But enough about 'Fathers and Sons'... How do you go about writing a poem? Are you like Anthony Burgess' 'Enderby', suddenly struck by strange but interesting phrases? Or are you more methodical in your approach?
The French poet Mallarmé said (to Edgar Degas, in fact, who had told him, as people are so prone to do, that he 'had an idea for a poem') that 'poems are made of words, not ideas'.
I've found that most of the time the most successful poems start with a word, or phrase, or group of sounds. Failing that, the best way is if you have something you just want to tell. Then it's like, 'just put it down'. Some poems come out all at once and virtually never get touched again - 'To My Next Lover' was like that. But some take ages of tinkering. Cosi Fan Tutte went through loads of versions, both rhymed and unrhymed, over more than a year, but when it clicked into place I just knew it - and it was finished very quickly after that.
I know a line of Mallarmé, you know. It goes: 'Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd'hui'. You know what those are, don't you. Words.
RM: And German words, if I'm not mistaken...
I was very moved by the poem, 'To My Next Lover'. What exactly do you think of Bill Oddie and do you think poets are naturally more romantic than normal folk?
KEB: Well, I heard Bill writes poems in his spare time: his frank and unambiguous boulevardier sestina, 'Birdwatching', was a particular favourite of mine.
I think poets are less romantic than normal folk. I never had less interest from blokes in my life than when I was hanging around with the poets the whole time.
RM: 'If music be the food of love, de dum, de dum, de dum.' Nobody can forget those immortal lines by Shakespeare. But if you were to be remembered for one line from this collection, what would that line be? I know that my favourite line from 'Fathers and Son's' read: '£18.99 RRP'.
KEB: Hmm. I think the line, "Sorry, I'm all over the place - I didn't sleep too well," sums up an awful lot of my life philosophy in only 11 short everyday words. Well, they're everyday to me. I asked my boyfriend to pick one and that's the one he picked.
RM: Some of the best poetry has come out of great adversity such as personal tragedy or war. Do you think a war would help modern poetry and do you agree that it would be a small price to pay?
Dick, we paid the price with Ezra Pound. We paid for 'The Cantos' in the currency of fascist radio broadcasts, and Ez never learned his lesson, because he got off on an insanity clause. (Hey - it's Christmas.)
I think that another war might not help poetry, anyway, because that phenomenon - the War Poets - was a particular thing - one of those moments wheh something unusual is forced through. I do think that extremis forces the poetry - I mean 'forces' in the greenhouse sense. So any cultural crisis would probably incline to create a flurry of poetry.
It wold be refreshing to have some more public poetry being written - British poetry right now seems a little bit navel-gazing.
RM: One cliché of postmodernist thought is that of form or, more specifically, anti-form. Yet poetry always retains some semblance of order. Wallace Stevens wrote terrifyingly complicated verse yet the cadences of the line have a natural flow to them, mainly due to the elegance of his caesura, which are always apparent to the reader. As poetry increasingly relies upon the ear to decipher its structure, is there a problem ensuring that poetry remains poetry? In other words, is Pam Ayres the best poet of our generation or should that honour go to John Hegley?
KEB: Well, poetry is about order. Because it's about words, and language is an ordering system which we use to understand the world. Poetry should never really be just about self-expression, and this is where Stephen Fry and I come together (as it were) as one. The best poetry is that in which the words begin to operate in some way independent of mere meaning, so that other parts of the brain are brought in to deal with what's going on. Pattern - whether just the shape of the stanzas or a repeating word or sound (like rhyme, or alliteration, or assonance), interesting or lovely sounds, double meanings, quotes and allusions, wordplay like puns, all contribute to the sensation of a good poem somehow going deeper than prose. And that's even before you get to what the poem's saying!
Wallace Stevens is possibly the greatest American poet of the twentieth century.
Clearly it's me, Dick. I'm just misunderstood.
RM: I know the feeling, Katy. I know it only too well.
Well, listen, it's been an absolute pleasure having you on my blog. We have to leave it there so I can catch my bus. The book, 'Me and The Dead', is available in all good bookshops and online. I hope that everybody looks out for it when they're out buying their copies of 'Fathers and Sons'. I wish you the best for it and for the future. Judy said only this morning that your poetry has changed her life and that she'll never look on blond trumpeters the same again.